General game information
Game name: SCUM
Release date: August 29, 2018 (Early Access)
Store page: Steam
Genre: Multiplayer open world survival sandbox
Developer: Croteam, Gamepires
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Back in 2012, Dean Hall, then a relatively unknown modder, released DayZ, a zombie-themed multiplayer open world survival sandbox modification for ArmA 2 that instantly exploded in popularity, and triggered a wealth of clones and games inspired by it. Dean Hall would go on to be hired by Bohemia, and DayZ became a standalone release that has been in alpha since December 2013. Most of the DayZ clones ended up being abandoned by either their communities or their development teams, and the real deal is inching forward slowly, with no release date for the final version in sight.
Enter Gamepires and Croteam, two Croatian developers with no previous experience in the genre but brimming with talent and technological prowess. Their mission? Evolve the survival genre with a title that takes part of the DayZ experience but adds its own spin on everything, from the setting to character development. Will they succeed on this monumental task, or will SCUM become yet another open world survival MMO abandoned by both developers and players?
I can’t answer that question, since I’m not a time traveler or a seer, but I can do the next best thing, which would involve giving you, dear reader, my opinion on the current build of the game. I have been playing SCUM for a little over a month, both online and on a custom single-player save file, so I have some experience with this Gamepires–Croteam collaboration.
From the moment I fired up the game for the first time, I noticed that one specific thing was very different from DayZ, Just Survive, Infestation, and the countless other survival MMOs that have taken the Steam Early Access charts by storm in past years. Instead of offering a cosmetic only character creation screen, SCUM offers relatively deep customization options that affect our in-game performance in many ways, some immediately obvious, and some that we’ll only find out after a few hours of gameplay. Age, weight, musculature, body mass, all of these factors will dictate how our first runs go, whether it’s through the amount of things we’ll be able to carry before slowing down to a crawl, or our ability to pummel down foes with our fists without getting our own hide handed to us.
Once that first part was out of the way, I got to yet another screen, prompting me to upgrade certain skills based on my character’s physical attributes. This wasn’t visually different from other skill trees, but once again, I was pleasantly surprised by the obvious link between my toon’s body and his abilities.
The visual customization part isn’t as in-depth as the rest of the character creation process, and we can only choose from a few skins, none of which include female prisoners. Prison tattoos are included, however, so we’ll be able to show our allegiance to whichever gang we want (provided it’s one of the three or four tattoo types that shipped with the Early Access build). Of course, after looting enough clothing chances are we won’t be seeing any of that stuff, but hey, it’s there, underneath all the layers (clothes work just like real life, so we can wear a jacket over a shirt, or jeans over underwear, etc).
Upon spawning, I proceeded to check my metabolism chart, and found an incredibly detailed screen, tracking things that ranged from how many teeth I still had, to the amount of calories I was spending/had in storage, whether I needed a certain vitamin, or even the kind of food I had inside of my stomach at any given moment. Thankfully, only the most hardcore survivalists will want to keep everything in check in that tab, as more casual players (like me) will make do with quick glances every few hours without dying along the way.
Tucked inside that tab, we can also see our progress with the different skills we chose during the character creation process. In true Morrowind style, those skills will level-up as we use them, so if we want to become a better runner, we’ll have to go up and down the map like a marathon runner, or if we wish to become an adept boxer we’ll have to engage in fisticuffs with every “puppet” (mindless prisoners that acts as zombies) we meet, for example.
Right now, we don’t lose our character upon death, though we do lose Fame points every time we respawn (a special currency accrued through survival actions or during Events such as team deathmatch, which also require some Fame to enter). Interestingly, aside from whatever loot they were carrying, if we kill another player, we also obtain 10% of their Fame, whether it was positive or negative. This means that experienced players will have to think twice before attacking a “bambi” (freshly spawned prisoner) as they might be carrying negative Fame points from previous encounters with Uncle Death. I personally quite enjoyed this mechanic, since it brought back the tension of the first days in DayZ, when you weren’t immediately gunned down by uber-geared psychos camping the beaches. According to the development team, all of this is subject to change (both the Fame system and the lack of penalties upon dying), so readers skimming through this preview in the future should keep that in mind.
Skills are not the only thing that will grow as we survive day after day. Our character’s body will also change, getting thinner (or fatter), gaining (or losing) muscle mass, and maybe even losing teeth after melee scraps. Those physical changes will, in turn, affect our skills and the way we interact with the world, as leaner prisoners will be able to run faster and for a longer amount of time than heavier ones, for instance. Movement is realistic, so once we stop pressing whichever key we’ve bound to “forward”, our character won’t necessarily stop immediately, as his body is subject to inertia. Experienced survivalists will probably have a field day with the amount of different ways of growing our character’s body, as all the variables we can control in the Metabolism tab come into play here.
