Horizon: Zero Dawn is the latest epic from Guerrilla Games, developers of the Killzone series, releasing on February 28 for PlayStation 4.
Guerrilla Games’ first new IP since Killzone back in 2004, Horizon: Zero Dawn is yet another action-RPG in a year already filled with exciting action-RPGs. Even alongside stalwarts like Red Dead and Zelda, however, Horizon stands out because of its originality.
Of course, do not take that the wrong way. Just about nothing the player does in Horizon: Zero Dawn has not been done before. But those other games that have inspired Horizon—The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, Dark Souls and Monster Hunter—are all massive franchises with established formulas. On the other hand, Horizon introduces players to a brand new story with no strings attached. This would be impossible for the game’s influences, being so far into their own long-running series.
Many centuries after the collapse of a society much like our modern world, players control Aloy, a young hunter in a caveman-like group of humans. Rather than a dusty, post-apocalyptic wasteland, though, Aloy’s world is green and thriving—taking the “Life After People” approach of a game like The Last of Us or Enslaved to an even greater extreme. In this world, humans have been wrested from the top of the food chain by the Machines, advanced robots that resemble many different Earth creatures, living and extinct.
Players explore the game’s open world, completing quests, crafting items and trying to uncover the mysteries of history. Like Monster Hunter, an important part of Horizon: Zero Dawn comprises defeating large enemies in order to gain vital resources; and like Dark Souls, the means of defeating these enemies will have to be discovered through trial-and-error, instead of through tutorials.
As distinct as Horizon‘s RPG structure is from Guerrilla Games’ FPS heritage, they are not straying too far from their best established qualities. The technical visuals, courtesy of Guerrilla’s “Decima” engine (also powering Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding) are typically excellent, and the music by Guerrilla mainstay Joris de Man is sure to also be outstanding. There is even a continuity between the artistic design of Horizon‘s Machines and the artistic design of Killzone, since both games still share artists.
The one weak point in the past has been Guerrilla Games’ lack of storytelling chops. Like the contemporaneous Gears of War series, the story of Killzone employed empty spectacle and dramatic shortcuts instead of a compelling narrative. Having a simple narrative is not strictly bad for such games—as what really matters in a shooter is the shooting, not the story—but open-world adventures like Horizon demand a more interesting reason for the action. If Guerrilla are aiming to compete with Red Dead and The Witcher, a high priority should be improving the quality of their stories.
With the Killzone series, Guerrilla Games have always aimed high in visual presentation, and their efforts are praised around the game industry. In the last ten years, only Naughty Dog has rivalled their technical expertise in developing for PlayStation platforms.
Yet, in spite of world-class efforts by their programmers, artists and designers, Guerrilla’s Killzone series was always too narratively bland and out-of-step to earn a spot in the gaming zeitgeist. This is especially true when contrasted with Naughty Dog’s much more colourful and crowd-pleasing Uncharted games.
By the time Killzone: Shadow Fall released, it became obvious that the ambition and ability (save in the lacklustre story department) of Guerrilla Games had outgrown their original pitch of making a “Halo-killer” for Sony.
Horizon: Zero Dawn went into production shortly after the release of Killzone 3 in 2011, and according to director Mathijs de Jonge was the riskiest of about 40 game concepts they had pitched. It seems that, despite the risks involved, the developers of Guerrilla were as anxious as their fans to see their talents applied to a setting other than Killzone. At first, a team of 10 to 20 worked on various prototypes for the game, with the rest of the studio coming on board after the 2013 release of Shadow Fall.
Recognising the changes they would need to make, moving from a linear shooter to an open world (as well as the story necessities), Guerrilla also brought on talent from across the industry in several key fields—including John Gonzalez, the lead writer of Fallout: New Vegas, another open world RPG.
Announced officially during Sony’s presentation at E3 2015, Horizon was originally slated for a 2016 release, but was pushed back to allow for more polish, continuing the PS4’s trend of one year’s big holiday game becoming the next year’s early release (expect God of War to drop in early 2018, if not 2019).
Unlike so many releases of its ilk, there has been very little evidence of behind-the-scenes trouble with Horizon: Zero Dawn, suggesting a strong beginning for the big-budget action-RPG. Though the developer is mostly famous for visuals that squeeze the most out of the hardware they are on, their willingness to hire outside talent indicates their dedication to making the best product possible.
These days, most console exclusives are roller coaster rides made to compete with Uncharted and Call of Duty. For a publisher aside from 2K or Bethesda to put out a massive, player-driven RPG is a risk that we hope pays off—and with Guerrilla Games’ solid technical track record, Horizon: Zero Dawn is likely to be one of the least problematic launches of 2017, making it easy to list as one of OnlySP’s most anticipated games.