Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I think Horizon Zero Dawn is my game of the show.

Mmm-m!  Look at that header.

A cave girl, hunting a robotic tyrannosaurus rex.

Imagine the concept art for that moment.  I want to play that - and the closer you look at Horizon, the more exciting it becomes.

1 : Passionate devs make great games. 

There were rumors for a long time suggesting Guerrilla's next game would be a fantastical RPG.  This is... a vast departure from what the studio has done before and I, for one, couldn't be happier about it.  When a studio strikes out in a different direction, the results are always... at least memorable, if not spectacular.  Think about it.

Naughty Dog, ditching Jak & Daxter for Uncharted, and then into The Last of Us.

The Creative Assembly, going from RTS games to Alien: Isolation.

EA Redwood Shores, going from licensed Simpsons crap to Dead Space.

Sucker Punch, going from Sly Cooper to inFamous.

So many triple-As are produced because someone holding the purse strings told a development studio what they're doing next.  Fresh, original, inspired triple-A games get made because The Money Suit walked into a studio and asked those developers what they want to make - and I don't believe for a moment that a suit came up with the concept for Horizon.

2 : A triple-A first-party role playing game.

This feels like something that's been a long time coming, from Sony.  Their western first-party studios tend to excel at presentation and often storytelling - core strengths of triple-A RPGs - and I've secretly nursed a hope for years that Naughty Dog would go this rout, as narrative becomes more and more important to the studio.

How many significant triple-A western RPG development studios can you name?  Off the top of my head, only three come to mind - Bethesda, BioWare and CD Projekt.  After them, you've got the high-quality but lower-tier studios like Obsidian, then you're in to indies and that's... that's about it.

Third-party triple-A exclusive RPGs have been a modern trope ever since Microsoft shelled out for Lost Odyssey, but a third-party partnership is vastly different from a first-party development.  I mean, third-party stuff can be phenomenal - Bayonetta and Bloodborne are proof enough of that - but first-party development is where you end up with just... exhaustively polished stuff like Halo, Gears of War, The Last of Us and God of War.

Beautifully, I can't name an RPG in that list because Horizon might be the first one.  A first-party triple-A RPG is a powerful idea, to me.  It positively reeks of potential, and the concept for Horizon is... it's just... gleeful.

3 : This made my inner child's head explode.

You are Aloy - a cave girl who hunts robotic dinosaurs in the ruins of our (present day) civilization.  If your inner child isn't squirming with excitement at the very thought, I have a tiny emotional casket you may need.

Consider the story of Atlantis.  An ancient civilization so advanced it appears supernatural to outside observers.  The idea is thousands of years old, but Horizon casts the ancient, advanced civilization as our own.

Also, cave girl hunts robosaurs.

4 : Smart, organic design. 

Like The Last of Us, the gameplay, as shown, feels like it was created to fit into the strange world they're suggesting, and not the other way around.  When the gameplay begins, Aloy drops down a slope and immediately slips into some tall grass, sneaking towards an unsuspecting robo-raptor - a Watcher, she calls it.  It senses movement in the grass, and the cool blue light of its single "eye" turns yellow - classic stealth feedback - and we know that it knows something's up. It's searching.

This does not appear in the UI (which consists of an ammo counter) - it exists only in the game world, a'la Dead Space.

The Watcher cranes its neck up and flashing pulses of grid-patterned light splash across the grass. One pulse.  Two.  It raises its neck as high as it can.  Three.

It knows Aloy's there.  It takes a step back, turns its profile to the grass and stretches itself out before letting loose with a howl that sounds like a submarine's emergency alarm.  Aloy doesn't hesitate.

"No you don't!" She springs forward and fires her spear into a very precise spot, just above and behind its leg.

With a buzzing whine, the Watcher's lights blink and fade as it collapses.  "Shh, shhh, shh..." She tries to soothe it, as it dies. "Sorry, little one."

She gives... a lot of respect to this thing she kills.  A lot about her design - and her behaviour - says Native American.  Her tools are made from parts of the machines she hunts.  Her bow - her blade - all gleaming scraps of metal cobbled into lethal points.

Aloy explains to us that hers is a tribal culture.  There are humble villages

and there are great kings,

and then there's her.  She tells us that her tribe was the first to begin hunting the machines - but she didn't come here to kill anything.

Today, she tumbles stealthily between patches of safe long grass, sneaking up on four-legged deer-like machines which are placidly grazing in the valley.  Each machine holds a clutch of four tubes on its back, sloshing with a cool green liquid.  "Those canisters should be full by now," she says.

She draws her bow, aims at one of the canisters and lets fly.  The canister pops from the machine's back and falls, the herd's light-eyes flicker from blue to red - classic feedback - and Aloy darts forward to snap up the canister.  The herd begins to flock away and she chases after them, desperately trying to knock a few more of those curious canisters loose as they run.

5 : What a world.

And all this raises so many questions!

What's in the canisters?

Why do the grazers produce it?  Is it just for each individual machine's benefit, or does their whole mecha-dino ecosystem somehow rely on this green stuff?  If so who or what removes the green stuff to share with the other robosaurs?

Why does Aloy need what's in the canisters?

The game takes place one thousand years - fifty generations - after the fall of our civilization.  Aloy's people don't know what happened to the Old Ones - which begs the question,

What happened to the Old Ones?

Did they all get killed by the awesome robots they invented?  That certainly seems implied.

Why are there still dinobots?  They're all clean, gleaming and sharp-looking.  These aren't the rusty remnants of a millennium-old civilization - these things are new - which begs the question,

Where do they come from now?  Do they manufacture themselves?  Have these mechanical ultra-lizards somehow evolved in the last thousand years to reproduce, their form and functions shaped by time and the imperative to survive, or did the Old Ones actually design and produce dinobots?

If so, explain the grazers to me because I am fascinated.

Now, some fresh deets have dropped after media interviews, and here's the deal with Horizon.

A team of twenty began working on it as soon as Killzone 3 wrapped.  Then, after Killzone: Shadow Fall shipped in late 2013, the rest of the team moved over to Horizon.

Guerrilla describe it as, "by far," the largest game they've ever made. Hunting the machines is tied directly in to your progress, as only they offer the resources you'll need to craft new weapons, ammo and tools.  They consider the crafting to be a "key component," of the game, and note that it has "a lot" of quests.

It is completely open-world, and described as "seamless."  I hope that means it's true open-world, and not a series of large maps like Witcher III.

Finally, taking down the 'bots isn't just a matter of firing arrows into them until they conk out.

6 : Tactical robosaur takedowns.

Take the robo-tyrannosaur fight.  Aloy switches between four different arrows for that battle - each with a different purpose.

She begins with shock arrows.  One fired into the armor of the head and side don't do much, but when she puts one in to the exposed parts of the machine's leg, it erupts in crackling electricity, and the thing is momentarily stunned.  This is where things get really interesting.

She switches to a broadhead arrow and plants one in what I can only describe as a missile pod on the thing's back.  It leaps off, crashes into the grass, and then she picks it up and uses it to start blowing great panels off the side of the machine.  One lost panel exposes a glowing core.

But Aloy's not done switching arrows yet.  She pulls out the quad-stringed crossbow the older man showed her earlier in the trailer and launches a bolt into her quarry - it's called the Ropecaster.

She aims at the ground and plants the other end of the rope arrow and repeats, pinning the tyranno-bot with four ropes that it strains against before, ultimately, collapsing.

Finally, she switches to an explosive head, time dilates, and she puts the arrow into the core she exposed.  There's a great bloom of fire, the roborex groans, heaves up and collapses, and the game switches to an in-engine cutscene showing Aloy jabbing her short spear into a glowy part on the underside of its head.

That last part - the cutscene and the weird, limp final blow against the machine - are the only parts of this trailer that didn't thrill me to my core.

Everything else is frosting.  This whole thing is the best part of the cake.

7 : All the frosting.

This is the game Guerrilla want to make, which means they're gonna' make it guuud.

For the first time, a western triple-A first-party studio is going to make an RPG.  Oops, pardon me,

An open-world triple-A first-party RPG.

The gameplay is a mix of stealth, third-person shooting, Monster Hunter dodging, environmental weaponization and tactical takedowns that seem dictated by the world Guerrilla have imagined here, and not the other way 'round.

There are quests.  I hope these include a contract to hunt a pack of robo-wolves, because that would be awesome.

The universe is fascinating, with so many interesting questions.  Who are the Kings in that big middle-ages-esque city?  Will Aloy ever go to one of the Old Ones' cities?  What is keeping the machines "alive"?

You are a cave girl, and you hunt robot dinosaurs.

Cave girl
robot dinosaurs.

Game of the show. 

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