Generation Zero Review
A nice twist on open-world shooters from the Just Cause devs.
Generation Zero is an attempt from Avalanche Studios to use the engine it made for its Just Cause series to self-publish its own lower-budget, open-world game. That additional creative freedom through self-publishing results in some interesting design decisions and an inspired visual style, though the lower budget struggles to carry a game as big as Generation Zero wants to be.
Generation Zero might look like a survival game or a loot-based shooter but it isn’t really either of those things. It involves some resource management but resources aren’t rare. There’s a clear sense of progression with the weapons and other tools you get, but the heart of the game isn’t in constantly looking for loot with higher numbers than your current loot. Generation Zero is, really, an exploration game with a strategic FPS combat system. In it, your avatar is some punk rocker, or hip-hopper, or greaser, or jock, or nerd, or metalhead teen in the 1980’s returning to rural Sweden from a vacation to find the place overrun with killer robots. You complete missions while gathering weapons and resources to uncover what happened.
Generation Zero wants players to use guerrilla tactics like luring enemies into traps with flares and boom boxes, luring them away, taking cover in houses (or on roofs), knowing whether to use buckshot or armor-piercing rounds, or turning robots against each other. This tactical system really works too – you can’t power your way through any groups of enemies. Almost every fight takes patience and planning. Even retreating to regroup is a legit tactic, as you still get experience points for escaping and any damage you deal is permanent.
Fights can get pretty varied and intense between the six main enemy types (with a few upgraded recolors of each), but it never feels too hardcore. This game definitely benefits from having a coordinated team, but I spent most of my time for this review playing alone, and it definitely didn’t feel impossible.
The interesting thing about the missions is most of them are about finding things, with combat as a secondary factor. Avalanche didn’t design them around waypoint markers, either. If you turn on point-of-interest markers they only appear when you’re pretty close to an objective; you still have to figure out where you’re generally supposed to go based on mission descriptions. Turning markers off takes this further. In one early mission, you have to investigate the houses of bunker administrators in a small town. You could proceed until the waypoints clue you in, or you could read the administrators’ names in a document and then read the nameplates on the mailboxes of every house in the town. Other missions might involve reading street names and finding addresses.
The main progression path is about discovering the locations of bunkers, each one revealing a new set of missions. It only offers scant clues on where they are, and I did just fine generally intuiting where they might be. This compliments the quiet nature of the game’s world. There are no cutscenes, no voices in your ear to tell you what’s going on other than recorded messages. Generation Zero is almost like Dark Souls in how it wants players to put the story together themselves with scant details in the scenery. Avalanche really wants players to feel like they’re investigating this large world.
That’s the thing though. Generation Zero has a world map probably comparable to one of Ubisoft’s Far Cry games (but with no vehicles, so it actually feels bigger), but that indie budget forces it to spread a much smaller pool of art assets across that world. You spend a lot of time searching a lot of houses and bunkers that look almost identical. I got lost in some of the bunkers because of how similar the rooms and hallways look. And those bunkers are an odd design choice. They’re massive and labyrinthine enough to make sense as essentially RPG dungeons, but only occasionally contain tiny annoyance enemies. Most of them are just room after room of loot. Having another enemy type to fight indoors could have added a lot.
Avalanche’s Apex Engine looks terrific in Generation Zero though, and they nailed the retro-futurist Sweden aesthetic. Exploring desolate highways and forested mountains as herds of robots march in the distant fields looks really picturesque. This continues and changes as the world shifts from farmlands to suburbs and apartment complexes. DayZ’s Chernarus is the closest comparison.
Other than the repeated art assets, the only thing that really nags me about Generation Zero is its interface feels really rough at launch, mostly the inventory system. I can maybe understand having to go into the inventory to switch ammo types, but items will also often not stack when they should, and new items never stack on top of what’s in your quick slots. It’s missing a lot of quality-of-life features in general.
Some quests also get bugged, and the game doesn’t seem to know how to react when players complete the requirements for quests before activating those quests. I essentially ended up completing an early quest twice. Generation Zero has a fair bit of jank but those are the only things that actually hurt the experience.
Generation Zero is more or less what I expected from a big game studio doing its own indie project – a rough-but-unique mix of open-world game features. I love that it asks players to actually pay attention to its world instead of keeping them distracted with constant waypoint markers. And the tactical combat system really works, hitting an interesting middle ground between mainstream and hardcore.
[Reviewed on PC]