Horizon: Zero Dawn has just had its first playable demo premiere at EGX and I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to try it out. I had already seen the full majesty of the HDR graphics in full 4k glory on the PS4 Pro in the lobby (with a touch too much of the JJ Abrams lens flare if I am brutally honest), but a real hands on experience with the game itself was what I was craving. Thanks to some serious patience and a pair of pretty sharp elbows I managed to get myself into a 15 minute hands-on demo with the game.
Before being unleashed into the wild, we were treated to an introduction to the game through a short trailer. Through this we glimpsed some of the fascinating tale behind the game and its main character.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is set a thousand years into the future of the Earth. Mankind as we know it is no more and any remaining humans have returned to their tribal neolithic roots. The Earth is now ruled by huge sentient but animal-like machines. The mystery of how this dystopic future came about appears to be tied closely to the backstory of its feisty protagonist, the huntress Aloy.
Aloy is a young woman with a mysterious past. Whilst she lives as a hunter, amongst other warriors of her tribe she is referred to as an outcast along with the man who has raised her. Her true parentage and origins are part of the enigma that needs to be unraveled as you progress through the game. Her true identity and the secrets of this ‘neolithic-punk’ world are clearly tightly interlinked and a much deeper mystery is hinted at in the trailer. However, much beyond this quite basic outline the developers Guerilla games are being very tight lipped about the contents of main narrative. That is for us to discover when we play the full game.
For now, we know that some force is corrupting machines that live in Aloy’s world and threatening the tribespeople’s way of life. So she sets out to investigate. Aloy has a connection to the robotic beasts that the other tribesmen do not through the use of a small device that she found as a child and now wears on her ear. It allows her to scan the machines and identify their weaknesses, making them easier to hunt.
Aloy’s true identity and the secrets of this ‘neolithic-punk’ world are clearly tightly interlinked and a much deeper mystery for us to discover when we play is hinted at in the trailer for the game.
The stage set, we were finally let loose on the demo itself and given control of Aloy, albeit in a limited area of the map of the huge open world. The lush grassland environments that I saw were gorgeous from the gentle wafting of the long grass in which you could stealthily hide Aloy, to the softly changing light of the sun setting behind the mountains as the level progressed. Even playing on the good old standard PS4 it looked incredible and felt realistic. It was also enormous fun to play.
We were set various challenges to complete in the 15 minute window for the demo. It looked like these challenges would be a feature of the main game, giving you trials to complete whilst exploring the world between main quests.
The first task was to capture ourselves a mount from a small herd of robot horse-like creatures called Broadheads. This turned out to be no mean feat as these machines behaved just like many organic herd animals and were likely to become quite skittish if disturbed. They were also guarded by three velociraptor-esque robots known as Watchers, another one of the huge variety of robot creatures you will encounter during the game. Watchers are programmed to guard and will become aggressive at the slightest provocation. Luckily, Aloy comes equipped with a diverse range of weaponry which you can add to during the game through a detailed crafting system. Crafting supplies are limited and are mainly harvested from the machines themselves, so you need to strategise your approach.
Aloy’s primary weapon is a bow which can fire different types of arrows to either inflict damage or exploit a machine’s weakness. For example, the Ropecaster arrow allows for you to pin a robot in place, making it easier to close in with your melee weapon and finish the job. Perfect for trapping skittish robots with a desire to flee. Her spear, as well as being used for close combat, also allows Aloy to override a machine’s circuitry and take control of it. This action takes time though and leaves you vulnerable to counterattack so you need to plan your moves carefully, mixing and matching the right skills and technologies to find the perfect way to combat your enemies and complete your goals.
Using a combination of stealth, technology, outright brutality and dumb luck, I managed finally to claim a Broadhead mount of my own which allowed me to gallop off and experience some of rich grassland environments surrounding me. Here I soon uncovered another machine known as a Shellback, a heavy shielded robot that packs a hefty punch but also carries valuable resources on its back, precious crafting materials that could be turned into traps, bombs or arrows. Scanning the robot with Aloy’s special earpiece highlighted the weak spots showing that a crafty hit and run assault could be attempted. A well placed arrow could knock the container off the machine, allowing Aloy to rob it and hightail it out of there before getting clobbered. Of course, that is just one of several approaches you could take, the multi-strategy approach being a key facet of both mini-quests such as this and the main quests overall.
Combat and movement in general felt very natural on the controller. Aloy’s movement from stealthy crouch, to walk, to fast run was smooth and responsive and she took to leaping over rocks and trees rather than making a slow climb. The fast, connected movements that you would expect of a skilled hunter are an essential element of the game. The archery mechanic which will no doubt be vital to survival the main game also felt very natural. Horseback archery is not only possible but will be absolutely necessary against some of the faster machines later in the game. The only thing I really struggled with was getting my Broadhead into a gallop once I had captured it. The button to switch Aloy from a stealthy crouch to a upright run was different to that required to dig your heels into your mount. Unfortunately for me this meant a couple of shameful deaths at the claws of the guarding Watchers as I made the slowest imaginable getaway on my pilfered mount.
As a massive open world RPG, Horizon: Zero Dawn prides itself on being fully explorable. We were told that if you see a mountain and want to go to it, you can. Whether you get clobbered by a high-level robot when you get there will be the only limiting factor to your progress. From the look of the trailer there will be some pretty challenging machines out there to defeat in the shape of robo-eagles, crocodiles and even some giant robo T-Rex’s, not to mention the corrupted machines which spew toxic poison and will in some cases present a boss-level challenge to Aloy’s progress.
In the limited time I had with the game I have to admit I was completely hooked. As a sucker for action-RPGs with mysterious deep narratives set in open worlds showcasing gorgeous graphical landscapes, I was always going to be an easy sell on this one. I think it will certainly fill a large Witcher 3 shaped hole that has been left in my life.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is set to be released on Friday March 3rd 2017 and I personally cannot wait.