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Don’t let the robot dinos fool you, ‘Horizon: Zero Dawn’ takes its story seriously

On its face, Horizon: Zero Dawn looks like just another open-world action game, with tonal shades of Shadow of Mordor and Far Cry Primal.

And after spending some four hours playing Guerrilla Games’ upcoming title, the game feels similar to that idea, but also reflects the influence of more story-driven RPGs like Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. Those latter influences infuse Horizon with potential, especially in a field inundated with games just like it. Your moment-to-moment time with Horizon feels a lot like action-heavy open-world games, such as Watch Dogs 2, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, but it mixes those ideas with a much stronger role-playing game slant than what we’ve seen in demos and previews up to this point.

It turns out, while Horizon is often about fighting and riding robot dinosaurs, it also puts a major emphasis on its narrative. Set in a world that exists well beyond a world-ending calamity — a post-post-apocalypse — it follows members of tribes of pre-industrial people trying to exist in a world in which they are not the dominant species. That honor goes to some scary robots that behave like animals. The player character, a young woman named Aloy, finds herself running around this world, fighting robots and humans alike.

It turns out, while Horizon is often about fighting and riding robot dinosaurs, it also puts a major emphasis on its narrative.

According to Lead Writer John Gonzalez, Horizon began with a concept with many of the main ideas of the game. The robot dinosaurs, a rebooted world, and tribal societies were all part of the original vision created by Art Director Jan-Bart van Bleek. Coming up with a story that made those elements make sense was a job that came later, when Gonzalez joined the team around three and a half years ago.

“That [concept] was a big part of why I came on board,” Gonzalez told Digital Trends at a Horizon preview event in Los Angeles. “It was that they actually posed this mystery of how this world would come about that I felt like I had to get to the bottom of. I wanted to, like, come up with the answers myself.”

The portion of Horizon we played featured that story heavily. It showed a game that’s more of an open-world RPG than might have been initially apparent — something that hews more toward Fallout 4 than Assassin’s Creed. It turns out that unlocking the mysteries of Aloy’s past and her world will likely be as big a draw as the robotic creatures dotting Horizon’s landscape.

Shaping Aloy’s story

Players familiar with open-world RPGs will recognize a lot of the bells and whistles of Horizon right away. Once the game lets you loose in its wilderness territory, there are quests to run down: main quests that advance the game, and sidquests to be discovered along the way.

What’s surprising is how long it takes for Horizon to let players off that leash. Instead, the beginning takes its time setting up the world players inhabit. The game opens with lengthy cutscene in which Rost, an outcast from a tribe of people called the Nora, carries a baby Aloy up to a ritual site. The scene shifts, and we take control of Aloy, now about nine years old, as she discovers a key piece of ancient technology that players rely on for the rest of the game. It’s a sort of augmented reality visor that creates a heads-up display overlay on the world, similar to Batman’s “Detective Mode” from the “Arkham” games.

During this early portion, players encounter a few key moments that set the stage for how Horizon will tell its story. Horizon features moments called “Flashpoints” where players have to make a key decision of how to react or respond to another character. Players can choose whether Aloy responds with force, uses her intellect, or chooses to act with compassion. How players respond to these moments can shape the narrative, Gonzalez explained.

“We really set out to tell her story and then tell it as well as we possibly could,” he said. “The interactive dialogue, the choices that you make, do sometimes have long-standing consequences, even to the extent that in some instances determining whether a character is going to live or die. And there are also choices that you make. For example, a flashpoint that you experience early on when you’re determining what to do when you’re hit on the head by a rock. That’s something that will resonate at a later point in the game. There will be callbacks to moments like that. We wanted it to kind of ripple through, so that you can have these kind of reactive dialogue that would take note of what you did before. But that said, I think the primary ambition of the interactive dialogue was to intensify or deepen the experience.”

“The interactive dialogue, the choices that you make, do sometimes have long-standing consequences…”

Horizon contains 10 hours of Mass Effect-style interactive dialogue, as well, Gonzalez said, and it comes up in conversations all the time. Players can choose Aloy’s responses in conversation, often learning more about the world, characters, and context, if they choose.

There’s only one ending to Horizon, Gonzalez said, but players can shape a lot along the way. That doesn’t mean you’ll branch the story one way or another like you might in Fallout, potentially cutting off content. But it does mean characters will react to your choices further down the line.

Figuring out the apocalypse

While players may find themselves driven to solve the mystery at the heart of Horizon’s lore — the catastrophe that plunged the world into its current state — Aloy’s personal story is the heart of the story: She doesn’t know her parents or her origins, and is desperate to discover them by any means necessary.

“We wanted to give our hero a personal reason for going on her adventure,” Gonzalez said. “So that was how we ended up, you know, deciding that she was someone who didn’t know what her own origins are. She has skin in the game, so to speak. She has a reason to get out there into the world, she’s trying to solve this larger riddle of where she comes from, who her parents were. And that puts her on this collision course with these really big mysteries in a way that I think ends up being kind of unexpected and surprising, hopefully.”

The larger mystery began with figuring out what logically led from a world like what we know to the original Horizon concept, Gonzalez said. He had to figure out a way to make the concept make sense to players, while also giving them something to unravel through the course of the game.

“I think you start off with the world that we have now, imagine it forward to some kind of tremendous cataclysm — obviously something really big happened in the ancient past — and you just keep on imagining,” he said. “And you have to apply rigorous logic to that. Looking at that and seeing, does it really add up. Does it really end up being a credible explanation for the world that you’re experiencing now. And then what we wanted to do was to design a story that would send the player right into the heart of these mysteries.”

Gonzalez said that balance, along with the action-focused gameplay on offer, will hopefully make Horizon stand out in a market flush with open-world games.

“It was something that we kind of started off feeling like no one’s done exactly this in exactly this balance,” he said. “And we don’t know for sure it’s going to work, but it seems really intriguing, and has a lot of promise, so let’s swing for the fences. So that is how we ended up having this game that has a lot of cinematic storytelling, but, you know, as I mentioned, also has 10 hours of interactive dialogue. What we’re aiming to do with that is to provide a really deep experience of the world, of the characters, and especially of the protagonist. Trying to have moments throughout the game that will intensify your sense of connection to her, and to what it’s like to inhabit her as she’s on this journey.”

Even after four hours, it was tough to get a sense of whether or not Horizon will be able accomplish the goals Guerrilla Games has set out for it. But the demo was surprising in how dedicated it was to bringing players into the story of Aloy, her people, and her world. What is clear is that Horizon has a lot to discover — perhaps more than is immediately obvious from its post-apocalyptic concept and the lumbering robotic animals that capture players’ attention.

Horizon: Zero Dawn comes to PlayStation 4 February 28.

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