Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Jurassic Sparks

Horizon Zero Dawn

From the makers of Killzone comes Horizon Zero Dawn: a far-flung vision of hunting robot dinosaurs. Matthew Pellett explores the newest, most exciting universe on PS4…

Every Jurassic Park fan should know how this one goes: “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God.” But Killzone dev Guerrilla Games has put its own spin on the rest of that classic Hollywood quote for its brand new IP Horizon Zero Dawn: “Man creates robo-dinosaurs. Robo-dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the Earth.”

A brand-new, PlayStation exclusive series by one of Sony’s most-trusted and respected teams, Horizon Zero Dawn paints a gorgeous picture of the world more than 1,000 years from now. Nature has reclaimed our cities, mankind has been reduced to little more than a scattered set of primitive tribes, and giant robotic dinosaurs – a.k.a. the machines – roam the wilds.

A strictly single-player, thirdperson action-RPG, you are outcast hunter Aloy. Armed with a compound bow and more crafting skills than a cube-headed bloke named Steve, Horizon sees you tracking and hunting specific machines across the vast, entirely load-free open-world, and using mixtures of stealth, traps and face-to-fang combat to harvest what you need from their bodies.


“We felt we had quite an original composition and combination of elements with the robots and the nature, so we also felt like it needed an original and strong character to go with that,” explains game director Mathijs de Jonge of Aloy’s origins.

“One of the directions we were very interested in was a character like Sarah Connor in Terminator, Ripley in Alien or, more recently, Ygritte from Game Of Thrones; very strong female characters. That’s where we started.”

And strong she most certainly is. A ‘kindred spirit’ with the machines and a warrior who hunts for materials, not sport, you can definitely see those shades of Ygritte in protagonist Aloy – not just in her wildlings-like garb or her bow and arrow, but her ability to take control of any situation and roll with the punches. Even if those punches happen to be administered by a metallic paw bigger than her entire body. And that paw attached to a whopping T-rex-like machine called the Thunderjaw – an 80ft long, 33ft high, very angry hunk of metal.

Yes, mention Horizon to anybody who saw Guerrilla Games’ E3 presentation and that iconic scrap between Aloy and the robo-rex is what sticks in the mind. And the stats don’t stop there: its model contains 550,000 polygons, and the dino boasts 271 different animations, 67 visual effects and 60+ hit reactions.

Attacks? How many do you want? It has 12 to pick from, including lasers, a gatling gun, tail swipes, tail stomps and bites. Its Disc Launcher alone has three attacks (including a 360° spin) to gun you down quicker.

More impressive still is the number 93: that’s how many different panels you can shoot off its body, each one with its own HP values. Beneath some of them you’ll find glowing orange cables (weak points, essentially) that result in triple-damage when struck. We flesh out the fight in even more detail on p62, but know that between the Thunderjaw’s ability to smash up the environment – snapping thick trees like matchsticks and obliterating mounds of rock as if they were foam blocks – with its strength, its own various physical defects and Aloy’s wealth of skill tree and weapon options, the encounter can unfold in scores of different ways.

But let’s rewind. HP values? Skill trees? Just how deep do those role-playing elements of the action-RPG genre go? Pretty deep, actually: there are full economies to be found in the cities of Horizon’s huge world, and, “the world is completely open,” offers de Jonge, “so you could go anywhere and pick up side-quests wherever you encounter them.”

There’s even a levelling bar in the top right of the HUD – in our private demo Aloy’s half way between levels 12 and 13, and she can gain more XP by completing quests, taking down machines or, simply, discovering new areas of the map for the first time.


As we watch Aloy creeping around Horizon’s lush environment it’s clear she’s at one with the world. Her current quest involves finding the trail of, and then tracking, a herd of stag-like Grazers across multiple areas in order to slice the canisters filled with green goo from their backs. That liquid is an important resource for one of the game’s tribes. As she moves closer to the mob, we see her sliding down angled rock faces, crouching and creeping through ferns and bushes to remain out of the gaze of the velociraptor-like Watcher sentry machines, and vaulting over boulders to quickly duck out of sight.

To save time during a very busy press conference, Guerrilla’s E3 showing involved running towards the Grazers, bow raised, and firing at the pack to kill them as quickly as possible – the Alphas sticking around to protect the rest. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is how encounters will unfold when you’re playing the game, as Aloy’s packing a wide range of weapons and tools to help plan and execute much smarter strategies than simply charging in, indiscriminately pinging arrows around the place without any further thought.

Holding L1 brings up the weapon wheel. There are four segments in all for four different equipped weapons, but each segment has a further three partitions for different ammunition types. In our private demo, Aloy’s able to select explosive, armour piercing or electric arrows for her bow – that final one unleashing a crippling shock attack that drains the stamina meters of machines, temporarily preventing them from fighting back.

Horizon Zero Dawn


Of more interest in this particular scenario, however, is the ropecaster tool. Reminiscent of a crossbow, one of its ammo types is an explosive tripwire. With the Grazers unaware of her presence, Aloy begins to create a web of booby-trapped cabling by anchoring the metal-tipped rope ends into trees and rock.

