The year is 1989. The Berlin Wall has been torn down, but there's no-one around to celebrate this fact in the abandoned corner of rural Sweden where Avalanche Studios' Generation Zero is set. It's November, not the most inviting of times in the year, and there's a thick, moist, dense atmosphere in the game and there's the possibility of some early snowfall as well.
The player-character, complete with hilarious 1980s hairdo and attire, wakes up to find the area abandoned. It's a "day after the disaster" scenario, where everything has been left as is. The lights are still on, clearly people were just here, but everyone seems gone and instead, there are hostile machines patrolling the area.
It's easy to draw parallels to Horizon: Zero Dawn, and to some extent we can see why. The machines will patrol areas, and the Seeker works a lot like the Watcher in that it needs to be taken out with stealth before alerting other machines. But in terms of the gameplay, it feels a lot different, as this is less of an action-RPG and more of a shooter. Once engaged with the machines, you'll find yourself strafing, lobbing grenades and trying to hit weak points in real time. It's also important to note that if you go a bit overboard with destruction there will be less to loot afterward.
"We refer to it as a guerrilla action game," says game director Emil Kraftling. "And that guerrilla aspect is really at the heart of it. For any combat we want you to have a look beforehand, is this a combat [situation] I can win? What tools do I have? What equipment? What weapons? What does the surroundings look like? Is there anything I can use to my advantage? Can I set a trap? Or run an ambush? Is it better for me to just sneak around these enemies? Or should I actually fight them?"
Overall we enjoyed the gunplay; it betrays its simulation roots (from theHunter: Call of the Wild), yet here it has been adapted to a very different sort of scenario. Ammunition and weapons are scarce and need to be scavenged and you'll also need to loot machines. It all reinforces the need for a tactical and stealthy approach, something that should make for tense and exciting co-op play.
"You do have certain components on enemies that you are eager to get your hands on, but if you actually take out those components, it will make the fight easier, but you can then not scavenge them," explains Kraftling. "It's a pro and con situation. Also, where you find many enemies is also where you'll find the best loot, so you want to either take them out or get them out of the way, which is also an option for you to sneak in and get the loot basically."
During our demo session, we got a meet a few other machines in addition to the Seeker. The Runner seems to be a common grunt type of enemy that comes in small packs and offers decent resistance with machine guns and melee. Not a major threat though. More annoying are the Ticks, and as you might suspect from the name these are small jumping enemies that bring the Flood and Headcrabs to mind.
Towards the end of the demo we came up against a Tank, the large bipedal machines you've probably seen in images from the game. We were not quite ready for it, and this illustrates one of the important design pillars in Generation Zero. Your best course of action is not always to fight, and you may want to flee in order to gain the experience and equipment needed to take out the machine. Similar to Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War, the machines will wear their battle scars and remember you. Generation Zero shares much of its systemic nature with theHunter: Call of the Wild, Avalanche's hunting simulator, and this is one system that's been lifted from that game, where if you hurt an animal, that damage will stay persistent.
It's an interesting detail and one that will provide players with stories as they visit another player's world, and get to experience and contribute to the narratives of these individual machines. We're not yet fully aware of just how many machine types there will be in the final game, but it's easy to imagine that some of these larger machines will be ones you'll face numerous times, and when you finally take them down, it's going to be a major cause for celebration, one shared with those you're playing with.
If you compare Generation Zero to the two other upcoming titles using the Apex engine (Just Cause 4, Rage 2) you can see that this game is being made by a smaller team and that the production values aren't as high. On the other hand, unlike those games, Generation Zero offers four-player co-op, while offering the same sort of large sandbox full of systems working to distract you from the main story beats. In fact, Generation Zero relies less on the main story and offers much of its narrative through the environment and exploration. Even if it's not quite as pretty as Just Cause 4, Generation Zero still offers a very believable world and the powerful Apex engine does a great job of delivering an authentic Swedish countryside. It's grounded in the real world and that's why the addition of the machines makes such an impact.
The elephant in the room is the similarities between the concept of Generation Zero and the work of renowned artist Simon Stålenhag, perhaps particularly his first book, Tales from the Loop. Stålenhag himself has commented that he's not really concerned with the similarities, but he is bothered that people think he's involved with the project when he's not. It's not uncommon that video games take rather large liberties when it comes to inspirations, but what's a bit odd in this case is that there are zero degrees of separation between the obvious source of inspiration and those who develop the game. They all live in the same city and work in the same industry, which makes it a bit strange and uncomfortable. It's impossible to imagine Avalanche hasn't been inspired by Stålenhag, but then again most of the developers working on the game grew up during the 1980s in Sweden, watching the same sort of sci-fi as Stålenhag. Regardless, it should be noted that as you actually play the game, looking beyond the screenshots that remind of the art by Stålenhag, you'll come to realise that this game has a story of its own to tell. Apart from the similar time period, the fog, and the lighting, the machines do come across as a bit more grounded and utilitarian here, but that only leads us to speculate as to their origins... and that's for us all to find out when we play the game.
The mystery surrounding the origins of the machines and the whereabouts of the people is what you need to figure out in Generation Zero. Clues are left here and there, and it's up to you (and your friends) to piece the narrative together. We do love a good co-op experience, and Generation Zero looks like it will offer something novel in this space.