Games What I Like: Neo Scavenger

This weekend I finally got around to picking up Neo Scavenger. I have fiddled around with the demo a little in the past, but never got too far. So, I finally took the plunge and picked up a copy on Steam. Neo Scavenger is a single-player survival game set in the aftermath of some unspoken apocalypse. It features a semi-randomly generated map, a decent crafting system, turn based combat and movement, and a lot of inventory management along the way. I’m currently on my best ever playthrough having survived about two weeks so far (EDIT: I just died at exactly 14 days).

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There are many ways to die in Neo Scavenger. Wounds from combat, a scratch obtained whilst looting a building becoming infected, sickness caused by drinking unsterilized water, starvation, thirst, a roof falling in on you whilst trying to scavenge for plastic bags, hypothermia and so on. It can be a little hard to get started in the game, as it always starts the same way; with you waking up in a cryo facility with a mutant creature trying to reach you through a broken door, with nothing to your name except a hospital gown. If you don’t find some decent clothing very quickly, you are at risk of dying of exposure before your adventure even gets going. However, like a lot of survival games, things do become easier the longer you survive and the more resources you acquire along the way.

Storage is a major gameplay element, and new characters can only carry what they can put in each hand. There are many containers available in the game, but finding them can take a bit of time. I currently sport a children’s backpack, a plastic carrier bag, and whatever I can fit into my pockets. You will frequently face dilemmas about whether to hang onto that multi-tool, just in case it’s useful later, or to pick up some wood which could be used to start a fire, so crucial for sterilizing water and rags for first aid. The game utilises a Tetris style inventory system, with players able to rotate things to maximise the available space for items. I’m personally a fan of games which encourage tough decisions, and I’m finding that Neo Scavenger’s loot system is excellent at it.

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The map is divided into hexes, and symbols indicate when there are items to be picked up or scavenged in each hex. Scavenging produces the best items, but takes time to complete and carries some risks too. There are certain events that can sometimes be triggered during scavenging, such as a roof fall, or the rotten floorboards giving way beneath your feet. These are usually survivable, but due to the games fairly in depth medical systems, can cause problems later. Perhaps a small wound will fester without antibiotics for example. I’m currently playing a character with skills in botany, so I am able to visit areas of the wilderness and scavenge for edible berries or mushrooms. If I had picked trapping instead, I would presumably be able to seek out game whilst scavenging. But, as I mentioned, this all takes time, or in Neo Scavenger, turns.  Everything is turn based in Neo Scavenger. Crafting, looting, scavenging, all take turns to complete. There is also a day and night cycle in the game, and when night falls visibility drops, so you’ll want to try and find a building to hunker down in for the night, preferably with a tent or a sleeping bag if you’re lucky enough to have found one.

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Combat too, takes place in turns. But combat in Neo Scavenger is not a neat and tidy affair. It is desperate, clumsy, and panic inducing. The game provides you with a fair few options during a combat encounter, including the abilities to run or hide from your opponent, which may be wise if they appear better armed than you. However should you decide to fight, then I feel the game does an excellent job of portraying people who aren’t very good at killing trying to kill one another. Perhaps you’ll take a swing at someone with a crowbar and miss, falling to the floor. You try to get up but are hit by your opponent who also falls down. You crawl away, get up and manage to hit them this time. The blow to their stomach causes them to start coughing up blood and choking on it, leaving you to mercilessly beat them to death. It can so easily go the other way though, and because of this combat encounters are usually quite exciting affairs.

I’ve always been a big fan of survival games, and so far Neo Scavenger is looking like one of the best. You can find the game on Steam, or check out the demo available from Blue Bottle Games here.

Finishing Games

Recently, Roger from over at Contains Moderate Peril wrote an interesting article about completing games. I’ve always found this a really intriguing subject because, lots of people don’t seem to complete games all too often, which is a bit of an unusual position for an entertainment medium but I’m entirely guilty of it myself. Of the maybe 300 games I own across all digital platforms, I’d be surprised if I had completed 30. So, a completion rate of approximately less than 10%. I know I’m not alone in this, and I think the reasons are diverse.

In some cases, games simply can’t be finished in any real sense. I sink a lot of time into the Football Manger games, but due to the nature of the games ability to generate new players, managers and staff, those games only end when I decide I’m done with that team, or that career. Other games offer degrees of completion. Perhaps you can complete the story alone and ignore all side activities, perhaps you can replay on multiple characters or with divergent stories, or maybe just good old collectibles. This leaves some interpretation when it comes to defining completion, but I tend to think of it as seeing at least the bulk of the content available.

