A variety of hostile machines that at times feel unbeatable, a finite amount of resources and a dark, unforgiving world. The team at Avalanche certainly haven't created a friendly place to be, as after just a few minutes of exploring and looting we were already getting jumped by giant mechs and mini robots alike, all of which were out there to make our lives a living hell. After a few tense moments of lurking and picking enemies off, the search for resources resumed, and we set off on our journey to find signs of civilisation.
As the development studio was founded in Stockholm, they certainly had the pedigree to do the world of Generation Zero justice and were inspired by Simon Stålenhag's Tales from the Loop, so the game had plenty of lore to pull influence from. The potential for exploring an interesting depiction of Sweden controlled by robots was huge in Generation Zero, and the Iboholmen Castle ruins found at the start of the game exemplify the types of areas that we loved discovering on our journey. This area was full of important early game loot, memorable combat scenarios in a tight, walled arena and really set the tone for what could develop over the course of the campaign. However, landmarks like this are few and far between and the game never quite lives up to this early-game promise.
The game starts off vague, as you're dropped into a small coastal area with little more than the clothes on your back. You find a note from someone's parents, saying that they had gone to the village as soon as the readiness alarm was sounded. It all looks pretty bleak, and the game hits with this level of dread as soon as you begin to explore and try to piece together what happened to the residents who lived here. It is an interesting opening but one that never really moves forward as the majority of your time in Generation Zero will feel just like these opening moments but without the initial intrigue. Dark, lonely and empty.
The game is beautiful at times though, especially on the enhanced consoles. We played on Xbox One X and the thick forests lit up purely by moonlight look fantastic, with dynamic weather adding to the atmosphere. Generation Zero definitely feels at home in the rural wilderness and more areas like the castle ruins would have added to the open world. We would have loved natural cave formations, mountain passes and interesting hideouts to explore as towns and cities don't fit quite as good, and the larger of these areas also struggle to run well with huge framerate drops cropping up, especially during combat sequences.
Speaking of combat, once you do get hold of some weapons they feel satisfying to use. A fair amount of kick gives the shooting a realistic feel and the enemies themselves provide good visual feedback upon being hit. Sparks go flying and deafeningly loud electrical explosions greet you when you manage to take out the rogue robots. However, as you get further in the game the enemies can become overwhelming at times, especially in solo. Huge robots patrol the larger towns and the weapons on offer don't feel adequate to take them out. We're unsure whether this is intentional to force the player to avoid combat, but we would love to have access to some stronger firepower to better balance the game in solo and help us stand more of a chance at survival. Having said that, the penalty for being taken out by a robot is minimal; a large amount of 'adrenaline shots' are available for self revives, and once they are depleted you simply spawn at the nearest safehouse. Combat seems more of an obstacle to exploration than a core gameplay loop, and we would have liked more focus on shooting mechanics as the world behind them isn't all that interesting.
Character and inventory management is serviceable but finicky. Stumbling around with weapons, ammo types and medkits in the middle of combat is an all too often occurrence, and will likely get you killed as the game doesn't slow down or pause when you're navigating these menus. Which guns take which ammo type can be confusing and the fact that you have to combine the two to reload feels like an unnecessary extra step to re-enter combat. If you're anything like us and have a "loot all" mentality you'll also spend plenty of time dropping useless items like radios and flares, because that hold X to pick up prompt is just too enticing.
Player traversal isn't the game's strongest suit either. Getting around is painfully slow at times with miles and miles of walking to find the nearest town and ultimately, a new loot opportunity. There are cars and vehicle wrecks scattered across the map yet none are driveable which seems hard to believe, and this would have made getting around a lot easier. However, the biggest missed opportunity is piloting robots/mechs. As we wandered around taking out pockets of enemies, we were constantly left thinking how cool it would be if you could override a robot and pilot it. This would tackle two of the game's biggest issues in one move; a lack of firepower and variety in combat and the slow, boring traversal that comes from only being able to walk.
Beyond this, Generation Zero has no real direction. The game leads you on through missions with small, vague notes about survivors and settlements but nothing ever materialises. It boils down to the same objectives; clear bunkers (there are tons of them), take out relay stations and explore empty towns. There aren't many interesting areas like the castle ruins found early on, and it all becomes very repetitive outside of the introductory area. There is a real lack of motivation to push on and explore as the nuggets of story provide very little, the loot is often just more of what you have, and the robots become boring to fight. Sadly, what happens in Generation Zero is a lot less interesting than the idea of robots gone rogue in 1980s Sweden and ultimately the game doesn't know what it wants to be. Its setup and structure make it out to be a survival game, but the lack of nuanced mechanics that fit the genre are missing, and instead replaced with a generic skill tree found in most open world games. This could push it towards being more of a general open-world RPG, but the lack of interesting characters, missions and story beats mean it never quite fits that mould either.
We can't say that we had no fun in Generation Zero because we did, for a few hours in co-op at least. Beyond this, the game ends up outstaying its welcome and makes us think it might have been better to keep things more focused rather than trying to build a huge open world. Robots gone rogue in rural Scandinavia would have made for a great "walking sim" but instead this is merely an interesting backdrop for a bland and uninspired open world survival game.
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