If Fallout and X-COM had a baby, it would be Mutant: Year Zero. The upcoming turn-based strategy game from The Bearded Ladies Consulting combines some of the best elements of both games in a light and snappy experience that looks highly promising.
I spent three hours and change with a beta build of the game’s first few missions, paying particular attention to gameplay and mechanics—and my early impressions are pretty favorable.
As far as I can tell from the demo version of the game, Mutant: Year Zero‘s world is a relatively near future post-apocalyptic one inhabited by a few normal humans and lots of mutants (mostly just bipedal talking animals). My initial two-man squad consisted of a shotgun-wielding boar and a duck with a crossbow, and I had no problem taking this premise seriously—the game is that confident in its presentation.
The initial disaster that sparked The End of Times isn’t clearly explained right away, but what I do know is that there’s not much left in the way of civilization. On top of that, a very important person has vanished from one of the last remaining cities, and you’ve been volunteered to venture far into the wastes to find him.
The plot could go just about anywhere from here—we’ll have to wait for the full version to learn more.
I’m a big fan of X-COM, but it has some frustrating quirks. My most prominent thought within 20 minutes of starting up Mutant: Year Zero was that it’s done a fantastic job of emulating X-COM’s best gameplay elements while leaving out most of what I don’t care for.
For one thing, X-COM is notorious for two things: fudging its own RNG numbers and its strange method of seeding pre-made rolls for various actions, which heavily encourages save scumming. Mutant: Year Zero appears to make RNG checks dynamically and fairly, eliminating a good deal of the unnecessary frustration that X-COM veterans may be worried about.
On the other hand, Mutant: Year Zero appears to know that you don’t have to fix things that aren’t broken.
X-COM isn’t shy about punishing rashness or impatience; the same can be said of this game. Charging blindly out of cover to hose down the battlefield before you’ve carefully scouted the area will get you killed every time in both games. However, in X-COM, sometimes even the most carefully laid plans can be completely unhinged by its wonky math. In contrast, Mutant: Year Zero rewards and punishes players more fairly and consistently.
Outside of combat, your squad is controlled in real time. Things shift to a turn-based setup only once enemies — which range from human outlaws and wildlife to other mutants — have detected you. You’re free to stealthily pick off lone enemies before combat officially starts, which essentially translates to free turns as long as you stay quiet and patient. I can see this mechanic becoming a crucial strategy later in the game as combat gets tougher.
It’s hard to overstate how much I enjoyed this blend of real-time and turn-based systems. It fixes one of the biggest problems with X-COM: the inability to precisely position your troops for an effective ambush while retaining the ability to move quickly if the enemy changes position.
In games like this, where you’re consistently outnumbered and outgunned, planning and position are of the utmost importance, and I greatly appreciated being able to move about freely.
Additionally, your mutants can be upgraded with various skills and gear, which seem to be relatively few in number but not overly simplistic.
Gear options currently available include various grenades, armor that can partially negate damage, and a wonderful selection of silly hats. Skills are mostly straightforward and often lifted directly from X-COM, such as the ability to take an action after sprinting or navigate difficult terrain more easily. Perhaps the full game will offer more choices, but even if it doesn’t, I think it will stand on its own just fine as an “X-COM lite.”
Visuals & Sound
While the demo version didn’t expose me to many unique areas, the ones I did see were reasonably pretty. Character animations are a little clunky, but only a little. Cutscenes are rendered in 2D static panels and stand out as the demo’s prettiest visual elements.
Voice acting was solid all around, even if it left me wondering how a duck could enunciate so clearly. Music and sound effects are generally effective, but it’s hard (at least for me) to accurately judge the sound design in such a relatively short demo.
The content I was allowed to play consists mostly of a slow buildup to something grander and still unrevealed, so there isn’t much to see in terms of how the music and sound might support different moods and settings.
Mutant: Year Zero ran just fine on Ultra settings on a GTX 1080 and i-7700 processor, though I’m confident it would perform well on mid-range rigs too; it doesn’t appear to be very demanding on modern hardware.
I experienced a very small number of seemingly random frame rate hiccups, but chalked them up to pre-release wrinkles that will likely be ironed out soon.
Overall Impression on the Beta
I don’t get excited about new games as often as I did ten years ago, but I’m definitely keeping an eye on Mutant: Year Zero. It’s challenging enough to demand some level of thought and planning without being ridiculously hard or overly reliant on chance, and that’s a sweet spot I can appreciate.
I’m keen to see where these giant animal-people are going and what they’re up to. Mutant: Year Zero will definitely be one of my holiday gifts to myself after it releases for PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on December 4.
Stay tuned to GameSkinny for more on Mutant: Year Zero as we approach launch.