One of science fiction’s greatest tropes has got to be the machines rising up to overthrow their human creators slash oppressors. Terminator 2 was James Cameron’s cry of #notallmachines while Black Mirror’s ‘Metalhead’ episode painted a far bleaker picture of savagery where no questions are asked, there’s only bloodshed. In Generation Zero’s case, the world gifted to us by Avalanche Studios is more of the latter, which heightens the stakes in this dystopia, creating a world that’s tense, engrossing and horrific all at once. The game isn’t without numerous other failings but in an industry where service games are constantly being tweaked and revisited, hope is alive for Generation Zero as it draws you in through its robot-infested rolling hills.
After a brief wall of scrolling exposition, the game drops you onto the coastal edge of Sweden armed with only the knowledge that something on-land shot and sank your boat and that there’s something acutely concerning about that fact. The game takes place on November 14, 1989, as you return from an island retreat to discover the country inundated unexplainably by an unrelenting army of machines that shoot on sight. Ignoring the fact that Sweden is typically freezing cold in the eleventh month, Generation Zero’s world is like an anachronistic siren’s song.
The game’s fairly rudimental mission log keeps you pushing inland, though it’s fair to say even crude and half-baked set of objectives is more than most games of this ilk offer. So often we’re just thrown into a playground with no goal at all, so I commend Avalanche for giving us something that respects our time by forcing us in the right direction. That said, it’s far from an ideal system as the game’s HUD offers very little information on your objective and what your active quest even is, something that, I suspect, will be fixed in time.
Though Avalanche’s bread and butter so far has been in third-person open worlds like Just Cause and Mad Max, Generation Zero is a satisfyingly tight first-person shooter where each gun carries considerable weight. Half the fun of defending against a roaming gang of machines is working out what in your arsenal will best do the job, which can be difficult as these robots pose a real threat. If you’re playing alone (the game is solo or co-op with up to three friends) you’re bound to be overwhelmed by the numbers they swarm you in. I did play in co-op for a large chunk of time, though I admit I’ve always been a lone wolf and thankfully, the game isn’t impossible alone. In fact, its bleak setting is only buffed by the kind of sad loneliness you feel as possibly the last person alive.
One major gripe I have is with Generation Zero’s inventory system which, even at launch, is overdue an enormous overhaul. It’s cumbersome and makes even sorting through the pile of crap you’re bound to accumulate a tiresome task that distracts from the game’s strengths.
Generation Zero also has a skill tree that you’ll pick from as you gradually level your character up. Killing robots, funnily enough, aren’t the primary source of experience as completing objectives and finding collectibles are a windfall compared to incapacitating a horde of robot dogs. Perhaps this is because killing the machines should be a last resort, though given how great the gun feel is I can’t be sure of this. Generation Zero arms you with a lot of non-lethal options to distract, lure and sneak by the frankly foolish machines. Radios and emergency flares can be used to draw aggro which adds a slightly strategic element to combat though most players, at least in co-op, will likely just go in guns blazing given that there’s no real consequence to dying.
In most survival games, players are at least tasked with retrieving their inventory or deducted a death tax but Generation Zero is very generous in how it treats its careless hunters. Your death isn’t even permanent until you exhaust your stockpile of adrenaline shots which are intended to revive downed partners, though they work just as well on yourself. So after dusting yourself off a dozen times, the only setback you’ll encounter is time as the game reverts you to the last safehouse you visited with your inventory intact. It’s a shame that the importance of death is waived because the game’s forefront combat features like stealth and strategy go right with it.
As stated, Generation Zero’s Sweden is lovely with its rolling hills and thick forests serving up most of what you’ll see in the early game. Even with a really muted colour palette, Generation Zero stands out as one of the prettier games I’ve played so far this year. Avalanche’s Apex engine really shoulders the load here as stunning weather effects and even elemental flourishes like smoke curling up from a fire look superb. Some of the level design itself struck me as peculiar as lone chairs faced corners and toilet rolls stood ornamentally proud on bedside cabinets, giving the impression Sweden is prone to severe gastric emergencies. Putting that aside, the interior design in Generation Zero is perhaps its weakest from an art perspective with a lot of houses sharing plans and, it seems, internal decorators. It really sapped the fun out of exploring the otherwise beautiful map and made resource-gathering a joyless task.
What I will gush about is the fact that despite sneaking into the 80s by just over a month, Generation Zero absolutely delivers on a stunningly delicious synth-heavy soundtrack which is constantly bubbling under the action, and even inaction, of Generation Zero. Even if you boot up the game, sit at the menu and wait for that main hook. Oh, it’s perhaps the best theme I’ve heard in a game for a few years.
Generation Zero is in an interesting state at the moment, which is all too common for games like this at launch. It’s playable, which is a good start, but sadly it’s a fair way from being a great way to spend an afternoon. The world will draw you in and perhaps the thrill of the hunt will do for some, but if Avalanche can’t draw on their years of experience to fix things like the inventory management and improve the game’s quality of life, then it likely won’t live a very long one.
THE PC VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Generation Zero isn't a misfire, it's far from it. The core gameplay experience is enjoyable enough, though trudging through the thin, but admittedly mysterious, plot only spices things up for so long. There's a world of untapped potential at Avalanche's fingertips here, all that's left to do is tighten up on some of the game's shortcomings and Generation Zero could comfortably stand alongside even the best sandbox survival titles.