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Wot I Think - Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden

Turn-based Stalker, with ducks

There are at least 99 ways this could have gone horribly wrong. XCOM-ish turn-based action in an apparently shameless borrow from STALKER’s setting, but starring a talking pig and duck? An overwhelmingly nihilistic tone, but also endless use of the ‘duck sounds a bit like another, naughtier word’ gag? Even the name, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, has that algorithmically-generated SEO jank vibe to it. And again: talking pig and duck.

Mutant Year Zero’s a gem.

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XCOM’s an over-used go-to for talking about turn-based, cover-centric strategy combat, but it’s a matter of speaking to the thing the most folks recognise. In practice, Mutant Year Zero’s something else, even though it shares a couple of dozen concepts with XCOM et al – move and shoot or 2x move in a turn, bleeding out, recharging special attacks, high cover and low cover, percentage hit chances, all that jazz.

But it twists in two profound ways. The first is that it’s a fully real-time game until you enter combat – which, if you’re playing smartly, is almost always something triggered by you, as opposed to being caught off-guard by enemies. I don’t mean, by this, that it’s Final Fantasy – i.e. you sprint about the place until you blunder into an enemy, at which point the entire viewpoint switches into Battle Chess Mode. In Mutant Year Zero, it’s real-time until the first shot is fired - the real trick of the thing is how you set up the situation, in real-time, before that happens. Sneak your squad of miserable, mutant Stalkers into position, in cover, up high, clear lines of sight, primed for ambush, before you hit go: it’s more akin to setting up a play in whatever that ridiculous American sport with the big shoulderpads is.

You can just wade right in as soon as you spot some nearby baddies, in which case it’s a more traditional hard switch from real-time exploration to turn-time shooty-bangs, but this is invariably suicidal. (At least until fairly late in the game, by which point you can spec your team's characters, weapons and skills to be more of an assault squad, but it's still tough as old boots). Enemies are higher level and more numerous than your small, fragile squad of three - so quietly whittling away stragglers without alerting the rest of the pack is paramount. Which brings me to the second big switch away from TBS norm. Often (but not always) when such things incorporate stealth, you're hidden until you're not. Once a shot is fired, anyone nearby knows you're there and you're in for a full-on firefight.

In MYZ, taking out an enemy with silenced weapons, from a hiding place, doesn't make their chums come running. This is easier said than done - fail to fell a lone foe in the first turn and they'll yell for help, or resort to high-damage options such as assault rifles and grenades and everyone's gonna know about it. You need to not pull the trigger unless you're sure you can finish the job silently, in a single turn. It's unfailingly difficult, because enemies almost always have more hitpoints than your silenced weapons have standard damage, but it's such a thrill.

What a glorious thing it is to slowly, painstakingly, silently transform an area patrolled by half a dozen rock-hard baddies into one that's just got one or two suddenly highly vulnerable guys left standing. Even more glorious is bungling an assassination, winding up in a thousand-degree frying pan as a result, and somehow surviving it. Your squad have/can unlock special abilities that enable you to regain control of a chaotic situation, but it's always seat of the pants stuff, shamelessly challenging and with tall demands on your patience and precision. It's the closest I've known a turn-based strategy game to feel like Dishonored or Hitman - making Mutant Year Zero a beautiful collision of gaming things I love.

Then it sweetens the deal further with overt Stalker vibes. Truth be told, my lip initially curled when terms such as 'Zone' and 'Stalker' were thrown around, with the exact same connotations - a post-disaster, post-human horror-wonderland and the grim-faced 'mutants' who scour it for ancient loot. I'm not familiar with the 80s, Swedish pen and paper RPG, Mutant, on which this is based, but, hey, Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky still spray-painted 'exisential sci-fi dread' all over that territory first.

(I came around to it, however, with a little mental gymnastics. MYZ is set several centuries after a terrible disaster, rather than a few decades, as in Stalker's case. As such, I chose to interpret its mutant animal-men, and their total bemusement about the ancient human structures and devices they stumble across in this ruined world, as being the millennia-hence consequences of Stalker's Zone somehow spreading to the rest of the world).

