Sony had a lot of big announcements during the PlayStation E3 conference, but the game that stood out the most to me was Horizon Zero Dawn. Sure, the Final Fantasy VII remake was something I don’t think anyone saw coming, and Dreams looks fascinating, but it was Horizon that really stuck with me. A closer look in a preview session with a couple of the developers only ratcheted up my excitement for the game further.
The preview covered more or less the same content as what was shown during the press conference - sneaking through the grass and taking out a few small machines before bringing down the big one. But having someone there, playing it live, and talking about what he was doing, served to answer a lot of questions I had about the game, before I’d even had a chance to ask them.
To start with, the world is, like so many other games, an open world that’s yours to explore. But it’s the beauty of the world that sets it apart. From the way the flowers move as Aloy (the main character) sneaks through them to the vast, distant, cloud-covered mountains on the horizons, everything has a very natural splendour that just made me want to rip the controller out of senior producer Lambert Wolterbeek Muller’s hands and go exploring.
“This is just a very tiny part of the world,” the art director Jan-Bart van Beek explained, as Muller panned the camera across the machine-populated grassland shown in the press conference. “All of this is freely explorable. You can go anywhere, you can go up the mountains, you can follow the rivers, you can explore all the fields. And it’s not just the natural world. There are tribes as well, even cities.”
But before she can go find any such cities, Aloy has a more pressing task - collecting resources from the machines. In this is the game’s core hook, a Monster Hunter-like cycle of taking out foes and using dropped parts to upgrade your gear.
There’s a real sense of immediacy here in Horizon. You don’t actually need to kill machines to get resources from them; if you’re good enough, you can shoot what you want off them. Muller demonstrated this by placing a well-aimed arrow in one of the green tanks on the back of the small raptor-like machines, sending it fleeing for safety but leaving a handy item in its wake. More impressively, weaponry shot off machines can be utilised immediately, like a large minigun-type thing that Muller took off the big Thunder Jaw.
Beyond such scraps, Aloy is armed with a bow and a few utility items (with more to be unlocked later on). I was shown three different types of ammunition for the bow: electric arrows don’t do a huge amount of damage, but can paralyze enemies; armour-piercing arrows likewise don’t do massive damage, but are good at shredding armour to expose weak points; and the rarer explosive arrows that do big damage.
The game is designed with synergy between arrow types in mind; success will depend on using things together. The scarcity of explosive arrows means that you need to make the most of each one. You don’t want to waste them by missing or shooting at armour, which is where the other arrows (and the Ropecaster gadget) come in. Expose a weak point, stun and/or tie the enemy down to limit its movement, then place an explosive arrow for maximum impact.
“That’s just one of the many ways of taking this down,” van Beek said, after Muller had slain the Thunder Jaw. “It’s really about using the right tools for the job, about using your weapons smartly in combinations with the environment.”
“And of course, learning all this as you progress through the game,” Muller added. “Because you won’t know all this at the start, you have to learn and discover this. That is actually one of the key things about Horizon; it’s not only a beautiful world, but one filled with mysteries. Mysteries for the player to discover.”
Perhaps most of all, I was struck by different this game was to Killzone, the series the developer, Guerrilla Games, is best known for and a franchise that, to be blunt, has never really interested me.
“We’ve always loved making science fiction, especially the dark science fiction of Killzone,” van Beek told me. “But we’ve been making Killzone for almost fifteen years. We have this amazing technology and a very talented art team, so [we thought] ‘let’s just maybe do something completely out of left field, something that people aren’t expecting. Something beautiful.”
Beautiful: that’s exactly what Horizon Zero Dawn is shaping up to be.