Guerrilla Games has long been renowned for creating immersive first-person shooter experiences and pushing boundaries with tech, most notably with the Killzone franchise on PlayStation. Up until six years ago, the Netherlands-based developer had less opportunity to experiment with new genres and gameplay. Now its most ambitious project yet, Horizon: Zero Dawn, is ready for release and looks set to prove the studio's talent and versatility in game design.
The transition between linear shooter to open-world action RPG is one of the more drastic shifts we've seen from a first-party studio of late (Creative Assembly's work on Alien: Isolation being a similar example, if this goes as well as that, we'll be happy). For ourmost recent preview we visited Guerrilla's studio in Amsterdam, where we were pleased to see the developers stepping out of their comfort zone, and impressed with the way that the Decima engine has been adapted to accommodate the new setting. This is a good looking game; sharp graphics and clever design combine to stunning effect. An eye-catching robotic ecosystem dominates the landscape, while humans scurry underneath, society scaled down to a tribal existence. Beyond even that, its open spaces and rolling hills offer a sharp contrast to the studio's PS4 launch title, Killzone: Shadow Fall.
Comparing Horizon to past works, the game's art director, Jan-Bart Van Beek, described to us the studio's previous titles as experiences which could be defined on paper as being step-by-step and finely-tuned. However, the player has more choice in this new open-world, something that makes the experience harder for its creators to control. This is a big departure, then, and Guerrilla has introduced lots of new features that further take them away from the corridor shooters of old and out into the open-world. Experimenting with RPG elements this time around, such as skill trees and interactive dialogue, he tells us Horizon is "much more systems designed on the foreground than an encounter design you would see in a more standard conventional linear game."
John Gonzalez, narrative director on the project, added that he believes this evolution is one the team boldly embraced, but the shift from linear and authored experiences to ones more focused on player expression and systemic gameplay hasn't been without its challenges. "Open world gives you broadest possible canvas for telling a story, but it obligates you to stock the world with a lot of content and variety," he explains. To meet the challenge of creating a rich, immersive world, the developers have tried to craft the gameplay systems around its narrative and themes.
The themes prevalent in Horizon are one of the title's biggest draws, offering a unique blend of sci-fi and tribalism. Jan-Bart Van Beek discussed the process of mixing the themes, dubbing the game's world as "post-post" apocalyptic. The story is set 1,000 years after humanity was nearly destroyed, essentially sending the race back to the caveman era, with nothing left of civilisation as we know it, just remnants of advanced technology, reminders of humanity's former place at the top of the food chain.
New species of robotic creatures are dominant now, and humanity is forced to live a tribal existence once again. "We have a world where humanity is living in the shadows of something much more powerful than they are, but not necessarily more clever than they are, and that changes everything about how they have to deal with the world," Van Beek explains. The concept of humans becoming a sub-species which has to fight and scavenge for survival is one not often explored and is certainly interesting from a gameplay perspective.
In context with the narrative, protagonist Aloy provides a strong character for the player to care about, and there's room for a lot of depth and personality that we hope is fully explored. She's a skilled hunter who thrives on independence and rebellion. We suspect that to be part of the reason why her and her father aren't welcome in their tribe. Forced to survive together, there's a plenty of focus placed on their relationship, something which should set up for some emotionally-driven moments as the story advances.
With multiple tribes to encounter, there'll hopefully be an interesting cast of characters to meet as the player ventures further out into the world. John Gonzalez did reveal more about one of them (heads up, it comes with a minor spoiler). He mentioned that Ted, a guy you save in a quest when sneaking past machines as young Aloy, is to show up periodically and play a bigger part in the story, this purely because of the strength of the response to him during testing. Gonzalez recalled that "people really liked him for some reason, so we gave him a big role throughout the rest of the game." Exactly what that'll be remains to be seen.
What's more appealing is how the wider narrative is shrouded in mystery. We have little idea about what happened to bring about the destruction of civilisation, or the transformation it made in becoming the tribal society we see now. Much about past events are left to the player's imagination, however Van Beek did explain more about humanity's redevelopment: "The notion they would start using robot armour in their clothing makes sense if you're thinking about how original cavemen starting using fur and leather in their clothing - it was simply a resource which was available." Applying the same logic to architecture, he continues: "...in the Nordic countries you see a lot of old buildings that are made out of wood. In eastern European countries you see more stone and mud building. It's the resources that are locally available that define a tribe."
With such an intriguing backstory in place, Horizon's biggest appeal is the enigma surrounding it, from Aloy and the other characters that we'll meet along the way, to the origins of the world in which they live. Van Beek wouldn't explain the meaning behind the game's ambiguous title, but assured us that the name does have substance and players will understand by the time the credits roll, stating: "I think it's also something that once you know what it means, it's going to feel like it has more resonance than you might expect," he told us.
At the same press event he also confirmed that the game will feature Easter Eggs and, without getting into specifics, stated that players will be pleasantly surprised by the world's size and scale. This makes us all the more eager to get stuck in, undertake quests, and piece together as much of the story as possible. Guerrilla has clearly had a lot of fun pulling its various strands together, indeed, the studio's managing director Hermen Hulst said as much to us, clearly relishing the chance to work on a "blank slate".
Provided the studio has managed to fill their blank slate with something that's as compelling to play through as it is interesting to analyse, and as long as they can get the pacing right and keep the world rich with content, the pay off should be satisfying. As it stands, Horizon: Zero Dawn looks to be one of the most promising titles of the year, and we'll be sure to deliver our final verdict as it releases exclusively on PlayStation 4 early next month.
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