Generation Zero review - an atmospheric, but rather empty, open world
All for nought.
Something's gone horribly wrong here.
You can't put your finger on it, at least not at first. The world looks just as it should do (or at least how I imagine it should, having never experienced Sweden in the lurid fluorescent glow of the 1980s). Rows of homes stand empty, yes, and meals wait expectantly on kitchen tables as the TV blasts static from the cosy lounge, but the lights are still on, answerphones still flash with new messages, and while there's nobody home, at least not for now, whoever put that book down thought they would be right back.
No-one puts down an open book if they don't think they'll be right back.
At first, creeping through these empty buildings - buildings still powered, buildings with groceries and soft furnishings and all the trappings movies have taught us don't exist after apocalypses of any kind - feels grossly intrusive. Then you spot it though: the silent signs of a struggle. An overturned chair. A weapons box secreted away in the garage. Generation Zero isn't a game that swamps you with exposition, but it's at its best in its opening hours when you're piecing together those signs of wrongness and weaving your own distressing interpretation of what might have occurred here. Whatever happened almost left no trace. It seems no-one had time to prepare, let alone escape.
Later, when you tire of the identikit homes and the looting and the monstrously one-sided encounters, you'll realise how little else this game has to tell you. It wouldn't be a problem if the game telegraphed this information via environmental storytelling to help the player unravel a tale organically, but while Generation Zero has a killer premise it doesn't have much of a story, and no amount of rooting through abandoned homes and scouring for collectables will pack much meat onto the bones of this light-touch tale.
The first time I encountered a group of Generation Zero's frightening metallic foes they overwhelmed me completely. The game had already intimated that sometimes it was better to flee than fight but they'd already spotted me, forcing me to return fire. My sole, meagre weapon - a dilapidated handgun with about three and a half bullets - was astonishingly ineffective, and I didn't have the stamina nor speed to outpace them. The sound of the macabre machines - the alien shriek of metal limbs and pumping hydraulics - is one of the most frightening, disorientating things I've ever heard, particularly when those unsettling sounds play against Generation Zero's throbbing industrial soundtrack.
Trouble is, no matter how well-equipped you think you might be, any fight against these AI antagonists can sour in seconds. I spend most of the time feeling grossly underpowered, and never able to take on Zero's killer robots with anything close to confidence. This isn't a criticism exactly as it taught me to carefully pick my battles - especially outdoors - but it means combat and exploration will be a challenge for anyone hoping to meander through this world alone. I'm told the difficulty and/or number of foes doesn't scale with the numbers of players taking part, so anyone attempting Generation Zero in anything less than a four-person squad will be disadvantaged from the start - not advisable, really, particularly when you factor in the exceptional AI and furious aggression of the killer bots.
These things are smart, you see; smart, and hellbent on destroying you. Even when you think you're safe, you're probably not. At the beginning of the game, whilst absently exploring a church, the "uh-oh-you've-been-spotted" detection meter appeared on my screen, first white, then a chilling amber, and finally morphing into the no-nonsense blood-red that - I'd already learned the hard way - meant death was imminent. Thing is, I was safely ensconced indoors so I couldn't work out what the hell was looking at me, nor where it was. I panicked. Could these things come indoors? Do they have some kind of x-ray vision or something? Finally, cowering majestically behind a row of pews, I heard it beyond the wall behind me - Scuttle. Silence. Scuttle. Silence - and I realised it could track me via the sound of my movements, too.
This makes Generation Zero's automated antagonists terrifying and terrifyingly brilliant in equal measure. Just as soon as you get used to the pace and patterns of one type of opponent, the game will lob in another variant. Later, they'll become breathlessly bold and hideously difficult to topple, and how the hell anyone's supposed to progress without a co-op team to share the strain I have no idea. Yes, there are lures that can help the lone wolf sneak around the back for a cheeky punt at a big foe's armour, but every encounter - large or small - feels like a one-sided slog, and the spoils rarely worth the effort. Sometimes, inexplicably, enemies could shoot and damage me through walls. Sometimes, they "saw" me when I'm crouched and unmoving in a windowless room. It's not good enough, nor fair when the combat is already so perilously stacked against you.
Yet the sophistication of Generation Zero's mechanical monsters sits at odds with its flat, formless world. Yes, there's dynamic weather and day/night cycles, but they add little to the gameplay and nothing to the threadbare story. I'm tired of looting the same loose collection of copy-and-pasted homes and frustrated that my health and ammo supplies are routinely decimated by unplanned run-ins with these furious machines. It's a huge, expansive playground - one that faintly reminds me of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' Erangel - but despite its plentiful villages, there's little to do here beyond being battered by roaming robots. No amount of mindless looting and ooh-cool-80s vanity items can prop up a game that ships without cinematics, story, or any semblance of a single-player campaign. Shoe-horning in a skill tree and collectables isn't enough to re-balance this off-kilter experience.
Yes, Generation Zero may be a riot with a couple of pals (even though they don't get to keep any of their hard-earned progress if playing in your world, and vice versa). But despite its broody atmosphere and brutal combat sequences, Generation Zero is just another open-world FPS without the content needed to meaningfully sustain - and reward - its players.