Sweden after crisis is suddenly a popular setting in games. Last December we got the rather excellent Mutant Year Zero where a group of armed mutants tried to survive in a post-apocalyptic Sweden. And now comes Generation Zero, sort of a take on the 80’s cult film Red Dawn with a bunch of teenagers getting back from a vacation only to find their homes in a rural Sweden taken over by machine invaders. The Swedish developer Avalanche Studios is best known for its Just Cause series and Mad Max license game, not forgetting the upcoming Rage 2. Generation Zero, however, is not a blast ’em up but rather, a surprisingly low-key first-person co-op shooter in a desolate, plaintive Sweden basking in beautiful Autumn colors.
The game takes place in 1989, and the recent history of Sweden is rewritten for dramatic purposes. In reality, Sweden has no compulsory military service and the military budget is moderate. In Generation Zero, every Swede, from teenagers to pensioners, are trained to take up arms in a case of conflict, and the military services take a lion’s share of the state budget. It’s a convenient excuse for why there’s ammunition laying around all over the place from bus stops to sport club dressing rooms to abandoned Volvos by the road, and why the game’s teenagers can fight back. Speaking of them, the player picks up their character from ten boys or ten girls of different racial origins and decks them up from a selection of outfits appropriate to the decade. And off they are whisked to a deserted Swedish countryside where the only sign of other people is answering machine messages, other recordings and written messages, all piecing together a chain of events that needs to be unraveled. What are these invading machines? Alien lifeforms or a vanguard of a hostile nation? Where have the people been taken to?
The basics of the game are simple. It’s just you and your guns. Even though there’s a skill tree that gets unlocked by the experience you gain, it doesn’t make you an action hero that can do everything from karate to tinkering. There are no systems upon systems unlike in, say, Fallout 76, which otherwise is pretty similar to Generation Zero. Both games have you loot everything you can in a vast, empty open world but here, you don’t craft, repair or manage anything as all loot is ready as such (with the exception of weapon mods you attach to guns). Inventory management can be clumsy, though. For starters, it’s persistently too limited (although it can be expanded with appropriate skills) and items don’t always stack automatically like they should so you need to manually fiddle with them to free up valuable space. Apparel doesn’t take up inventory space, though, so you can amass a collection of threads to dress up your character with. It’s not all for show as clothing can have defensive values.
You won’t take back areas, build up defenses or establish settlements, either. You just wonder about the landscape, unlock safe houses like churches, barns or military bases along the way that you can fast travel between, and follow a trail of vague missions. You have to do most of the navigation by spotting clues about whereabouts of key locations from tapes and documents and compare them to the map. Quest markers appear only in the near vicinity of quest objects and even then, only if you have tracked the said quest. There are no quest givers or people to interact with, telling you what to do and bossing you around. Even though the game feeds you the missions to do, they can be seen as person-centric; what your character thinks she needs to do to find the people and solve the mystery. Too bad she’s a silent protagonist so there’s no real incentive given as to why something needs to be done. As such, missions aren’t necessarily goal-oriented but more happening by a chance. More often than not it’s unclear why you need to do what you’re doing in any given situation and sometimes, you just happen by a right spot to advance the mission, with a quick update of it. Still, the missions are all that advance the game as there are no side activities to spend time with.
The game doesn’t bolster its multiplayer component too much and often, it makes little sense to join online session because the mission progress is registered only to the host. Of course, that’s due not to skip content and leech at the expense of up to three other players. So, it’s better to host a game yourself to gain added firepower to fend off more powerful machines. Generation Zero is perfectly soloable, though, as the action involves more tactical thinking than straight-up shooting you’d most likely to lose in a co-op game, too. The enemies can be distracted with flares and radios to get a jump on them, or you can toss oil canisters and shoot after them for some environmental destruction. It’s always best to put something between you and the enemy, pop out to take shots at it and strafe back to cover. I must admit, I usually don’t enjoy first-person games that much but here, the gameplay is so simple that it just felt good to challenge the menacing robots, read their movement, bait them and surprise them with a clever positioning. All the same, not too many games have had me screaming in panic when I’m simply outnumbered and forced to retreat to a terrace with machines swarming all around the place and bullets are decreasing by each desperate shot. The enemy AI can be pretty relentless, with effective sounds like whirring of hydraulic joints adding to the scariness.
A big help in managing the flow of action is a handy self-revive - as long as you have adrenaline shots in the inventory to do it, that is. You can even exploit it to a certain degree as you resurrect instantly in the exact spot you were downed at, albeit with a portion of health left, but otherwise all ready to carry on the action where you were left off. When adrenaline shots run out, you spawn at the safe house of your choice where you can always replenish adrenaline stock, ammunition and other equipment. Heck, you can exploit even that by jumping from a safe house to another and hoard items that respawn in them before continuing with the mission.
Absolutely the best part of the game is its enchanting milieu. Of course, as a Finnish I’m partial to it because Finland is Sweden’s neighboring country and we share pretty similar landscape and settlements. As an 80’s kid, these are the settings I spent my childhood vacations in, a countryside with barns, fields, forests, and small villages (luckily, there were no scary robots around!). Technically, Generation Zero might not be up to par with the likes of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (there’s nasty slowdown in busy set-pieces) but it more than makes up for it with palpable atmosphere enchanted with dynamic time of day, weather effects and absolutely beautiful environmental lighting that illuminates the charming views of the late 80’s Sweden in an exquisite manner. Forests live and breathe and beaches by the sea look like straight from a postcard. Graphical assets in the settlements are boxy and naive and recycled to no end but they make everything look crisp and self-explanatory. As a rare treat for console games, the point of view can be adjusted, opening up the horizon for a better grasp of happenings around.
Still, I must admit that Generation Zero is a strange bird indeed. It’s not bombastic or sexy in any way, and it possesses absolutely nothing superfluous to sell itself with. It’s downplayed and low-key in everything that matters and even though that’s a big part of its rugged charm, I can fully understand if some players feel like they’re just wasting their time wandering aimlessly around rural Sweden where you can hike for miles (you can’t ride bicycles or drive cars left behind, they are just props) without anything substantial happening. I’m also fully aware that the game was mauled in the media so I, too, approached it like it was yesterday’s turkey. But much to my surprise, I found myself harking back to its nostalgic world and simple values whenever I had to take a break from it. And that’s just it. You just can’t give only a couple of hours to the game and then declare your verdict. It needs to grow on you, became a world away from you where you want to go back to, find the people who are missing and get rid of those pesky robots and trace the mystery to its roots. Thus, Generation Zero is oddly rewarding in its casual and non-commercial integrity.
The game could use a meatier narrative structure because as it is, all it offers are breadcrumbs of its prevailing mystery that you have to find and pick up yourself. There’s not even a proper intro, just plain text laying out the premise. But that just goes on to tell how Generation Zero is uncompromisingly its own kind, pragmatic old school shooter that doesn’t try to flirt with false promises. It’s a case of what you see is what you get. And it’s oh, so very Swedish. For a full immersion, all documents and recordings are in native Swedish and only subtitled in English. So, I imagine it might just be a tad difficult for anyone else than Scandinavian like me to get as excited about the game than I did. Even then, maybe I’m just a bit weird!
The nostalgia is strong in Generation Zero, both in and outside, and Avalanche Studios has more or less successfully bet on it. It worked for me even though I know it won’t necessarily work for everyone. Still, if you’re looking for something that does considerably less than most of those shiny games out there but at the same time has more integrity while doing so, Generation Zero might just be up your alley, although it’s a true niche title if there ever was one. To sum the game up, it’s like an 80’s Volvo; boxy but good.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.