Generation Zero Review: Beautiful Emptiness

Release Date: March 26, 2019
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Avalanche Studios
Genre: Online Survival Shooter

From the moment I first saw the footage of rusting robots stalking through farmland, I was eager to play Generation Zero, Avalanche Studio’s experiment in bringing moody sci-fi to their native Sweden, all wrapped up in an ’80s aesthetic. Wonder turned to tedium quickly. Reviewing games is always a race against the clock: I needed to experience as much as I could in a short amount of time. It didn’t help that a bug prevented me from crossing out of the first area until a merciful soul from Reddit solved the problem. But even playing as Generation Zero is meant to be played, out in the wide world with a team of hunters, the experience is a slog. To be frank, I want to like this game so badly, but it’s just not very good.

First, the good: the ’80s styling is delightful, the costumes are fun, the collectibles (dala horses!) are charming. The wide vistas heavy with fog are beautiful and ominous. The isolation of play contributes nicely to the horror: watching red lights crest a hill through fog as the four-legged Runner robots crept up on me was effectively beautiful and chilling. The game takes special care with sound, and gunshots echo differently depending on where you’re standing in relation to them. While the world is often stunning, the textures on the characters look like they haven’t popped in yet.

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Yet, all of that atmosphere feels about the same as looking at the box art. There’s just not much more to the game world besides a pretty view. While playing in a squad, one of my teammates asked me a question that I kept picking at as we went along: Why is this a game instead of a movie or a painting? 

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The safe houses and menus were the places where the game got in its own way the most. You can revive yourself after death if you have the right item, but once your adrenaline shots run out or your teammates can’t save you in time, it’s back to a spawn point miles away, or ten minutes in real-time from the rest of your team. Your teammates can deploy field radios so that you can fast travel to their location, but these radios are few and far between.

The item menu itself is inconvenient. The mouse cursor icon and the way it drifts might be a cute homage to 1989 computers, or it might be something that needs to be patched, and the fact that I can’t tell the difference is illustrative. Some items must be attached to weapons manually. You can decide to switch ammo types and attachments, which is useful, but once you’ve made that decision it doesn’t stick. You have to manually pair your ammo with the right gun every time you pick up a new ammo box. At least ammo drops are plentiful in this game.

Additionally, if you pick up health packs and already have them mapped to your D-pad quick commands, you still have to manually stack the new health packs through the inventory menu. Because of this lack of stickiness and the fact the D-pad configuration is always changeable, rearranging inventory is a momentum-killing hassle. Why don’t items just stack automatically?

Simple skill trees drive home the idea that this is meant to be a four-person game. Each player can activate one higher-level specialty at a time, and while I’m not keen on grinding enough to get there, the idea of hunting with these high-level perks and a coordinated team sounds great on paper.

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You gain experience for escaping a fight, which I appreciated since it rewards careful planning and caution. Returning to the scene of a previous battle to see your enemy limping along and trailing smoke makes the Generation Zero world feel real, frightening, and surmountable all at the same time. However, the combat is muddled; it’s difficult to tell whether you’ve damaged the robotic foes that hassle you and aiming down sights feels slow and imprecise.

The AI leaves something to be desired too. Sometimes robots seem to see through walls, or clip through them, while others won’t notice people until you stand right in front of them. The machines become more aggressive when you’re low on health, making for tense and chaotic encounters whenever I’m tempted to rush an enemy instead of living to fight another day. Fighting the Hunter, one of the bigger bots, forced me to strategize and try to lay traps using gasoline cans and noisy radios – until I brought my team to its location for a showdown and the Hunter just wasn’t there anymore. This – a few minutes of fun, many more minutes of frustration, and a glitch – was the real cycle of my experience playing Generation Zero.

Solo players won’t find much enjoyment in Generation Zero. You’ll definitely want to play as a team if you hope to survive the robot onslaught in more dangerous areas, but the game doesn’t make it very easy to join other players in the game. There are no server lists to be found in the minimalist multiplayer menu, so you can’t really customize a session to your liking, whether it’s searching for players at a specific character level or in a specific area of the map. There also wasn’t an instance where other players popped into my session. Your best bet is gathering a squad of your friends. 

The biggest problem with this world is how empty it is. The game tries to explain its emptiness away with the opening text that sets up the idea that in World War II Sweden’s “neutrality had come at the cost of integrity.” Does the emptiness symbolize a lack of integrity? Or is it just a big empty map because big maps are trendy right now?

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There isn’t enough story in the first few hours of play to build on the ideas introduced in the opening text. Instead, it is followed by a loose explanation for why the game’s players and civilians are armed and trained for war. I wanted to know at least a tiny bit about what my character’s personal stake in the story was. Where did she grow up? Where might her parents have gone?

The isolation makes the world feel sterile. The only characters are other players. The massive map feels so out of scale to any sense of progress. I don’t trust that, anywhere in that map, there is a sense of wonder to the repetitive verbs (shoot, heal, distract) I can use. Once, after my three-person team had trekked laboriously across field after field, the game crashed. It was late and none of us particularly wanted to keep playing. Maybe we all wanted a game that holds our hands a bit more, with more shooting and storytelling and less survival. That just isn’t the game Avalanche made. 

Another possible reason for the sense of isolation: the game features the same emotional texture as Simon Stålenhag’s science fiction art and the quieter parts of classic Steven Spielberg movies. Stålenhag was inspired by landscape painters who portrayed the same kind of fields the Generation Zero team wanted to use for the setting. In a Tweet thread, Stålenhag said he did not expect Avalanche to “give credit to every little influence that have crept into your work,” but was “bothered” by the fact that the studio didn’t reach out to him on a game that looks so similar to his art, especially since they’ve worked together before.

Generation Zero feels like walking through the woods around my grandparents’ house when I was a kid looking for adventure. For a while I’m lost in the best way, the sun beautiful in the trees and the suggestion of dangerous isolation just making it feel more like an adventure. But then I reach the next lawn, and it’s the neighbor I know, and suddenly the world is mundane again, and the journey never really brought me to a fantastical place at all.

Megan Crouse writes about Star Wars and pop culture for StarWars.com, Star Wars Insider, and Den of Geek. Read more of her work here. Find her on Twitter @blogfullofwords.

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