Horizon Zero Dawn wants more than anything for you to care about its humans, but we all know the truth: robots like the Thunderjaw are the real stars in Guerilla's upcoming open-world RPG.
Imposing, brutal, and memorable, they made an instant impression when they first appeared on the screen back at E3 2015. They immediately made what had initially seemed like Yet Another Post-Apocalyptic Adventure into something much more interesting. And two years on, they've lost none of their charm.
Out of everything I've seen from Horizon Zero Dawn, the robots have the best chance of elevating Guerilla's new adventure and making it the breakout IP that Sony clearly wants. The humans are fine, but the robots pop. There's a reason that Sony decided to pack a Thunderjaw statue in with the game's limited edition—the robots sell themselves.
But with all that said, it's fair to ask whether Horizon's machines are more than just superficially cool. They're neat to look at, but are they interesting? The ultimate answer will go a long way toward determining Horizon Zero Dawn's long-term success.
What it Takes to Bring Down a Robot Dinosaur
One of the first machines you encounter in Horizon Zero Dawn is the Watcher—human-sized robots that stalk through old ruins and deliver warnings to the other machines. If you antagonize them, their single eye flashes red and they alert the rest of their pack. If you don't make it back to cover in relatively short order, they will proceed to overwhelm you with leaping kicks. Or they'll just shoot you.
The fact that that even lowly Watchers can easily destroy you serves to highlight one of Horizon Zero Dawn's central themes—the fact that humans are no longer the world's dominant species. It also makes them much more interesting than the typical videogame antagonist, which more often than not is mere cannon fodder. Just ask the poor soldiers in Call of Duty.
Before engaging a foe, the first thing you want to do is scan them for weaknesses. Watchers, as it turns out, are rather weak if you take aim at their central eye with an arrow. Conversely, they have a point on their back that will explode if you hit it with a shot, effectively crippling them. You can also just shoot them until their dead, but the more direct approach will reveal your position, and in any case, isn't particularly interesting.
Pretty much every machine needs to be approached in this way. Most of the robots patrol in set patterns, which can be tracked with the help of your heads-up display, making it easier to formulate a plan of action when engaging them. Their individual weaknesses and A.I. patterns lend them a degree of personality that is absent in the human enemies, though there are hints that each individual tribe has their own quirks.
Your first real test comes in an encounter with a Sawtooth—a fast and dangerous machine capable of cornering you and tearing you to shreds. The best way to defeat it is to track its patrol pattern and set up an electrical tripwire to stun it, then shoot the canister on its belly to deal a huge amount of damage. The tension is palpable as it prowls around while you try and hastily set your trap without it noticing. It will attack after you take out its belly canisters, leading to a frantic few seconds spent rolling out of the way as it pounces while you try to load it up with fire arrows.
Not all of Horizon Zero Dawn's are so dangerous. A few hours in, you receive a quest to find a Tallneck, which is the Brontosaurus to the Thunderjaw's Tyrannosaurus. It's a huge but relatively benign machine that you can scale like one of the famed monsters from Shadow of the Colossus.
"Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favorite games," director Mathijs de Jonge laughs when I note the similarity.
The Tallneck highlights the symbiotic relationship between Horizon's lore and gameplay, de Jonge explains. "Visually, [Tallnecks] are very interesting. We thought it would be nice if they were communication-establishing machines. So they communicate with all the machines in the same area, which means they have their position data. That sort of allowed us to connect things together."
When you climb and hack a Tallneck, you receive information on all of the other robots in the area, making it easier to farm certain materials. In that, every robot has a place within Horizon's artificial ecosystem, as well as in the actual gameplay.
The Real Stars
The care that went into their development is evident in just how long it took them to produce. The Thunderjaw, the Tyrannosaurus-like beast that serves as Horizon's de facto mascot, was the first machine to be designed, and it took a year and a half to get it right. Long before actual development started, between 50 and 60 concept artists toiled away on the design of the machines and the game's overall aesthetic.
The result is that the robots are at the core of both Horizon's depth and its visual interest. Their individual strengths, weaknesses, and quirks make them by far the most interesting enemies in the game, and they make almost any encounter more enjoyable. Humans, ultimately, can be lured away and picked off individually without too much trouble, but pretty much every machine requires its own plan of action.
Oh, and you can ride them.
But more than that, they lend both Horizon's environment and its lore a texture it wouldn't have otherwise. They offer an intriguing mystery: What happened to the people who built these magnificent robotic beasts? And more often than not, they are at the center of the game's most interesting challenges. Thunderjaws in particular are ferocious foes in the early going, being more than capable of ripping you apart if you chance upon one of them. Beating a Thunderjaw is a real accomplishment.
When they aren't ripping you apart, Horizon Zero Dawn's dinosaurs serve to fill out the world as a whole. Animals can do a lot to make an open world feel unpredictable and interesting—remember Red Dead Redemption's infamous mountain lions?—but for the most part they're just props. By contrast, Horizon Zero Dawn's robots are at the center of the story and the gameplay, and they are the game's key antagonists (or so it seems, at least).
For that reason, I'm comfortable saying Horizon Zero Dawn's machines are easily the best part of the game, and the main reason that I'm excited to try out Guerilla's new adventure. And if Horizon is able to follow through and build on all of the intriguing elements from the first few hours, it may well transcend its rather shallow mechanics and be remembered as one of the best games of the year.
From what I've seen, it's off to a good start.