E3 2015 – Horizon Zero Dawn Preview: New Frontiers

Horizon: Zero Dawn made a big, loud, electric entrance during Sony’s E3 press conference this past week. A new, fresh IP from the Killzone devs that isn’t bleak or militaristic, but rather colorful, and with dinosaur robots to boot?! Color us intrigued. We sat in a behind-closed-doors theater presentation for some extended time with Guerrilla Games’ latest creation, and have our preview ready for you.

Primitive Woman

Guerrilla Games was playing pretty coy about the storyline of Horizon, but they did tell us a few things. First, the story is what they consider to be post-post apocalypse. It is at least 1,000 years after the apocalypse, when some massive event had wiped out nearly all of humanity. Humans exist in this world today in a primitive state, utilizing remnants of the last great civilizations as weapons.

The protagonist in Horizon is a woman by the name of Aloy (pronounced like metal alloy). She’s a nimble warrior who uses cunning over brawn to slay her enemies. She has at her disposal a handful of weapons, including a bow that uses specialized arrows. Normally, arrows such as explosive ones are hard to come by, but for the purposes of our demo the number available on hand was increased quite a bit. Aloy is also a master craftswoman, who can create whatever she requires while out in the field.

Vast, Open, Deadly

That field is devoid of life as we know it. For an unexplained reason, the land is filled with robotic wildlife. While the highlight of the E3 demo was the gigantic dinosaur robot, we were able to see an alternative way to play out the scenario. It began with Aloy surveying the land, taking a look at a targeted herd of grazers as well as a distant long-necked dinosaur off to the distance. It was at this point that the representative pointed out to us that Horizon is an open-world game in every sense of the word; everything we could see, out to the farthest reaches of our view, could be traveled to and explored. After their long run of corridor shooters, it felt like such a breath of fresh air to see Guerrilla Games’ take on open worlds.

After traversing down the mountainside, Aloy ended up in some thick brush. We had seen this before at E3 — a seeker robot scans the bushes for life, and just as it turns away Aloy dispatches it. Unlike the E3 demo, this player was able to kill the robot without alerting it at all first. Time to set a trap. The player took out their explosive tripwire gun, and planted a couple of lines in a criss-cross formation just ahead of where the herd of grazers was located. With the trap in place, Aloy fired an explosive arrow behind the herd. When it exploded, it scared the herd — right into the waiting tripwire, which exploded and took out most of the herd. A few stragglers ran off, as they are a prey species, while a couple of alpha grazers stayed behind in a futile attempt of standing their ground. With the herd taken care of, Aloy collected the parts that she needed and moved on, when a massive Tyrannosaurus-looking robotic beast known as the Thunderjaw made its presence known.

Once the menacing Thunderjaw located Aloy, it immediately made a lunge towards her. The game stuttered, and then suddenly stopped. As if reading our minds, the presenter said that no, the game had not frozen, but rather they had entered a special developer mode to pause the action and allow us to take in all the details of this huge creature. Guerrilla Games then went into pretty technical detail about this beast, with fun facts such as it is 80 feet long and 30 feet high (the camera was zoomed out to show the scale versus Aloy), consists of 550,000 polygons, has 93 destructible armor plates, five interactive features that can be detached, 12 different attacks, hundreds of animations, a frickin’ laser, gatling gun, and oh so much more. What’s more, this Thunderjaw was already at half health. This was done not only as a way to make the demo more efficient, but is something that players will actually encounter. A neighboring tribe had likely done battle with this Thunderjaw earlier, and while they were all probably killed in the fight, the Thunderjaw came out of it worse for wear.

horizon zero dawn 3

Killing a Giant

So with the Thunderjaw properly introduced, we watched the fight. Aloy was consistently on the move during this encounter, sliding and shooting long-range while avoiding as many of the beast’s attacks as she could. Firing arrows into the Thunderjaw’s armor only did around 13 points of damage, while hitting the softer “tissue,” which was really a collection of wires that served as muscle, damage was increased 3x. After narrowly avoiding a large laser beam shot out of the Thunderjaw’s mouth, which is about as awesome to see as you can imagine, Aloy got to work and tethered the robotic animal, using an electric arrow to disrupt its movement, followed by shooting off the rocket launchers that were mounted on its shoulders. Once the heart area called the power core was exposed, which involved first shooting off an armor plate and then a metal grate, it was soon lights out for the Thunderjaw, and the demo was concluded.

As this is an open-world game, there will be a quest system and RPG elements. There will be a loot-based economy, as well. After most enemies are defeated, they can be searched for loot such as metal scrap and something called Flame Coil. You can sell these materials, or more often use them to craft whatever you need between battles. While Aloy was in combat, damage numbers popped up, including critical hits. As a lot of these things are likely still in flux, not a whole lot of detail was given about quests nor upgrades, but expect more information to come shortly.

The game looked very detailed, with great lighting. Jaggies were pretty common, but the game is not yet optimized of course. They are aiming for at least 1080p/30fps, which is a good target for a game of this scope. The entire experience felt visceral, startling, pulse-pounding, fast-paced, and left everyone wanting more. With an emphasis on primitive human vs. high technology, and a nuanced, tactical approach to combat, Horizon: Zero Dawn could very well surpass Killzone as Guerrilla Games’ killer app.