At its best, MYZ pulls something else from STALKER. Understated, exposition-averse world-building, a sense of place built from the blurry, implication-heavy shape of Something Bad Happened, Sometime rather than its tedious cousin Here Is Exactly What Happened, When And Why. Partly this is the sparse writing, but mostly it's the frequently astounding environmental art - devastation turned to green, wildness reclaiming a shattered human world of concrete and metal. Sure, The Last Of Us set this pace somewhat, but MYZ feels like its own beast - plus the pulled-out camera offers a new sense of scale, especially when MYZ is presenting ancient, crashed helicopters or the gutted, vine-woven frame of a multi-storey school.

Beauty abounds in the darkness of this Zone. The birds that scatter skywards as you walk, fingers of spectral light between lush trees, a shocking glimpse of snow... A combination of artists artisting and the Unreal engine Unrealing has achieved wonderful things here. My other turn-based joint this past week has been BattleTech Flashpoint, a stoic robo-war I enjoy greatly, but whose muddy palette, flat lighting and featureless landscapes now seem wholly without verve compared to MYZ's glowing collision of light and night.

All that lightly-sketched tone and all that quiet detail serve to mask an essential smallness to Mutant Year Zero. Aside from a few optional diversions into rock-hard bonus areas, you're railroaded down a fixed track, the sense of DIY coming from how you setup and/or survive a fight and not from where you go. Though you can revisit anywhere, once an area is exhausted of its dozen-odd enemies and smattering of loot (used for crafting very low-key weapon upgrades), that's it.

Weapons, abilities, squad members and enemy types are almost startlingly few in number, should you sit down to count them. Combat variety is more to do with where and when you bungle your play than any inherent difference in a given a scenario. The steel'n'neon base you sporadically return to for resupplies and upgrades is effectively three static scenes, while the slight plot is advanced almost exclusively through otherwise uncharacteristically over-written dialogue from one immobile character.

Only the latter, because it's one of very few aspects of MYZ that waste my time, bothered me in practice. Doing a lot with not a lot is, for my money, the single most impressive thing any game can do (particularly in this age of unbounded bloat from the biggest-budget titles). I'm so captivated by how this has me journey through a haunting otherworld in ways that border on an isometric walking simulator and then sets a taut, stealth-centric turn-based battlegame within it.

Gluttonously, I would like there to be more of it, in terms of having a wide choice of places to go or order to see them in. It's clear, however, that this has been done not from corner-cutting but to retain tight control over difficulty. If I could grind and loot away until my characters become super-gods, MYZ would lose something entirely vital to it - every single fight is frightening. The risk of being spotted too early, the certainty that more than one enemy can overwhelm my squad if they attack at once, forever riding the line between getting close (all the better for hit-percentage odds) and being seen or heard.

I've deliberately saved for last all discussion of Mutant Year Zero's outlandish posterboys, its bipedal, talking duck and pig Stalkers. Outwardly, they suggest a game playing mutation for laughs - as though Howard the Duck and a Ninja Turtles baddie went on a rambling holiday together. MYZ's final killer trick is that its animal characters (there's a fox-woman and someone slightly lizardy later too) almost immediately stop seeming absurd, and instead become as sad and broken as everything else in this desperate, ruined world. They don't know why they look like a pig and duck, they don't think it's funny that they look like a pig and a duck, and for much of the game they don't know if there any other animal-themed mutants (most every other type they've seen is a variant of the bandit-like 'ghouls' who roam the Zone).

Granted, MYZ takes a short while to find its tonal feet, and starts off making a few too many 'duck sounds like fuck' gags in the first hour, but the chaps' loneliness and self-loathing soon overrides that. I will say that that MYZ's usually sparse dialogue and aversion to cutscenes means there's almost no space for character to emerge - and later additions to your team are almost entirely defined by their combat roles, not their personalities - and with that I cared only about my own progress, not their goals. (There are, however, some Very Good Hats). It could stand to be far meatier that front, but I'd much rather have it this way than suffer a didactic torrent of cinematics and explication.

Again, I'm greedy. I want a bigger, beefier, more flexible Mutant Year Zero. But that's because the small, linear but smart, powerful and atmospheric Mutant Year Zero I got grabbed hold of me so completely.

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