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Inside the Apocalyptic World of ‘Generation Zero’

Some remember the ‘80s as a time for parachute pants, John Hughes films, and flamboyant hair metal bands. But in the alternate history of “Generation Zero,” a small group of people will forever associate it with a mysterious, cataclysmic event — and the gun-toting, mechanized creatures that emerged from it.

Coming to PC and consoles in 2019, “Generation Zero” is an open-world action game that takes place in Sweden. The year is 1989, and you play as a teenager who, after returning home from a trip, finds dangerous mechs roaming the countryside. Judging by the abandoned cars and houses, it looks as if no one else survived the ordeal. As you scavenge the environment for vital weapons and supplies — either alone or with up to three buddies in cooperative multiplayer — you’ll slowly begin to find out what really happened.

Developer Avalanche Studios is self-publishing “Generation Zero,” which gives their small team a lot of creative freedom. And since they’re based in Sweden, they don’t have to travel too far for inspiration.

“In the ‘80s in Sweden, we played war in the woods against each other [as kids],’” said executive producer Tobias Andersson in a private meeting at E3 2018. “That’s something we can [recreate] very authentically, and we can make an experience that feels very alive and true to our audience.”

“Generation Zero” runs on the company’s proprietary Apex engine, a set of tools built specifically for open-world games (it’s also powering the upcoming “Just Cause 4”). In a 20-minute hands-off demo, the developers showed a beautifully rendered village that had been taken over by dog-like machines called Runners. While looting car trunks for resources, they came across a lone Runner, and slowly crept behind it before unloading a few bullets into its metal chassis. Each Runner has a mini-turret they can attack you with, so it’s best to take them out quickly.

You can acquire additional equipment and ammo from dead machines. Though ammo isn’t as scarce as in other hardcore survival games, Andersson said players should “still be mindful” when using them. One way you can do that is by paying attention to where you’re shooting, as enemies have specific components you can disable. For example, you can blind them by destroying the optical lenses in their eyes, or slow them down by shooting their hydraulic pumps.

“You need to be tactical in your approach [when it comes to] what you take out on these machines. Also, more difficult machines will have better armor, armor pieces on top of their components that you need to remove to get to the juicy bits,” said Andersson.

Certain tools can also help you kill more efficiently. Later in the demo, one of the developers ran across a pack of Runners, which was too dangerous for him to face alone. So he lured them to a set of power cabinets by turning on a boombox (loud sounds will always attract the machines). Once they were close enough, he shot the power cabinets to unleash an electrical pulse, temporarily paralyzing his would-be attackers. After that, he was able to take out the Runners with ease.

Avalanche wants players come up with their own creative solutions with the objects they find in the environment. This experimentation represents the kind of gameplay freedom the studio hopes to achieve — not only in terms of tactical combat, but also with storytelling. You can choose to either stay on your main quest, or ignore it and go somewhere else to uncover other narrative arcs. In the demo, notes, government documents, and maps contained clues about where you should continue your investigation.

But don’t expect to find giant waypoints or an endless checklist in the menu screen that’ll keep track of everything. Andersson described “Generation Zero” as being more like a “cerebral puzzle” where you have to analyze the information yourself.  

“We’re not trying to breadcrumb the player too much, but there’s a fine balance between giving hints and actually telling people what to do. … We want it to be more than just, ‘Where’s the next dot on the screen I need to follow?’” he said.

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