What We Loved About Our Hands-On Time With Horizon Zero Dawn

We’ve already seen how breathtaking the world of Horizon is, but how does the game actually play? I went hands-on with it for a few hours during our cover story trip to Guerrilla Games, and Jeff Marchiafava spent some time with the game at E3 this year. We both came away liking what we played. Find out what we both found so intriguing about the gameplay and its systems by reading our conversation below.

Kim: I got to play a newer area than you, but Guerrilla also let me play what you did at E3. I know based on your impressions then, you came away positive. What did you think worked well?

Jeff M: Yeah. Like a lot gamers, I was instantly intrigued by Horizon when it was revealed – it doesn’t get much cooler than robot dinosaurs! However, the fact that it was coming from Guerrilla made me a bit skeptical of what the gameplay would be like. Not that I have anything against the Killzone series, but transitioning from a first-person shooter series to an open-world, third-person action/RPG is a big change of pace. However, it only took a few minutes with the controller in hand to allay those fears. In terms of the sheer nuts and bolts of the mechanics, I thought Aloy was really fast and responsive; running around, dodging, and climbing up cliffs all felt really good, which is important when you’re getting chased by giant mechanical beasts. What was the first thing that stood out to you?

Kim: Yeah, it’s rare you see a developer change the genre it’s known for, AND go after its first open-world game, which is an undertaking in and of itself. I was super-concerned Horizon’s controls would be a bit too complicated for me. It seemed like there was so much going on I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep up and remember all the inputs to unleash the right skills. However, I adapted to the controls really quickly; everything felt really responsive, smooth, and easy to learn. Yes, things are chaotic, especially when machines alert each other and you find yourself in the middle of a big swarm of them, but I like that Guerrilla gives you so many ways to approach the combat, and that at any time you can run away if things get too complicated and come back with a new strategy. One thing Guerilla stressed during our trip was how much it wants people to be able to play this game their way and experiment with strategies. There’s something very tactical about it; I liked planning for each situation. For instance, do I just try to stealth kill as many machines as I can? Or do I throw down a tripwire (which stuns machines with an electric wave) and then go in for kills? I like that so much of the gameplay is about learning what works for you. Did you find yourself leaning toward one tactic more than others? That tripwire was like my best friend for a good chunk of my time.

Jeff M: I tend to go the stealth route whenever it’s offered in games, and Aloy’s sneaking skills didn’t disappoint. This was another big relief for me – some open-world games like the Assassin’s Creed series have never really nailed stealth tactics, but it felt like a viable option in Horizon. The way Aloy automatically hides in tall grass reminded me of Uncharted 4’s stealth mechanics, but I also felt like I had a wider variety of tools at my disposal. I used the ropecaster quite a bit during my playtime to pin enemies down – especially the giant corruptor I fought at the end of my demo. Did you go toe-to-toe with that thing? 

Kim: I was surprised with just how effectively the stealth worked; it’s definitely the way to go to kill the machines if you can. And yes, I did take on that giant corruptor. I feel like boss battles are on a whole other level. The bosses are just so cool and massive, but all require skill and quick thinking to take down. When I played, I kept feeling this big adrenaline rush, as I dodged every which way to avoid the big attacks. Every machine has its own weaknesses and smart ways to take them down. The corruptor was insane because he could turn all these machines against you and then it’s a complete frenzy. I used the ropecaster to mount a machine and make it become my friend, haha. That was cool because mounting a machine like a broadhead allows you to outrun other machines. On the other hand, if you get off your mount, it will start attacking the other machines for you. It helps to have a buddy to distract the other evil machines. What were your big takeaways from that boss battle?

Jeff M:I was surprised and impressed by how difficult it was, first of all. A lot of games get compared to Dark Souls nowadays, but it evoked the same kind of pressure and challenge from me. At the same time, it felt less scripted, like these are just machines you will occasionally come across in the world – you don’t have to walk through a fog door in order to trigger a battle with them. The corruptor I fought ended up chasing me all over the forest; I would launch an attack, find out that it wasn’t doing much damage, and then be forced to retreat as I came up with a better plan. It wasn’t frustrating though, in part I think because the controls hold up and you have a bunch of options at your disposal. When I finally defeated it, I felt a real sense of achievement. I know you played more of the game than I saw at E3. Did anything new stand out during your extended playtime? 

Kim: I don’t know if you had much of this in your demo, but the ability to climb up mountains to set up my strategy was really helpful. I also thought the A.I. was really smart. Although I used that strategy to get an edge, as soon as they saw me, they’d go straight for the mountain and target me. One even jumped over my tripcaster; I was shocked that happened. I think you hit the nail on the head earlier. Battles do get challenging, but they never feel frustrating because you always feel like you have an “out” or can just retreat and find something else. For instance, on one big boss, I died like two or three times, but I kept coming back with determination to beat it. I love when games do that to me, where I feel like I want to get right back in the ring after getting my butt kicked.

