I wanted to like Generation Zero. I really did. While playing through it I would keep reminding myself, “This is a AA game, at an appropriate price point, with the ambitions of something more. There are going to be some rough edges.” The thing is it’s not the ‘rough edges’ that hurt it, and to use that term would be putting it very lightly. It’s not the litany of bugs or the frustratingly bad UI or even the blatantly copy-pasted environments that made me finally decide I’d had enough. Those issues were there, dragging the experience down the entire time, but I could still look past them. No, the sad truth is that the game simply runs out of steam and stops being fun long before it’s over. And when it stops being fun, those other criticisms are frankly no longer worth putting up with.
This might look peaceful but chasing behind me was a fuckload of robots
I wanted to like Generation Zero, and for the first little while I did. One thing that the game gets very right is setting the tone. The narrative set-up is pretty basic — a group of teens holidaying off the coast of a Swedish archipelago find themselves washed up on shore by storms. The twist in the situation is that this version of Sweden is set in an alternate history in 1989 where the country’s political landscape is one of constant fear and incredible military spending. Oh and everyone has mysteriously and very suddenly disappeared and there are murderous robots everywhere. Pretty normal stuff.
Right from the outset, an air of tension and unease permeates everything. Moody lighting and weather effects underscored by some droning 80s synth scream that something is very wrong here. As you creep inside a nearby house, you realise it’s completely abandoned. And not the ‘everyone moved out’ kind of abandoned but the ‘everyone got the hell out‘ kind. It all looks rather nice too, the awkward character models and odd low-res model or texture not doing too much to undermine the great work by those weather and lighting effects I just mentioned. It’s far from the most graphically advanced game, but the moments where I was traipsing through dense woods in the pouring rain with just the moonlight through the trees and my own flashlight to guide me will stick with me for a long while.
Couple dozen of these ones is no problem
Just one of these, though…
I wanted to like Generation Zero, and occasionally I really did. There are brief flashes of brilliance in so many of its ideas. For starters, this isn’t a typical open-world shooter. The robots that inhabit the landscapes of rural Sweden are always deadly, no matter their size. The game warns players in advance that direct confrontation is not always the best option, but it wasn’t until my very first combat encounter with a lone ‘Runner’ that I realised these things aren’t fucking around. Standing there on an empty road under the glow of a street lamp, it looked like perfect fodder for the handgun I’d just found, but my bullets all but bounced off of its reinforced body and it tore me to shreds in mere seconds. Lesson learned. The second time around I learned that a swift shot to a Runner’s power supply was usually enough to take it down, but even then it’s usually pretty wise to take the ‘stealth’ route (which mostly just boils down to taking the long way around a situation) out in the wild.
The idea of skulking around these silent fields and ghost towns, constantly in fear of being spotted by a group of killer machines is a tantalising prospect. Like every other aspect of this game though, the fun doesn’t last. Just as you start to get comfortable with using stealth, your environment and the tools at your disposal to become a machine-killing-machine, you’ll also start to see the worst of Generation Zero’s mechanical issues come to the fore. Dodgy hit detection, braindead AI and severe game logic bugs all converge to make most encounters less of a tactical endeavour and more of a frantic, messy slog. Things are at least more manageable when playing cooperatively, allowing for use of some basic tactics like throwable distractions and EMPs to separate, flank or disable enemies. In fact if you’re planning on picking up this game at all you’ll want to try and convince at least one friend to jump on board – it’s a vastly better experience with others.
Whether solo or with friends though, there’s no getting around the game’s awful UI and inventory management. You’d think a standard slot-based inventory system would be simple enough to execute, but apparently not so here. Every item from weapons to ammunition and health packs takes up slots in your character’s inventory, which is fine and normal, but the game seems to not know how to handle them most of the time. Items like health and throwables need to be assigned to slots corresponding to directions on the D-pad to be used in-game, but picking up an item already assigned doesn’t add it to that group. Instead it takes up a whole new slot in the inventory, meaning you’ll need to manually move it over to stack with the rest. That’s just one small example of something simple that might sound trivial in a vacuum, but the same needlessly obfuscated mechanics permeate every facet of the UI experience and genuinely make the game harder just for being so finicky. Also, negating any story progress made by non-host online players in a game like this is just criminal.
Finally found that künd, Sam’s house
I wanted to like Generation Zero, but it seemed determined to minimise my enjoyment at every turn. Billed as a ‘freeform’ open-world experience, the game does its best not to signpost points of interest or guide players down a specific path with its objectives. To progress, you’ll need to come across things like maps, documents and recordings organically in the environment in order to be given the corresponding mission. There’s a lot of appeal in that concept, especially in a game like this, but Generation Zero flubs the execution here too. It’s mostly down to the confusing and clunky UI in the game’s menus again making things harder to navigate than they should be, and it’s not totally egregious, but hopefully Avalanche can make some post-launch changes to how objectives and locations are tracked.
The game’s entrancing atmosphere of mystery and its constant threat of danger work in tandem to make exploring and scavenging both attractive and necessary. Doing so highlights another one of its biggest issues, though. At first glance the combination of sprawling fields, dense woods, scattered neighbourhoods and vast, underground bunkers make a compelling case for thorough canvassing. That is until it becomes clear that rather than design the dozens of settlements and numerous buried facilities spread out over the (rather large) map, the developers have opted to make an alarmingly small number of prefabricated designs and copy-paste them ad nauseum throughout. I’ve already delved into the issue in greater detail here, but just know that from beginning to end in Generation Zero you’ll be seeing the exact same houses full of the exact same decor and bunkers made of the exact same rooms in architecturally illogical configurations. Some repeated assets I can understand. I can understand lots of repeated assets. But this game truly takes it a new level. Or rather the same level, multiple times.
I wanted to like Generation Zero, and I did for a while, until I didn’t.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher