A lot of Sony's E3 press conference opening focused on games we knew about or otherwise hoped we knew about: The Last Guardian got re-confirmed, a Final Fantasy VII remake is happening, and a Shenmue 3 Kickstarter got started. But it was one of Sony's completely new franchises that really caught my eye—Guerrilla Games' Horizon: Zero Dawn .
You can watch the portion Sony's press conference focusing on Horizon: Zero Dawn here (should jump to the right time marker).
From the studio behind the Killzone first-person shooter series, this is a third-person adventure set in a strange future where humanity is a little more tribal, skyscrapers are ruins, and huge robots roam the countryside freely. It's a big departure from what the studio has done in the past, and it appears to synthesize a number of themes (lush post-apocalyptic landscapes, female lead characters) and elements (bow hunting, seamless stealth, big mechs) popularized over the last few years into something new and exciting.
In the onstage demo, we see Aloy, a huntress, stalking and systematically destroying a range of robots. She starts with a small reconnaissance scout, moves to a larger herd, and eventually tackles a big...thing. For a studio that hasn't worked with an on-screen protagonist in any of their recent games, the character animations were impressively fluid and lifelike. Similarly, the controls appear to be responsive and intuitive, with quick transitions between sneaking, running, and shooting.
This is going to sound really dorky, but I was very impressed with the way the game's weapon menus worked. Like Mass Effect and many other games, it's a radial menu that lets you use a thumb stick to quickly select a weapon. In Mass Effect, however, opening a menu completely freezes the action. This is great for helping Mass Effect feel more like an RPG despite its third-person adventure trappings. Here, though, the game merely slows down while you go through your inventory. This is a minor difference, but I think it does a lot to keep the intensity of the action high and adds an element of risk/reward for deciding to pull out a more effective weapon in the heat of a fight.
I really get a Tomb Raider (reboot) meets The Last of Us vibe from this game, which is good thing, since those are both fantastic games; yet this game seems fresh and new because of how it juxtaposes advanced technology with a post-modern society. Whether or not this is set on our Earth or a different planet is unclear, but it's fascinating (and frightening) to think of a future in which a more powerful/dominant race of machines has assumed some level of control over the planet. Humans are clearly the marginalized group here, yet they do pose a viable threat to these monstrosities.
During the demo, we don't learn very much about the main character, Aloy, but we clearly see that she is part of a larger culture, as she's seen practicing her bow skills with a male hunter. I think it's great, though, that she hunts alone and is clearly a strong character, as the trope of the White, Scruffy, Loner, Mid-20s Male protagonist has worn out its welcome in gaming a few times over at this point.
Even better, Aloy's character seems to be front-and-center, even during gameplay. Throughout the demo, she self-narrates what happens, and I'm hopeful that this is an approach the game uses throughout the campaign, especially if her narration reacts to player actions. Maybe it's taking a page from Bastion, but it would be a unique implementation of a cool idea.
Aside from the idea of exploring the ruins of skyscrapers, the other most interesting part of the world looks like the mountaintop city of the current humans. It has a more medieval look, with elevators that reminded me of the one that the Nights Watch on Game of Thrones use to ascend from Castle Black to the top of the Wall. Despite not having the same level of technology as the futuristic robot creatures, this is a society that is still capable of creating powerful tools and impressive structures.
From a narrative perspective, everything in this demo makes me want to know more about these characters and this world. What happened to the "old ones" who lived in the skyscrapers? How long ago did their society fall? What caused it? Are the current humans the survivors? Are these tribes just in this one city or spread out across the globe? Do they have vehicles or are they somewhat restricted to this area? Where is this area?
Again, it's not clear if this takes place on Earth, but it certainly looks like it could. The one building that looks like it's "wrapped" in metal spirals really reminds me of "The Gherkin" building in London, for instance. The wide shot of a city on the ocean looks like it could be New York, or even Sydney. And the statues of men on horseback could easily be from Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C., although I don't immediately recognize them.
And the robots are equally as interesting! The obvious scenario is that the earlier humans got too technologically advanced, built all these robots and A.I. systems, and then it ended up being unfriendly A.I. and destroyed their society.
The thing is, that really doesn't hold up too well. Any research into this arena (and, by research, I mean this utterly fascinating post on Wait But Why entitled, "The A.I. Revolution: Road to Superintelligence," which you should totally read) will quickly lead you to a problematic realization. Essentially, a true A.I. system, or network, would develop so quickly beyond lumbering robots capable of being defeated by a lone human that it's completely unbelievable that the explanation for this scenario could be so simple. I sincerely hope the writers here have pushed this scenario farther into more creative territory.
Whatever the explanation, they look very much like dinosaurs, and it's interesting that Aloy expresses some remorse over killing the small one, saying, "Shh, shh. Sorry, little one." What kind of intelligence do they have?
Overall, there's a lot to look forward to here. This is the sort of PlayStation exclusive that the PS4 sorely needs, and the only downside is that it won't be out any time soon. In the meantime, I'll definitely be keeping on my eye out for more news on Horizon: Zero Dawn.