Horizon Zero Dawn is even better than the mind-blowing trailer made you think

Sony’s E3 2015 press conference was packed to the gills with exciting game reveals, but one that particularly stood out was Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn, a brand new IP that looks absolutely gorgeous. The initial trailer left my head buzzing with many questions about what this new game was, and fortunately I was able to have a few of those answered the following day in a closed-door session with a few of the developers, the game’s first ever live demonstration.

Post-post-apocalyptic

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Fallout 4 and Mad Max may have the market cornered on post-apocalyptic worlds, but Horizon goes one step further into the post-post-apocalypse. The game is set over 1,000 years after the collapse of human civilization as we know it. In the intervening centuries, nature has done a lot to reclaim Earth from humanity. Our few surviving descendants now live in primitive tribes, struggling to hold their own against a world they no longer control.

You will play as Aloy, a woman with a special knack for hunting and crafting. More than just a convenience for her being the player character, the developers suggested that the reason for Aloy’s particular affinity for her work is pertinent to the plot and will be uncovered over the course of the game.

The world of Horizon is seamlessly open, with no zone boundaries or loading screens breaking up your journey. The sweeping vistas shown in the reveal trailer, from snowy mountaintops and verdant river valleys to re-forested, crumbling cityscapes, are yours to explore as you see fit. Exploration is a big focus of the game, dangling the carrot of finding useful materials to aid in your survival and uncovering hints to the world’s many mysteries.

Although the player will have immense freedom in how they choose to explore the world, the action will still be rooted in grand narrative. Guerrilla Games brought on John Gonzalez, who was lead creative designer on Fallout: New Vegas, and one of the narrative designers for The Witcher 3 from CD Projekt Red to help craft the story.

Unnatural nature

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One of the biggest factors preventing the human remnant from taking over the world once more is the mysterious robot ecology that has also emerged following civilization’s collapse. These spectacular and varied beings look essentially like robot dinosaurs, an different kinds exist in mutually-supportive relationships. It recalls the late Futurama episode, “A Clockwork Origin,” in which a swarm of nanobots accidentally set loose by the Planet Express’ crew on a barren world rapidly replicates the course of life’s evolution on Earth, forming all manner of robotic animals.

The demonstration covered the same segment of gameplay shown in the reveal trailer, but because the developer was playing live, he made some different choices in his approach to show off Aloy’s tactical and strategic flexibility. Stalking through tall grass, Aloy stealthily takes out a small Watcher, which would otherwise have sent up an alarm to scatter her prey and call in protection.

Rather than going straight in and picking off a few of the Grazers with her bow like she does in the trailer, the developer instead opted to set up a trap. She used the rope caster, shown in the trailer for pinning down the massive Thundermaul, to run explosive trip wires between a few boulders near the herd. Her trap set, she then fired an explosive arrow at a boulder on the opposite side, spooking the herd into charging the other direction and getting blown to smithereens.

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Before Aloy can loot their remains for valuable scrap materials, however, a monstrous Thundermaul shows up to avenge the herd. Before jumping into a pulse-pounding battle, the developers pause to show off just how fantastically detailed this creature is.

The Thundermaul comprises 93 separate elements, each with their own hit points and effects. You’re not just shooting it any which way to grind down its health, but instead where you hit really matters, making the battle much more tactically interesting. For instance, Aloy used one of her explosive arrows to knock off the disc-launcher from the beast’s back, which she the picked up to use against it, knocking off its protective armor plating. By hitting the sensitive “muscles” peeking between the creature’s armor, Aloy can deal three times as much damage.

The right tool for the job

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Although so far we’ve only seen her bow and rope-caster, Aloy can carry up to four weapons at a time, each of which has slots for three different types of ammunition. The action slows down when you open up the weapon selection wheel, allowing you to quickly swap in the most appropriate answer to a given situation in the heat of battle. Aloy has a wide range of tools at her disposal, which when combined with the fully-destructible environments and unpredictable enemy AI makes for extremely dynamic and tactically-engaging combat.

Crafting will play a major role in Horizon, utilizing the scrap materials collected from felled robo-beasts, such as “metal scrap” and “flame coil,” as well as herbs that can be gathered for healing. We did not get to see the full crafting menu in which Aloy will make things like weapons and clothing, but they did demonstrate “quick crafting.” Aloy can make new ammunition on the fly, directly from the weapon selection wheel in the main HUD. This is to allow players to keep their focus squarely in the action for simple tasks like ammo re-ups.

Conclusion

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Horizon Zero Dawn looks fresh and fantastic across the board. The world is lush and mysterious, and the robot designs are fantastic. The thoughtful and intriguing world-building serves as a platform for what looks like truly exciting action. Moreover, it has a kick-ass, female protagonist (who reminds me more than a little bit of Game of Thrones’ Ygritte), which it’s always a relief to see.

Horizon Zero Dawn is set to launch on PlayStation 4 sometime in 2016.

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