STAFF REVIEW of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden (Xbox One)

Saturday, January 5, 2019.
by Brent Roberts

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden Box art One of the best ways to get your game to stand out from the rest of the pack is to be innovative, and apply said innovations to multiple facets of the game itself. For many, many years we as consumers have faced the repetition of numerous styles of gaming that all have similar functions, but all of them delivering an experience that doesn't seems to always capture the gamer because of its "more of the same" approach. Funcom has released a game called Mutant Year Zero, developed by The Bearded Ladies and priced at $34.99. So, while technically considered in the range of budget retail and not indie, Funcom had their work cut out for them to deliver a product that not only was entertaining, but worth the price tag as well. Did they accomplish this? Let's take a look inside and see what is offered.

In Mutant Year Zero you have a post-apocalyptic world that is the aftermath of a tremendous global nuclear war. During this war, humanity has almost been completely obliterated, the surrounding environment, which is called the Zone, is a mixture of dilapidated areas of residential and corporate buildings, destroyed tunnels and multiple areas that are all impacted by the aftermath. From the destruction though comes a sliver of hope for humanity, as the last major city structure is built in the sky, called the Ark. Like the story about how Noah saved the animals, the Ark's purpose is to try and save humanity. To do that however, you need scrap materials so they can be collected and converted into useful items for people on the Ark. However, where there is hope and good intentions, there's also another flip side to the coin.

Down in the Zone, you'll come across Ghouls, which are humans who have survived the war but have been turned mad and are devout followers of the Ancients (what passes for humanity before the war). These Ghouls are under control by a company called Nova Sect who want to utilize the fabled powers of mutation that were discovered by the Ancients, and use that ability to power new weaponry to wipe out the Ark and everyone inside it. To prevent this from happening you'll be taking on the role of a Stalker, who was originally tasked with finding materials in the Zone to bring back to the Ark, but now has a more important mission. Right from the beginning you'll be introduced to Bormin and Dux (no not the Bloodsport Dux) who are two mutant Stalkers, whom will be your primary players. As you progress, you'll unlock more followers, each of which have their own special abilities and powers, but I'll get into that more here shortly. Eventually you'll have formed a team, and it's this team that needs to confront Nova Sect and find out more about the Ancients, and more importantly, how to save humanity.

As you traverse the Zone and get a feel for the interconnectivity of the areas, you'll also note that the characters have their own unique weapons in a fight. Dux for instance, has a silent crossbow, while Bormin uses some loud but devastating shotguns. I made the deliberate notion to point out what weapons are silent and which are not, because that will make a world of difference in your game. Let me explain why. Mutant Year Zero is a turn-based combat game, and should you arouse the suspicions and be caught by the ghouls and their machines, you'll draw the fire of every ghoul in the area that you're in, so learning how to be stealthy and quiet will exponentially increase your chances of survival. However, for the times that you have to go loud, make sure you drop your target as soon as possible and you cover your flank.

The gameplay of Mutant Year Zero is setup to be a grid system during combat. You can get close to enemies and then press 'X' to ambush them. This will essentially pause the game and freeze opponents in their tracks while you navigate to your position of choice before engaging the enemy. The game will also let you know if moving to a designated place will result in your character being detected, so you can get a feel for where you want to position your players. Now each character gets two turns, and it's up to you to decide how you want to spend those points. Reloading your weapon takes one of the turn points, as does walking, however, firing your weapon ends your turn, so you'll have to balance how you want to approach different scenarios and adapt accordingly.

If you have the walk selection highlighted, you can use the Left and Right Bumpers to switch between party members, but if you have your weapon selection highlighted, the Bumpers switch between different enemies. Depending on your position, you'll be able to get a percentage of what your weapon will hit, and obviously the closer to 100 then the more chance you'll have to hit the target. Now remember that this is based off of line of sight, so while a direct approach may be more efficient, you may have a better tactical advantage from a higher perch, so plan accordingly to your environment, your enemy position, the strength of your weapons, etc.

There is a lot to consider with regards to combat, and one aspect that I'm ever so thankful for is the auto save after combat. This is because Mutant Year Zero is almost pure tactical combat, and should your strategy fail, you can reload after your last combat encounter. So, let's say you have an area of 15 enemies, and about 6 to 8 of them are in places around the perimeter. Every time you take one of them out and do it silently, the rest of the enemies are not triggered AND you get an auto save. So should you decide to engage with the quietness and subtlety of an air siren, you can reload and the game will pick up right where you left off after making the last kill, which will allow you to rethink your strategy and hopefully work through it. I found that using silent weapons to dispatch the surrounding enemies of an area worked best, but when it came time to deal with the bulk of the forces, then grabbing yourself the biggest, loudest and most damaging weapons possible is going to be your best option. Sometimes you have to just bring the noise if you want to survive, and while a silenced pistol of damage 5 is good for low level enemies, a rail gun with a damage of 8 is far better.

