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E3 2016: Horizon: Zero Dawn Makes the Old New Again

If Guerrilla Games wanted to express a strong individualistic identity for its next game, it certainly could have done better than to call it "Horizon: Zero Dawn." The name is alarmingly generic and forgettable, akin to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West--a title I actually had to ask a coworker to help me remember while writing this. My concern stems from a hope that this doesn't flail where others have, because its world is so rich and creative that it would be a shame to have it fall into video game limbo.

If games are exhaustingly obsessed with the post-apocalypse, this is post-post-post apocalypse, and maybe even a few more posts after that. The world has effectively ended, nature has reclaimed our cities, and humans have reverted to tribalistic hunter-gatherers. But this new world is occupied by dangerous, autonomous machines, which themselves behave like wildlife and appear to even have developed their own symbiotic relationships and something resembling a food chain.

These elements come together to form a unique blend of sci-fi futurism and makeshift survivalism. It's not enough to lasso a creature, so instead you have a high-tech tensile wire that springs out of a cannon. Instead of breaking in a beast, you tame it with a spear-like staff that hacks into its systems. Instead of vague "hunter instincts," the protagonist Aloy has a mysterious implant that allows her to sense nearby mechs and life forms. Everything from the tools to the visual style accent that this is the Flintstones Meet The Jetsons of video game settings.

This isn't to say the game is a breath of fresh air in every respect. Mechanically, it felt very similar to other open world games, and most notably to the recent Tomb Raider reboots. Hunting game, crafting, and turning in quests weren't original creations from the new and improved Lara Croft, but Crystal Dynamics established a certain style and sensibility that's definitely present here as well. Aloy even shares Lara's noted skepticism about claims of the mystical. These similarities hardly amount to a complaint, though, since the recent Tomb Raider games have both been among my favorites of their respective years. 

Plus, Horizon does distinguish itself slightly from that mold by offering a true open world. Tomb Raider has been tied to individual hubs, with some connective tissue in-between, but the world of Horizon is vast and accents the interconnectedness of its wildlife--both living and mechanized. In my hands-on demo, I was restricted from completing any story missions, but I was given several objectives to test out the physics and combat systems. 

I tamed a Broadhead, as we saw in the PlayStation presentation, but there was much more to it than that. Certain enemies, including Broadheads, had green tanks across their backs, and hitting that area with a fire arrow would cause it to vent flammable gas for a large blast radius that impacted the rest of the herd. One machine, a large crab-like creature with heavy defense, carried a loot-filled canister across its back, presenting me with the option of defeating it for the precious treasures inside, or simply trying to yank off the container and make off with the items before it could begin its attack. 

Those combat options, even limited as they were, showed a promise of depth and creativity in planning my interactions with the mechanical creatures. Plus, it was just enjoyable seeing how the artists behind this vibrant world reenvisioned animal life in the context of a robot apocalypse. It's certainly memorable, and surprising, and intriguing--despite the generic name.


This Horizon: Zero Dawn preview was based on a pre-release PlayStation 4 demo of the game at an event where refreshments were provided by Sony.

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