When it was first shown at E3 2015, Horizon Zero Dawn lit up Sony's already pretty dream-like presentation like a new-born sun. Here was a post-apocalyptic game that wasn't grey, wasn't depressing, wasn't overrun with zombies. It had bows and arrows and tribal society; it had ruins of the old world, our world, overrun by nature; and it had incredible-looking robot-dinosaur beast things that looked like a Zoids fan's wildest imagination – around the time that they were eight years old – come to vibrant life. It immediately earned a big tick beside its title as one to watch, and hope for. Please, please, Horizon: don't be shite.
And having played it – albeit a made-for-E3-2016 slice of it, set apart from the main game but very much featuring elements that will appear in it – I can confirm that Guerrilla Games' Horizon is, quite categorically, not shite. I'd love to spill out an essay right here, right now explaining just how easily I could have spent my entire day on the game, if it wasn't for executive producer Lambert Wolterbeek Muller (what a name that is, what a name) tapping me on the shoulder to indicate that Other People needed a turn, too. Other People, always in the way, always showing up when they're not wanted, with their own agendas. Other People: they'll be the death of video games. But the reality of covering E3 is that I have about 20 minutes to write this. So, enough preamble: here's some stuff that I took away from my time with it, plus a little group exchange with two of its production team.
Horizon features levelling up, and crafting, and a large open world, but this is not a "hard" RPG. The player-controlled protagonist Aloy – red hair, awesome bow, great agility, basically a bad-ass – can buy new gear to tool up with, and wear different outfits to protect against certain forms of attack, but this is a game that's "light on stats, heavy on crafting". Aloy can collect components from robots she's put out of action, and combine them to create traps, and to enhance weapons (like the "shadow sling" and "sharpshot bow") and armour. She can also collect "shards", which are used as currency.
Aloy is part of the Nora Tribe, which is but one tribe of several in the game. They're not incredibly advanced, technologically, but Aloy has a special device which allows her to track the robots in any given area, to see their patrol lines, and to scan them for any goodies they might possess. Other tribes will occupy larger settlements, which can be visited – though not all of the other humans in the game will be friendly towards Aloy. Also available for investigation, sometimes with story relevance and sometimes just for fun, will be the ruins of our Earth as we know it today – Horizon is set 1,000 years after an unspecified cataclysmic event, called simply "the fall", turned everything to shit, and nature has very much reclaimed the planet, albeit alongside these strange machines. Expect to see familiar wildlife sharing grazing areas with the robots. "Robots have become part of the ecology," we're told.
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Mythology and religion are powerful forces in Aloy's world. Her tribe's leader at the village of Mother's Crown speaks of a goddess, and how everyone should pray to her for answers, with corrupted robots posing an increasing threat to the safety of the human colonies. Aloy is more practical, more pragmatic: she wants to venture out to where the corruption is and see what can be done about it.
Aloy's pretty handy when it comes to a scrap, but she's certainly not invincible. Robot attacks, even from the more docile variants, cause a lot of damage, so the player must keep Aloy moving in combat situations. One great way to do this is to convert a machine to serve as a mount. I do this with a Broadhead, rather like a bull, as seen in the E3 2016 gameplay trailer, but you can also switch the more aggressive Watchers to your side, and they'll fight beside you. Riding the Broadhead around a luscious, verdant environment really had me thinking back to The Witcher 3, and all the wonderful depth that game offered last year.
Which makes Horizon an unlikely contender to scratch my Witcher itch. I was banking on Final Fantasy XV being my Big Game for 2016, and with Horizon not out until February 2017 it still will be. But I'll have to get it finished at a sprint, as when this comes along I can really see myself getting into it in a significant way.
'Horizon Zero Dawn', E3 2016 gameplay trailer
The game is very much based around a "David versus Goliath" structure, where Aloy will need to approach combat situations with a tactical mind. Rushing in blindly will always get her killed. The player must learn to maximise the potential of their various weapons and tools, switched between using both the D-pad and a wheel activated by the right bumper, and see what each machine is weak against, in order to best bring it down – ideally without alerting others to come and gang up on you.
The game's open world features, and I quote, "no loading screens". Its terrain will vary from the green fields seen so far through to deserts and jungle areas, and presumably some snowy regions too, given the mountains at the horizon (although Lambert stresses you won't be able to climb everything – the game has to end somewhere, somehow). Certain areas will be "gated off" to prevent Aloy from running into trouble at too low a level, but generally speaking the player will be free to roam, however they please. And that means picking up side missions, indicated by blue diamonds, and more personal quests, where Aloy will carry out a task just for one person, something without connotations for the main narrative. Which, despite the dialogue wheel you might have seen in this year's trailer, does not branch all that much – this is a fairly linear storyline, with Aloy's lines of questioning there to add detail to the world around her.
And it's a world she doesn't fully understand. She doesn't know anything about her family, about her roots, making Horizon very much a game about self-discovery. And also murdering massive robot dinosaurs, of course.
The game comes out on February the 28th, exclusive to PlayStation 4. Consider me "in". Find its official website here.