Generation Zero review: Broken, empty and unfinished

Credit: Avalanche Studios

The Pitch

The pitch for Avalanche Studio’s Generation Zero is an incredibly compelling. However, it isn’t something you can easily put into words. I mean, I could totally describe it to you - and am going to below - but the core appeal of Generation Zero is less of a concept and more of a vibe. An inkling of a feeling. A trailer.

That trailer, seen above, represents Generation Zero in its purest manifestation - and if you watch it through to the end, you’ve pretty much seen all this game has to offer.

Set in an alternate version of the 1980s where Sweden was invaded by a robot defence system gone rogue, you - and up to three friends - take on the role of plucky teens fighting back against Scandenavia’s mechanical oppressors.

That premise, and the rich atmosphere that comes wrapped around it, are killer. Everything else? Well, Generation Zero isn’t the first game to disappoint me this year - but it’s a strong contender for the most disappointing game I’ve played this year, and a glimpse into what the worst case scenario for Fallout 76 could have looked like.

Tales from the Loot

Credit: Avalanche Studios

As suggested, the setup here is pretty straightforward. And for all its mistakes, Generation Zero doesn’t waste much time.

Upon booting up the game, you’ll get to create your own character. Instead of classes like soldier or scout, you’ll be choosing between have 80s archetypes like Biker, Jock, etc. Your choices during character creation here are mostly aesthetic but, as your progress further into  the game’s eerily quiet version of post-apocalyptic Sweden, eventually your characters looks will become more and more tied to passive stat bonuses.

Honestly, it feels like a bizarre amount of work has gone into this side of the game. Messing around with my wannabe punk’s look was an easy highlight of my time with this game. And in addition to new jackets, shoes and jeans, exploration in Generation Zero also yields opportunities to scavenge more-practical supplies like ammo and grenades.

You’ll need these because, as you search for loot, you’ll inevitably run afoul of the robotic invaders that have brought Sweden to ruin.

But rather than be beholden to the shape and form of their creators, the robots you’ll be fighting in Generation Zero pull their cues from Boston Dynamics. If you’re thinking about that one monochrome episode of Black Mirror, you’ve got the right idea.

These robotic canines make for a really interesting foe on paper. The problem is that, in reality, repetition and a lack of variety in enemy and encounter design quickly drains them of any allure.

The first time you do fight off one of Generation Zero’s robot dogs, it’s thrilling. The first time you encounter a pack of robot dogs, it’s awesome. The fourth, fifth, tenth and twentieth times? Not so much.

Before long, the seams show. Enemies begin to move in a way that’s a little too predictable. They behave in a way that you’d expect robot dogs to behave but not in a way that yields much in the way of interesting gameplay. There are several flavors of enemy that Generation Zero throws at you. And while each has a specific weak-point, most of the time you’ll just be blasting away at them until they go down.

Credit: Avalanche Studios

It doesn’t help that the game seems to lack any penalty for dying. If you run out of health, you get knocked down - and can just pick yourself back up again? It’s unclear whether this is a bug or intentional - but once you encounter it, it’s hard to forget or forgive just how flimsy the stakes here are.

Generation Zero does support some basic stealth gameplay - but more in the sense that you can bypass enemies rather than set traps or ambush them. Like many aspects of Generation Zero, this vector of the experience feels really shallow and underdeveloped.

Ones and Zeroes

Credit: Avalanche Studios

Generation Zero reminded me a lot of We Happy Few, and not in a good way. The game is built around this wide-open world but doesn’t really know how to fill or use that space in a way that’s engaging or interesting to the player. For the most part, the role that the game’s sprawling rural landscapes play is one of a silent backdrop. Again, the vibe this emptiness creates is sometimes really compelling but if we’re gonna call it like it is: Generation Zero is a game with a sweet setting but sweet-all happening in it.

There’s a similar lack of gravitas and grounding to the progression systems in Generation Zero. You can earn experience and unlock new abilities on a skill tree over time but since the game lacks any sort of concrete story missions or progression, you’re mostly just grinding away at it - one robot dog at a time. It all feels a little pointless - and none of it is particularly fun or rewarding.

There are loosely-narrative driven side missions but they’re very bare bones in their presentation. There are no other living characters in the world aside from yourself. You could generously call it a cross between Left 4 Dead and Horizon Zero Dawn but there’s little to be generous about here.

Credit: Avalanche Studios

And even when you do reach them, the rewards for completing quests, exploration and defeating enemies in Generation Zero aren’t even particularly satisfying.  For the most part, they’re statistical and incremental. Reload a little faster. Do a little bit of extra damage with rifles. That sort of thing.

Generation Zero doesn’t do much do push you forward through it and it does even less when it comes to giving you things to look forward to.

The Bottom Line

You can rope in a few friends and play Generation Zero cooperatively but it feels like more of a misery loves company situation than anything else. There are games that are half baked. This one doesn’t even feel like it made it to the oven. I honestly hope that Avalanche commit to improving this game via post-launch updates because, right now, it feels like you could watch the trailer for this game and have more fun than the experience of actually playing it.

Generation Zero is ambitious but deeply flawed in a way that feels almost impossible to look past. It’s at times visually-striking and conceptually-endearing but all too often those qualities are stifled by the myriad ways in which the game feels broken, empty and unfinished.

Credit: Avalanche Studios

Generation Zero is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4.

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Fergus Halliday
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