As we were ushered into a viewing room for our first taste of Horizon: Zero Dawn there’s a palpable sense of excitement amongst the gathered journos, PR and gamers. The game’s industry can be a tired and jaded place at times, as we so often watch the slow march of progress from one sequel to another, but with Horizon: Zero Dawn there’s a feeling that we have something quite special in Guerrilla Games’ new IP.
But, there was a clear divide between what we’ve been shown and what was available to play at EGX, one of the first opportunities for hands on with the game. Aloy’s key abilities were showcased, presumably so that when let loose on your own you would have a grasp of what was going on. Taken from a section of the game where the village of Mothers Rise is under attack, we watched her race to get there whilst taking down a number of the giant machine creatures that inhabit this landscape. It’s immediately clear that scanning your quarry – an ancient ability that only Aloy has access to – is going to be crucial to your success. Given that it gives you a view of each machine’s weak spots, as well as their elemental weaknesses, it feels like any encounter where you don’t use it could be a fairly short one.
The demo being played on the PS4 Pro – the same as was shown at PlayStation Meeting – certainly looked hugely impressive on the huge Sony flat-screen, though you have to hope that the level furniture and shadow pop-in will have been eradicated by the time the game releases next March. In both Pro and standard versions of the gamem the lighting was phenomenal, though when it’s from the developers of Killzone: Shadow Fall that’s perhaps not too surprising.
This is going to be an open world that’s simply begging to be explored. Sadly the demo area was extremely limited, with locations appearing on the Elder Scrolls-esque compass that were just tantalisingly out of reach. Despite warnings not to stray, I found the demo resetting on a number of occasions as I tried to push beyond its invisible barriers, keeping me confined to a small area and the subset of robotic creatures.
With controller in hand, it became clear that there was plenty of weight to Aloy and that her ranged combat with a bow will feel pretty familiar to anyone that’s played recent Tomb Raider games. However, the similarities end the moment your first enemy appears, with the bio-mechanical beasts of the demo level doing their best to end your existence. The first creatures, Watchers, were swift, velociraptor-esque beasts that leap at you in an attempt to close the gap and slash at you with their tails. An arrow to their single glowing eye makes for an easy kill, or alternatively you can get in close to finish them off with your blade.
They travel in packs – as we were told many of the creatures in Horizon do – and you could be easily overwhelmed as they attack from all sides. Another key tactic though seems to be having to know when to run away and, much like in Monster Hunter, the best offence can sometimes to beat a hasty retreat, taking your time to pick your would be assailants off one by one.
The next machine/monster I encountered was the huge hermit crab-like Shell Walker, whose payload was carried on their back. Having located their weak spot, you can knock the container off, grab some loot and dash away. Having one of these coming after you is quite daunting, with one of their front claws able to emit a large energy shield that you have to find your way around. However, you’re able to craft explosives from the various items you loot from vanquished machines, laying a trap and then setting it off with a well placed shot just at the right moment. The shell-walker soon gave in after being engulfed by fire a couple of times.
Thankfully there are robot creatures in the game that you can ride once you’ve overridden their programming. Broadheads are buffalo-like automatons whose powerful bodies will power across even the roughest terrains, but you have to approach them cautiously for fear of scaring away the herd. In fact, all of the wildlife has an awareness icon that indicates whether they’ve caught sight of you or not, with just a glimpse inviting either fear or anger.
You possess a few different weapons in your arsenal beyond your bow, and you can prevent a creature’s escape by using the Tripcaster, a rope-firing device that allows you to tether an animal to the ground in multiple locations. Using this to bring a creature to ground was very satisfying and worked extremely well, giving you time to deal some serious damage. Alongside that, the demo also featured a slingshot that launched a range of rounds with an arcing trajectory. What was apparent was just how tight and responsive the controls were, with the demo running at a steady 30fps, and I had no problems making accurate attacks, even when under pressure.
Though my hands on demo kept me confined to a limited play area, I’m eager to play more of one of next year’s most anticipated games. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s gameplay might not especially revolutionary, but there’s the child-like glee of seeing all manner of robotic beasts roaming the untamed open world.