Swedish developer Avalanche Studios, best known for the joyfully explosive Just Cause series, has given us a first look at something that hits a bit closer to home for them. Generation Zero is a co-op, open world, first person shooter set in a robot invasion of the Swedish countryside during the 1980s, when and where most of the developers grew up (sans robots, of course). Living out their childhood fantasies, you play as scrappy young adults in a guerrilla war to take back their country from the mysterious machines that have taken over.
Although developed in partnership with Microsoft’s ID@Xbox indie game incubator, Generation Zero also marks Avalanche’s turn toward self-publishing, leveraging the studios AAA experience into a more personal project. We recently got to see a pre-alpha build of the game in action at E3 2018, played by two off the developers in co-op. Co-op or not, post-apocalyptic open world shooters are a dime a dozen these days, Generation Zero stood out to us for its more grounded and personal setting and more of a focus on atmosphere and storytelling than strictly combat.
At the start of Generation Zero, you return from a vacation by boat when you are attacked and sunk off the coast. On making your way to the shore, you soon discover that something is terribly wrong: People are missing, houses are unlocked, cars have been abandoned on the side of the road. Instead of people, you find the countryside swarming with mysterious robots that attack people on sight.
The section we saw was early on, with two players cautiously making their way through the beautiful Swedish countryside. Avalanche is building Generation Zero using Avalanche’s in-house Apex Engine, and the world looks beautiful in a sort of understated, Scandinavian way.
They encountered their first machine by a car at the side of the road an industrial-looking quadruped called a “runner,” which roughly resembled a large dog. Armed with simple handguns, the two quickly took it out with a few shots to the head, and scavenged it for parts –killing robots is the primary means of finding ammo in the game.
They also rifled through the car for supplies, including apparel. Generation Zero is a heavily loot-driven game with lots of weapons of various qualities and clothing with which to create your ideal 80s avatar. One of our heroes found a sweet pair of red sneakers in the trunk of the car and equipped them for a slight boost to running and jumping. In the vein of Fallout games, a lot of Generation Zero is spent scrounging for stuff.
The residents of a nearby village were supposed to have evacuated to a bomb shelter, so our heroes set out to find it. On entering the bunker, there were no people; instead, they found more robots. Small swarmers called “ticks” that were easily dispatched. Scattered around the bunker the players found a contact sheet of local defense personnel and a map of the village. Cross-referencing these directed them toward two different houses in the village, so they split up to check them out. More documents directed them to a field outside town where the evacuation was supposed to have taken place.
As is Avalanche’s specialty, Generation Zero is an open world game, so there was nothing forcing the players to follow that particular trail of breadcrumbs, and they could have organically discovered any part of it just by exploring. From Myst to Tacoma, video games have a long history of environmental storytelling in abandoned locations. Aside from saving on the expensive work of rendering live people, piecing together what happened from signs around the environment is a tried and true way of telling a story in games, and Generation Zero seems to take a thorough and thoughtful approach to it.
About three quarters of the way through the demo one of our heroes unlocked a new skill point. There are four skill trees (Combat, Support, Survival, and Tech), among which players can distribute skill points in any way they see fit to customize their play style. Our character chose a survival ability that enhanced their perception when using binoculars to learn more about robots in their sites. In practice it actually looked quite a bit like Aloy’s AR enhancement from Horizon Zero Dawn, highlighting particular, functional components on their body.
Players and pundits already noted the similarity to Horizon when Avalanche revealed the game last week because of the mysterious, human-hunting robots, but that comparison actually runs deeper. Like in HZD, robots in Generation Zero have discrete parts that you can shoot off for particular effects. For instance, destroy an enemy’s optical sensor and it can no longer see. Strip off pieces of armor, and they become more vulnerable.
As robots become increasingly dangerous throughout the game and resources remain scarce. Planning and taking tactical advantage of these weaknesses will become ever more crucial to survival. This is a guerrilla struggle against more powerful forces, which made the combat feel scrappy and improvisatory.
You can also take some of those components to use for yourself. Toward the end of the demo, they encountered more advanced runners, which had infrared sensors that would see through smoke or foliage, taking away the hiding strategy that our heroes had relied on for most of the demo. After taking these runners down, they found an undamaged sensor on one, and attached it to a rifle, giving it a heat-sensing scope.
The demo climaxed at the field where they found again no sign of people, just more deadly robots. A towering biped, resembling an Imperial AT-ST from Star Wars, started to lurch towards them, launching a battery of missiles that dramatically exploded right as the session ended.
Generation Zero ticks a lot of very popular boxes for gaming now as a co-op open world shooter with robots and 80s nostalgia, but surprisingly it didn’t feel like Avalanche is trend-chasing here. The game is a natural extension of the studio’s work and where its creators come from, and thus seems like it may have some real heart.
Generation Zero will launch in 2019 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.