The making of Horizon Zero Dawn
Guerrilla Games has embarked on its riskiest project ever. This is Horizon Zero Dawn, the most ambitious PS4 game yet
There’s a small herd of deer grazing in a field. It is a quiet field, enclosed by towering trees and bronze autumn leaves that gingerly fall from their branches, floating carelessly in the wind. This enclosure ensures the docile creatures have just enough cover to let them stand idly by as a breeze rustles softly through the undergrowth, they are blind to the hostility of the world around them. Like clockwork they come here, the herd, simply content to brush through the lush green foliage undeterred, occasionally peeking their antlers towards the Dreamcast-blue sky that stirs above them; mountain ranges and wooden huts can be seen sat atop a distant horizon. But somewhere closer is a predator; the fleeting glimpse of a fiery red mane cutting through the grass is the only hint that this serenity is about to be shattered. It’s a natural, idyllic scene that you’d likely find broadcast in 4K on a new season of Planet Earth, narrated by the docile tones of David Attenborough. But reality this is not, for something far stranger than nature lurks in plain sight.
Two arrows slice through the silence and strike one of the creatures; ropes bind it to the ground and, as it tumbles, it lets out a strange piercing scream that sounds almost mechanical in its desperate, warbled construction. The rest of the herd flees from the disruption manically as a fierce huntress emerges from the tall grass with a staff in hand. She plunges it deeply into the creature – the silhouettes of much larger monstrosities than her begin to pierce the periphery of vision, approaching slowly with purpose – and a blue hue begins to seep out from its ailing body. You see, this is no ordinary animal and she is no ordinary huntress. The deer is in actuality a Broadhead and it is made of steel not bone; there is no flesh to be found, only delicate wiring. This is the world of Horizon Zero Dawn, a vibrant land inhabited by mysterious, mechanised creatures. And then there is you, Aloy, an outcast with the weight of the world on your shoulders. If you are to master the machines, if you are to unravel the mysteries of this land and if you are to play the most ambitious PlayStation exclusive of 2017, you are to put your faith in Guerrilla Games: a studio stepping so far out its comfort zone that it has arrived in a new world entirely.
Guerrilla Games has become synonymous with a particular breed of first-person shooters. The studio has honed its skills in constructing claustrophobic crawlspaces, weighty movement systems and gorgeous close-quarters action to an art. PlayStation owners will know Guerrilla as the studio behind Killzone, the game consistently pitched as the system seller, as the spearhead of new hardware and new technologies. And so, following the somewhat stilted launch of the PlayStation 4 Pro you’d be right in wondering when the inevitable sequel would rear its head. Killzone: Shadow Fall was an audacious launch title – it has been three years already, our bodies are prepared.
But a Killzone sequel is not coming; Guerrilla has been working on something bigger and far bolder than it has ever attempted before. This, in and of itself, is surprising. The videogame industry might have grown to become one of the largest entertainment mediums in the world since Killzone’s debut back in 2006, but it’s become more difficult than ever for a studio to actually break away from its area of expertise and take a real honest-to-god risk. Budgets have ballooned and team sizes have expanded; design and execution has spiralled in complexity while expectations of quality have only become higher – feedback from fans is more immediate, not to mention abrasive – than ever before. This is game design in the seventh generation – in this tumultuous environment a single failure can now cost a studio everything.
Perhaps it is this that makes Horizon Zero Dawn look and feel so genuinely refreshing. The Dutch development group is banking everything on its enthusiasm here, letting internal excitement guide the studio towards its latest endeavour. That means the FPS genre has been abandoned in favour of the action-RPG, the corridors exchanged for a staggering open world governed by intricate, dynamic ecosystems. The engineered thrills and orchestrated set-pieces left by the wayside as Guerrilla puts its faith in the players to foster energetic, emergent experiences in a construction it has not once displayed any experience in. Then again, perhaps it’s just the giant mechanical dinosaurs that have us weak at the knees. Honestly, it’s hard to know anymore.
“I essentially asked the entire development team for ideas,” says Hermen Hulst, managing director of Guerrilla Games. He’s recalling the leadership decision that he and game director Mathijs de Jonge made back in 2010 that could very well make or break his studio come 28 February. “There were many ideas, maybe 40,” he says of the company initiative, “but we picked out two of the concepts that were interesting. One was incredibly sensible: it hit all of the right boxes and it made sense on so many levels, and that was definitely the wise decision to follow. But the other one was Horizon Zero Dawn.”
All of this emerged from studio veteran Jan-Bart van Beek – the art director besotted with the idea of a world in which machines were as natural as the wildlife. And here we are, with a concept made reality, that takes Earth forward a thousand years, into a post-apocalyptic state where humanity has regressed, replaced as the dominant species by breathtaking robotic dinosaurs of an unknown origin. Horizon Zero Dawn was brought to life by excitement and ambition, but it has evolved into the beast you see before you through sheer will – a stubborn desire to not become intimidated or overwhelmed by risk and adversity.
