Mutant Year Zero is a game that I've been playing a good deal of in the last few weeks. It is a turn based squad tactics game (with a touch of a light RPG mechanic) that is set in (yet another) apocalyptic future. The game is published by the Norwegian game publisher Funcom who were responsible for games with incredibly stories like Dreamfall and The Longest Journey as well as well as lesser known games like Conan: Exiles and The Secret World. With this sort of publishing pedigree behind them, I had pretty high expectations for the game world of Mutant Year Zero... and hoping that the game mechanics would also hold up strongly, as this was a slight departure from the point and click adventure games that were their breakout successes.
The developer is the Swedish studio, The Bearded Ladies, actually a group that I haven't heard of before this game... but with a name like that... well, you are expecting something a little bit quirky!
The game is set in the future... where a plague called the Red Plague (I will spare you the descriptions...) has pretty much wiped out humanity, except for those surviving in Enclaves or the Ark (which is the home base for our heroes). The Ark is an outpost of humanity and mutant Stalkers, the stalkers (like our heroes) are the only ones who are capable of venturing out into the wasteland to bring back critical supplies for the Ark to remain viable.
Beyond the safety of the Ark, the world is a dangerous barren place... filled with raider clans, leftover robotic servants and lethal wildlife. So, not a place that you are going to want to go out for a quick picnic. However, it is also home to a host of lost technology and supplies... which are essential for the Ark to survive. Thus, it is up to the mutant Stalkers to get out there... and retrieve these supplies, whatever the cost... just get back alive for another day. Interestingly enough, the outside world appears to be set in the remains of modern-day Sweden... a nice touch that pays homage to the development team's homeland!
The main character in your party is the part hog, Bormin (Dux and Selma join you soon after the beginning of the game). A gruff tank archetype, your skills are typically geared for close combat and damage mitigation. Something that is really quite clear from the beginning is that the developers have really put some real love and effort into the characters that grace the world. The party members are just beautifully realised and have lovely banter and background chatter.
Each character is amazingly well voiced and has a unique character that really endears them to the player. This is in contrast to many AAA RPG releases which have so many cardboard cookie-cutter templates for characters... which means the world ends up feeling incredibly shallow and engaging. It is something that is really quite important, as these touches are what makes a game incredibly enjoyable to play.... rather than trying to game the mechanics to beat the puzzle.
Believable characters, ones that you can relate to... this starts going down the route of proper "real" art... with an engaging narrative and toons that you really care for. Sadly, you can only take 3 mutants with you at a time (out of a total of 5), I always hate these restrictions. I get that this is done for balancing for the game mechanics, but in this case... I really hated it, as it meant that I missed out on the interactions of the 2 mutants that I would have to leave behind.
Your base of operations is the Ark, which provides some glorified upgrade menus and shops. I have to say, this was perhaps the weakest part of the world. On the other hand, when you are resting and gearing up between expeditions, you don't want this part to be hyper engaging either... so perhaps it is for the better! None the less, the characters that man the shops and upgrade workshops are full of nice chatter and background.
The strategic layer is a lovely drawn map with locations marked onto it as you find it. Mostly it is a linear sort of playthrough. There were original plans for a much more open world design for the game, however, it was eventually passed over for a more detailed and engaging narrative line for the game. This is something that more game developers should really think about as well, open world games are great... however, if the narrative and engagement becomes too diluted (or worse, forced...) then the world starts to feel shallow and hollow. Tighter game experiences makes for much more engaging player experiences, and the ability to tell a really gripping story.
Likewise, each tactical map is very tightly controlled and designed. There is so much beauty in the design of the world... it truly is a pleasure to explore the corners of each map, to see all the detail that has been left behind in a broken world.
However, not everything is grim in this world... well, there are constant references to artifacts and ideas from our time.... and it just cracks me up every time, the mutants are just so naive and completely off the mark with their observations on our current culture and technology! It is another touch that really warms your heart to them....
The game plays out in a real time manner, until you choose to ambush the enemy... or they spot you. Sneaking around collecting artifacts and trying to quietly ambush lone enemies with silent weapons is a definite must. As soon as noisy weapons are fired (or you fail to take down a lone straggler quickly enough), the whole map is alerted and then you will have a pretty rough fight on your hands.
So, much of your initial time on each new tactical map will be spent sneaking around... picking up loot when you can, and trying to quickly and silently take down as many stragglers and isolated enemies as possible. Stacking up the odds in your favour for that moment when you have to start going loud!
In the proper combat stage of the tactical map, we are treated to the familiar move/action combination that was so efficiently introduced in the XCOM and XCOM2 reboots. It really is a great streamlining to the game, and you easily fall into a rhythm that employs the strengths of the mutants that you have deployed on the mission. Something that bothered me a little bit was the 25% steps of the to-hit percentage... I would have preferred a slightly more granular system.... it just seems too weird that one grid position closer would suddenly result in a huge jump in accuracy!
Graphics and Performance
What can I say that I've not already mentioned... this game is just so lovely built and designed. The in-game graphics is just a beautiful thing to look at... and there is so much detail and attention in every little corner of the map.
The cut scenes and cinematic sequences have this cartoon hand drawn style to them. It really fits the style of the game, and again each scene is a pleasure to look at. Again, it is a reminder that hyper realistic graphics are not the be all and end all of gaming narrative. Separate page-like scenes with well acted narration and a great story trumps it all!
On the XPS15 (9560), the game ran pretty well at high settings for the graphics. There were the occasional moments of graphics pop up in the tactical map... but nothing too disastrous or immersion breaking. In the still screens, there was no problem at all... however, the game did have the machine's fans running at full tilt!
This is a masterpiece... but slightly flawed. It tells a great story, but it ends a little quicker than I had expected... which leads me to think that they ran out of time or money and had to wrap it up quickly to ship a product. It is a pity, but on the other hand, it does still make for a really engaging experience.
As I mentioned before, there was an original plan to make a much larger open world game... in many ways, I'm glad that they ditched that plan. I love open world games... but after a while you get bored with the, as there is nothing that ultimately is very engaging. The game mechanic balances tend to get broken as the character gets hyper powerful (unless there is some unrealistic scaling of the world to match the player) and the NPCs and the world tend to get shallower and diluted.
Mutant Year Zero manages to avoid all of this with a great engaging and tightly controlled narrative and gameplay. It has been one of the most pleasurable games that I've played in a while... and I do get through quite a few. Also, knowing that there is an end to the game really does change your experience of how you play... it is a like a proper book or film, with a climax and end. Not like an endless stream of posts....
DELL XPS15 (9560)
RAM: 16 GB
GPU: Nvidia GTX 1050
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