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Speaking personally, sometimes I stop playing a game simply because I’ve had my fun with it, or I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. But other times, it’s more that I sort of forget to play them. They just, drop off the radar I guess. My usual pattern is buying the game, installing, and playing for a couple of hours. By then, it’ll have either worked its way into my schedule, or it ends up lingering on my hard drive for a bit before I uninstall it a few weeks later. And you know what’s strange about that? I feel sort of guilty about it. Sometimes, the weight of all those uncompleted games makes me feel anxious. The vast majority of course, I intend to play at some point, but still, it’s strange.

I wonder if all of this is something to do with the general increase in the availability and affordability of games, especially on the PC. This couldn’t be more different from when I was a child in the early 90s when games were expensive presents. As such, it was highly likely you would play them to completion due to lack of options. Now, I can pick up 4 good games £20 on any given weekend. And of course, all those Steam sales play a part. Sure, they’ve lost the wow factor they once held, but you can still pick up high quality titles at bargain prices almost every day of the week. And what is more, I can have it right now, this instant. No going to the shop, no ordering it on Amazon and waiting a couple of days. With some smaller games, I can be playing it in 5-10 minutes. I think this all adds to the compulsion to buy more games, and in turn to forget about some others, and it’s probably my biggest reason for failing to see a game through to the end.

I really would like to complete more games, especially as many that drop off my radar are perfectly good games that I genuinely want to play. I’ve often considered making some sort of plan to tackle them all in a certain order, and allow for some flexibility. I once tried this with my RPG collection, but one day realised that in just a handful of titles I’d set aside around 1000 hours of content. This is part of the reason I’ve taken up Skyrim again in fact. I’m sure I’ll get there in the end, but if not, at least I’ll be entertained throughout my retirement.

All I’ve Done is Play Skyrim

This week I’ve been a little short on gaming time, but all the time I have had has been sunk solely into Skyrim. I can think of few better games in terms of pure escapism. The mixture of incredibly sedate activities like decorating my house, or levelling up smithing as well as the more traditional dungeon crawler and save the world type content, is what keeps me coming back to the game. In effect, I can pick what sort of experience I want that day, and there are sufficient options to keep things fresh, and mods certainly help with that as well.

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I’ve spent a really quite inordinate amount of time building and decorating my palatial home, Lakeview Manor, located just to the east of  the town of Falkreath. This content came with one of the games DLCs, Hearthfire, and whilst you can’t truly build a house from scratch in your own image, you are given just enough customisation options to make things engaging. Materials needed for construction suddenly become of value to players, and you may find yourself scouring through the hills in search of goats in order to use their horns as wall sconces. The humdrum activity of building part of the houses extension, then realising you’re out of materials, then hopping to town, then back home, then back to town, can be quietly mesmerising in its own way.

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For once, I’m actually attempting to engage with the games main storyline, and I believe I’m pretty far along with that. It’s not too bad, but I’ve never considered story to be one of the strong points of The Elder Scrolls series in general. I have encountered one particular moment which I found quite exciting to be a part of, and that’s the ‘peace council’ between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks that it’s possible for the player to initiate in the right circumstances. Sitting round a table with all of the games most important characters, and carving up Skyrim between the factions in the name of peace and neutrality was oddly exhilarating, perhaps because being given that much influence over the game world was a little surprising to me. Anyway, I’m currently about to fly off on the back of a dragon to what I imagine is pretty close to the conclusion of the story, but I’m not in a huge rush to get there just yet.

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As always though, the games strongest selling point continues to be it’s open world. It’s just so detailed compared to previous iterations of TES, and you feel that over every hill and in every nook and cranny, there is something worth seeing. It’s beautiful, and diverse, and at it’s best can feel quite alive. I probably spend more time simply exploring, or journeying from one point to another, than on any other activity in the game. Whether it’s the lush forests of the south, the harsh craggy landscape of the west, the snowy tundra of the north, or the fertile, misty lands to the east, I never tire of looking for new things to see and do.

