Scrap Mechanic's Survival Mode is All About Imagination

By Alistair Jones on at

The behemoth lumbering over the hill is the clearest indicator of how Scrap Mechanic's new survival mode appeals to different people in different ways. My friend's creation comes with a built-in bedroom, two sets of front-mounted sawblades for industrial-strength lumberjacking, a hydraulic-powered trailer, and most importantly enough fuel to run it all. Unfortunately he's spent so long tinkering that his character's on the verge of starvation and, while my 'car' is little more than a glorified cuboid with wheels, it was me putting in shifts on the farm that would keep us all alive.

Scrap Mechanic's take on survival is neither overly punishing, nor particularly complex. Your hunger and thirst meters deplete at a conservative rate unless you’re taking part in prolonged strenuous activity, and hitpoints regenerate quickly enough you won't be ground-down by smaller encounters. There’s no need to sleep, the characters have no complex physiological or psychological needs to fulfil, and no horrible beasties that come out at night. Should you succumb to hunger or a robot attack you’ll respawn back in bed, with the only punishment the need to return and pick up your stuff. You can't operate heavy machinery if you're starving to death but, that aside, there’s little to worry about.

That simplicity might not appeal to hardcore survival fans but it lets the spotlight shine on Scrap Mechanic's real attraction. Scratching out an existence on this abandoned world is not hard, but doing so efficiently is a more complicated task, and if you don’t want to spend your life engaged in menial labour you need to start building. Survival mode is a new arrival for Scrap Mechanic, which has been in early access for four years and shaped largely by its creative mode, which allows players to build complex machines that are now key to getting by. Before this it was a little like Besiege, a nice-enough sandbox with no overarching purpose beyond seeing what happens.

Now, these existing mechanics build layers. If you want to build a fence to keep your crops safe from the crazed farming robots that stalk the world, you’ll want some wood. Chopping down a tree is simple enough, but once you’ve battered a few logs into shape you’ll need to refine them into wooden blocks, a time-consuming (and nutrient-draining) activity.

Happily, if you can find and power a garage, you can build a couple of machines that will automate the process. That saves a lot of time, but you’ll still need to go out and chop down the trees yourself before manually hauling each log back to the refinery. That’s just as slow as refining them yourself, so the best option is to build a car that can transport several logs (or better yet, a whole hopper full of them) at once. Trouble is, the first car you’ll build handles like the virtual embodiment of that ice-skating scene from Bambi, so you’ll need to invest in proper suspension and better wheels, as well as the petrol to run it, for which you’ll need to build a whole new robot.

While all this is going on you’ll still need to eat – but watering crops is another major time-sink. How about an irrigation system that sucks up water from a nearby lake before spitting it out over your farmstead? For that you need metal, but harvesting limbs from fallen robots isn’t efficient: much better to drill into rocky outcrops and find the metallic seams within. For that you'll need a drill, which can be had by selling some crops to an old farmer who lives in the warehouse halfway across the map. You get the idea: every long-term solution comes with short-term problems.

That might sound exhausting, but it means that when something works in Scrap Mechanic it’s because you made it work. With only a very few exceptions, anything more complicated than a stack of wooden blocks requires creative input, and even if you build a predetermined recipe, you’ll need to string several parts together for anything to happen.

A simple watering system, for example, needs a pump to suck water into a container and a cannon to spit that water back over a field, as well as pipes to string the whole thing together and buttons and switches to control the flow in and out. Building a vehicle is a key achievement for the early parts of the game, but your first effort will probably look like little more than a child’s Lego creation. Over time you’ll adapt it in order to solve increasingly complex problems. Sometimes those will be as simple as spending resources to upgrade a gas-guzzling engine into something more efficient; others will involve redesigning half your chassis so you can fit in some storage solutions without messing up your centre of gravity or working out how to wire up several moving parts in sequence. No matter how complex, each breakthrough introduces a new way to explore, understand, and interact with the world – and all of that is made far more satisfying by the knowledge that it's only possible due to your problem-solving.

The simple survival mechanics may put a limit on how far Scrap Mechanic can take you, but its content is gated cleverly enough that excelling in one area isn’t enough to see everything. Farming and vehicle creation are important starting points, but the way in which you’re taught to use the ideas you learn early on means that you’ll have to regularly re-imagine what you’re already working with in order to progress. Each step relies has its own loop that encourages progress, but brings you back to a new beginning. Even as you approach endgame, there's still that urge to use what you earn to improve what you already have. There’s room for some quality of life improvements in Scrap Mechanic's current early access build, but the imaginative, player-led problem-solving that forms the backbone of the new Survival Mode pulls me back in a way no other survival game has managed.