Horizon Zero Dawn - fighting the Shellwalker
In this age of annual updates and endless sequels something genuinely new and genuinely surprising is a rare and wonderful thing. Perhaps that's why I'm so excited about Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Announced out of the blue at E3 2015, Horizon is a brand new IP from Guerilla Games, the guys and gals of Killzone fame. And it's a bold departure for a studio that's been making decidedly linear first-person shooters for what seems like forever, because this is a third-person, open-world action-RPG.
At last week's E3 2016 we got not only a release date (3 March 2017), but also some new gameplay footage and an actual hands-on. Check out the new trailer below, then keep reading for a whole bunch of reasons to be excited.
It's the future, Jim, but not as we know it
For me, the setting is really compelling, albeit not entirely original. What we know is that civilisation as we know it has been deconstructed through the eradication of power and technology, and that the world and its cities have been reclaimed by nature. The Guerilla guys wouldn't be drawn on what the disaster was that killed humanity's electronics. They also wouldn't tell us how and why the forests, fields and mountains of Colarado (that's now confirmed as the setting) are now teeming with herds of robotic animals.
What we do know is that you play as Aloy, a Machine Hunter from one of the oldest tribes in this new world. She hunts the machines not only to keep her tribe safe, but to harvest their resources.
But we now know that the story goes beyond that. It seems thay Aloy was found alone as a baby, and as she gets older begins to wonder about her origins. I'm led to believe that the story starts when she leaves her tribe to go looking for answers.
This isn't the only concern, though. Ultra-aggressive, "corrupted" versions of the robo-animals have started appearing, and it's fair to assume that Aloy will take it upon herself to investigate and attempt to fix this corruption - you can see her taking on one of the corruptors (referred to as a 'demon' by the very brave chap she encounters) in the gameplay trailer above.
Putting the action into action-RPG
Whether fighting corrupted machines or simply harvesting herds for their resources, combat plays a big part in Horizon, and it works really nicely.
In the hands-on I was given a small area containing a handful of low-level machines, plus a few basic objectives to give the play time some sort of structure. One of the objectives was to hack and mount a broadhead (a bull-like robot with large horns) and that's what I attempted first.
These animals behave much like cows. They graze in herds, paying little attention to what's around them and unikely to attack you unless seriously provoked. But they're guarded by raptor-like creatures called watchers, and they're far less benign and make taking down a broadhead much more tricky, especially if you want to keep it alive.
As soon as you make a move on the broadhead it bolts and makes a huge noise, alerting the other broadheads (which also do a runner) and the two watchers (which head directly towards you), but there are a couple of ways you can make things a bit easier.
The 'noisy' option is to fire a tether arrow at the broadhead, pinning it to the ground (tethers have a quite generous timer but break if you fire at the tethered creature), then take on the watchers knowing your quarry can't get away while you do. The stealthier approach is to stay out of the site of the watchers by creeping through the long grass, waiting for them to come close enough and taking them out with a one-hit kill. Just remember that you'll alert the other nearby beasts if they see you do it.
You can also retreat and hide, at which point the watchers investigate your last known location - if they don't find you they return to guard duty and the broadheads return to graxing, allowing you to have another crack at it.
Once the watchers have been dealt with you're free to get hack the broadhead. This involves getting right up next to it an jappbing it with a big, staff that has some kind of holographic cog on the end. You'll be able to use this on lots of different creatures with varying results (would a watcher guard you?), but in the case of a broadhead it becomes a mount that can help you traverse an area more quickly. Best of all, this is a mount for life - as long as you don't get it killed you can summon it with a whistle at any time. And yes, you can fire arrows from the back of it. Take that, Legolas!
All told, combat feels very solid indeed. The enemies, particularly the boss-sized ones, are very tough, and require that you constantly think on your feet, switching between weapons and ammunition on the fly. You do that using a weapon wheel that slows time while open, and in the hands-on session it contained just the right number of options to not be overwhelming. Hopefully Guerilla Games sticks roughly to the number of ammo options it showed off here, as many more would make finding what you needed more fiddly and less intuitive.
What about the RPG?
At this year's E3 we got our first look at the more RPG-like elements of the game, and there appears to be a decent amount of depth.
Most of what we saw concerned the weapons and armour, which can be bought from traders (the currency is shards, but you'll often need other materials as well) and then upgraded by placing other components into their 'sockets'. Each weapon and piece of armour looks unique, and they also have a range of bonuses and penalties attached to them. The piece that was bought during the live playthrough, for example, had +10% bonuses to projectile resistance and corruption resistance, and a -5% penalty to freeze resistance. It's going to be all about finding a balance that works for you and each situation, althogh it is possible to mitigate armour weaknesses by placing relevant upgrades into each slot.
Whether there's an overall levelling system for Aloy and her enemies is yet to be seen. A game like The Witcher 3 allowed you to go practically anywhere right from the start, but would make some areas extremely difficult by including high-level enemies. Will Horizon take the same approach? Or block some areas of the open world with level caps? Or not have levels at all, leaving improvement of your character relying on the upgrades you make to your weapons an armour? We don't yet know.
And then there's that other classic RPG feature - the dialogue wheel. Whenever Aloy enters conversation you're granted a wheel of options in order to reply to questions or ask your own. Interestingly each of your dialogue options appears to be represented by a single word, an approad that's proved pretty unpopular in games such as Fallout 4 as you can find that what your character says is not what the player expects. Hopefully Horizon can avoid that issue.
Lots of mystery remains
There's still a lot we don't know about the story of Horizon. What brought our civilisation to an end? Where did the machines come from? Why are they harvesting materials and where do they take them? Where's the corruption come from? And who is Aloy, really?
What we do know is that some buildings from ancient (i.e. modern day) times are still around, albeit in a state of decay, and that Aloy will travel to and investigate some of those. Will those provide some answers? Fingers crossed!
What's for sure is that Guerilla Games has built a really interesting world, mythology and story, and that the combat mechanics are very strong and combine with some excellent enemies to make battles varied and challenging.
I've little doubt that Horizon: Zero Dawn is going to be an absolute belter, but we'll have to wait until 3 March 2017 to be absolutely sure.