Did you get to do much platforming? We just saw that cool footage this week at the PlayStation event, where Aloy was climbing up one of the massive Tallneck machines. That was awesome! I’m hoping there is more of those types of interactions. I just love that it feels like there’s so much variety to every encounter. Just when I think the game has no more tricks up its sleeve, I discover all these different things. Like in my demo, I was able to stealth kill from above by running across a tightrope that connected to two big trees. Machines also look super different (and scarier!) at night, and the weather can affect the difficulty as well. You won’t be able to see those beasts as easily in the fog. The impression I got is we haven’t even seen a fraction of what you can do in that game or the world. Later on you can get a rocket launcher! Can you imagine the machines you’ll be taking down with that? Guerrilla indicated there are so many different machines they haven’t even revealed yet. I feel this great sense of excitement when I explore for that very reason. 

Jeff M: I did watch that footage, and it was crazy – it definitely sells the sense of “giant robot dinosaur,” and it’s cool you can actually interact with them in that way. When Aloy finally got to the top and used her override ability, it looks like the signal that it sent out marked areas on her map. Maybe it’s kind of like climbing towers in Assassin’s Creed? Whether it’s a repeated mechanic or just a one-off mission though, those are things that continue to get me excited about the game. I always reserve a healthy amount of skepticism for what I see of a pre-release game, and even what I play of a pre-release game, but so far Horizon hasn’t disappointed. One thing I didn’t see much in my demo was any sense of progression. Did you get a sense of how much “RPG” there is in this Action/RPG?

Kim: As an RPG fan, that’s what I was most interested in, and I felt like there’s a good balance between the action and RPG elements. Guerrilla wants this game to be accessible to everyone, so it doesn’t go super deep with the upgrade system, but you find different modifications for you armor and weapons that can greatly improve them. Also, for the upgrade system, you pretty much have the freedom to pick the abilities that match your playstyle, whether that’s stealth or melee. It definitely isn’t just getting the RPG label for the sake of it. Guerrilla made this world feel alive beyond just those machines. 

Various side quests are available; some you even have a choice in, and they affect the quest line and what happens down the road in your game. Don’t expect it to be like The Witcher in terms of scope and consequence, but Guerrilla definitely put an effort into making the world believable and exciting. You can hunt to craft your armor and ammo, NPCs will just call out to you for help as you explore, and then they packed the world with cool relics and other things for you to find that tell more about its history. I was impressed with how much time they spent building up the lore. It looks like areas are split by environments, so the new one we saw was the desert, which was just gorgeous even for a desert! Plus, all the tribes in these different parts have different ways of life and beliefs. There’s even quests to give you more insight on these tribes. In the end, I just feel like there’s a good mix of things for every type of player. Whether you get into the lore of games or just want memorable fights. We’ve been pretty positive throughout this, but on an ending note, let’s just discuss what you’re most excited about and what your biggest concern is. 

Jeff M: The thing I’m most excited about is still what I was first excited about – the premise of pseudo cavemen/women running around with giant robot dinosaurs is a cool sci-fi twist, and based on everything we’ve seen so far, Guerrilla is really thinking about the different species to make them believable (as much as robot dinosaurs can be, anyway). As far as concerns, I think this is another case where gamers will be wary (now more than ever) of everything we’ve seen being “too good to be true.” As I said, I haven’t seen anything to let me down yet, but I am interested in what long-term progression looks like; will you be doing the same things 30 hours into the game, or will new weapons/abilities/enemy types really keep things fresh for the long haul? It certainly sounds like Guerrilla has a lot of content planned, so I hope we end up seeing all that variety in the final game. What about you?

Kim: You’re right about that. Usually when I see games, I have a few apprehensions or things that I’m thinking, “I hope they fix that by the time the game launches.” I’ve been skeptical about Horizon because it looks so damn good, but my hands-on time made even more excited to dive in. Guerrilla isn’t revealing much about the world or story, so I’m a little concerned there. Open-world games can be difficult to tell great stories in. I feel like The Witcher 3 is one of the best examples of figuring that out, but Guerrilla did hire talent that has experience with open-world games for the narrative. With everything so secretive though, I hope all the reveals are exciting. They kept saying it will make sense for why the world came to be the way it is. I just hope it’s not a stupid, cop-out reason that makes me roll my eyes. That’s about as cynical as I’m going to get, because like I said everything else looks great and I could see myself pouring hours of my life into this. I already like that I’m rooting for Aloy. She’s had a rough life being shunned since birth. I’m sort of hoping I can leave that world feeling like she’s in a better place. Yes, I’m a huge nerd like that!

What has you most excited for Horizon? What has you concerned? Let us know in the comments below.

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