Let me clarify at this point that I am not for one minute suggesting that the concept of mechanical beasts in a post-apocalyptic setting is anything particularly new. The criminally underplayed Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, for example, realized this overarching concept with great panache back in 2010, but suffered a truly undeserved lack of widespread appreciation.
What is unusual, however, is for an RPG to proudly present the creatures that inhabit the game world as the main draw. It’s almost as if Guerrilla Games are saying to us: “Yeh, our world is luscious, and our protagonist Aloy is cool, but just check out what she’s up against!” Alright, Guerrilla, I have, and I must say that you’ve piqued my interest.
Another title in recent memory that placed significant focus on its foes was Monolith’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. With its ingenious Nemesis system, which emphasized the strengths and weaknesses of a host of loathsome Orc and Uruk leaders, Shadow of Mordor deservedly reaped a gamut of Game of the Year awards in 2014. If Horizon Zero Dawn can achieve comparably widespread critical and community acclaim, then it will no doubt be a resounding success.
If I had a minor quibble with Shadow of Mordor, however, it would be that outside the Captain and the Warchief battles, exterminating the standard grunts could become somewhat repetitive. Encouragingly, it appears that Horizon Zero Dawn is looking to avoid this by populating the gorgeous world with an eclectic mix of mechanical monstrosities, each one posing a challenge. If Guerrilla Games can nail the feeling that each encounter is against a mini-boss, with its own strengths, weaknesses and attack patterns, then the developer could be on to something that ignites this slow-burning console generation.
Even at this stage, with nearly 8 months until Horizon Zero Dawn’s delayed release at the end of February 2017, it is clear that Guerrilla Games wants us to be talking about its mechanical creations. They want us to drool over the intimidating Thunderjaw, and discuss the sinister purpose of the vicious Corruptor. They want us to, and it would be churlish not to oblige, don’t you think?
There can surely be little argument that the designs of the mechanical inhabitants of Horizon Zero Dawn’s world are stunning. It’s early days, of course, but Guerrilla Games look to have realized the idea of mechanical beasts with both animalistic and machine properties with aplomb. The manner in which the machines stomp, scuttle and lollop across the open-world is reminiscent of the acclaimed JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles X, but there is a depth to the enemies that feels like it belongs in a constrained action-adventure game rather than an open-world action RPG.
Horizon Zero Dawn clearly will encourage you to analyze your foes strengths and weaknesses, as in Shadow of Mordor. It will then be up to the player to decide which of the tools at their disposal, or which combination, are most appropriate for tackling the enemy. What struck me most about the E3 2016 gameplay demo, however, was how fast-paced and smooth the combat looks. It will therefore be essential that the controls are sufficiently responsive to convey the sense of a fair challenge. Like the mini-bosses in our favourite action-adventure games, the enemies in Horizon Zero Dawn will have a range of attacks at their disposal, which it appears will be telegraphed to give Aloy a chance to evade.
Taking the battle against the Corruptor in the E3 2016 demo as an example, it was extremely promising to witness how the mechanical foe appeared to up the ante as it become increasingly damaged. One gets the sense that the more fearsome enemies will require careful manoeuvring and exploitation of their weaknesses to inflict any notable damage, which is an exciting prospect indeed. If this impressive evolution of enemy attack patterns and potential for incremental damage infliction is realized in all of the mechanical beasts in the game, on air, land and sea, then Horizon Zero Dawn has the potential to feature the best enemy combatants of any action RPG to date.
But Guerrilla Games need to tread with caution and not get ahead of themselves. Cautionary tales of unsuccessful RPGs are everywhere. Take Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, for example. The Big Huge Games and 38 Studios action RPG is another underplayed game, which featured the best real-time combat that I’ve ever experienced in an RPG, and should by all rights have revolutionized combat in the action RPG sub-genre. Whilst the combat was excellent, however, the rest of the game was so generic and unmemorable, and the release flawed, that it reportedly didn’t break even and resulted in the sad closure of the aforementioned studios.
Everything that we’ve seen so far of Horizon Zero Dawn, however, suggests that Guerrilla Games should avoid this ignominious fate. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it lives up to the high levels of expectation that it’s generated. Just carry on focusing on the machines, Guerrilla Games. It’s all about the machines.
Horizon Zero Dawn is scheduled for release on the PlayStation 4 on the 28th February 2017 in North America, 1st March 2017 in Europe, and 3rd March 2017 in the UK.