Mutant Year Zero will probably forever be known as the game that stars a talking pig and a duck in a top hat. That’s a shame as it’s a great example of a scarce videogame subgenre and it deserves to be recognised for that.
Here we have the rare and brilliant blend of Hitman-style third-person stealth with XCOM’s turn-based squad tactics. It’s a concoction that I’ve come to know as the ambush game and it’s time for it to come out of hiding.
Stealth games usually relish having you stay crouched and quiet for hours on end. These are games that reserve their greatest rewards for those that can ghost through levels – unseen and silent. But this is a genre that’s as much about the art of ambushing as it is about staying hidden. Ambushes are the punctuation, the breath out after the breath in, small moments of struggle among all the sneaking. If a game can get ambushing right then stealth feels much more dangerous and thrilling.
Important to this is that your character is neither invisible nor invincible – they’re just a cunning opportunist willing to do what it takes to get out alive. This is what one of the pinnacles of ambushing in games absolutely nailed. In Hotline Miami you have to clear each level of enemies without receiving a single hit. If you’re shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned just once then you have to restart the whole level. Minutes of careful work can be lost in a moment. The stakes create incredible tension, which, with success, give way to profound feelings of relief and accomplishment when it’s over and all that’s left is wet blood on the floor.
Mutant Year Zero has that same sense of danger but attains it in its own way – by stripping away the most annoying parts of the two genres it sits between. Since 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project, getting spotted in a stealth game has, for the most part, been a one-way ticket to beatdown town as you’re quickly overwhelmed by goons. But Mutant Year Zero gives you a fighting chance to snatch victory from a bad situation, letting you plan a response turn by turn.
That’s the worst aspect of stealth games solved then – there’s no instadeath here. But it also addresses the part of turn-based tactics games that’s easiest to moan about: tedious planning stages, in which you spend hours calculating strategies without putting anything at risk. The hidden movement phase of XCOM is nerve-wracking, sure, but it doesn’t really compare to the high stakes of active combat. Mutant Year Zero removes those duller phases by turning them into tense real-time stealth sections. In other words, developer The Bearded Ladies has stripped out all the boring parts of stealth games and tactics games, and bolted the remains together to form a superior hybrid.
What makes Mutant Year Zero that bit more special is how its two components feed into each other. The fusion of stealth and turn-based tactics has worked very well in the past, as can be experienced by playing Invisible Inc., in which you direct agents through security systems to hack computers and then get out before they’re captured. Every Invisible Inc. level typically ends in a panic that you’re grateful to survive at all. In comparison, Mutant Year Zero’s spin on the stealth-tactics combo lets you catch your breath, rewarding you for observation and cunning.
Each enemy encounter begins with a real-time stealth section during which you gradually move individual members of your party into position and take out isolated enemies with silenced weapons. Stay out of a ghoul’s zone of awareness and you’ll be fine, but that can be difficult when there are multiple bogies patrolling the perimeter, including some that wait on the edges of the map and come running in to murder your squad if you raise the alarm.
Success in the stealth section means winnowing the guards down to a number your team can handle, getting into a good position to quickly eliminate the remaining targets, and then, once they’ve spotted you, taking out the rest in only a handful of turns. Do that and you’ll feel like magic. We need more games like this.