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Generation Zero: So close to being good

Content of the article: "Generation Zero: So close to being good"

Summary: A tense, open-world sandbox survival/action game, set in late 80's Sweden. You can play it solo, or co-op with up to three other players.

Pros: A large, pretty world that feels like a real place. Very good enemy AI and challenging combat. An interesting story told through environmental storytelling. Good sound design and music. Stealth is well done, and the game never feels like its unfair.

Cons: You cannot pause the game. Ever. The game is entirely autosave based, you cannot save and load games yourself. Both of these have knock-on effects that make it significantly less fun to play than it should be.

I love open-world games and I sometimes enjoy "high stress" sneaking and survival type games. (For example, I really liked 'Far Cry: Primal' when played in 'Survival' mode). So when I heard about 'Generation Zero,' I was quite excited.

For those of you who aren't familiar, it's a one player or small team (4 players max) co-op, open world survival game set in the late 1980's in Sweden where.. something has happened and all the people are gone. I won't include any plot spoilers in this review, other than that you fight robots. (This is seen in the splash screen before you even start the game, so I feel it's safe to "spoil.") Similarly, I'm only about thirty hours into the game so If you've finished it please spoiler-protect any plot points.

The game starts you off without knowing what's going on, and drops you immediately in the core gameplay loop: travel carefully to a destination (either a specific quest location or some nearby point of interest you've spotted), evade or destroy any robots you may encounter, collect loot and continue onward. All parts of this loop are well done.

Stealth is enjoyable and realistic. You make more sound moving through underbrush than walking on stone; rain hides your sounds but makes you more visible in the infrared; robots see further in the day than at night, etc. It's clear that care was put into this vital aspect of the game; if it didn't work the whole game would be a failure, but it's well done.

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Combat is lethal. The robot AI is quite good; smart but not "the game is cheating" smart. The various types of robots have distinct behaviors and you quickly learn what weapons work best against what types, how to dodge melee attacks and when the run the hell away. The robots are also tenacious. Until you get the resources to distract them, you have to be very lucky to escape a combat encounter once you've been spotted. Gunplay is satisfying and the enemies have detailed hit models, so damaging parts of the robots affects their behavior.

Despite its difficulty, combat is also very fair. Other than in my first hour or two of playing, I never once entered into combat without doing so intentionally, or by taking a risk that I knew could result in being discovered and attacked. A combination of excellent sound design and a 'detection meter' in your HUD makes is so you know when you're getting close to robots and, more importantly, what kind of robots they are. You're also equipped with binoculars (that you find very early) and you can add scopes with various features to guns, so scouting ahead is important and easy.

So what's wrong? Why's it "close to being good"? A few minor things and a couple truly terrible features.

Overall fit and polish is a little lacking. For example, I frequently find resources that you're supposed to be able to pick up (e.g. a first aid kit) but something about the world or hit-box geometry is off, and it's untouchable. The inventory system is strange and takes some getting used to — for example, if you put a weapon in your camp storage, all its ammo goes with it unless you unload it. Not knowing this gave me a couple scares early on when ammo for my gun was precious and I thought I'd lost it all.

The skill system is limited and doesn't reward experimentation. The game doesn't have a skill "tree," but rather eight independent lines of six skills, where each skill requires you to have taken the previous one. Some of the skills can also take multiple points to make them better. However, you get a maximum of 30 skill points and there is no way to respec your character. Being unable to repsec your skills, and getting so few of them, mean that you have to decide what kind of character you want to build within the first few hours of the game — before you really understand how it all works. Further, because leveling up takes longer at higher levels, if you spend early skills in diverse trees, getting the "capstone" skill of any one tree becomes very time consuming.

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The map is large — Far Cry sized, not AC: Odyssey sized — and there's no way to travel other than on foot or bicycle, which is realistically not able to traverse rough countryside. (You can, however, fast travel between safehouses.) There are abandoned cars all over the map, but you can't drive them. Because travelling stealthily is such a big part of the game, it would be a bad idea to drive one anyway, but be prepared for a lot of walking.

Beyond these annoyances, the first truly unforgivable sin of this game is a bizarre engineering choice: even as a single player, you can't pause it. Ever. Even if you go into the 'Settings' menu to adjust the graphics, for example, the game is still running. This makes going to the bathroom in real life.. challenging. And for this reason alone I'd say that if you have kids, you should not try to play this game.

The second terrible sin is that it is autosave only and you have no access to save games. This choice doesn't seem too bad at first, but an unintentional side-effect is that it really punishes experimentation. Some resources are very scarce in this game — for example, about 15 hours in I found a grenade launcher and five grenades for it. I've found no more since then. So, if I want to see how the weapon works — what's the arc? how far does it go? are the grenades timed or do they explode on impact? — let alone how it performs against enemies, I have to spend very precious resources. So I haven't used it. Or the normal grenades I've found (3 so far), or the .50 cal rifle I found (only five rounds). I've stuck with the same three or four weapons (the ones with the most easily found ammo) for my entire playthrough. Realistic? Sure. Not many houses in Sweden have grenade launchers, I'd wager. But not very fun. No access to saves also means that you can't approach difficult combats as puzzles to be solved; you can't experiment with a frontal assault, die, reload and try the same encounter with a sneakier approach. It also means that choosing skills is irreversible; a true failure considering how few of them you get.

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So in summary: this game scratches a particular itch for me, and you may enjoy it too, but it has some truly odd design choices that prevent it from being all the fun it could have.


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