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I’m still having a lot of fun with Skyrim. I feel that, for perhaps the first time since its release, I’m actually going to systematically clear its content. I’ve only lightly touched on the DLCs, mainly just a little exploration, but it’s nice knowing I have fresh content I haven’t seen yet to come to later. And of course, Skyrim is almost endless given the sheer weight of high quality mods available, and the ease with which they can be installed, updated and maintained thanks to the Steam Workshop. So overall, I’m really glad I picked up Skyrim again. I hadn’t spent anywhere near as much time with it as I would of liked, so it’s nice to get around to correcting that.

PvP Discussion Follow-up

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I recently wrote about about open world PvP, and why I felt it could really add something to a games experience, but mainly, I was simply interested in just what it is about PvP that puts so many people off. I was extremely grateful to receive a lot of feedback on this issue, and I thought it might be a good idea to try and synthesise some of these responses, and perhaps offer some of my own thoughts on the matter too. I also discussed this matter at length on the latest Contains Moderate Peril podcast, with guests Murf and Liore alongside Roger and myself, so please check that out too.

One of the things that struck me most from the replies I received from comments, other bloggers and on the podcast, was that exactly why people don’t enjoy PvP differs greatly from person to person. I think Belghast, in his excellent piece on the matter, summed up a fairly common position:

“When I sit down to play any game, be it online or offline I generally have some broad overarching goals in mind, things that I want to accomplish for that night to feel like I actually did something.  Granted I allow myself to get side tracked all of the time, but that is generally tracing down various shiny bits that I happen across along the way.  These rabbit trails are entirely my choice and I allow myself to indulge them as I move around the world.  My key problem with open player versus player combat is the fact that someone is imposing their enjoyment on my playtime. “

In essence Belghast dislikes the notion that another player is able to interrupt his intended plans. I think we have to be a little careful with this argument, as it’s not a million miles away from making a case for removing failure states from games entirely, after all death is inconvenient right? However I suspect Belghast would not agree with that assessment, and that rather it’s the fact that it’s another person that is interrupting his plans that is the problem. And this for me captures something which cropped up in this debate again and again; that it’s the very idea that another player could so rudely impose upon another that seems to be at the core of the issue.

I can’t sympathise too much with this view personally, but I suspect it comes down to an irreconcilable personal difference in what equates to an enjoyable experience. You see what I find appealing about open world PvP is that it lends itself very well to player generated content. It also gives the world an unpredictable flavour. I enjoy the feeling that something out of my control might impact upon my experience, and the fact that impact may be a negative one doesn’t in anyway hamper my enjoyment. I’m willing to take a few knock backs in the name of fun, but the more I talk to others I realise that it’s not the knock backs that put them off, it’s the idea that they have no control over the knockbacks that is unappealing.

Aywren wrote another great piece on the matter, entitled Open World PvP and The Psychology of a Carebear. In it she mentioned up another fairly common stance:

“Sure, I had some fearful PvP experiences with my first real MMO. But what else is there that really makes me reject PvP so violently?

Personality, perhaps? I am a slightly competitive person (deep down… shhh….), but at the same time, I’m a perfectionist. I like to do things that I perform decently well at (PvE). Chances are, I wouldn’t be all that great at PVP. So, if I’m going to suck at it and get stressed over it… I’m just not going to do it. It’s not fun for me. I play MMOs for relaxation and enjoyment, not to feel stressed.”

I think a lot of people feel this way about PvP, and I have some sympathy. There’s no doubt that PvP can be intimidating, especially as we all tend to start out being pretty bloody terrible at it. I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about that except to do PvP and thus improve, but if the very idea is so much of a turn off it’s unlikely to be the case that you’ll practice until feeling confident and proficient. The fact is that a lot of people get stressed out about PvP. Heck I do too sometimes. Again, the fundamental difference is that I like feeling stressed out sometimes. That friction is a good thing for me, not a bad thing, and this again highlights the discrepancy in what we each find enjoyable.

One thing that also became clear during our discussion on the latest CMP podcast, is that sometimes what people find a turn off about PvP is quite psychological in nature. Some people simply don’t like being beaten. Being beaten by the game, by an algorithm, is one thing, but to be beaten by a person carries a whole extra weight of baggage. It carries the knowledge that you have been bettered by another, and this does provide a bit of a dent to the ego. Others simply feel that they are the butt of someone else’s joke, that the laugh is at their expense, and I think this is why people often see PvP as a sort of bullying. I’d argue that it isn’t bullying, anymore than punching someone in a boxing ring is, because after all we have all provided tacit consent to PvP the minute we log in to a game that offers it freely. But, that doesn’t seem to matter to much, as people feel like they are being mocked and picked on, and I can recognise that if you feel that why that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

I’m really grateful to everyone who’s got involved in the discussion, and I feel I’ve learnt a lot about people attitudes to PvP. I’m absolutely not hostile to those who dislike PvP, and it’s genuinely been really fascinating to reflect upon what we each find compelling in the MMO space. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that everyone has a different way of approaching this hobby, and sometimes what we’re looking for is very different.

