Guerrilla Games' Horizon: Zero Dawn has been highly anticipated by many after its debut E3 showing last year. The game returned to Los Angeles this year, and Pascal Tekaia was able to check it out.
It's hard these days to find a game higher on my personal list of "Upcoming Games to Squee About" than the upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn. Judging by audience reactions at Sony's press conference and the general buzz from the show floor, I don't think I'm alone on this one. I would have been perfectly content to keep basking in beautiful gameplay trailers until the game's release, but in a personal show highlight for me, Day 1 of E3 ended in some hands-on time with the open-world post-post-apocalyptic RPG. I mean, really: high-tech caveman weapons and robosaurs, come on!
The writing was literally on the wall when I sat down in Guerrilla Games' grotto filled with primitive wall paintings, as the "tribe" gathered 'round to watch Andrew from Guerrilla walk us through a live version of the previous day's press conference footage. This time accompanied by personalized play-by-play commentary. Over the next ten minutes or so, I got a second chance to watch as Aloy, the game's heroine, embarks on a mission to come to the aid of a distressed village some distance away. Almost immediately, she runs into some trouble — a cadre of Shell Walkers are milling about right in her path. As was further explained to me, the main function of this heavily-shielded, low-profile bot carrying a large storage silos on its back is to gather and transport resources. "Resources for whom?" was the first thing I wondered, since these mechs aren't inherently friendly to humans. Chalk that question up as one of the mysteries that won't be revealed until the game's launch.
After angering the Shell Walkers, Aloy chose to retreat by running like mad until they'd given up the chase. What followed was a curiously juxtaposed scene: Aloy cowering behind the cover of a large boulder, catching her breath from a mad dash to safety, while just in front of her stretched a meadow with several hares peacefully nibbling on the greenery, only hopping out of the way when she continued on her way past them. A few feet further along, the peace is shattered anew, as a Corrupted Watcher, one of those predatory-shaped bipedal robots, lunges after a man running for his life. After saving the man's life, he tells Aloy of the evil demon he claims to have seen, warning her to stay away from the village she's heading to. We've seen how this ends: Aloy overrides the programming of a Broadhead, an otherwise peaceful robot reminiscent of a cow or a bull, and rides it to the abandoned village, where she meets and engages in a lengthy and violent battle with the demo's boss, the towering Corruptor.
With the Corruptor eventually vanquished, the Guerrilla team ushered me into the next area of its cave, where the hands-on stations awaited. A small section of the open-world sandbox was made available to explore, populated by a score of Broadhead and even a few Corrupted Watchers as a test of combat prowess. I was surprised at Aloy's movement; where I expected a graceful gait consistent with the acrobatics I'd seen up to this point, she felt decidedly heavy and lumbering, which makes for a great opportunity for heavy movement sound design, but felt a little off from what I was expecting. I found out that there are multiple ways the foes, or at least the lesser mobs I faced, can be approached, and rushing in swinging a heavy club may not be the best approach. Instead, Aloy can use the tall grasses growing all over the place to stealthily sneak up to, and right amidst, a herd of mechanical creatures, giving her additional options for dealing with them, such as the heavy-impact sneak attack she can perform on Corrupted Watchers or overriding the computer programming. In particular, the animations of hiding in and then sneaking through the grass thrilled me, watching as each individual blade ripples in the wind or is pushed aside by Aloy moving past it.
As excited as I was about getting some hands-on time with Horizon: Zero Dawn, the experience had a slight let-down. It was easy enough to pull of the already-mentioned maneuvers, each one a single button press once properly positioned. However, I wasn't able to carry out some of the more complicated combat moves, like tethering a foe with a series of rope arrows before dismantling it manually. Maybe I didn't have enough hands-on time with the game to intuit the required steps to do this, or maybe it just could have been better clued within the demo itself. It's hard to say. Overall, a rather minor complaint for what otherwise feels like it'll be an excellent open-world playground. Just not without a concern or two along the way.