Players who like to craft objects will probably fall in love with SCUM early on, as the crafting system is both intuitive and relatively in-depth, with a good number of tools, clothes and even weapons that can be created with items found in the wilderness. Should we wish to craft a backpack, for instance, we could try to make a knife with a few rocks, then use it to break down our clothes in order to get rags, and then further break down some of these rags so we can make ropes. Combining the rags and the ropes, our character will make a nice improvised backpack and earn a few Fame points in the process. Most crafting recipes have interchangeable parts, so if we don’t have ropes for instance, we might be able to swap those out in favor of wires, or even create a tree bark substitute. We don’t need special benches or anything of the sort, and the crafting materials don’t even have to be inside our inventory, as we can use items from the ground as well.
Once again, our character’s prowess with different skills also makes an impact here, as the amount of recipes available at any given time will not only depend on the materials we have, but also our survival skill, for instance.
Moving on to another key gameplay area in any survival game worth its salt, we’ll take a look at the combat system. As it’s the case in DayZ, we can engage in unarmed combat, pick up melee weapons and bash our enemies senseless with them, or get our hands on ranged weaponry and eliminate our foes with a well placed shot.
Aside from other players and the “puppets” we mentioned before, we’ll also have to keep our eyes peeled for more dangerous opponents, like the vicious ‘mechs that patrol high risk areas such as the airfield or the prison complex, and the wildlife, represented by bears and wild boars.
As expected, puppets are easy to deal with, and players who’ve leveled up their boxing skill can KO these mindless opponents effortlessly, as long as they keep an eye on their stamina bar. Other prisoners are a different story, and we might want to get our hands on some weaponry before engaging them. Our accuracy with guns will be affected by our stance, whether or not we are tired, our skill with different firearms, and of course, the weather. Bullets are not hitscan-based, and we can see the projectiles as their leave the barrel of our gun and start moving towards our target.
A headshot will instantly bring down any humanoid opponent, unless they are wearing a helmet and our gun is not an assault or sniper rifle. There are different types of helmet and body armor designed to protect the wearer from firearms or bladed weapons, but even with those equipped, we shouldn’t stand in the open during firefights, as gunfire will quickly cut us down. Melee fights are more tense and methodical, as we can parry, dodge and must always keep an eye on our stamina levels. It’s not something in the level of something like For Honor, but the currently available melee/unarmed fighting system is actually quite complex and miles ahead of anything present in DayZ or other competing survival MMOs.
Bears and wild boars are relatively easy to kill provided we have a ranged weapon or a spear, which can be thrown. Once these animals are hurt, they’ll probably try to escape, and we can track them with our right click ability, which, depending on our awareness skill level, will let us see tracks from injured animals, and hear distant sounds as if they were closer.
With puppets, fellow prisoners and wild life out of the way, we should dedicate a paragraph to the security ‘mechs that patrol certain areas of the map. These gigantic metal machines seem to be impervious to damage, and will shout some warnings before engaging, unless we are too close to them. Right now, the development team seems to be experimenting with the ‘mechs, as they’ve been buffed and nerfed many times, with reaction speeds and patrol routes being routinely changed. The community doesn’t seem to have reached an agreement on whether they like or dislike the current implementation of the ‘mechs, but I noticed that they can often shoot players through walls, so that should be addressed as soon as possible.
Of course, we could choose to avoid areas populated by these pesky metallic creatures, but doing so will deprive us from military gear, which could determine whether we live or die after meeting non-friendly prisoners. There are a few police stations scattered around the map, which provide civilian-grade weaponry and protection, but if we wish to obtain assault rifles and good armor, we’ll need to head towards the military base or the airfield, locations that are a hotzone for both fellow prisoners and ‘mechs.
With gameplay features out of the way, we should take a look at the other thing that most survival games get wrong: performance. Luckily, it seems that Croteam and Gamepires did their homework in this front as well, as SCUM runs rather well for an Early Access multiplayer open world release. Thanks to the power of the Unreal Engine, the island looks beautiful, and an impressive draw distance means that we can quickly identify landmarks from afar without having to squint our eyes too much. Players who wish to fine tune their experience will be happy to learn that the options menu offers enough toggles to satisfy everyone, and every option we adjust will have an immediate effect on the graphics displayed on screen, without forcing us to reload the game. Keyboard bindings are also fully customizable.
While we are on the subject of options, I’d like to commend the developers for the inclusion of a single-player mode that does not rely on their servers for anything. Most survival games offer solo options, but they usually force players to create a server instead of just doing everything on their own computer. That is not the case here, and we can even have more than one single-player character, a god-send when we wish to experiment with different builds, for instance.
The only thing that is currently lacking is an endgame, as there are no quests or anything of the sort, and our only aim is to survive and gain fame. Future updates should correct this, as the developers plan to introduce a building system, and missions that will get us closer to our goal of escaping the island. Of course, none of that is in the game today, so prospective buyers should keep that in mind.
I personally trust that Croteam and Gamepires will be able to deliver on their promises, based on both their track record so far, and the amount of updates they’ve pumped out since the game was released on Early Access. Even if they do not meet their self-imposed goals, there is enough content in this early build to keep players happy for a while, especially if we consider the low entry barrier. The developers have managed to avoid the most common survival game pitfalls so far, and their unorthodox approach to character development might be the one thing the genre needs to move forward in a world full of short-lived DayZ copycats.