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Horizon Zero Dawn and the Importance of Single-Player Open World Experiences

July 15, 2015 Written by Michael Briers

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Cast your mind back to the spectacle of Sony’s E3 press conference last month and it’s likely the biggest and most awe-inspiring announcements will stand head and pixelated shoulders above the rest. From the Final Fantasy VII Remake to awakening Team ICO’s long-dormant The Last Guardian, the platform holder’s presser proved to be one for the ages. But lurking beneath this tidal wave of nostalgia was arguably the most exciting announcement of the bunch: Horizon Zero Dawn.

Truth be told, Guerrilla Games’ all-new IP could have so easily been overshadowed by these headline grabbers; relegated to a sideline act that dipped under our collective radar. It’s a testimony to the quality on display, then, that Horizon almost — almost — stole the show.

Mythic and Mighty

Since its reveal, we’ve gradually learned more and more about the studio’s bold new direction. A post-post-apocalypse setting; a kick-ass female protagonist; not to mention those towering, robotic monstrosities that look over this most beautiful world from the top of the food chain.

Perhaps the most tantalizing tidbit, though, is the fact that barring “certain social features,” Horizon Zero Dawn is being built as a single-player experience. Treading the same path as the likes of Skyrim and Bethesda’s genre-defining Fallout series, Guerrilla’s new venture is embracing the lone adventurer trope.

How exactly those “social features” will be implemented remains to be seen, but we’re remaining cautiously optimistic that they aren’t overly intrusive. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the genre appeared to be careering down the direction of connected open-world experiences, with E3 presentations for the likes of Destiny, Need for Speed Rivals and Ubisoft’s The Division each looking to blur the line between single-player and multiplayer.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Heck, it was a design approach that began to permeate the industry’s heavyweight franchises, typified by the distracting features found in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Helix credits and an unbalanced, overly glitchy companion app were ultimately unnecessary layers on top of an already complex melange of systems.

Unbridled Escapism

That’s not to say that Horizon will come packing a companion app and/or egregious monetization options; instead, these examples highlight how developers have perhaps lost sight of the core appeal behind immersive single-player experiences in the past, diluting that intoxicating sense of freedom with superfluous content that only appeals to a very small fraction of the install base.

Take a step back from any given genre title and you’ll quickly realize that the qualities of immersion and unmitigated escapism are fundamental strands of the open-world DNA; qualities that grant the gamer with an unparalleled degree of player agency — invisible walls be damned.

Besides, open world games are experiencing a modern-day renaissance in many ways. Spurred by the glittering success of Skyrim four years ago and the technical horsepower of current-gen consoles, developers have begun to craft worlds that are massive, yes, but also incredibly dense.

And there is perhaps no better example of a studio looking to leave the nest in the modern gaming landscape than Guerrilla. After a decade pitting the ISA and Helghast against one another in a brutal, seemingly never-ending sci-fi war, the Dutch studio is primed to leave behind the stifling linearity associated with first-person shooters for a whole new and beautiful world.

See Those Mountains?

There is ample talent lurking behind those sun-kissed pixels, too, considering that the company has recruited developers whose résumés encompass reputable franchises like The Witcher and The Elder Scrolls. Experts in the field, then, to help steer Horizon toward becoming PlayStation’s newfound franchise.

Wishful thinking though it may be, recently the industry once again voiced its desire for rich, well-realized game worlds to get lost in, after The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt stormed to four million sales strong after only a fortnight on the market.

When a game is revealed to be either exclusively single-player or multiplayer, it’s often met with a fair share of flack from the community. Nevertheless, these solitary experiences should be celebrated for what the are, rather than picked apart for what they’re not — and vice versa, of course.

Part Monster Hunter, part Far Cry, Horizon Zero Dawn blends a lot of the tropes synonymous with the open world genre, and yet sets itself apart with its intriguing set-up.

horizon zero dawn 3

Set a full 1,000 years after the fall of civilization, Guerrilla’s new title sees the remnants of humanity reduced to mere cave dwellers, scouring the alien landscape for resources, shelter and any scraps of food they can find. Survival is paramount, though existing in the studio’s lush, postcard-esque universe won’t be easy, given those pesky mechanized monstrosities chewing the scenery.

From what we understand, these machines in question will underpin the title’s story; one which will be told through the eyes Aloy, a young tribal outcast who knows a thing or two about slinging arrows and toppling giants. Acting in many ways as the audience surrogate, Horizon’s core plot will unfold around its own highly-skilled female protagonist. Though if Guerrilla’s welcome departure really is to channel the stylistic tendencies of some of the genre’s greats, then the surrounding world will grow into a character in its own right.

Monster Hunter 

Providing the studio keeps in-game distractions to a minimum, it’s a mythic universe that will only blossom with time, as players poke and prod at the ruins of a fallen empire. And that’s just the thing. Think about your time in Skyrim — or any open-world title for that matter — and you’ll quickly realize that it isn’t the core storyline that resonates with you the most; rather, it’s the ones we create for ourselves.

By kicking intrusive social tenets to the curb save for a few features, Horizon Zero Dawn is giving us the keys to the kingdom. It may be dangerous to go alone, as a wise old man once said, but isn’t that part of the fun?

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