I’ve often thought about developer pigeonholes. You know, studios and teams shoehorned into a particular genre or style of game, and if those working through these confines for years on end, wouldn’t just explode out of the creative blocks if given half a chance to just change the scenery. Plenty of studios come to mind, like Treyarch at Activision, who I think would create something pretty special if the reigns came loose from Call of Duty. Or a developer like Nintendo’s Retro Studios who’ve been handed Nintendo licenses to only partially reimagine (post-brilliant Metroid Prime series, mind), rather than being let loose to work entirely on their own IP with their own direction.
We’ve seen some of this freedom re-emerging among Triple-A ranks. Rare, who’d seemingly been demoted to Kinect games for Xbox 360 and Xbox One, has recently unveiled Sea of Thieves, and in talking to the studio, the sheer concept that development of this promising title is as loose and vast as the pirates and seas, respectively, presented in the game, is refreshing. It looks and feels like the Rare of old, with the windows open, rather than being hidden from public view as was their MO while under Nintendo’s reign.
On the other side of the aisle, another developer metamorphosis has taken place within Guerrilla Games’ four walls. The Sony-owned Killzone developer surprised the gaming world two E3s ago when they revealed Horizon Zero Dawn -- a game that is arguably the antithesis to everything we’d ever seen them bring to the table with the dark, dank and linear Killzone franchise -- not to take anything away from that game; visually it has always served as a flagship title towards what Sony’s hardware is capable of, and while some people may have played down the series’ story beats and sometimes wooden characters, like a lot of other hardcore shooters out there, it has/had an equally hardcore audience, but for the studio, it was clearly simply time to change.
“We're a very different team now, and there were times where we didn't think we would pull it [Horizon Zero Dawn] off,” reveals Guerrilla boss Herman Hulst as he addresses us ahead of our extensive hands-on with the near complete version of the game-gone-gold out at their Amsterdam-based studios.
If you’ve been following the game at all, you’ll know the elevator pitch is ‘open-world action-RPG set in an overgrown, lush post-apocalyptic future where an ecology of dynamic animal-like robots share the world with socially and technologically devolved humans, and other animals’. It’s a mouthful, and must have been a longer elevator ride than most, but what’s impressive about any such undertaking is understanding the switch from a linear story about a specific set of characters fighting a common enemy -- where the developers controlled the beats and scripting -- to an entirely realised world with rules set outside of the player-narrative. This is a hard concept to grasp, especially because in modern open-world games, ecology is as much a pillar of the game’s world as the open-world itself is. And to have crafted an entirely new ecosystem to coexist alongside one we -- as players -- will already easily understand, and have it nestle there seamlessly, while leaving us with nothing but questions, is to be applauded.
But to put a point on what I took away from my time with the game, and developers, is this is less The Witcher-esque, and far more Far Cry in its delivery. We were served with the usual company lines relating to ‘nothing influenced us, but ourselves’, however, it’s abundantly clear early on that this is a heavy action-adventure game with some RPG rules set in an open-world whose dynamic, emergent play is driven by player curiosity, rather than any series of sneaky design systems set to make you think you’ve stumbled upon something unique and new to you.
Please don’t take that last statement as detriment though. Horizon Zero Dawn has a number of design heroes that stem from a core principle built around world-building and player-engagement. For one, combat is probably as on par as the robot ecology as anything else in the game, in its key deliveries. While I mentioned The Witcher earlier, its combat actually really has nothing on this. Horizon Zero Dawn is a John Woo action movie come to life in a world we don’t wholly understand, but it works. Similarly to Far Cry, you can fill out an ability tree with varying levels of stylish attacks designed to ignite the player senses and help sell this over-the-top world. Oh, and what a world, I might add.
