Last year at E3 we were first introduced to Horizon: Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games' first non-Killzone title in nearly a decade. Speaking to them at that event as well as this one, it was clear that doing something new and different was one of the main motivators behind its development. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a bold new direction for the studio and, having spent half an hour getting comfortable with its mechanics in a sandbox area set up for E3 2016, we can now safely say that they're on to something big here.
By now you've probably seen the E3 gameplay demo of Horizon: Zero Dawn shown at the Sony press conference (if not check it out below). Behind closed doors at E3 we got a look at what happens before this section and so we were able to see some of the character interactions and dialogue options available to Aloy, as well some of the gear and crafting mechanics. If there was any doubt before that Horizon is a fully fledged RPG with all the trimmings that come with the territory (merchants, dialogue trees, crafting, characters living their lives in settlements) then they were laid to rest here. While the dialogue options may not rival, say Mass Effect or Dragon Age, there's some room to explore and gain further insights. We can't tell if there were any opportunities to add more character to Aloy's persona via dialogue, but it didn't seem so, at least not in the conversations we heard.
The village we came across was down on its luck and its inhabitants had decided to hunker down and trust in the Gods, rather than go out to see what was causing the corruption of the machines. Aloy, an outcast, who at this point in the story has some idea of what's behind the corruption (though we were not let in on the secret during E3 as this section was part way into the game), wants to deal with the problem at its root. She is tasked with making sure a village that has not been heard from in a while is alright and as she sets out towards it, that's when the on stage demo kicks off.
Rather than letting us play through that mission sequence, Guerrilla Games had prepared a closed-off sandbox area with a few different metallic beasts and some basic missions to help you explore the mechanics. What's fascinating with the robot animals of Horizon: Zero Dawn (there are normal animals too, that you hunt for crafting purposes) is how they interact with each other and how they all fill a role in a robo eco system. Some of them transport materials between various locations, others serve as guards. They're all connected to each other, but if you don't attack them they will simply go about their business. You can use some of them as mounts, something that's unlocked by reaching a certain level. They all carry useful components that you will need to upgrade your weapons, they also serve as currency in the world, and they're what you craft ammunition out of.
There are different types of materials and so there's a great balance between trying to take down robots for materials, during which time you waste materials using up your ammunition. So if you can sneak up on one and take them out without much fuss, that's a big win. The ropecaster is also very useful here. The way it works is that it can pin down any machine allowing you to get close to either tame it, or land a devastating attack. However, as soon as you attack it the ropes will release, so while it can be a great means of crowd control and a way to give yourself time to line up a precise hit, it's not as overpowered as you might think.
The gameplay and combat itself is very smooth, whether you're mounted, hiding in the bushes, or taking a more direct approach. Using the bow is very rewarding, while it was a little trickier getting used to throwing some of the grenade-like items. The health system is designed in a way that punsihes reckless behaviour as refilling your health mid-combat both makes you vulnerable and takes a fair bit of time. Clearly, Guerrilla Games wanted to make sure that, as a general rule, tactical thinking and stealth are the best course of action.
After we'd completed the simpler tasks of taking out Grazers and Watchers, or shooting off the containers from Shell-Walkers, a Corruptor was spawned. This is the machine seen at the end of the E3 demo, and what we got to see was how it behaved in an open-world scenario rather than a scripted event like in the demo. It was quite a challenge, but we managed to get it under control thanks to a combination of fire and using our mount (a Broadhead) to move in and out of range.
Guerrilla Games has been working on Horizon: Zero Dawn since 2010, maybe not in full production, but that's when the concept was born. We'll find out early next year if the long journey has been worth the effort, but all indications are that we're in for a great time with Aloy.