Disclosure: This article is based on a recent event in Los Angeles. USgamer's airfare to attend the event was paid for by Sony.
Horizon Zero Dawn so wants you to feel like you're playing an RPG.
Sony's upcoming open-world action game borrows from the roleplaying tradition more than most, incorporating conversation trees, weapon modifications, and crafting. All around you are items to be harvested and sold. Enemies give you both XP and rare loot. There are plenty of sidequests to find, and the narative is stronger than you might think.
Having now spent several hours with Horizon Zero Dawn, I can say that it does indeed use a number of familiar RPG design tropes, which have become prevalent in open-world games like Far Cry in recent years (a game that Horizon Zero Dawn resembles in many respects). But how far does it take them? That's the real question with a game like this. Let's dig in a bit.
The Combat: Stealth Rules the Day
You will spend a lot of time hiding in the weeds in Horizon Zero Dawn.
I discovered relatively early on that trying to go all Dynasty Warriors on your enemies is a bad idea in this game. The main character, Aloy, is strong, but she can take a lot of damage in a short amount of time, and HP tends to recover rather slowly. These limitations demand a more tactical mindset when engaging enemies.
With that in mind, I changed up my approach after a handful of unsuccesful attempts to take down a bandit camp. I began by sneaking around and hiding in the grass, then throwing a rock to attract the attention of the guards. When they walked over to investigate, I used a stealth attack to deliver an instant deathblow. I then setup mines and tripwires at chokepoints and began luring enemies to their doom.
Happily, the humans in Horizon Zero Dawn aren't particularly smart. It's quite easy to lure them piecemeal into hazards and pick them off with ranged attacks. Still, while no one will ever confuse Horizon Zero Dawn with Dishonored or Metal Gear Solid, I was pleased that I had to put some thought into how I wanted to approach enemy camps.
The combat was designed with the idea that humans are no longer the dominant species, making it imperative that you approach both machines and bandits with a certain amount of caution, director Mathijs de Jonge told me. "When we were designing the combat we were thinking about dividing it up into three stages: prepare, engage, and retreat. It's a design tool for ourselves, and we thought, 'Okay, if you want to fight a machine, first you have to prepare your character. You need to get some resources, maybe you need to go to a merchant, but you also need to setup some traps.' Or you want to scan the machines to find their weak points and kind of determine your tactics from there. We also design our encounter spaces with vantage points so that you can safely look at the machines from a distance; then when you engage, you have a number of options."
It's possible to take a more straightforward approach, de Jonge says, but even that requires at least a degree of caution. The emphasis on stealth is further evident in the way that it's baked into the skill tree, which harbors the bulk of Horizon Zero Dawn's progression. Silent Strike is available almost immediately, with further upgrades allowing you to take out enemies from below, or to knock out heavy and elite foes. Other abilities allow you to knock off armor and components from enemies, or use a lure call to bring them in one by one.
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Worth noting is that elemental attacks like ice, fire, and lightning are a major part of Horizon Zero Dawn, adding an additional layer of depth to the combat. Such elements make scanning foes, especially robots, an integral part of the strategy.
Meanwhile, the skill tree contains hints of more powerful weapons that will be available down the line, with one of the abilities being "Heavy Lift:" a skill that lets you move faster while using heavy weapons. The animation associated with the skill shows Aloy wielding what looks like a high-tech minigun, which ought to be more than enough to kick down the door of a bandit camp and go to town. Hopefully that's only a taste of what's to come in the latter portion of the game.
Mods and Crafting: Survival of the fittest
It should come as no surprise that Horizon Zero Dawn has a crafting component in light of how popular the mechanic has become amid the rise of survival games. When you venture out into the world, you are surrounded by plants to gather and turn into medicine and ammo, or to trade in for more powerful weapons. Indeed, when I asked de Jonge what abilities to take first, he recommended the gathering skills, particularly at the higher difficulty levels, where health and ammunition are at a premium.
Right from the start you will want to enhance the amount of items you receive from gathering, as well as the size of your pack. To wit, one of your best weapons early on is the Carja Sling, which can be used to toss elemental explosives at groups of enemies. It's very powerful, but it only carries four bombs at a time, after which you have to craft more. You will definitely want to expand your bomb complement as quickly as possible.
More interesting is the fact that most weapons have varying number of mod slots. The effects they impart can be confusing at times: One mod will offer "19 Percent Handling," while another will include "6 Percent Tear." More obvious is the Damage Coil, which (you guessed it), gives you a nice little boost in damage, making it an obvious choice. You have to be careful, though: you can't remove a mod once it's installed. If you opt to replace it, it will be gone forever.
It should be noted that Horizon Zero Dawn does have stats, but that they aren't immediately obvious. As with Monster Hunter, stats are inherent in the weapons, rather confusingly represented by a handful of icons and numbers. As best as I could tell, some of the icons were meant to represent elemental damage, while others indicated how much damage they did to armor. "Handling" seemed to be a measure of a weapon's accuracy.
"I think [stats are] where we didn't want to make things too complex for players," de Jonge explained. "On the weapons, we have different stats with bars that you can actually see. There are three stats with modifications, but there's a sort of complexity that we wanted to avoid to keep things from getting too confusing for players, and there are already quite a lot of options in terms of how you can combine things. So we kind of put a limit on that."
Despite that, weapons still come in uncommon, rare, and epic flavors. I didn't see any legendary items, but they will almost certainly show up at some point down the road. There are also drops of varying rarity, which can be traded with merchants for more powerful weapons. Metal Shards serve as a kind of currency in Horizon Zero Dawn, but higher-level items require a lot more than just shards. It's cool to pick up epic weapons and outfits, the latter of which do impart tangible benefits, but the satisfaction of obtaining them is hindered by Guerilla's decision to aggressively deemphasize stats. It's not as much fun when you don't have a clear sense of becoming more powerful.
Still, light as the actual mechanics might be, there are nevertheless some interesting choices to be made. In particular, which weapons you want to lavish with mods, and which skills you want to emphasize early. But if you're a hardcore RPG fan, Horizon Zero Dawn definitely skews toward the lighter side of the spectrum, and that's by design.
Next: Dialogue choices and the question of multiple endings.
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