“I think we have embraced this project fearlessly, to be honest,” considers Hulst, clearly unfazed by our continued bewilderment at the sheer scope of the undertaking that Horizon represents. “From day one, we have been very much in love with the project and I believe, at the end of the day, that when you take on so much risk it is offset by enthusiasm, the sincere passion that the people feel for the project.”
But Guerrilla didn’t, by its own admission, have the tools; it didn’t have an engine that could facilitate the seamless streaming of an open world, nor did its personnel have any expertise in action-RPGs. The studio didn’t have any systems in place for open-world content creation, nor did it have any experience in quest design. For the first time in its 15-year history, Guerrilla was having to build a floating, third-person camera. Looking at it from this perspective you might begin to wonder whether enthusiasm can only do so much, but then you see it in action and you begin to dream. Then, eventually, when you get your hands on a controller that dream becomes a reality; Horizon Zero Dawn, at a technical level, is one of the most impressive undertakings in the modern industry.
“The first thing we did was we hired a new lead with experience in the genre, and then we built up a team (mostly new hires) that had experience in games like this,” says Hulst, noting that John Gonzalez was also brought on as lead writer. His previous credits include Fallout: New Vegas and Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor.
“On the technical side, even though it is still the original code base of the early Killzone games, it has evolved [significantly]; the engine has had such a major overhaul that we actually rebranded it – we now call it Decima,” he says of the engine that has caused such a stir in the industry that even mad genius Hideo Kojima was spurred on to ditch any plans of creating his own proprietary backbone and instead decided to embrace Decima as his own for Death Stranding. “The quest creation tools and the content creation tools, all of it has been created as we went about making this game,” continues Hulst, “it has be a rough challenge, but it has also been a very fun challenge.”
“It’s actually easier to do a project that is so far out of your comfort zone than it is to do a project that your people aren’t interested in – even if it follows in exactly your expertise, that is my conviction,” he maintains. “The entire concept was so exciting to us that we couldn’t help but do this project… but yes, it has been a massive undertaking. This has been by far the most ambitious project Guerrilla has ever taken on.”
It’s easy to see why this is the case. Horizon Zero Dawn is set in a gorgeous, sprawling open world. It has small settlements, filled with the last tribal remnants of a splintered humanity; rolling hills and mountains, stretching deserts and lush forests. If you forget about the corrupted mechanical monsters rampaging about the place for a second, you’ll find an Earth that has never looked so at peace.
“There’s a certain beauty that we like to pursue in our worlds. Killzone had an almost gritty sort of beauty, but you wanted to escape from it,” says Hulst, noting a thread Guerrilla has carried across from Killzone. “In Horizon, we wanted to create a world that you actually wanted to be in, that you wanted to spend time in endlessly exploring. It’s a different philosophy – we are still perusing beauty but in a very different way.”
But this beautiful world is also one that is shrouded in mystery. It’s up to you, as Aloy, to discover the answers for yourself. In this overgrown, majestic space you’ll find the machines living in harmony with familiar animals, such as rabbits, boars and foxes, though both groups can be hunted. The animals might provide an easy opportunity to gain precious resources, though taking on the might of the machines is much more of a risk versus reward situation.
They exist in distinctive, disruptive ecosystems that vary as you progress through the game and unlock more of the map; some will move in packs, while others will be indigenous to certain temperate climates or bodies of water. Hunting the machines is where Horizon begins to define itself against the deluge of action-RPGs on the market, leaning on Guerrilla’s penchant for creating fast, tactical combat and advanced AI systems.
“Just like the Helghast were the stars of the Killzone series, the machines are the stars of Horizon Zero Dawn. There are a wide variety of them, we really designed them with the philosophy of tactical combat in mind; we built up this entire ecosystem of these machines and they have very different purposes. It is important that the player has the perception and understands that these machines work together. Some scout for danger for others while the others are grazing, others operate in a convoy and they carry objects, and they have different roles and they work together.”
Hulst notes that this was a decision made with purpose. The behaviour of these machines isn’t scripted, at least in the traditional sense. The team has designed the game in such a way that every encounter can feel like its own bespoke boss battle, with AI adapting to both the scenario and surroundings – it is, as the studio says, “free flowing”.
“Certain machine kinds operate in groups and then the group AI behaviour becomes very important as well, but then when you isolate one, its autonomous behaviour has to stand up in its own right. There’s a real need for sophistication in the AI when it comes to dealing with these machines when you’re trying to pursue intense, tactical combat.”
One thing is immediately clear from the moment you get your hands on a controller: the combat is intense and deeply tactical. It’s a far cry from the heavily refined (yet ultimately tiresome) combat systems found in the Batman Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games, far more fluid and intuitive than the heavily scripted systems of The Witcher and Dragon Age, precise in a way that Skyrim could only dream of. Horizon Zero Dawn might be branded an action-RPG, but it often feels like an action game first.
“I would say that we are definitely [building] on our learnings and on the expertise we’ve gained [working] on the Killzone series for our work now on Horizon Zero Dawn,” considers Hulst. “Intense tactical combat is what we’ve always strived for in the Killzone series and that is exactly what we are trying to create in Horizon. At its very essence, you play as a machine huntress, and you play against enemies that have incredible AI – they aren’t scripted, they are very fluid and can be very unpredictable. The tactical approach that you need to apply is an area that greatly benefits from our expertise from the Killzone series.”
