I rummage through a backpack in an abandoned vehicle, “borrowing” a handful of bullets and a flare. After looting anything of worth, I move on. My grip squeezes tighter around my pistol, anticipating threats around every corner. Low-level 80’s music–bedded with a synthesizer – plays ambiently in the background. As I shuffle through a forest intent to reach my map marker, I manage my inventory, preparing for battle. I head West, never wavering or making convoluted navigational decisions. My character comes to a clearing that looks familiar, have I been before? Not possible, I’ve walked a straight line since I set out in search of life. Everything just looks the same. Having survived an attack from a robot with animal-like qualities, I keep my eyes peeled. Five minutes tick away, then ten, now twelve. Tension quickly gives way to boredom. I pray for an attack, anything to break up the mundane. That, in a nutshell, is the Generation Zero experience: looting, inventory management, extensive roaming, and glitch-heavy battles against robots. Rinse and repeat. While there is an inkling of potential, the late 1980’s setting – and the gameplay – are anachronistic.
Generation Zero is set in an alternate version of Sweden where giant robots with the visage of animals have ravaged a rural land. Players fill the shoes of teenagers in 1989, subjected to discovering the mysteries of a Swedish island. After having chosen your archetype (pulled from every 80’s movie ever made), you are left to roam the land to pick apart the narrative threads for yourself. With no adults left in sight, you and your potential co-op allies must find the whereabouts of the island’s inhabitants, discover the source of the robots, and bring the anarchy to an abrupt end. Good luck with that.
To say there is a minimal story here is an understatement. The game introduces readers to this world via scrolling text, even lacking the polish of dynamic music to support the narrative on screen. You may be prone to think the ambiguity is intentional, but it conveys a lack of polish instead. The majority of the story is discovered via notes and letters from the missing. Initially, the records provide a sense of mystery, but once you log more hours into the game, you’ll quickly realize it’s more of a shortcut to direct you from point A to B (sloppily I might add).
Throughout my time with Generation Zero glitching ruined the experience. The game malfunctioned on countless occasions. I lost progress three times while managing my inventory, losing hours of leveling up and location placements on my map. At one point, I literally flew through the air and died upon impact without warning. Yet, this is only the beginning of my troubles.
One of the few redeeming qualities in Generation Zero is the lush countryside Sweden has to offer. The woodland setting is beautiful but will quickly give way to a “been there done that” feeling after slogging for miles before reaching another town or building. Reaching vestiges of civilization only exacerbates the tedium inherent to the game. Interiors lack detail, and the majority of homes are two levels of the same layouts you come across time and time again. Apparently, everyone in the 1980’s Sweden loves the same rock band and decides to hang their posters on their walls. The intention is to open the world for discovery, but everything is barren, all but eliminating any incentive to unlock the map. Players will quickly fill their inventory space and come across the same items with little in the way of variety. Discovery isn’t a boon; it is a chore. The only thing that breaks up the looting and roaming are battles with your robotic rivals, which feels equally as rare.
Combat in Generation Zero is a test of patience, for all the wrong reasons. Guns are limited in scope; handguns, shotguns, rifles, and a few automatic weapons are at your disposal. However, the difference between a medium class weapon and a higher-class weapon aren’t visually represented. If you don’t check the stats you wouldn’t have a clue; fire rates, aiming accuracy, and efficiency from one weapon tier to the next is nearly indiscernible. Combat can be tedious, often taking one of two roots, drawn-out battles where players will waste ammo or manipulating AI in boring fashion. Enemies spawn at random paces; one battle may end when two robots are finished off, another may take ten; consistency isn’t Generation Zero’s strong suit. Once I realized how to manipulate the AI, I just found a good sniping spot and picked off wave after wave of enemies. Support items are meant to aid in your battles. Flares can either draw the enemy’s attention or confuse their targeting systems; the noise from boom boxes can bait them to a point of interest to lure them into an ambush. If only the system worked.
Bugs are a detriment to any joy combat may have held. At some points, enemies were able to fire through walls. Shutting doors behind you seems like a sound strategy until a robot has inexplicably made its way inside. The game touts stealth as an option, but that remains unpredictable as well. Staying indoors until the coast is clear works only half the time, the other half? Robots can target me while behind cover.
Inventory management is equally as stressful. Players are provided a series of slots to move around as they wish. Outside of the standard inventory space are two heavy weapon slots, a sidearm slot, and four mapped to the direction pad for quick access. In theory, this would be fine, but let’s not forget those glitches. Items stack in numerically unsound ways. For example, med kits can stack up to 20 in a slot, yet another slot fills up with 12. At one point I applied a med kit to the left d-pad, only the game wouldn’t let me use it, and medkits can’t be applied in the inventory screen. I simply couldn’t heal. If that isn’t bad enough, when one stack item runs empty, players must manually take put another stack into the d-pad through the menu. Combat doesn’t stop while you navigate the menus leading to needless deaths because of poor game mechanics.
Replacing an old weapon for a new one requires instructions. Players must free up space in their standard inventory by dropping two items (most guns take two slots), then move the weapon from a gun slot into the standard inventory slot, followed by removing any attachments that gun has, ensuring you have space for said attachments (still with me?). Finally, you can drop the weapon from your inventory in the form a backpack with items, pick up the new weapon (which takes an inventory slot), and move the gun from an inventory slot into a weapon slot. If I’ve lost you on that, don’t feel bad, it was intended to convey the convoluted system the game has to offer.
Leveling up makes things more comfortable, but only slightly. With each level gained you earn one point to allocate to a series of skills like speedier weapon reloads, increased carrying capacity, and lock picking. Unfortunately, the skills are tiered in a way that forces players to spend skill points on an undesirable ability before being able to reach the skill they wanted in the first place.
At some points in the game, the aid of allies in the form of co-op players will become necessary to take on more powerful enemies. I searched for posts to find anyone looking for someone to join their squad, only 16 posts were available, 16. I decided to look for teammates during a time of day with more traffic, evening on the weekend, the number swelled to a whopping 19 posts. After some time, I came across two fellow gamers willing to grind with me through this empty 80’s throwback. Through clever use of our weapons and inventory, battles that were a struggle in singles play become an amusing game in testing the game’s parameters. An ally would draw a robots attention with a boom box, as I take pot shots with my gun. The robot is on me now, but a well-thrown flare sends it careening in another direction. Our team unloads on the titan. A second flare confuses its systems all but freeing us up to let loose on the machine. However, this joyous anecdote isn’t to be confused, the fun we had came from a group of people playing together and enjoying one another’s company (digitally that is). Any game with others has the possibility of fun. The delight quickly vanished after the battle was won and the realization that a long, mind-numbing trek lay ahead of us.
Sadly, any potential Generation Zero has is quickly overtaken by poor gameplay, a glitch-heavy engine, and little to no incentive to keep coming back. I am hard pressed to provide a reason why players should invest their time into Generation Zero. There are small points of value, but they are far and few between. As I poured hours into the game, one thought kept re-emerging in my mind; this game feels outdated. Generation Zero should be left in the same place its narrative is set, the past.