The year is 1989 and killer robots have invaded the Swedish countryside. This is the undeniably unique premise of Generation Zero, an open world shooter from Just Cause developer Avalanche. But this is a smaller production than we're used to from the studio. The map is massive, because Avalanche maps always are, but the game itself is a surprisingly lean affair.
You play as one of several silly 1980s archetypes: punk, jock, nerd, and so on. You have a few loose goals including finding out why everyone is missing, locating survivors, and uncovering the truth behind the invasion. But you're never really steered down one particular path. You can make your own goals and explore at your own pace, either alone or with three other players.
Scattered across the map are towns, farms, bunkers, and more exotic locations including a military base. Here you'll find groups of roving robots to kill and loot to scavenge. Occasionally you'll pick up missions, which are rarely more complicated than finding a place and looting it. But I do like how there are no objective markers on the map. You have to read clues and engage with the environment to find what you're looking for. The direction an abandoned car is facing in might point towards a place worth looting, for instance. It's a nice way of encouraging exploration without leading you around too much.
But that's about the size of the game: walking from location to location, battling machines, and collecting loot. Sometimes you'll find an audio log or a document that'll fill in some of the purposefully opaque storyline. But mostly it's just you, a subtle synth soundtrack, the wind blowing through the trees, and the eerie metallic screech when a robot spots you. It's a very slight game, almost feeling like an Early Access release at times. But there is something strangely compelling, and very Swedish, about its minimalism.
The world is beautifully realised, particularly the contrast of menacing sci-fi robots with pastoral Scandinavian scenery. Simon Stålenhag fans will love it. The dynamic weather and day/night cycle constantly shift the atmosphere around you, from hazy golden sunsets to midnight lightning storms. And as you explore you'll encounter leafy forests, rugged coastlines, quaint villages, and rolling farmland—all corrupted by the presence of those sinister machines who wander the landscape searching for flesh to tenderise.
Some machines scamper around on all-fours like one of those Boston Dynamics robots gone horribly wrong. Others are the size of a truck, launching rockets at the slightest provocation. There are six in total, each with their own distinctive weapons, behaviour, and weaknesses. The Hunter is the scariest: a tenacious bipedal giant with a blade on one arm and a cannon on the other. You can fight most of them on your own, but co-op is essential for taking down larger targets such as the terrifying, and appropriately named, Tank.
Alone, Generation Zero is an incredibly tense, almost stealth-like experience. I found myself mostly sneaking past enemies, hiding in the trees waiting for patrols to stomp past or using gadgets to distract them. Throwing flares, fireworks, and boomboxes (it's the '80s remember) will lure curious robots away, giving you a moment to slip past undetected. I enjoyed picking a random direction and trekking across the map, avoiding robot patrols, and slipping into random villages to stock up on supplies, weapons, and ammo.
The rich, evocative atmosphere of the world is really engaging at times, but it falls apart somewhat when you become aware of the sheer number of reused assets. Finding a new town or farm should be an exciting moment, but they're all made up of the same handful of identical houses and barns. I understand that Generation Zero was developed by a small team, but seeing the same locations copy/pasted dozens of times feels disappointingly cheap, and ultimately harms the exploration aspect of the game.
With friends you can be a lot more adventurous, tackling groups of robots head-on, creating tactics on the fly. In one session I climbed a church steeple with a sniper rifle and a friend used flares to lure enemies into my line of fire. Having people to speak to also makes those long hikes across the map more entertaining. But the game's limited content, and a general lack of interesting systems to experiment with, means even multiplayer starts to feel dull and aimless. We never managed to play for more than an hour at a time before boredom began to creep in, which is a pretty big problem.
Generation Zero isn't very good, but I do keep coming back to it. There's something about that world that makes me want to spend time there, even if all I'm doing is killing robots and picking up the same old loot from the same old houses, over and over again, forever. With updates it has the potential to mutate into something far more interesting, but for now it's an impressive setting with a slight and uninspired shooter squeezed rather clumsily into it. But still: killer robots invading Sweden. What a premise.