Last week we sat down for several hours worth of hands-on time with Horizon Zero Dawn. The multi-hour, multi-quest playthrough marks the deepest dive anyone, barring a lucky few outside Guerrilla Games, has had with the game since its reveal at E3 2015.
The day’s demo time was split roughly in two. The morning session dealt with the game’s opening hours, while in the afternoon I skipped ahead several quests and hours into the game. The divide, the studio explains, is to avoid spoilers.
Yet even with those early narrative arcs left tantalisingly dangling, this was our most chronologically coherent look at the story so far. I glimpse a younger Aloy, learn of the fractious relationship with the tribe her and her guardian Rost are outcast from, and then are teased with the submerged ruins of an ancient, high-tech world and the quiet violence behind the deaths of its inhabitants.
The latter reveal unnerves. Intrigues. Questions about a world’s ending that linger long past the session’s finish. But answers will have to wait until release. More than teasing the events that’d shape Aloy’s life and kickstart her epic quest across the four corners of the earth, the studio’s intent today is for us just to get lost in its vast expanse.
And get lost I did. With a smattering of main quest lines suggestion only, I veered away from distant GPS markers and struck out into the vibrant wilderness. For several hours I witness and interact with the game’s thriving ecosystem. Wander through the rusting monoliths of past civilisations. Play hunter, become hunted.
Here’s what I discovered.
1. Guerrilla Games has kept a lot close to its chest
It’s quickly clear that the studio has been holding back on revealing the full diversity of its robotic wildlife. The beasts showcased thus far – the already iconic Watchers, Tallnecks and Thunderjaws – are but a small selection of a much larger species count. Discovery of each new mechanical strain delights. Soak in the design, investigate behaviour patterns – it’s hard not to go full David Attenborough.
Reveals aren’t just tied to the bigger story beats. Encounters can be random or tied to smaller side-quests. One of our demo’s most intense moments is when I’m ambushed by a terrifying Stalker. I’m midway through tracking a thief when the beast attacks. Cue a full-blown boss fight as the fleet-footed cheetah-like creature alternatively conceals itself with a cloaking device and uses long-ranged targeting to snipe at our position, and races across the glade to pounce. As quickly as it strikes it vanishes, leaving only a trail of remote mines to mark its passing. It’s a brilliant example of how every creature offers a unique challenge.
2. The world is huge
The Embrace is a lush, sizable valley in which you’ll spend the opening hours of the game as you train for, and take part in, the Nora tribe’s Proving ritual. But it’s just one smaller pocket of a multi-region world map. The demo’s second location, set immediately east of the Embrace and unlocked after a specific story beat, is considerably larger. To the extent that hunting and hacking the nearest Strider for swifter four-legged transport becomes the norm.
3. Discover campfires for save points and quick travel
Campfires need to be unlocked through discovery, but once you’ve done so they double up as save points (quick or manual save for alternate save points) and fast travel points. The game will also automatically save during quests.
4. Know your stealth and noise levels at a glance
You may have noticed an eye-like icon at the top middle of the screen in previous gameplay videos: this illustrates your current stealth status, and will alter as you move. A closed eye means you’re completely hidden. Open states you can be seen, and the more noise you make the more sound waves – up to three – will radiate from the eye. Stay off rocky paths, aim for the long grass and stay crouched (tap Square) to sneak about.
5. Combat crafting
Weapon selection and ammo crafting are tied to the same menu wheel, called up by holding L1. A slow-mo effect comes into play while doing so, letting you alter attack tactics on the fly or quickly craft, say, more arrows (provided you’ve enough materials).
6. Fast foraging
Materials such as wood for arrows and berries for health are highlighted via easily spotted icons in the world. A quick button tap nearby will harvest them in a heartbeat; no losing time to unskippable animations.
Run and tap Square to initiate a slide. While this has obvious combat benefits – letting you duck under a Watcher’s leap, or quickly reach cover – it’s also just good, child-like fun. Find a slope (the steeper, the better) and take a dive.
Aloy’s ear-mounted Focus device lets her scan creatures for weak spots. But it can also be used to ‘read’ items and track things of interest, such as missing people or ‘see’ machine patrol patterns. Similar to tagging enemies, hit R2 to tag a machine’s path and help you plan your next move.
9. Careful aiming counts
Headshots can equal one-hit kills. Necessary when going stealth in bandit or cultist camps to clear them of sentries or snipers. You can also purchase other bow types that exchange slower pulls for longer range and more power.
10. Humans aren’t as endangered as you might think
The Nora tribe. Bizarre cultists. Violent bandits. Cocky strangers. Travelling merchants. Pockets of humanity are hidden in multiple locations across the map… and they’ve usually got a side-quest request.
11. Respect the power of the (mechanical) animal kingdom
Don’t take any creature, great or small, for granted. You can be quickly kicked to death by spooked herds, and even a Watcher’s single tail swipe can half your health. Harder difficulties will increase that damage, as well as removing aim assists, and you’ll find resources are scarcer.
12. Choose stealthy hunter, warrior tank or helpful healer
Horizon Zero Dawn offers a trio of skill trees, each with a trio of multi-ability branches to unlock via earned XP. Prowler favours stealth, Brave emphasises higher damage attack and Forager increases and speeds up your healing and collecting.
13. You can shape Aloy’s personality
You’ve the option to delve deeper into the story come character interactions via conversation wheels. But in addition to this there are also narrative-driven flashpoints, offering three different approaches to key situations that’ll shape Aloy and her relationships.
14. The world’s deeper history is in plain sight
You can descend into underground ruins and scan old audio transcripts to learn more about the world left behind. Additionally, that huge, multi-tentacled beast glimpsed clambering over the mountains in the recent trailer? Its lifeless carcass can already be seen hugging the mountaintops in the far distance in the game demo. Can we – will we – reach there later?
15. The in-game map is a 3D, topographical representation
Call up the map and you’ll note it’s not 2D. You can judge the rise and flow of the world at a glance, and work out potential points of interest that may not be within your sightline.
16. The game has a day/night cycle and a weather system, both of which can alter gameplay
While pre-planning a strike into a cultist and corrupted Watcher-filled camp, a rainstorm erupted, severely reducing our line of sight. What was to be an epic attack – utilising distant flammable canisters and flowing along multiple cover points – unexpectedly turned into a tense, methodical takedown of enemies hidden in the heavy rain one by one.
17. It’s an emergent world – and better for it
One of the best moments in the demo was completely unscripted. I managed to override a Strider a split second before its companion ran in and kicked us across the glade, then attempted to trample our new steed to death. I shot a fire arrow, not thinking about the fuel canister on its back. Cue a massive explosion, taking out most of the attacking herd… and us. A stupid mistake, but I couldn’t wipe the grin off our face.
18. Come feel the noise
Sound plays a big part of the experience. Charging herds sound like cannon fire, while Longneck footfalls will shake the earth around you. Keep an ear out for the high-pitched squeal of a Watcher readying for attack; I clocked the nearby noise even if I couldn’t see anything and rolled out of the way just in time. This really feels like a living, breathing, world.
19. Capture your favourite moments with photo mode
On the pause menu you’ll find the option to enter photo mode. From here you’ll be able to pan the camera using the analogue sticks (you’re free to move it anywhere within a radius close to Aloy), then tinker with a multitude of editing options (Depth of Field, time of day, colorize etc). You can capture and share your creations. Below are just two samples from Guerrilla Games.