It’s as lush as they come, and stands as yet another console benchmark for the tech wonders at Guerrilla Games. Everything has a purpose, and the way it stacks, works and reacts to player interaction is immediately exciting and deeply enticing. I definitely didn’t have enough time to see the true depth of it all, but what I did play, and see, made me want to dig as deep as I could. What’s interesting is that the team has created a human future, some 40-plus years from now, only to then make it the game’s past 1000 years later. So it’s not like they just decided on a game with lush greens and robot dinosaurs, they’ve worked tirelessly to craft an entirely new and unique game-universe that has all the potential in the world to transcend the interactive space in favour of becoming the PS4’s flagship transmedia property.
In my hands-on I played through the game’s opening, which starts with the game’s protagonist, Aloy, as a baby in the caring hands of Rost, an Outcast who has been tasked with caring for her. She has no known mother, and as such is also an outcast of sorts herself, with this tribal society being one of dominant matriarchy.
“We took a really serious approach to imagining the culture that appears in the world,” explains narrative director John Gonzales. “We tried as much as possible to approach it as an anthropological puzzle, to think through the environments that these people were living in and the materials that were available to them and how that would shape everything from their fashion to the beliefs that they might have.”
We move into her life soon after as a small six or seven-year old child. Little Aloy is very cute, sporting one of the most animated uncanny valley faces I’ve ever seen, replete with adolescent freckles to help accentuate both her youth, and her fiery red hair. You’ll play as the youthful Aloy in an important part of how she comes to be the firebrand she eventually is, and it's during this section of play you get your first glimpse at the “old world”. More importantly, it’s here Aloy comes into possession of her ‘Focus Device’ which looks like a remnant of Star Trek technology. With this device she can see a holographic overlay that highlights machinery she can interact with, and also allows her to collect data entries from the long-gone old world inhabitants. Even in this early section of the game, the past is a dark mystery, and one you definitely want to know more about.
Once you go through a training montage as the grown-up Aloy in her lead-up to take on what’s called the ‘Proving’, the game opens up pretty quickly. Structurally, it still feels a lot like Far Cry with a series of fetch-quests scattered around the village in which you live. There’s also a handful of lower-level robots scattered around this relatively safe zone. I found taking on the Watchers -- raptor-like guardians of herds of wildebeest-like robots -- pretty easy. You have a number of tools at your disposal, and as you progress through the game you’ll earn new weapons and be able to upgrade them. Your base weapon, however, is your bow and you can see that Guerrilla worked tirelessly on making sure combat with the bow, first and foremost, worked properly. It’s arguably the best delivered game in terms of combat with that specific weapon, with not much else coming close. And once you unlock the Hunter Reflexes ability (which is available very early), you’ll be taking down enemies with absolute style.
You’ll eventually earn the right to leave the locked-up confines of the village for your quest to progress proper, which involves unlocking the mystery of this hazy future and why these robots have evolved the way they have. And while I didn’t play much beyond the game’s starting point (I got sidetracked by one of the its myriad challenge dungeons known as Cauldrons, but we can’t talk much more about these other than to say: they exist), once you emerge from the starting area, both the challenge factor, and that always-awesome sensation of open-world intimidation kick in, and your journey for understanding -- and character growth -- begin.
It’s difficult to convey, at this stage, how the whole thing is going to play out. Many of us were expecting a game closer to The Witcher than Far Cry with Horizon Zero Dawn, but even the Far Cry parallels might wind up being fleeting. What I can say without issue is that, as a game-world, Horizon Zero Dawn is as complete and as inviting as they come. Combat and robots are the absolute heroes here, and I’m hoping the open-world component offers up dynamic, emergent play, but even if it doesn’t and we wind up with a more linear narrative wrapped in large open spaces, being able to engage in that amazing combat with equally amazing robotic enemies is still a winning formula. And as previously mentioned, this world is ripe for the picking as far as expanded story content and transmedia is concerned, so it’s highly likely this first installment isn’t the last.
We’ll have more from our hands-on preview event, including words from the devs and a special developer tour of Guerrilla’s facilities soon, but for now, if you haven’t picked up a PS4 yet, this is highly recommended as the game to do so for. If you do have one, well, it’s a no-brainer: robot animals and dinosaurs, a great lead, awesome combat and an unbelievably fully-realised game-world that is as lush as it is gorgeous. It’s a win on every level.