Trap set, it’s time to execute the plan. Given that the herd’s grazing in a wide and completely open field, it’s imperative not to startle them from the wrong position and therefore send them galloping off into the undergrowth at the opposite end of the area. So Aloy selects an explosive arrow for her bow, aims a looping arc high over the Grazers and triggers an explosion. Sure enough, the detonation frightens the beasts and they charge past Aloy and straight into the awaiting ropes, leaving her to gather up the fallen canisters once the stampede has ended.

The nature of each encounter depends entirely on the machines you face. In this instance, the herd’s out in the open so a tactic involving multiple kills in a short space of time is a must lest you want to keep tracking the escapees in order to secure the rest of the canisters required for the quest.

The Thunderjaw fight, meanwhile, is a longer, more thoughtful battle that involves multiple tactics within a short space of time in order to unpick the puzzle of its armour. The best method of taking it down quickly involves targeting the power core on its right flank and then the AI core in its brain, and the ropecaster’s tie-down rope ammo comes in handy for reaching the latter: tethering an injured Thunderjaw to the ground with enough rope can cause it to topple over, giving you a clear run at the weak point on the top of its head.

Patrolling Watcher machines can be avoided entirely if you’re stealthy. Smart use of long ‘stealth grass’ and natural cover will see you avoid confrontation altogether, although if you’re feeling particularly oilthirsty it’s possible to stealth-takedown these machines from your hiding spot like a more-fantastical take on the Assassin’s Creed series.

Where did these machines come from, exactly? For now Guerrilla isn’t saying, but the studio promises we’ll find out during the story. “They have a purpose,” insists senior producer Mark Norris. “They’re symbiants with the world of Horizon, and they’re incredibly important to you. Aloy has a purpose and they have a purpose, and perhaps those are intertwined.

“Where did the robots come from? Why are they here at this specific point in time? How are they powered? Why do they look the specific way they do? Those are questions you will answer when you play Horizon.”


Whatever the tale behind the machines’ genesis, Aloy’s clearly going to need to adapt in order to survive the threat they pose. Trained up as a master craftsman, Aloy can build new gear with the kit she scavenges.

“The weapons are a combination of natural elements found inside the environment and parts from the different machines in Horizon Zero Dawn,” continues Norris. “You combine them for weapons, ammo and outfits – you can see on Aloy herself the machine parts she uses.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to spend hours inside crafting menus, by the way. In the middle of a scrap, you’re able to gather up materials knocked off the bodies of machines and use quickcrafting to instantly replenish ammo reserves. Bringing up the weapon wheel slows down (but doesn’t stop) time, and provided you’ve got the right materials you can craft new ammunition with the face buttons: tapping 'cross' builds a single arrow, while hitting 'square' creates a batch of five.

It therefore pays to search the carcasses of all dead machines to harvest parts, whether they’ll be rolled directly into new kit or simply sold or traded with one of the game’s tribes for other materials. And it also pays to go searching – we’re promised mysterious loot will be waiting in areas mankind has never visited.

“We are a role-playing game, and that means there is loot,” underlines Norris. “And there’s a pretty good amount of it!

“This game is very much exploring what primitive humanity might mean, and what its ability to survive against overwhelming odds might look like in a world filled with high technology.”


To get that technology just right, Guerrilla itself has to drastically change the way it develops its games.

“We’ve made a new layout for the entire design team,” says game director de Jonge. “For example, we have one group that is made out of different disciplines – we sit together and they only work on the robots. Previously the disciplines were more in isolation. Of course, we always tried to have as much co-operation as possible, but now we know this game really needs people to sit together to really work on the biggest elements.”

“We always joke here that Mathijs has set up the world’s most sophisticated robo-team,” chips in Guerrilla’s co-founder and managing director Hermen Hulst with a chuckle. “That includes robot designers and robot animators and robot concept artists… It’s an entire wing here at the studio that he’s been toying around with.”

External hires have been important to the project as well, with the Amsterdam studio hiring lead cinematic, quest and technical designers from The Witcher 3 developer CD Projekt RED. Fallout New Vegas fans, meanwhile, should be delighted to know that its lead writer, John Gonzalez, is now heading up the story to Horizon Zero Dawn.

It means that Guerrilla isn’t just sprinting head-first into an unknown genre for the studio and hoping it all works – it’s hiring the best people who’ve proven their talents across the defining role-playing games of the past few years.

Horizon Zero Dawn


The result of all those changes? Horizon is without question the most exciting new exclusive franchise – and both Sony and Guerrilla aren’t coy about the fact that this is a series rather than a one-off – to emerge from Sony since The Last Of Us.

More importantly, it’s one that exists in a genre atypical of exclusive games. Vast role-playing adventures are usually the stuff of multiformat releases, not console-exclusives, but Sony is investing in a world that looks set to overshadow all others when it’s released next year. And given that 2016’s lineup currently includes Uncharted 4, The Last Guardian and Ratchet & Clank, Horizon is something truly, truly special.