Generation Zero review: a stylish but sterile sci-fi shooter

Our US chums reviewed Generation Zero on PS4, which couldn't live up to its beautiful imagery...

If you’ve seen the trailers, full of footage of rusting robots stalking through farmland, you’ve probably been keen to get your hands on Generation Zero, Avalanche Studio’s experiment in bringing moody sci-fi to their native Sweden, all wrapped up in an ’80s aesthetic.

It’s a wonderful pitch, but once you start playing, that wonder turns to tedium quickly. Reviewing games is always a race against the clock, and it didn’t help in this case that a bug made it very difficult to escape 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, the desire to like this game remains strong, but it’s just not very good.

First, the good: the ’80s styling is delightful, the costumes are fun, the collectables 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 creep up on you, is 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. And yet, while the world is often stunning, the textures on the characters look like they haven’t popped in 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 teammate asked a question that it was difficult to answer: 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 it’s impossible to tell the difference is illustrative.

The game’s weapons can be frustrating, too, with some items that must be attached 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. But, to find a positive, 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 speciality at a time, and while it would take an unappealing amount of grinding to get there, the idea of hunting with these high-level perks and a coordinated team sounds great on paper.

You gain experience for escaping a fight, which 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.

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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, as well, making for tense and chaotic encounters whenever you try to rush an enemy instead of hanging back.

Fighting the Hunter, one of the bigger bots, forces you to strategize and try to lay traps using gasoline cans and noisy radios – but then, in our playthrough, when team arrived at its location for a showdown, the Hunter just wasn’t there anymore. This – a few minutes of fun, many more minutes of frustration, and then a glitch – seems to be a cyclical experience when you’re playing Generation Zero.

Solo players won’t find much enjoyment in the game, either, we’d wager. 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. 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?

There isn’t enough story in the first few hours of play to build on the ideas introduced in that opening text. Instead, it is followed by a loose explanation for why the game’s players and civilians are armed and trained for war. And if you’re expecting to know anything about your character’s personal stake in the story, you’ll want to adjust those expectations now.

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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. It’s hard to trust that, anywhere in that map, there is a sense of wonder to the game’s repetitive verbs (shoot, heal, distract). 

Generation Zero feels like walking through your local woods as a kid, looking for adventure. For a while, you’re lost in the best way, with the sun beautiful in the trees and the suggestion of dangerous isolation just making it feel more like an adventure. But then you reach a familiar patch of greenery, and you bump into your neighbour, and suddenly the world is mundane again, and the journey never really brought you anywhere spectacular.


Generation Zero is out now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.