Let me get one thing off my chest right off the bat: I am sick and tired of the graphical arms race pushing up the price (and lengthening the production time) of games. We at OSP were having a discussion the other day about how much emphasis people put on graphical quality over gameplay, how people will be perfectly willing to judge a game based on early-production screenshots without knowing (or, God forbid, playing) the mechanics of the game. I think a game like Journey, with a stylized and cohesive art direction, is much more aesthetically pleasing than, say, Uncharted 4 with its much touted mud physics.
Also, I thought Naughty Dog even bothering to show off their mud physics was so indicative of the emphasis on graphics over everything else that I couldn’t help but shake my head.
That isn’t to say that I’m not impressed by pretty graphics, like those I saw when I finally got around to looking into Horizon: Zero Dawn. I might lose some credibility for this, but before I saw this video, I had absolutely no idea what Horizon: Zero Dawn was. Between my day job and the frankly-ludicrous backlog on my Steam account, I find myself with little time to follow games that I would A) cover for OSP or B) never be able to play because I don’t have the hardware. And I don’t have a PS4, so…Playstation exclusives tend to fall off my radar.
I’m also terrified that I’m going to run out and impulse buy a Playstation 4/XBox One if I keep seeing awesome exclusive titles, so there’s that.
But I gotta say, Horizon: Zero Dawn really did pique my interest when I finally got around to checking it out. Sure, lots of people are drooling all over their keyboard any time a screenshot hits the ‘net (and for good reason, the game is seven flavors of gorgeous) but that isn’t enough to impress a snobby video game critic like me, no sirree.
No, what has me cautiously intrigued is the sheer amount of openness and freedom that the game seems to afford (emphasis on the seems…this is still a work in very-early progress). And in a gaming climate where “open world” is becoming so damned ubiquitous that it completely loses its meaning, seeing a game that may actually deliver on the promise of what an open world is supposed to be, to give actual reasons for exploration, is a big deal.
Let’s take a look at the gameplay walkthrough and break down what we’re seeing:
Firstly, completely demeaning my previous point and further damaging my credibility: Horizon is a gorgeous game. The gameplay walkthrough clearly aims to drive this point home and while, on principle, I am not a fan of focusing on graphics, particularly so early in production (showing us pretty pictures is kind of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to building up hype around a game), I can’t help but admit that it works in this case. Every square inch of Horizon’s world looks spit polished to a beautiful sheen.
But more importantly, the graphics seem to be in service to a greater purpose: to sell you on this giant, beautiful world, a world that looks to be a veritable playground. And it’s all cohesive too. While for the most part the landscape looks pretty normal with trees and rocks and other things we’d expect to find out in the wilds, there’s something just a little off about the color pallet and the mist that, combined with the weird robot almost-dinosaurs, borders on the uncanny.
It really makes you feel like you’re exploring an alien landscape which makes the human character (Aloy) almost seem like an intruder in a world in which she doesn’t belong. This makes the idea of exploration even more tantalizing…and all the more threatening. And the fact that exploration seems to be rewarded – lead designer Mark Norris who narrates the video later says that there are hidden items, probably used for crafting, everywhere in the world – makes it all the better.
Beyond just the landscapes, the robot dinosaur things – the robosaurs, if you will – all seem to be creatively-designed and varied in appearance. They all resemble creatures we’d see in the real world…but are not always clear analogues. The weird lanky things we see at the beginning of the video are a great example. They’re clearly animals of some sort but without an obvious analogue to an Earth animal we know, we are unable to simply say “they’re robot giraffes” (which is about as close to describing them as I can get). This adds to the alien feeling of the world and makes us feel even more alone and, indeed, threatened by it. It also makes the world all that much more exciting to explore, because have no idea what we’ll find. If there were just a bunch of creatures that were obviously robotized Earth animals wandering around, we’d know, roughly, what to expect to see. But since things are clearly alien and unfamiliar, our desire to find out what else is hiding over the next rise intensifies.
Secondly, let’s look at the scale of the game. Sure, the world looks huge, but even more impressive than that are that the robosaurs (oh get off your high horse, spell check, I know that’s not a word) themselves are huge. Within the first few minutes of actual gameplay, we see the aforementioned pair of tall, lanky giraffe-like things wandering across the screen and, later in the video, we see something equally huge in scale…and infinitely more hostile: the Thunderjaw.
Is it too soon to start crying “Shadow of Colossus”? The idea of a wide variety of robosaurs is hugely appealing to me, but the idea that they’re so varied – not just in terms of appearance or mechanics but in sheer size as well – is titillating to say the least.
