Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is the first major project from Swedish developer The Bearded Ladies Consulting, a small studio mainly comprised of former IO Interactive employees and Payday designer Ulf Andersson. With the studio’s past of small but well-received puzzle games on the PlayStation 3’s online service, this survival take on the turn-based strategy genre is as unexpected as it is refreshing.
The game opens with the heroes, anthropomorphic duck Dux and the boar-faced Bormin, wandering through a forest gathering supplies. Most of the land in this post-apocalypse is covered with a thick toxic clouds, and only mutants such as Dux and Bormin can survive on the surface. A tiny outpost of humanity called the Ark remains, and they depend on these supply runs for survival. Upon returning to the Ark, Dux and Bormin discover that Hammon, the only person who knows how to fix ancient technology, has gone missing. They vow to search for him, and following the missing man’s footprints leads them into a deeper mystery than they could have dreamed. A crashed satellite has convinced Hammon that more of humanity is still out there somewhere, and he’s determined to find this Eden.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a pleasantly colourful dystopia. A soft colour palette of greens and blues transitions into a stark white for the snowy areas, and gives a visual sense of progression to the game. Plants have reclaimed the land, with moss growing over broken down cars and vines twisting through shattered window panes. An isometric perspective is used to allow a clear view of the battle, with items in the foreground made invisible when needed. The world is reactive to the player’s movement. Birds and insects scatter as the party approaches, puddles splash when stepped on and bushes rustle when passed through. The environments feel alive, not just a back drop to the next battle. The music is minimal with a strong emphasis on synthesiser, particularly when in the Ark which has a strong cyber punk aesthetic.
In-engine storytelling is used masterfully in Mutant Year Zero: Return to Eden. Major events, such as the apocalypse that wiped out humanity, are depicted with beautiful hand-drawn cut scenes. The rest is expressed with how Dux, Bormin, and friends react to the world around them. They chat about the past and whether Eden exists, bicker over the use of ancient technologies they find (a boom box is clearly a bomb!), and compliment each other on good tactical moves. In between battles, Bormin might recount the legend of Izza and Fala, the star-crossed lovers whose resting place is full of treasure. When said resting place turns out to be a battered pizza and falafel shop full of enemies, the disappointment is palpable. The conversations flows naturally and build a great rapport between the characters. Importantly, the story can easily be ignored or skipped for those who just want to get straight to the action.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden makes no secret about its XCOM inspirations. Combat is turn-based on a grid, with each unit having two action points to use on various actions such as movement, shooting, using items, and character-specific abilities. Choice of cover and line of sight will affect a unit’s chance to hit, and careful positioning is key to survival. Genre staple abilities are available from the get go, such as overwatch (taking a shot during the enemy’s turn at anyone who gets too close) and dig down (increase defence during enemy turn), and character specific abilities are gained from levelling up and making choices through their respective skill trees.
Unlike many other games in the turn-based strategy genre, the roster in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is tiny. The player starts with Dux and Bormin, and three more units can be recruited over the course of the campaign. Only three units can be in combat at a time, but the whole party earns experience after each fight so no one is left behind. While any character can use any weapon, the different abilities they learn make them better suited for certain styles of combat. Dux is an excellent sniper with bonuses to silent take downs and a large movement range. Bormin with his run and gun approach favours shot guns. Selma, Magnus and Farrow, the other three units, have strengths in thrown weapons, psychic attacks, and critical hits respectively.
The enemies in Mutant Year Zero: Roads to Eden are varied and numerous. Slack-jawed ghouls are dispatched easily, but before long variants pop up that can summon reinforcements, throw Molotov cocktails, use psychic powers to direct others, and a variety of robots re-purposed from ancient technology stomp in.
What makes Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden‘s gameplay unique is the real-time movement between battles. A red glowing circle shows the enemy’s field of view, and each of the player’s units can be individually moved into a better strategic position before initiating the battle. Solo enemies can be picked off with silent crossbows and pistols without alerting nearby enemies, making the following battle easier. Exploring the world also yields precious resources in scrap, weapon parts, and ancient artefacts, which can be used in the Ark to upgrade weapons and purchase items.
The game offers three difficulty modes: normal, hard, and very hard, with an ‘Ironmutant’ permadeath option available for an even greater challenge. The different difficulties alter how much health is regained after battle, how much damage enemies deal, and whether cooldown abilities reset after battle. The modes are named appropriately; this game is tough. Roughly an hour into the game’s campaign, a huge difficulty spike occurs in The High Road map. The party is vastly outnumbered, three new types of enemy units are introduced, and a medical robot quickly revives the few ghouls that the player does manage to take down. What initially appears to be an exercise in being hard for the sake of being hard is actually an important lesson on how the game is meant to be played. Battles do not have to played in a specific order, and charging straight for the objective marker will make things harder than they need to be. Heading down a side path from The High Road leads to a mini-boss battle that, while still being difficult, is more level appropriate. Sneaking around enemies in high level areas to find more scrap and weapon parts will leave the player better equipped for the battle they were stuck on. With carefully timed movement, the tough High Road battle can even be avoided entirely. The heart of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is literally about picking your battles, and makes the desperate struggle to survive for these characters very real.
Depending on difficulty level chosen and familiarity with the genre, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden will take about 15–20 hours to complete. While on the short side for a turn-based strategy game, the length feels just right to tell the game’s story and keep battles from becoming repetitive.
Playing on PlayStation 4 demonstrates that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden was clearly designed with the PC version in mind. Much of the text is too small to be comfortably read when displayed on a television screen, and the menus are navigated with the left stick behaving as a cursor rather than tabbing from option to option as is customary. Several crashes occurred when accessing the Ark, and stuttering occurred often in the same screen, which is odd since the area is not particularly graphically intense. The game also has a few incidents of slow down, especially in the snowy areas and battles with a large amount of enemies. Some of this lag may be due to a launch-day PS4 failing to handle the intensity of the Australian summer, but players are advised to keep several manual saves just in case.
Those unfamiliar with the turn-based strategy genre, and XCOM in particular, will face a steep learning curve. While 2017’s Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle may have held the player’s hand too much, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden inversely throws the player straight into the deep end. While feeling overwhelmed is a big part of this style of game, the sparse tutorials could have been better implemented to welcome newcomers. Combining XCOM‘s strategy with real-time stealth and an intriguing story, The Bearded Ladies has created a clever, fresh take on the turn-based strategy genre. While the game may be a bit intimidating for newcomers, or too short for veterans, the tight gameplay loop and great pacing make Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden an instant strategy classic.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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