Post-apocalyptic films and games have always held a certain joylessness for me. I grew up in an era in which the threat of a thermonuclear war, while waning, was very real. No film has ever scared me as much as The Day After, which I saw when I was 11. I remember a teacher speaking about the TV movie afterwards, and his basic thesis was that a) having already discovered and built nuclear weapons, the world would never not have them again; and b) although the odds were low in any given year that a nuclear missile would be launched, every passing year increased the cumulative probability, making it ultimately inevitable. (My schooling in these years, if it is not immediately clear, was in Texas.) Thanks to him and the movie, I was not only convinced that a nuclear war would happen in my lifetime, I desperately hoped I would die in the initial blast. Other films like Def-Con 4, The Road Warrior, and The Terminator were equally bleak in their promises of a a grimy, radiation-poisoned, brutish aftermath.
For years, thinking about nuclear war was my personal version of The Game (sorry, everyone). I would go as long as possible, try to muster some enthusiasm about life, make plans for my future, but ultimately my brain would remind me, "Oh, hey--nuclear war!," and I would descend into a depression that might last several days or several weeks. Fortunately, when I was a sophomore in high school, I read a horribly uninformed newspaper column about why we shouldn't worry about nuclear war, and it was somehow enough to convince me to stop thinking about it long enough for the Soviet Union to collapse. I now occasionally worry about a terrorist using a nuclear bomb, but I no longer worry about dozens of ICBMs cris-crossing continents. It would be kind of you to refrain from postings explaining why I should, in fact, still worry about such things.
Anyway, this is hardly the stuff of fantasy, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was play games set in such worlds. I'm just coming to realize this now. Some remnant of the horror of The Day After must have always stuck with me, because I never bothered to play any of the Fallout games (despite liking Interplay's and Bethesda's other titles) or Wasteland, or any post-nuclear CRPGs. (I did play the strategy game Roadwar 2000 as a kid, but that occurred after a plague, not a nuclear bomb.) This is my first.
I typed much of the above while I was waiting for the game to create a "world disk." The manual says that it randomizes the world (choosing from among more than 4 million possibilities) each time you start a game.
Scavengers takes place after a nuclear war destroys most of humanity and leaves the surface world a mutant-ridden, radioactive wasteland. Descendants of survivors live in an underground city called Lau, actually the remains of a fallout shelter. Its founding documents note, mythologically, that "the First Ones, having a considerable source of wealth known as 'Government Funding,' built this shelter."
Every year, a group of colonists--winners of a contest--journeys to the surface world to scavenge for loot for the colony. Battling mutant creatures and radiation storms, they hope to return with furniture, armor, weapons, food (?), and pieces of vehicles. I am to lead such a party.
The manual is quite extensive, 60 pages long, and it meticulously describes the types of weapons, armor, terrain, medical issues, and creatures you're likely to encounter on the surface. In an amusing but of tautology, the manual warns of ants large enough to eat oxen. Then, in the mammals section, it notes that there are few mammals left and hardly any have been seen. But, it reasons, "if there are ants that can eat oxen, there must certainly be oxen, too."
The game vaguely reminded me of Dungeon Master in the opening stages. You command a party of four characters, but you don't create them yourself; rather, you choose from a list of 20 pre-generated shelter-dwellers. You can modify each character's portrait (with a pixel-editor, even!) and name, much as you can when you "reincarnate" a character in DM, but you're stuck with the attributes. These are the standard D&D list, minus constitution and plus "observation." In addition to hit points, you have "radiation points" that you want to keep above 0, else you suffer disease and mutation--although some mutations, apparently, can be helpful.
In naming my characters, I chose two commenters, a fictional reference, and one name from Karnov's random name generator.
The game starts you in the ruins of Lau and allows you to scavenge some items nearby, including weapons, armor, parts, and blueprints (I got plans for a car, for instance). Right away, it hurts its own mythology by having you find bows and armor like chainmail--where would this have come from, either pre- or post-apocalypse?
The number pad moves you around, but other commands are chosen from a list of 29 through a somewhat cumbersome means of typing the first two letters, then hitting ENTER, the specifying the character to perform it. So picking up an item requires a sequence like: G-R-
Combat takes place on a tactical map that initially seems a little like Pool of Radiance. Each character becomes a distinct person and moves separately from the others. But the differences soon become apparent. First, there are only four options in combat: move one square, turn and face a different direction, attack, and parry. Second, you can only do one of these things each round, so getting from the starting location to actually stand face-to-face with the enemy might take five or six rounds. After combat, hit points regenerate fairly quickly.
Today, I explored Lau and a little of the environs, but almost immediately I ran into a radiation storm and one of my characters got slaughtered:
You do have some warning of said storms, so I guess the trick is to always know where the closest shelter is.
This game could go either way, but I'm leaning on the side of not liking it much. There doesn't seem to be any character development in the game; battles don't get you experience and there are no "levels" (at least, the manual doesn't mention either). You're not limited to sticking with the original 4 party members, and there is some suggestion in the manual that you will eventually have to use all 20 for various purposes. But I am interested in finding out what all these parts and blueprints do, so I'll stick with it for a while longer.
In the meantime, I'll owe a drink to anyone who can find me either an original ad or an original review for this game. I want to start looking these up for each game that I play, but Computer Gaming World doesn't seem to have reviewed it, and the game doesn't otherwise have much of an online presence.
"Radiation storms" are just the kind of thing I used to fear. If I really "role-played" this one, I'd just have my characters opt for a blissful death in the sea.