Return to Skyrim

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For the last couple of days I’ve been diving into Skyrim again for the first time in quite a while. It’s a comforting, familiar friend, and I’m greatly enjoying a couple of mods that I’ve downloaded. I also took the opportunity to purchase all of the games DLC which I hadn’t yet had a chance to play, and this has served as a welcome excuse to get back to the game, because frankly I’m utterly bored of all of the major quest lines in the vanilla game. I’ve yet to really get round to playing any of the DLCs, except for purchasing a plot of land in Falkreath to construct my house, but the hunting guild mod I’m playing is surprisingly in depth and compelling, and actually makes hunting animals a viable way to make money in the game, which suits my bow wielding wood elf.

I’ve always had a strange relationship with Skyrim. The prevailing Elder Scrolls theory is that people usually love the first game in the series which they played more than they love any other Elder Scrolls game. For me, that was Oblivion, which is perhaps the most maligned entry in the series since it’s post-Daggerfall releases. Having taken some time to play a fair chunk of Morrowind, and 150 hours or so of Skyrim, I can certainly see why people had the complaints about Oblivion which they did. It’s world was a bland reimagining of medieval Europe, the map wasn’t very interesting, the character models seemed oddly cartoony and ugly, and many of the more wacky and silly skills available to players in Morrowind had been removed, seemingly never to return to the series again (goodbye levitate!). Cyrodil was just a less interesting place than Morrowind’s Vvardenfell, and offered a far less complex society to master the nuances of. One of my favourite things to do in Morrowind was to read the in game books detailing the Dunmer homelands relationships with the empire, about its great houses and their animosity towards one another, about the simmering resentment between native Ashlander tribes and the settled Dunmer population, about the complex nature of it’s religious structure and how that interacted with the Imperial religion, about it’s unique relationship with slavery. It was just a more interesting place than Cyrodil, and whilst reading those books offered me no tangible reward, obtaining a deeper understanding of the world I was inhabiting was it’s own reward.

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Skyrim, if anything, has gone further down the road of removing many of the skills and RPG mechanics of the Elder Scrolls series. Even small things like the ability to mix and match armour sets for customisation is further reduced. But, you can never level the accusation at Skyrim that its world is boring. To my mind the world is the best thing about Skyrim, beyond doubt. Half of the time when I jump in to the game, all I do is simply wander the roads and hills, and see what I can see. Even after playing quite a few characters in the game, there is so much I haven’t seen, and I still find new quests and dynamic events. Spotting something interesting off in the distance and then slowly winding my way there, seeing what adventure I meet on the way, is for me the best part of the game. It’s unfortunate though that the game seemingly has to sacrifice everything else in order to create that amazing world. NPCs are almost uniformly bland and generic, the quests aren’t very engaging at all, the core RPG mechanics have been simplified, combat amounts to running backwards holding shoot/slash. But such is the strength of that world, that it’s enough to hold the whole experience together.

I don’t know how long I’ll be playing Skyrim. For some of the reasons described above, it’s never quite grabbed me the way some previous Elder Scrolls games have. But, right now I’m having fun running around and hunting dear and foxes for a living, levelling up my skinning skills, and jumping into the odd dungeon when the mood takes me. It’s not perfect by any means, but on its day Skyrim can still offer one hell of an RPG experience, and nothing quite matches those moments when you lose yourself in its world, and drown in the detail.

What’s So Bad About Open World PvP?

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I think it’s pretty fair to say that PvP is PvE’s far less popular cousin in the overwhelming majority of (themepark) MMOs. Sure, most games offer some sort of instanced PvP, but it’s usually a sideshow to the ‘real’ game, and too much dev time being devoted to it is likely to cause consternation from the wider player base. And, what PvP is there is unlikely to be massively significant in terms of the rest of the game. Open world PvP is pretty uncommon these days, but the release of Archeage has brought it back into discussion with players who don’t normally opt for a playstyle often considered ‘hardcore’.

