In a game where the main character is a woman who hunts robot dinosaurs with an electric, multi-function bow, it’s crazy to think that the gameplay and narrative potential are just as interesting.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is Guerrilla Games’ first post-Killzone effort, and it’s a far cry from the industrial war and ultra-serious tone of its venerated shooter franchise. For starters, Horizon is an action-RPG. In real time, players guide Aloy, a huntress in a “post-post-apocalyptic” Earth, across fields, mountains, and other open-world environments. You accept quests from NPCs and merchants in populated cities, fulfill contracts on the diverse machines that roam the landscape, craft new arrows, weapons, and gear from materials you scavenge in the wilderness, and level up with experience gained from your kills and quests.
Yet combat is decidedly “action,” with over-the-shoulder shooting and acrobatic movement as the highlights. Aloy can sprint, leap over rocks and obstacles, hide and sneak around in tall foliage, slide across the ground, and more, weaving in and out of different arrow types as needed. These diverse tools are an important asset; with different arrow types, players can craft their battle strategy to fit enemy behavior and personal preference. We didn’t get a great sense of Aloy’s combat options in Horizon’s debut during the E3 2015 Sony press conference, but my private screening during the week revealed that Horizon is far from a one-note experience.
Press conference viewers will remember how Aloy spooked an entire herd of Grazers and Watchers–the official names of the bipedal worms and taller creatures you see in the video–when trying to collect the power cells on their backs. Our demoist played things a little safer, and a little more strategically. Hiding in the tall ferns, he waited to get the jump on a Watcher–if you don’t take these guys out in short order, they’ll alert nearby machines. Then, rather than charging headlong into the pack, Aloy navigated around toward the left flank, where tall boulders blocked the herds view of here. After bringing up a radial weapon wheel dominated by different ammo types, the demoist selected tripwire arrows. Firing first at a boulder, then at the ground, Aloy spread one explosive tripwire across the gap and another from the opposite angle to make an X-shaped booby trap.
The very best open worlds bring the environment into play–it’s not just static window dressing, but something to be leveraged. I was surprised to see Aloy turn toward the herd and let loose an explosive arrow, but it all clicked when the explosive arrow blew up against a boulder beyond them. The burst of noise, coming from the opposite side of the herd, sent all the Grazers racing our way. Collectively, they ran right through the tripwire trap, setting off two massive explosions that rocked the air and reduced the Grazers’ health bars to mere fractions.
As impressed as I was by Horizon’s press conference debut, I doubted somewhat that Guerrilla Games would make do on the “RPG” in its self-proclaimed action-RPG. After all, we’ve heard that term volleyed around before, loosely applied to games with everything from simple weapon upgrades to meaningless level gains. Therefore, it was encouraging to see that attacks deal a visible damage number that reduces a visible health bar. Guerrilla’s other nods to the genre are natural and well-considered. Aloy can loot enemy corpses, plants, and more, collecting items like metal scraps and flamecoils to construct new arrows or medicine to restore health. However, these elements don’t detract from the “action” of action-RPG, as new arrows can be instantly crafted from the radial wheel (which slows the game down to about 60 percent), and looting is a seamless animation from standing to kneeling or plucking.
If there was any doubt that Guerrilla Games was straddling the often-sought, rarely-found perfect line between bombastic action and the choice inherent to RPGs, it was squashed the moment Thunderjaw crashed onto the scene. The monstrosity, bearing some resemblance to a mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex, thundered toward Aloy with a brief cinematic. Before the battle could begin, Guerrilla Games paused the game with a dev command that allowed them to lift the camera from behind Aloy’s shoulder and hover around Thunderjaw. I’m not one to needlessly repeat promotional bulletpoints, but what we were told about Thunderjaw–just a single boss enemy in a massive game–defies belief. The beast boasts over half a million polygons, 271 animations, and 67 different visual effects.
But more important to gameplay are its destructible plates and pieces. No less than 93 individual pieces of Thunderjaw, from armor pieces to the very weapons it carries on its back, can be removed or broken off in some fashion. Each has its own HP and hitbox of a varied size and shape. Each represents a different tactical opportunity and a chance to enhance your understanding of this boss. As you explore more of Horizon’s world and face off against its many foes, you’re likely to develop strategies around the near-countless ways they react to different weapons and what weaknesses your attacks reveal, like the exposed wiring of Thunderjaw.
Thunderjaw also brought a variety of impressive attacks to the table; winning won’t come from merely dodging his charges and staying clear of his legs. Whether its area-of-effect mortar fire, spinning discs, a cone-shaped laser burst, or various bites and swipes, staying mobile and keeping a close eye on his movements and telegraphs will be necessary for survival. There’s a lot going on in just a single battle of Horizon, and preparedness will take you a long way. Having a healthy stock of constricting rope arrows, for example, will allow you to pin down Thunderjaw from the get-go and pick away at his largest plates with greater accuracy. Similarly, well-placed electricity arrows will stun him, and enough damage will knock off his disc launcher, which can be picked up and used against him.
With so much to say about such a small portion of the game (just one enemy on a tiny patch of terrain!), it’s mind-boggling to think about the scale that Horizon is operating on. As the camera pans over the landscape on the horizon, we’re told it’s a completely open world–no sections, no constrictions, and no visible place that can’t be reached. As we come into contact with Grazers and Watchers, or view the Longnecks with disc-shaped heads far off in the distance, we’re told that every machine is designed like they are for specific story reasons. These are human creations that have stood the test of time, continuing to operate while nature reclaims the earth after everything went dark 1,000 years ago. Tribes of hunters scavenge for machine parts and try to maintain nomadic communities. Further story details are cagey, but Guerrilla says that, by game’s end, we’ll understand more about why the world went dark, putting the tribes’ many legends and folkloric tales to the test.
If anything, the fact that half of Horizon’s press conference debut was a narration on the state of the world represents a refreshing focus on putting story first. Here, Guerrilla fulfills the RPG tradition of raising story up to stand alongside gameplay and aesthetic as a pillar of the experience. It’s also a surprise to see a studio that has cut its teeth on first-person shooters (and nothing else) since its 2004 debut grasp what makes the best action-RPGs so special. And really, just about everything to do with Horizon: Zero Dawn is refreshing.
From its unconventional female lead to its breadth of combat options, from its colorful palette to its haunting, airy musical score, and from the primitive tribes and mysterious machines that populate its world to RPG customization that doesn’t break the action, Horizon: Zero Dawn is shaping up to be the next great PlayStation exclusive. It’s our Best Game of E3 2015. It’s a chance for Guerrilla Games, thought to be a jack of just one trade, to surprise us. And it’s off to a great start.