When it comes to developer Avalanche Studios, they tend to stick with a formula and masterfully iterate on it. Between four different Just Cause games and a Mad Max video game adaptation, they’ve made it clear that they know how to do blockbuster open-world sandbox action right. You don’t see them stray from that style too often – the craziness of Just Cause can be seen infused in Rage 2, for example – but when they do, it’s certainly worth paying attention to. Next year they’ll be taking a major departure from their regular output with Generation Zero, a co-op FPS with dynamic enemies and loot aplenty. Stefan and I got to drop into the closed beta for a bit on the Sunday Streaming Hour, and it was a pretty promising experience.
In late 80’s Sweden, a group of teens has returned to their hometown from an island excursion to find the inhabitants completely gone. Among the disheveled homes and abandoned cars, the only things living in the town now are mysterious killer robots. Generation Zero sets you up with this promising narrative premise, but in the hour or two we spent with the beta, it was never built upon with cutscenes or radio conversations. Instead it’s the environment that hints on the state of the world and the mystery of the machines. Abandoned test facilities and scrawled notes give you an idea of what’s going on, of a grand evacuation as the robots emerge, but you don’t get a clear answer this early on.
This unguided, exploration-focused approach to storytelling extends into the gameplay as well. While the game starts you off with a brief guided tutorial mission for the sake of teaching you how to loot and shoot, you’re very quickly left to explore the town for further objectives. Wander down the dimly-lit road and you’ll encounter a car with a note in it or a house with a…note in it. Notes like these give you new missions to pursue, from locating a new safe-house to tracking down a hidden gun.
You won’t be given a precise map marker leading you to your destination though. If a mission asks you to find the church, you’ll have to use road signs and the world map to piece together the potential location of the church. It was a little off-putting at first, but I soon find myself appreciating this method of quest design. Encouraging the player to explore the world and keep note of landmarks and signage was a great way to further immerse me into the game. Unfortunately, a mission asking me to locate a bomb shelter in a town of nearly two dozen homes left me more aggravated than immersed.
While you’re tracking down buildings and hiking across the island, you’ll encounter deadly robots that want nothing more than to shoot you all over. In our time with the beta, we mostly fought the same small, dog-like variants, but the full game promises different types of enemies, as well as larger boss enemies who will stay damaged and remember your battles if you don’t finish them off.
Most of my fun in the beta came from the pure act of shooting these mechanical menaces. The gunplay feels perfectly designed to mimic the swaying inaccuracy of an untrained teen, while still having enough weight and consistency that I was never missing shots I had properly lined up. The enemy AI was also well-designed, with robots attempting to flank, switching between long-ranged machine gun fire and short-ranged tackling, and even getting distracted by fireworks and radios we frequently tossed in their direction.
Defeated bots can be looted, but they only ever seemed to have gun ammo on them. You can get more loot from hidden caches or abandoned backpacks, but you won’t be looting legendary guns with randomized stats. Most of the loot I found consisted of ammo, medical items, or incredibly hilarious throwables like mini fireworks and loud boom boxes. You’ll also be finding a variety of cosmetics to customize your character with, and a good amount of my fun in the beta came from finding pretty new jackets or a slick new watch.
A lot of the visuals in Generation Zero are stunningly gorgeous, from the rising sun bouncing off the trees to the foggy night-air being diffused by car headlights. Robots explode with a satisfyingly crunchy boom and a show of electric discharges, and it was beautiful every time I saw it. The visual presentation is matched in quality by the audio. Guns sound loud and chunky, and the ominous yet subtle synth soundtrack perfectly complemented every moment in the game.
Of course, this being an early feeling closed beta, there’s a lot that feels unfinished. We struggled to get multiplayer to work, and a strange kind of lag was very real when we did – Avalanche don’t exactly have much experience with multiplayer in their games and it showed. Those quests need more panache to how they’re delivered, even if the intent is to let four people loose to create havoc, and the AI often felt like it couldn’t decide between two courses of action. There was also a bad case of cutting and pasting, more than just believably similar houses in a town, and going right down to a the same toilet being tucked into the same corner of several different barns.
Generation Zero is a promising title in a lot of ways, and it might just be shaping up to be the co-op hit of 2019. It had some rocky moments, but it’s still a beta right now and Generation Zero is polished and impressive in a lot of other ways. It’s also far from showing its full hand, with tricks like robot permanence coming into play across a persistent world. This is a game where I’m now very interesting to see how the full release pans out.