Watching established studios deviate from their comfort zone to something quite different is intriguing. On the one hand, it could make for something completely new, but on the other it could crash and burn in a spectacular fashion. In the case of Horizon: Zero Dawn and Guerrilla Games, it's definitely not the latter.
We spent a full day at Guerrilla Games' office in Amsterdam to finally get proper hands-on experience with their upcoming action adventure Horizon: Zero Dawn. In addition to two separate sessions with the game, we were given a tour around the studio and shown the step-by-step process of how one robotic dino came to be, from concept to finished product, with all the bells and whistles. The tour started with the concept department, showing various versions of a particular robot before settling on a near final one. Then it was off to 3D modelling, texturing, artificial intelligence development, animation, audio design, and finally to effects. This gave an intriguing glimpse of how a 270+ people strong game studio operates, and how much work goes into creating just one particular member of the robot ecosystem found in the game.
The well-orchestrated tour was further fleshed out with interviews with key members of the team. It turns out that Guerrilla had at times struggled to adapt their Decima engine from first-person shooter Killzone to an open-world setting, but judging from the results it seems that the effort paid off.
For those who haven't heard of Horizon: Zero Dawn, it's an open-world action adventure game comprised of an unusual set of themes. The player is Aloy (voiced by Ashly Burch), a skilled outcast hunter with disdain for authority, something that's responsible for her and her father being shunned by the rest of the tribe. The various primitive tribes live on a lush, expansive Earth, where something terrible has happened and a previous civilisation has been wiped out. Evidence of these olden days can be found all around, and becomes one of the mysteries Aloy needs to uncover. Aside from the main plot, many side quests are fully voiced as well. Facial animation could benefit from a bit of work, however, as there is a bit of stiffness apart from with the main character.
The other mystery is the new apex predator in the system. Instead of sabre-tooth tigers and mammoths, the world has been conquered by intricate and massive robotic animals and dinosaurs. They sit at the top of the food chain, caring little for humans and concentrating on foraging, mining, and hauling materials for reasons unknown. When provoked, these mechanical marvels attack the tribes relentlessly and efficiently. The trinity of tribalism, apocalypse, and mechanical animals creates a unique combination with plenty of interesting avenues to explore, and this is easily the game's strong suit.
It's easy for even the most established studios to make mistakes when entering a completely new genre, as their existing technology might not accommodate the game perfectly or it might end up unbalanced. Based on the four hours of gameplay, this doesn't look to be the case here. From the early tutorial onwards, it's clear Guerilla has done its homework. If anything, it might even be too loyal to genre staples, that is aside for its unique theme. Aloy starts her journey as a small child, living with her stepfather Rost, who is an excellent hunter in his own right, but has offended his tribe in some grave manner.
The father-daughter relationship works very well and sets up the rest of the game in a way that makes you care about Aloy and Rost. At the same time you learn to sneak, hunt and climb in the wild. Further along the storyline you encounter new tribes, travel to distant and varied lands, and hunt increasingly dangerous robotic animals. The mysteries of the land offer a strong pull to continue with the main story arc, even if it's just to see how the developers have resolved this seemingly chaotic set of circumstances.
Aloy is a proficient hunter, but can't match the power of the robots around her. Whenever you encounter a new beast, it's best to observe, trick, and lay traps. Save points via campsites might be in plentiful supply, but dying in a remote area might mean a lengthy trek back to the monster. All the open-world staples are here too; Aloy can hide in the tall grass and ambush weaker animals with one-hit kills, for example, and she can climb rather nimbly on top of a boulder to tag enemies. Where the game's combat differs from the norm are the gadgets, many of which are designed to offer potential traps.
You can, for example, run electrified wires across a chasm, and then scare the more timid animals that way to stun them. Dangerous groups can be tackled one by one by anchoring others to the ground with a rope gun. The hunt is often a lull of serenity at first, followed by a careful setup and a few seconds of frantic action. Prolonged battles are reserved for the big bad dinos, who'll soak up more damage before keeling over. All animals have weak spots and destructible armour plating for experienced hunters to take advantage of. Hitting these spots in the heat of the moment is another challenge entirely. The difference between an unexpected, spontaneous fight, and a carefully prepared one is major. Once your power level and command of Aloy's skills grows, early enemies become minor nuisances. Then it's time to move onto another area.
The look and feel of combat is often impressive if chaotic at times. The controls are sharp and at least during the hands-on session the combat felt enjoyable, especially if you had the time and space to plan it properly. Many of the robotic animals acted the way their real world equivalent might, but other more exotic kinds will provide us with some unexpected twists and turns later on. Horizon has the potential to create emergent "war stories" of both successful and failed hunts, or encounters with hostile tribes. Trapping unfamiliar robots might not be as easy as it sounds, as we found out when some of them jumped over our electrified tripwires on their way to claw at Aloy's face.
While the game has been developed with the standard PS4 in mind, we also had the chance to check out Horizon: Zero Dawn in 4K resolution with PS4 Pro. The increased performance has mostly gone to handle the resolution and increased fidelity in the effects department. Both versions run at 30 frames per second, which is a pity for a fast-paced combat-focused game. The game is certainly impressive to look at on both platforms, though.
Horizon: Zero Dawn seems to be taking its place in the open-world action genre with ease. The main plot provides major pull to carry on and most of the side-quests have their own charm as well. The trinity of themes should afford varied opportunities to the script and combat design, from the first moments to the last boss fight. The game doesn't reinvent the wheel, but rather builds upon established practices. If you've played the new Tomb Raider, Far Cry or Metal Gear Solid, you'll likely feel right at home with Horizon. Bows and traps might have taken precedence over firearms, but the basic mechanics remain largely the same. You're always outnumbered and often outgunned, so it'll rarely turn into a hack 'n' slash. The colourful apocalypse and the tribes, robots, and mysteries promise a different if mechanically familiar open world adventure as it lands on March 1.