Should you make it through combat alive, you'll start to level up your characters. The leveling system is done as a team, so one experience bar dictates all characters so there's no uneven leveling (even for members who aren't in your 3-person party). As you level up your mutants you'll gain points that you can spend on your character for passive skills, as well as minor and major mutations. These types of mutations require a cooldown to use, but not a cooldown in time, but in kills. So, for example, Skull Splitter, a minor mutation, may be able to grant you 100% critical chance, but you'll take a 25% hit in accuracy. This requires you to kill 3 enemies after you use it to reset the mutation for use. What this means is that, while some mutations may be worthwhile to use, I like to consider saving them for massive enemies like Tanks and other larger opponents.

Just as you have the ability to upgrade your character, you'll also have the ability to upgrade your weapons. This is done through scavenging for weapon parts and collecting loot drops from fallen enemies. While the main combat mechanics of the game take center stage, the parts in between the fighting bits revolve around you walking through the Zone searching for items such as scrap, weapon parts and even what is called Ancient Artifacts, such as a defibrillator or a telescope. The scrap allows you to buy items from the store in the Ark, and things can get expensive quickly, so make sure you stockpile your scrap and buy what you need when you need it (medpacks I'm looking at you). The Ancient Artifacts allows you to upgrade all your characters at the Ark with abilities such as an extra grenade slot, increase in hit percentage, 20% off the store so you can save more scrap, etc. These items are hidden away in the Zone, so you'll have to scavenge the area to find them.

The last little bit of upgrading on the Ark deals with your weapon upgrades. Here you'll be able to modify your weapon through 3 stages of power with each stage requires a set amount of weapon scrap. On top of the power level, you'll have the opportunity to equip items such as scopes that will grant weapons passive abilities such as increased critical chance, increased weapon range and more. The last little bit could be the most important, and that is your damage modifier. You'll come across numerous enemies within the Zone and it helps to have weapons that are equipped to deal with the particular types. For example, one damage modifier can grant you a 50% chance to burn your organic enemies, which is great when you start talking ghouls, but when you start battling robots, then not so much. For that you'll need shock weapons that will help disable them and can be a life saver. One gripe I had about this is that you can ONLY swap out items on your gear at the Ark, so if you find an item in the field, you won't be able to equip it until you get to the ark. A small flaw but can become annoying should you come across amazing pieces of gear and have to fast travel back to the Ark just to equip it.

Another little gripe involves the actual walking around and exploration of the Zone, as it is incredibly SLOW. Now I'm not asking for racing style speed, but I've seen snails move faster than the characters do. Maybe this has to do with making sure you don't inadvertently trigger enemies, but when you have large areas to explore, and it literally takes you minutes to walk from one exit to another because of the speed, the game loses some of its impact, and even though the dialog occurs while you're walking through the different areas of the Zone, it does very little to remove the monotony of slowly walking around and exploring a large area for scrap and items. To rectify this, you'll be able to fast travel to any point on the map (once you unlock it by travelling there on foot) which will save a tremendous amount of time, but at the same time, if you're missing some Ancient Artifact, then you'll have to go through each area anyways to look for them. So while fast travelling is a good thing, if you're wanting to collect scrap, upgrade your characters and more, then you're going to be forced into the long walks of boredom.

That's not to say that you'll be walking through an environment that looks horrible. In fact, the graphics of Mutant Year Zero are done very well with amazing lighting effects. The camera system is also sufficient and not over complicated or cumbersome. The character models are unique and detailed, but the real graphical power stems from the Zone itself. Another joy I found was that the music really fit the experience of the game in a manner that I was quite skeptical about. However, from the moment I started playing, the ambient audio and musical soundtrack were a treat from start to finish.

From an innovative way to incorporate on the fly tactical strategy into an action adventure game, to a simplistic yet robust upgrading system, Mutant Year Zero is one of the best experiences you can have on the Xbox platform. A few setbacks though can't diminish the tremendous amount of enjoyment I found trying one strategy, failing miserably, reloading the save, trying another strategy, failing miserably and repeating the process until I was successful. This feeling of accomplishment means that every battle of Mutant Year Zero means something, and thus a fantastic and challenging experience from start to end. Due to all this, it's easy to say that Mutant Year Zero is well worth the $34.99 price tag and should be on everyone's radar as a must have.

Overall: 8.3 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.8 / 10


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