Horizon Zero Dawn
E3 2015 Preview
"Eighty feet long and over thirty high, the thunderjaw is a monstrous enemy with 93 destructible plates on its body, each having its own hit point monitor."

Guerrilla Games' Horizon is their most attractive and alluring game and probably the best AAA game at the show this year. I'm still unsure how much of an RPG it is, but the developers are pretty adamant that it's an open world action RPG. The press conference trailer showed none of Horizon's RPG elements and while Guerrilla Games is keeping many secrets, my behind-closed-doors demo of the game showed that there are indeed some things to interest RPG fans.

The developers emphasize a few specific aspects of Horizon: the world, the machines, and the combat. They talk up the game's RPG elements, but are perhaps more confident that it's an action game. They've earned their reputation through their action heritage and want to stay true to that by emphasizing fast, fluid combat to test the ingenuity and intelligence of players.

Horizon takes place in a post-post apocalyptic world set more than 1000 years after the collapse of civilization. Nature has reclaimed the world. There are cities long abandoned and left to the natural course of Earth, but there are also places previously unexplored by humans. What these are — where they came from — was left untold. It's all part of the narrative, which the developers seem to be taking very seriously. I like the mystery, and hopefully future trailers and previews don't spoil it.

The developers threw around common buzz phrases like "completely seamless open world," sandbox, and single-player action RPG. I didn't see any more of the world than what was shown in the press conference video, but I was told that there are cities both abandoned and inhabited and plenty of secrets to explore and things to collect.

The machines have a "deep story purpose" according to the devs, and they're not just monsters or mindless "robot dinosaurs" as some have taken to calling them. They seem purpose-driven and intent on... something. The grazers, for instance, take some sort of resources from the soil while the large thunderjaw seems built for offense. I was initially disappointed in the design of the machines: why would artificially intelligent machines independent of humans take on such familiar forms? It's not very imaginative, nor is it realistic. Fortunately, the devs hinted at a reason behind their look. Hopefully that reason is something more than "because they look cool," though they do. Indeed, this is one of the best looking AAA games at the show this year, displaying an imaginative and poetic artistry that most AAA shlock lacks.

I was shown the same battle from the press conference demo, but the player (the lead designer) took a slightly different approach. Aloy, the protagonist, is a fierce hunter of machines. She has to take advantage of the environment to tackle machines more numerous, more powerful, and larger than herself; sometimes, as in the case of the thunderjaw, many many times larger.

Aloy first approached the horde of grazers, seeking the fluid-filled canisters on their backs. Instead of attacking them outright, she hid from them using stealth grass and other terrain and set explosive trip wires. She then shot an arrow behind the herd, making them flee and run right into her trap. The grazers exploded, taking out nearby rocks and trees with them, leaving corpses and loot behind. Most of the grazers were dead or gone, although a couple of alpha grazers remained behind to kill her. Aloy dodged their hindleg kicks and dispatched them instead.

And then the thunderjaw arrived, bursting through the trees and snow-covered rocks. Eighty feet long and over thirty high, the thunderjaw is a monstrous enemy with 93 destructible plates on its body, each having its own hit point monitor. There are numerous ways to take down one of these titans, and in the demo Aloy shot it with a variety of arrows and even broke off part of its weaponry and used it against the beast. Evidently there are twelve such pieces that can be broken off and used as weapons. Certain weak points, like the AI "brain" core, are protected by particularly strong armor, but that's why Aloy can craft explosive arrows, among others. Ammo conservation and crafting is an important part of Horizon.

The quest pretty much ended there, as did the demo. The thunderjaw died and Aloy was victorious. The devs said that Aloy would not normally be able to take down a thunderjaw at her current level of 12. Yes, there are experience levels right along with the quests, crafting systems, and possibly skill trees. She was able to kill this particular thunderjaw because it had already been damaged by other tribesman, and their colorfully decorated spears stuck out of its armor plates. I appreciate the level of detail in the graphics, the sound design (roars and rumbling machinery heard from afar), and the combat.

Hopefully Horizon puts narrative and immersion above mechanics and activities; quality over quantity. The Assassin's Creed/Far Cry tower claiming, flag collecting busywork is becoming not only common in open world games, but incredibly tiresome. We've seen only a sliver of Horizon, and though it's too early to tell, I'm optimistic. Even though the RPG elements and systems seem streamlined for accessibility, I have hope. At one point, Aloy takes down a machine and whispers to it, apologizing to the "little one" as if it were an animal. Her compassion when dealing with the machines she destroys is strikingly different from the typical machismo seen in these sorts of AAA protagonists. I have hope that this won't be just another open world garbage dump of explosions, bullets, gun-toting muscleheads, jetpacks, in-your-face storytelling, and lengthy checklists of chores.


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