Its very possible that you’ve never even heard of Generation Zero, a small game developed by just a few people in Avalanche Studios. Developed on a relatively tiny budget, it’s the kind of project that more big companies need to do; small scale, more creative endeavours. So, Generation Zero is a primarily a co-op FPS that can be played solo if you like, made on a small budget and probably wasn’t even on your radar. But should it have been?
If nothing else Generation Zero has a unique concept and setting that helps it stand apart from the rest of the FPS genre. Four teens return to their homes in Sweden in 1989 after a fishing trip only discover that everyone has disappeared. The land isn’t empty, though, because roaming the roads, forests and towns are strange robots that will attack on sight. Discovering the origin of these metallic monstrosities and where everyone has gone forms Generation Zero’s narrative.
Without question Generation Zero’s biggest strength are the robots themselves. They come in a few different forms, from the quick dog-like machines that unleash gunfire while bounding around to the house-sized bastards that launch rockets and stomp across the land. The designs for these metal beasts are simply superb, each one having a distinct silhouette so that you always know exactly what you’re fighting against. These aren’t sleek machines, they’re chunky, rusted and look a bit like someone had to make them on a tight budget in their shed. In other words, they look real and believable.
And man, the sound design is equally superb with meaty weapon effects, some great synth music that uses the 80s retro nostalgia to its full advantage and genuinely creepy robotic noises. They almost seem to talk to each other at times, while the wail of their alarms heralds a fight and, for the first while, sent a little chill up my spine.
Generation Zero is also a rather pretty game to look at from time to time. As I ambled through the admittedly pretty bog-standard Swedish land I would often stop to enjoy the rays of sun blazing through the trees. It’s just a shame that there’s almost zero visual delights to find while out exploring.
And that brings me to the first of Generation Zero’s problems, of which there are a lot. Avalanche have crafted a huge world for their game, and yet I’m not exactly sure why. There’s nothing in it, bar the insultingly limited assets that get re-used dozens upon dozens of times. If Generation Zero is to be believed the entirety of Sweden in the 80s was composed of roughly 4 house layouts and the exact same collection of sheds, barns and other random little buildings. It’s within these houses and other buildings that you’ll find loot, so you spend an awful lot of time barging through the front door of what feels like the same god-damn house over and over. In the first hour I was already sick of the repeated assets, and the thought of looting another CTRL+C house for basic survival materials held all the appeal of dating Cardi B.
Really the game needed a smaller world, or perhaps even should have been a linear adventure. Had less time been given over to sheer scale and instead spent on creating more varied buildings it would have helped massively. The world serves as little more than a backdrop that you have to run across. There’s little to be found by exploring and so you’ll quickly find yourself heading in straight lines. Veering off to check out a farm (hey look, it’s exactly like the last five) is almost always rewarded with the same collection of bog-standard loot and maybe a collectible. Sometimes there will be robots guarding the area, and sometimes not. Oddly enough even the heavily guarded areas never have anything of interest.
Speaking of the looting, let’s talk about that for a moment and how it ties into the cumbersome inventory system. First of all, guns have multiple types of ammo, as in around 3-6, and thus take up a lot of your very limited storage space. This in itself isn’t a problem, but the awkward way in which you use the ammo is. Rather than having a way to quick-swap between ammo types without having to delve into the inventory you instead have to open up the inventory, find the ammo you want, select it, select “attach to” and then select the gun you want to use it with. It makes swapping out ammo for each situation time-consuming and awkward. With that said, it does at least encourage you to scout out the enemy first so that you can pick the ammo you want to use.
You can assign things like first aid kits and distractions to the D-pad for quick access, but here we come across yet another problem with how the inventory works. Basically whenever you pick something up it stacks on top of other items of the same kind up to a pre-determined limit, at which point a new stack starts. The thing is, if you assign a stack of something to your quick-access D-pad the stack won’t replenish itself nor be replaced by another. In other words, if you run out of med-kits you have to faff around in the menus to get more, something you can’t afford to do in fights since there’s no pause option.
Occasionally, though, Generation Zero gives you more exciting loot in the form of better quality weapons or handy attachments. You’ll need the higher-grade versions of the standard weapons to tackle the later enemies that begin showing up. I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t happy to find a silencer for my rifle (which actually acts like a proper silencer) or an extended pistol magazine. These moments, though, were rare among the standard looting for more flares or ammo.
I’ve yet to talk about the story and progression structure. At its core Generation Zero is a mystery game in many ways, asking you to follow the clues in a constant chase from location to location. Each new location typically reveals an audio recording or letter or something left by the previous people that shoves you toward the next place where the pattern repeats. The constant tugging along becomes tiresome quickly, but the allure of finding out what the hell is going on did keep me going. Ultimately the answers were never very exciting, though.
