Generation Zero is an ambitious attempt to fuse the popular multiplayer survival genre with a more traditional story-driven campaign. Throwing out the player-versus-player component of its contemporaries, Generation Zero instead encourages cooperation. And, set in rural Sweden during the 1980s, the game further asks a simple but intriguing question – what if Sweden, but invaded by robots? Sadly, Generation Zero only really shows that a game can be a whole lot less than the sum of these intriguing parts.
After designing your avatar, you find yourself unceremoniously dumped into the Scandinavian wilderness. A series of tutorial missions explain the ins and outs of surviving in Generation Zero: looting houses, fighting robots, and the like. Once you learn the ropes, you’re quickly whisked away to a series of missions that slowly guide you across the open-world map.
As for the missions’ structure, imagine a walking simulator, but each time you uncover a new plot point or scrap of evidence, you have to schlep all the way to the next town over to continue. That’s what following the story of Generation Zero feels like. It’s a walking simulator with an emphatic emphasis on the actual walking, rather than narrative exploration. Your promised McGuffin is always in another suburb — another drab collection of robot-infested cul-de-sacs — leaving behind naught but a note directing you to an adjacent settlement. Repeat ad infinitum.
The landscape you hike over is bloody dreary, and not just in the intended grim, soulless, apocalyptic way you’d expect. Generic assets are mercilessly copy-pasted across an enormous map; if you’ve seen one house, you’ve seen them all. Meanwhile every barn has the same interior layout — each with the same out-of-place toilet standing in one corner. (Maybe barns have those in Sweden?) It feels like someone tried to craft a single-player campaign inside the PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds map, giving off a tacky, unpolished atmosphere as you explore Avalanche’s vision of the 80s.
The robots themselves do have a nicely retro-futuristic look. It’s all very industrial and utilitarian – big chunks of metal with guns strapped on, sheets of steel plating for armor. It’s what you might expect if the Soviet Union mass produced killer automatons. In practice, though, the machines could be anything. Zombies, dinosaurs, baked potatoes: nothing about their behavior or attack patterns suggest intelligence greater than any of these. Your enemies might as well be well-armed wildlife. Even the gargantuan mechanoids you fight in the later sections offer nothing new. They’re just bigger, tougher foes who can’t fit inside a building.
Even gathering loot (and there is loot, of course, as in every other game this decade) quickly becomes a chore. There’s never anything of real value just laying around. Buildings contain backpacks, sheds have toolboxes, and enemies drop supplies when killed, but it’s the same rubbish you find everywhere: ammo, flares, and first aid kits. As a result, looting is unrewarding and fighting is never worthwhile. And Generation Zero further becomes Crouch-Walking Across Sweden Simulator 2019 as you avoid conflict wherever possible.
Misadventures in Multiplayer
The gunplay itself is serviceable, but nothing to write home about. If you’ve played DayZ or PUBG you’ll feel right at home. You point guns at the bad robots and bullets come out the front. Ammo for any somewhat decent weapon can be scarce. But that’s just until you unlock the skill that doubles the number of bullets you can loot from enemy corpses.
I quickly grew bored of solo exploits. So I went looking for some company in the hopes that multiplayer would help Generation Zero come alive. After a few false starts searching for multiplayer games — uncommunicative players bumbling around the starting area or groups who kicked me the second I joined — eventually I found a partner in crime.
But when I checked the map, I saw my new compadre was miles away — further than I’d managed to venture. I slapped the mandatory “Hi” into the chat bar and we hit it off as well as two people on other sides of a continent can do. That is to say they said “Hi” back and we barely spoke after that. But we didn’t need to speak. Not really. Instead we communicated largely by mashing our flashlights on and off to express ourselves. Sometimes it meant “wait.” Other times it meant “thanks” or “get your ass over here now.” It was hardly the most elegant form of communication, but it was enough.
“Better” With a Buddy
We took out a few chunkier robots in our neighborhood, usually while hiding inside houses. When you’re inside a building, the only real danger is running out of ammo. That’s because the brainless AI will never find its way inside. Occasionally my silent partner and I would lay a trap using explosive canisters, luring one of the hulking brutes into range and blowing it to hell — an exhilarating experience on the first pass. Even this spectacle quickly becomes routine, however. Besides, it’s almost always better to just avoid the enemies by crouching around, if you can stomach even greater levels of boredom.
Generation Zero is a co-op game at its core, but not in the way Avalanche intended. While the extra firepower is welcome during the game’s shootouts, the greatest challenge your friends will help you overcome is the mind-numbing boredom. And even then, you have to wonder how much credit you can give Generation Zero for being slightly less tedious with friends. Getting arrested is more fun with your buddies but I would still hesitate to recommend that as an entertainment product. But considering how much my experience improved in the presence of a single human being who knew how to use a flashlight, it’s not hard to imagine that Generation Zero could reach the dizzying heights of “not bad,” if only a few good friends partied up with mics for the adventure.
Another reason to stick with allies is that Generation Zero is hosted client-side, not run on servers. There are no random players to bump into in the wilderness. It’s just you and your squad mates, who you can always locate via the map. Apart from the lost opportunities for making contact and alliances with strangers, like in other games of this type, this player-hosting solution means you get kicked to the menu when the host leaves.
I know I’ve hammered Generation Zero into the ground by this point, but there are some nice touches to applaud. Real attention was paid to keeping Generation Zero true to its Swedish origins. Audio logs play with Swedish voice acting. All the signs and posters throughout the world are also written in Swedish, with subtitles popping up if you look at them. If it wasn’t for the copy-pasting epidemic, Generation Zero might do an admirable job of setting its scene.
But sadly, the final nail in the coffin came towards the end of my time with Generation Zero. That’s when I had an epiphany — it feels like a DayZ mod. This is galaxy-brain levels of mind blowing when you think that Day-Z was originally an ARMA 2 mod. It feels like a mod of a game that was a mod of a game (that wasn’t even that good in the first place).
Time Poorly Spent
The setting and backstory of Generation Zero — a game that wants to put more emphasis on linear plot than its competitors — could have been something spectacular. But all that promise was squandered on a game that tries to be equal parts survival game, co-op shooter, and walking simulator, while feeling inferior to all three. What’s left are bland and repetitive environments, functional gunplay, and a tedious string of missions that challenge only your patience for walking somewhere really far away.
Generation Zero had a unique concept put together about as well as my last IKEA wardrobe. Spend your time and money elsewhere (that advice goes for IKEA, too — that place is Hell on Earth).