As the video continues on, we see Aloy stalking a beast in the “stealth grass” as Norris explains to us that stealth plays a big role in the game. While this has the potential to be a mixed bag – games in general have had a weird relationship with stealth and I have some minor concerns about what I saw in the trailer – in Horizon, it comes with an interesting implicit promise: an emphasis on hunting.
In the trailer, stalking and killing the robosaurs and looting their body seems to imply that hunting will be a factor in the game. While I don’t generally like collection quests, Horizon, with its primitive and savage aesthetic and wide open world, has a setting that allows collection quests to be more immersive rather than less. Add that to the seemingly-immense amount of freedom you seem to be given in how you approach a problem – as is evidenced by Aloy setting up tripwires to kill the caribou-like robosaurs later in the video – and this stealth and hunting aspect of the game has me pretty psyched.
I spend a lot of time talking about emergent narrative and this freedom that is exhibited by Aloy taking down the herd of animals with a trip wire is very promising in this regard as well. Presumably, how you chose to take out the beasts and take the canisters from them is up to you. Maybe the tripwires is the most effective way to do it, but presumably you’re free to take the task on in any way you can. Moreso, the inclusion of tools like the tripwire launcher hints at other such tools and, conversely, other such creative ways to tackle problems.
Honestly, would we have even thought to do the tripwire trick? How many of us wouldn’t have just gone in there trying to pick off the robosaurs (though honestly, these things look more like reindeer or caribou than dinosaurs, so…robocritters?) with our bow and arrow, possibly to disastrous effect? Clearly this is a game that rewards creative thinking and unique approaches to problems, which is seen later when Aloy fights the Thunderjaw.
The more options – and, as a result, freedom – you give the player, the more rewarding the game is to play. It’s hard to say how many options we have in battle. I suppose it’s possible that the tripwire “trick” we see Aloy use in taking the robodeer out and tying down the Thunderjaw later in the video are really the only way to succeed, but Aloy sure seems like a gal with a lot of tricks and tools in her arsenal. It’s too soon to say, of course, but I really feel like we’re going to be given a lot of mechanical freedom in how we tackle the game’s challenges, and that alone is an appealing feature of the game.
Now, I will admit that there are some minor red flags in the footage, largely starting when Mark Norris mentioned a “quest,” which is always a mixed bag for me in open world games. I hate feeling like I’m on a rail, like there are tasks that I can’t ignore for just aimlessly wandering. I had this problem with Skyrim. When the world is huge and begs for and even rewards exploration but the plot throws this sense of emergency and immediacy at you, it creates a problematic dissonance between gameplay and story.
If the plot says the world is going to end tomorrow but, at the same time, mechanically incentivizes me to explore and waste time, it hurls me right out of the experience.
But this is a minor nitpick at this point since, at this point, we know nothing about the quest system or the plot of the game, and it’s a minor grievance that may be unique to me and me alone, so it almost doesn’t bear mentioning.
Additionally, while hunting seems to play a role in the game based on the walkthrough video, it seems like the only purpose for it is to gather machine parts. I would have desperately loved to see some sort of a survival mechanic wherein you must hunt for food, but that doesn’t seem like it will be a part of the game. This threatens, as I alluded to before, to make the hunting feel more like those much-maligned collection quests – a mere grind rather than anything engaging and immersive – but again, this may simply be a personal preference and it’s hard to really judge the mechanic without seeing more of the game.
And the stealth may be problematic too. As I mentioned before, games have recently had a rocky relationship with stealth and one of my least favorite implementations of it is what I call the “black-and-white approach” that some games have utilized.
A lot of the time, particularly in games that are not primarily stealth games (that is, a shooter with stealth sections, for example), games have a very binary stealth system: either you’re in shadow and you’re hidden or you’re not and everything immediately knows where you are. The mention of “stealth grass” in the video is somewhat problematic to me, making me wonder if Aloy is only hidden (and, conversely, effectively invisible) in this “stealth grass” and if she’s out in the open, everything is immediately aware of her presence. Mechanically, this is a very simple way to implement stealth, which is probably why we see it so much in non stealth-focused games. But it’s immersion breaking to say the least.
Of course we see in the video that Aloy is lurking around the robodeer without them being aware of her presence and without the benefit of this “stealth grass” so it could be that my concerns are unfounded, but it’s still something that I’ll be watching for in future gameplay videos. Again, this isn’t really a make-or-break feature of the game, but it is certainly something that could add a lot to the game if implemented properly…or be a disappointment if not.
What about you, roboreader? Did this video psych you up for Horizon? Or is this just more meaningless hype? I readily admit it’s too early to be raving about the game, but I definitely like what I see. Sound off in the comments below and make sure to follow Only Single Player on Facebook and Twitter (@Official_OnlySP) for more information about Horizon: Zero Dawn and all your other single player needs.