Really, Generation Zero is more about the atmosphere and the encounters with the robots that occupy Sweden. Sneaking around the robots is always an option and one that the game actively encourages, but even this feels wonky. The mechanical monsters all boast incredible hearing and vision that means they can detect you from vast distances away, sometimes even through chunks of land or buildings. The rules surrounding stealth feel wildly inconsistent at times, but perhaps the biggest crime is that part of the stealth mechanics ruin the game’s tension. A small bar will appear on screen that indicates how aware the machines are of your presence, but due to the vast distances at which you can be detected you’ll basically be warned of threats long before you ever see them. It softens the tension when you know what’s over the hill, and then said tension just sort of casually lets itself out the front door when you spend ages crouching half-a-mile away from the threat so that you can sneak by.
Combat fares a little better, partially because the weapons feel pleasingly meaty and partially because having robot enemies means also having a good excuse for weak points being a thing. Every robot you face has a fuel tank that you can hit, but getting to them varies from foe to foe and discovering this feels great. It’s piece of old-school game design that many would argue is an overdone cliche, but here it makes perfect sense within the game’s logic.
I also appreciated the emphasis on using guerilla warfare to take down enemies rather than just trying to outgun them. Things like fireworks, flares and radios can all be used to lure robots and then you can use stuff like an explosive canister to blow the crap out of them. Unsurprisingly this works best when you’re teaming up with other people so that you can lure robots away in order to sneak by or to set up a crossfire. It reinforces the idea that you’re outgunned and that just running in isn’t the best idea, especially against the towering bipedal robots who can soak up bullets and rockets like their nothing. My first attempts at taking these guys down was a disaster because I didn’t yet know where their fuel cells were hidden and all my assault rifle fire did was piss them off.
It’s also around the time that my face was getting stomped by one of those bipedal bots that I realized Generation Zero does not like being played solo. Sure, there’s the option to stop people from joining your game and it’s probably possible to get through everything solo, but it’s clear that the developers want you to play with others. You see, there is no scaling in Generation Zero, so it doesn’t matter if there are one, two, three or four players the amount of enemies and their abilities remain exactly the same. In short, playing on your own is do-able but you’ll need to invest points into the right skills and be prepared to spend a lot of time sneaking about and taking pot-shots.
Too often glitches and silly problems hamper the otherwise quite fun combat, though. When things are going right you’ll be pressured by the A.I., getting surrounded by the fast-moving four-legged dog-bots or just running like hell from one of the house-sized beasts. However, the A.I. is prone to doing absurd things like standing a few feet away from you, totally oblivious to your existence before suddenly realizing that you’re there. You can also confuse the hell out of them by entering houses or other buildings. Other issues include severe clipping, being able to shoot you through random walls, hills and other things, and incredibly fast leaping attacks with no signal to indicate its coming. On my travels I discovered robots who got stuck behind trees or would stand in the distance and let me shoot them without retaliating.
Given the style of Generation Zero I also found it strange that death is little more than a minor bump in the road. If you get downed you can use an adrenaline shot to revive yourself and these are in plentiful supply. Even if you don’t have a shot you’ll just respawn at a safe-house of your choice with no repercussions.
Ultimately, I never particularly enjoyed either stealth or combat. The focus on evading certain enemies and only taking them on once you have a plan is admirable and something I’d like to see more games do. Yet, Generation Zero doesn’t pull it off. Both stealth and gunplay feel clumsy, awkward, like they were designed on paper but Avalanche didn’t have the methods to pull it off.
There were a number of other technical problems that plagued my time with Generation Zero, too. Bits of terrain weren’t lined up correctly, buildings floating above the ground, random jets of fire hovering in the air, people’s progress not being saved correctly after joining someone’s session, being locked in a bunker after fast-travelling there and so much more. It seems a lot more polish was needed before unleashing Generation Zero into the world. Hopefully some updates will fix this stuff, but so far there haven’t been any big fixes.
This brings me to the end of the review and my closing thoughts on Generation Zero from Avalanche. I love the ideas that Avalanche brought to the table and there are moments where Generation Zero gets it right. The emptiness of the large world might annoy me because it feels superfluous, but it does create a sense of isolation which mixes nicely with the roaming bands of robots to create a tense atmosphere, at least for the first hour or two. I also enjoyed the more careful approach to combat, the fantastic robot designs and teaming up with friends or even random players. Sadly, though, the core mechanics of stealth, shooting and looting didn’t click with me. Yet, I’d still like to see a sequel because there’s some great potential on show in Generation Zero.