Horizon: Zero Dawn appears to be a proper RPG, and an exciting one

By Alex Donaldson, Monday, 27 June 2016 08:14 GMT

This sci-fi primitive mash-up stands out as an impressive PS4 exclusive.

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“There’s a sense of cool self-assuredness around this design and world, and it’s something that hasn’t really been done too much in games.”

A lot of what interests me in Sony’s Horizon: Zero Dawn is already obvious by just watching one extended video of the game. For one, it’s pretty: it has a super-slick art style that seems a far cry from Killzone’s sci-fi landscapes. Set loose on something really different for the first time in an age, Guerrilla’s artists have produced a wonderful science fiction and nature mash-up, complete with the game’s already-memorable mechanical wildlife.

Then there’s the combat, which has looked slick and smooth every time I’ve seen it, and the promise from developer Guerrilla Games that the game is also a fully-fledged RPG, though much of what’s been shown up to this point hasn’t demonstrated it. These things combined to make it a compelling E3 appointment indeed.

Much of what makes Horizon’s world what it is remains an intentional mystery, hidden by the developers, but what we know is that this is earth around 1000 years after some catastrophic event ended life as we know it. Nature’s taken back the land, but deadly creatures that often resemble real-world animals lurk the lands. You play Aloy, who appears to have something of a talent for battling and taming these creatures, a key survival technique in this harsh new world.

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There’s a sense of cool self-assuredness around this design and world, and it’s something that hasn’t really been done too much in games. The closest I can think of is Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, though the key difference here is that Aloy’s ability set seems immediately more predisposed to fun combat-driven gameplay inside this amazing-looking setting.

Among that ability set is the bow, Aloy’s go-to weapon, plus a bunch of other skills and abilities that can do everything from change the properties of arrows you fire or drop bomb-like items. There’s also a slingshot. Aloy herself is fast and agile, and this gives a frenetic pace to the combat. A lot of it is about engaging an enemy and then running away, laying out traps and blasting at them with your bow as they chase you down. Robotic they may be but Horizon’s enemies act like animals as well as physically resemble them. And because they’re animals, the enemies I encounter seem to attack with a primal ferocity or attempt to flee, and that’s definitely a different feel to humanoid enemies who take cover and think more tactically. The tactical thinking is left to you as most enemies, at least in what I’ve played, attack in an onslaught.

Something these aggressive enemies offer is a sense of danger about exploring Horizon’s wide and open environments, and that in turn also encourages you to make a little use of the game’s streamlined-but-solid stealth mechanics. Aloy can duck into tall grass (which incidentally ends up feeling a little like stealth in Uncharted 4) and stealth-takedown enemies from that safe haven.

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As shown in the impressive press conference demo, one of the best tools in Aloy’s arsenal is the grapple-like gun that can immobilize enemies. This can simply buy you some time from their aggressive attacks or to halt them in order to target a particularly vulnerable weak spot. But its primary use as shown at the conference is to halt an enemy long enough to reprogram it, thus turning it into an ally. In the conference we saw Aloy do this to a robotic horse creature and then use it as a mount, but she can actually do this to smaller enemies too, turning them into loyal companions who’ll fight alongside you until they’re blasted into pieces themselves. I actually rather love this mechanic as an idea, and I really hope there’s a wide range of robotic enemies you can hack and partner up with that boast unique abilities with which they can assist you.

All this sounds like the feature set of an action game, and it feels like one. That’s where Guerrilla cut their teeth, but there’s some solid RPG stuff under the hood: snoop around the game and you’ll learn that Aloy has a level and will grow throughout the game, though the game does seem more focused on crafting than character-building.

Every robotic beast you defeat can be looted for various resources of a mechanical nature, and these can then be used to build new things that Aloy can better use to aid her in whatever quest she’s currently on. These are ‘light’ RPG elements that are admittedly present in even the likes of The Last of Us, but they’re welcome. The world map appears to have a significant RPG-like scope, and Aloy has dialogue choices in a Bioware style, complete with the slightly awkward idle animation loop as she stares at the person she’s conversing with dead-eyed when you take a little too long to answer.

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That sort of wrinkle in the presentation of the conversation system might otherwise worry, but here it has the opposite impact. I’m reassured by it. This is indeed likely going to be a full RPG of a sort, because if it was going to be a more Uncharted-style linear experience it likely wouldn’t have that telling little piece of ‘animating every one of these scenes with a different idle animation would be insane work’ jank in its conversation mechanic. That’s a good thing.

The question that remains for Guerrilla to answer about Horizon: Zero Dawn is how deep the game goes. This is a studio used to making linear shooters with multiplayer experiences – a big, open Action RPG couldn’t be more different. It has a huge map, but what will populate it? There’s always a danger here of repetitive side tasks or simple emptiness, and that can scupper the quality of even a game with the solid fundamentals Horizon has shown in its early demos. We’ll find out either way come February, but for now I’m excited. Horizon is one of the most exciting, promising things I saw at E3.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is due for release on PS4 February 28, 2016.

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