SCUM: More than meets the eye | PAX East 2018 preview

Credit: Devolver Digital, Gamepires
Credit: Devolver Digital, Gamepires /

After talking with Gamepires at PAX East 2018, we realized that the demo of their upcoming hardcore survival game SCUM was not indicative of the scope they are actually aiming for.

It was hard to miss the SCUM booth on the convention floor at PAX East 2018. Every year,  Devolver Digital has a separate, extra large booth to push their “big sell” of the year. For 2018, it was SCUM, a prison-themed hardcore action survival game. The booth was set up to actually look like a prison, with large brick walls on one half, and a chainlink fence topped with fake barbed wire on the other half. Needless to say, the booth attracted a lot of attention from convention goers. But I worry that the game’s convention floor demo did not do the game justice.

Just walking by and watching players try out the demo, one might guess that SCUM is just another third-person shooter. It almost looked like a more graphically polished PUBG, with players donning military vests and hats, shooting each other in abandoned buildings. After meeting up with Gamepires Community Manager Josip Barišić, I quickly learned that SCUM is actually much, much more than that.

Set in the future, prisoners are placed on a remote island to be contestants on a reality TV show. Instead of serving time in jail, they instead have to fight for their own survival on this island. Every prisoner is implanted with a tracking microchip of sorts into the back of their head, which shares every single aspect of their well-being to the show’s audience, and to, more importantly, the player. The goal of the game is to figure out a way to remove this chip and escape the island, freeing yourself from this sadistic game of survival.

To make things even more dismal, when you die, your dead shell of a body turns into a zombie that roams the island. If you have gained enough “fame” during your time on the island, the show’s producers will return you to life by transferring your chip into a new body. This acts as a way to prevent permadeath, so you don’t completely lose all of our hard-earned progress. How wonderfully cold-blooded.

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SCUM takes basic survival game mechanics to a whole new level. The futuristic microchip in the back of your character’s head enables players to bring up a biometric dashboard. This scene displays everything you could possibly imagine about your character’s health and abilities. Everything from the breakdown of your caloric intake to your vital signs to your strength and speed to the number of teeth you have. If you eat a piece of fruit, you can see how many calories you consumed and how it affects your vitamin and mineral levels which in turn affects your performance.

You can even see a food’s digestion rate which yes, affects when your character relieves himself. I asked Josip if there was anything the character status dashboard does not include, to which he laughed and said: “You tell me – is there?” He explained that there actually is real science behind these numbers, and players might learn a thing or two just by playing SCUM. And if you don’t want to min/max your character’s biometrics, there are simpler interfaces on the HUD that provide a “TL;DR” of your prisoners’ well-being.

Credit: Devolver Digital, Gamepires /

As you might imagine, the character creation screen is also very in-depth. Your body size and weight are more than just cosmetic in SCUM. Larger characters will require more food but have larger base health and strength stats. Smaller characters might be more agile, but are more prone to injuries. Getting shot at or injured doesn’t just reduce an overall health bar though: you can injury specific body parts, and in turn, use medicine to treat those specific wounds. Even small things like getting some teeth knocked out affects how well you can eat certain foods.

Many aspects of virtual environments that most games shrug off change something in the world of SCUM. How many pockets do your pants have? You can only store one item in each pocket, just like you can’t jam forty cheese wheels into your jeans at home. Is it raining outside? Well, your clothes are going to get wet, which weighs you down. Better get dry soon, or you might get sick from your temperature dropping. And when nature calls, you better answer: “when you gotta go, you gotta go.

Credit: Devolver Digital, Gamepires /

This ultra-realism in SCUM also affects your characters stats: the more you run, the stronger your cardiovascular system gets, and the faster and longer you can run. Doing nearly anything in-game gives your some sort of prisoner skill points. Practice makes perfect, after all. It’s up to you how you want to spend your time in SCUM, whether that’s hunting or crafting or trying to kill other players or just exploring the wilderness. And in the game’s large world with dynamic weather and various ecosystems and terrain types, there is no shortage of things to do and places to explore.

As I mentioned, killing other players (and zombies) is a large part of the game. There is PvP in the game world, but there are also safe zones where players cannot kill each other. When I asked about how the Gamepires team will prevent griefing and camping, Josip explained they are still experimenting with different ways to protect players. They want this game to be for everyone, he said, and the team seems very open to different ideas from the community. Example ideas include PvE focused servers as well as both private and custom servers. SCUM is aiming for 64 people on each server, but again, they seem open to customization and experimentation.

Outside of your complex survival mechanics, the game features random events that spawn throughout the game world. One example of these events is what was being demoed at PAX East 2018: a team-based, capture the point PvP match. These events are completely standalone from the survival mode, meaning if you die in an event, you don’t die in the main portion of the game. This mode feels a bit forced into the game, almost like SCUM is trying too hard to appease everyone.

Mechanically, two main things stood out to me when playing the demo. First was that the team added an interesting feature to address the problem of “wall peeking” in third-person shooters. In a game like PUBG, playing in third-person can work to your advantage because you can see around walls by manipulating the camera. You can effectively see more than you could from a first-person perspective. In SCUM, the camera is in third-person, but enemies on screen won’t actually be graphically rendered unless your character would be able to see them. So if you are staring at a wall, you can’t see enemies around the corner until you actually peek that corner in-game. It seems like a logical idea, but I am a bit skeptical about how elegant this solution will be in practice. If anything, I can see it causing confusion in-game unless it is thoroughly explained beforehand.

Gamepires /

Second, SCUM‘s default control scheme was a bit unconventional. There are a few abilities that were not mapped to traditional keys. The mouse wheel changed your characters movement speed, enabling you to seamlessly transition from a walk to a jog to a sprint. The idea is a good one, but I am so used to the scroll wheel acting as either a way to change your weapons or to zoom down a gun scope. Making your character jump was bound to “V” instead of the space bar. The space bar was reserved to activate a sort of short, “combat mode” that elevates your senses. I mentioned this almost immediately to Josip, who seemed unsurprised. He mentioned he would tell the development team they should at a minimum enable key binding customization options. But this unintuitive control scheme ended up negatively affecting my experience during demo quite a bit more than I would have liked.

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Ultimately, I think SCUM has a hell of a lot of good ideas. The concept is interesting, the game aesthetically looks fantastic, and the ultra-realism adds a hardcore element I have not seen in any other game. I can look past some of the control scheme hiccups for the time being, as frustrating as they were on the convention floor. What really leaves me skeptical, though, is just how insane the scope of SCUM is. Gamepires said themselves they want this game to be for all types of players. But will that result in a “jack of all trades, master of none” final product? SCUM is definitely a game that I will be keeping a close eye on because, despite its lackluster demo at PAX, it shows some interesting potential.

SCUM is set to launch on PC as an Early Access title on Steam sometime this year.