“I think it’s an opportunity for us to set our game apart from other open-world games,” continues Hulst, clearly aware that many open-world games are too often copycat designed in their core systems to the detriment of the larger experience. “Intense tactical combat – it isn’t easy to do that in an open world or to build up that expertise and I believe that can be something that is special about Horizon Zero Dawn.”
“Besides,” he says, with a laugh, “to my knowledge we are the only game that empowers you to effortlessly fight and craft ammunition on the fly while you are running from a charging robo-dinosaur.”
He isn’t wrong.
As you begin to wrap your head around the different types of machines, your abilities and the world itself, your approach to combat will need to shift and evolve. Certain machines will be easier to take down as you uncover weak-points in their armour or upgrade Aloy’s proficiency in specific skills. Certain machines will seek to keep watch of the weaker constructions, these can be taken off of the table first through stealth or you can run into combat under a hail of fire arrows, picking off enemies and perhaps even hacking them to momentarily turn the tide of battle in your favour. Other, larger machines will take more planning to take down; some require deft movement and counter-strikes, while others will need to be scaled in scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Guerrilla Games reboot of Shadow Of The Colossus.
It’s fun and it’s fluid, while the combat is challenging and weighty in a way that only Guerrilla could construct. And while it’s easy to draw comparisons between Horizon and other open-world games of the same ilk, it ultimately has to stand on its own two feet. While we have (and will continue to have, until we can see the final game in action) concerns of how well the studio will be able to manage quest design and overall cohesion between its wider narrative and overworld – something genre veterans still struggle with to this day – the core of the game is just so damned impressive.
“It is so important that the game you are creating has its own identity and its not just mixing and matching what other games do, [Horizon] is really built from the ground up,” confirms Hulst, suggesting once more that the game is being led by the original concept, rather than the concept bending to fit a checklist of ‘RPG-must haves’. “We created this machine huntress and this incredible world – with this beautiful nature where the tribes live and the machines are the dominant species – and that world asks for certain gameplay, and so you develop it from there.”
The combat has, then, developed to become intuitive, almost instinctual, with Aloy able to bend to combat situations quickly so long as you have a decent handle on the quick-wheel weapon swap system and suite of dodge and jump manoeuvres. Customisation and crafting is deep but ultimately fast, with ammunition, traps and explosives created on the fly. This is a streamlined RPG – don’t expect to spend more than a few minutes trawling through menus or staring at item statistics.
“We have a very rich skill tree that empowers the player to customise Aloy freely. The skills on the tree sit under three archetypes – Stalker, Brave and Forger – and each has its own identity,” confirms Hulst. “We have rich customisation of weapons and outfits. There is an extensive crafting system in place, so you really get to determine Aloy and get to develop her as a character as she levels up and earns experience.”
What continues to surprise us is just how deep Horizon Zero Dawn seems to be. It’s a game that requires you to think your way into every combat and situation and then, subsequently, to victory. Whether you choose to shoot off armour to expose enemy weak points – making use of traps, your bow and numerous arrow variations to make precise strikes – or you decide to shoot weapons off the larger enemies and turn them on the machines, it will force the smart AI to react in new and interesting ways. This, ultimately, all ties back into Aloy, the star of the experience. How you build, nurture and evolve this protagonist will shift and warp Horizon around you.
And yet, there is still so much that we simply do not know about Aloy. Ever since her debut at E3 2015, we’ve all been intrigued by her character. She isn’t just a trained hunter or an explorer – a Lara Croft with a new hairstyle – but an outcast of a tribal village, caught up protecting a slice of the world from the threat of mechanised monsters.
“This quest is a deeply personal one for her, as she is searching to understand her origins,” teases Hulst. “That’s the other part of this game, that her personal quest puts her on a collision course with some of the biggest dangers of this world and the mysteries of how it came to be.”
Discovering who she is, what caused her to be shunned by the Nora tribe as a child and who her parents were are all central themes of Horizon – alongside discovering where the machines originated from. Guerrilla has never been known as a studio of storytellers, but there’s something intriguing about the concept, especially as the studio continues to maintain that it hasn’t seen anybody online figure it out yet. She is a character that has grown out of the original concept, and following her story will no doubt be one of the most exciting elements of the game come February.
“Aloy sort of showed up in the original concept; we were concepting this game, lots of gorgeous images of the setting, and it’s almost as if she just stepped out of the early concept art – as if she wouldn’t be denied, if that doesn’t sound too pompous. I kind of phrase it as Aloy was the ideal vessel for the player to inhabit this world. We wanted somebody who is bright, tough and scrappy and she seems to be the perfect vessel for the player to take in the beauty and all of the mysteries of this world.”
Horizon Zero Dawn is a huge risk, but it is also incredibly ambitious. Never did we ever believe that the new huge action-RPG in this industry would be arriving from the developers of Killzone, but then Horizon couldn’t come from anywhere else. If what we’ve seen of this game is representative of the final, sprawling open-world experience, then Guerrilla will stand as proof that a developer needn‘t let one genre define its entire future.
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