My own history with PvP is a little chequered. My first MMO was Guild Wars, but the first MMO I played with PvP was World of Warcraft. I rolled on a PvP server, and in fact open world PvP was the only kind that ever interested me. It felt organic, real, and far less contrived than battelgrounds. It was also much more welcoming to a complete PvP newcomer than the more hyper-competitive battlegrounds, where mistakes are not tolerated peacefully, noob or not. Sure, getting ganked is an inconvenience, but considering it’s almost entirely consequence free, it never bothered me to any great degree. I engaged in a little instanced PvP in Star Wars the Old Republic, but something about PvP for it’s own sake doesn’t really appeal to me. Also, there is only so much huttball you can play before you never want to hit that queue button again.

It wasn’t until I began my journey with Eve Online that I fully began to appreciate the beauty of open world PvP which takes place in an environment that provides palpable consequences for victory or defeat. More than anything though, it broke down that barrier that PvP is a hostile world full of nasty, evil people hoping to ruin your fun. Sure, someone may blow you up as you float through low sec, but speaking to them quickly dispels any notions of them being bad people, they are just playing the game their way. The thrill of your first few PvP encounters in Eve is a truly memorable thing. The shaking hands and heightened pulse, the sweaty palms and fumbled mouse clicks. It all feels so palpably ‘real’.

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Shortly before Archeage release there was a lot of discussion, triggered in part by Syp over at Bio Break, about whether the game should run a PvE only server, in contrast to it’s current open world PvP setup. I must confess to being one of those firmly in the camp that believes that there are already a lot of games that offer PvE gameplay, and something different is what this genre really needs. But one thing this debate made me wonder is, what is so bad about open world PvP? I mean from what I can gather with a quick Google search, getting killed in a PvP encounter in Archeage offers no consequences for the loser unless they are on a trade run, in which case you lose your trade pack and the resources involved in obtaining that, and losing a boat to pirates whilst sailing effectively amounts to a repair bill.  This is in stark contrast to a game like Eve where every defeat means a lost ship and flying home in your pod. So, what exactly are people worried about with regard to Archeage? Having to walk from the respawn point?

I sometimes feel that what’s partly at play here is a sense that the people who kill you are doing so to spite you in some way. That you are the butt of someone else’s joke. A figure of fun for them. I may be totally off the mark here, but I sense that some seem to think that PvPers who gank people are not nice people, that they are people who are looking to ruin your evening. I genuinely believe that’s very rarely the case. Most times in a sandbox oriented game like Archeage, people are simply looking to achieve the goals that further enhance their own playstyle. I can understand why people may not want to partake in PvP if they simply aren’t interested in doing so, but if Archeage is a game that you’d like to play but the PvP aspect puts you off, does the possibility of getting ganked every now and again really completely outweigh any possible fun you might have the rest of the time you’re playing?

I’d really urge people who are on the fence about playing a game with open world PvP to give it a go. You might enjoy the thrill of real danger more than you expect. If that game is sandbox oriented like Eve or Archeage, maybe you’ll find yourself forming alliances and friendships to help protect you, or teach you to avoid danger. Maybe you’ll form groups of righteous vengeance to hunt down those who pray on the innocent. Maybe you’ll hire mercenaries or bounty hunters to bring a reckoning to those who’ve done you harm. Or maybe you’ll just end up liking PvP more than you thought. If not, that’s cool, but surely it’s worth a try?

LOTRO Academy

Tonight I am making a brief and temporary return to the fabulous LOTRO Academy. This Lord of the Rings Online podcast has been providing players with info, guides, and discussion points since 2010. I had the pleasure of being a co-host on the show for about 35 episodes, and had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun whilst doing so. In the end, I began to drift away from LOTRO and university took up more and more of my time, meaning it was time to say goodbye to the show.

I will be recording a small part with Branick this evening for their 100th episode! A remarkable feat for any podcast. Congratulations to Pineleaf, Mysteri, Draculetta and everybody else who has been involved with the show over it’s lifespan so far. Once again I’m impressed by the dedication and staying power of the LOTRO community even this deep into the games lifespan. I can only thank Branick for giving me my first role in a podcast, and without that I’d almost certainly never have become involved with the Contains Moderate Peril podcast, where I’m having a wonderful time.

So keep an eye out for the upcoming episode 100, it should be a good one!