Hands on with Horizon: Zero Dawn: The thrill and guilt of the hunt – PAX Aus 2016

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Personally I found the big publishers were a little bit underwhelming at this year’s PAX Australia. I guess this is a subjective viewpoint, but there was just nothing from the major players that screamed “I must check that out.” There was no Playstation VR station, or Dark Souls III and Cuphead demo that I just couldn’t leave PAX without seeing. A majority of the major players were demoing stuff that had already come out, bar a few exceptions, most of which didn’t entice me that much to line up for a long time to experience.

The only one that did entice me was the Horizon: Zero Dawn area, because I’ve been curious to see more of the open world, robot dinosaur hunting PS4 exclusive since its announcement at E3 2015. It may not look the most exciting in terms of gameplay, but a post-apocolyptic, sci-fi-yet-prehistoric, robot-dinosaur filled open world RPG is certainly a game description worthy of attention.

So line up I did, and after 90 minutes or so I was given a live demonstration as well as 10 or so minutes of hands on time with a small area of the game. So here’s some impressions of what I saw.

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Sadly I didn’t encounter this little guy…

The live demonstration was essentially the same section that was shown at this past E3. The protagonist Aloy is travelling towards a village that the locals warn her contains a “demon”, and along the way she harvests some supplies from some crab robot things and also hacks and mounts a “Broadhead”, an almost horse/buffalo looking robot. She then encounters the demon, which is actually a giant robot called a Corruptor, and she utilises several of her abilities, specifically explosive traps and tether bolts, to bring it down.

The first thing that struck me both watching and playing the demo was how gorgeous Horizon: Zero Dawn is. Trailers are all well and good, but seeing it rendered in front of me was a different story. The character models and environment were incredibly detailed, particularly hair and clothing. The person running the demo stressed that everything we were seeing was running on a regular PS4, not a PS4 Pro, so the quality of the visuals exceeded my expectations, but the news also explained the 30 frames per second cap. The frame cap did make the hair and grass wafting in the wind look a little off, and it occasionally dipped in my quick session, but other than that a big thumbs up in the visuals department.

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Corrupt this.

On the gameplay side of things, judging by this glimpse Horizon: Zero Dawn involves a lot of the same kinds of things we’ve done a million times over in third person action games. The bow-n-arrow mechanics are the standard L2 to aim, R2 to pull back and release, third person shooter affair, along with the ability to scan the nearby environment for crafting materials, sneaking through tall grass and using various kinds of grenades. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it after all, but Horizon’s certainly not presenting itself like a huge innovator thus far gameplay wise.

The main element of the gameplay that I really enjoyed was that it felt a little bit more like hunting than most games do. Video games usually treat hunting as just shooting arrows unseen from the underbrush, but Horizon seems to encourage players to tackle the wildlife more cleverly. For example, I scanned some Grazers and found they had some crafting components on them, but couldn’t take them down with a single hit and knew they would bolt once I hit them. So instead, I stealthily got as close as I could to one of them and surprised it with a shot from my tether gun, tying it to the ground and unable to flee with its herd and easily put down by me to take the loot.

The same goes with hacking into and mounting the Broadheads like the demonstrator showed. Hacking requires being close to the target for a duration of time, meaning they need to be kept still and tethering seems to be the best way to do that. And since the robots behave like animals and show signs of distress during all of this, I certainly felt like a monster while doing it, just as I would were I to actually hunt an animal. So yeah, there’s that.

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Not looking forward to hurting one of these things…

Other than that, the combat seemed fairly fluid, but without a proper tutorial to all the ins and outs of the different arrows and traps you can craft it was a little hard to get a feel for them. But speaking of crafting, thankfully it seems Guerrilla Games have opted for a more simple crafting system of “get X amount of Y, create Z”, a style I much prefer over the long chains of ingredients we see in the likes of No Man’s Sky. Perhaps Horizon’s system gets more complicated later on, but everything I saw in the demo required just a checklist of stuff to directly craft the item, and I hope it stays that way.

And lastly, once my demo was over I quickly ducked over to have a look at Horizon running on a PS4 Pro to see if there was a noticeable difference. In short, there certainly is, at least with regards to the game running in upscaled 4K, with HDR colour and in 60fps. Without a direct side-by-side comparison I couldn’t spot the differences in any textures, but the 4K resolution certainly made for a sharper image and, although it’s hard to describe, the HDR effects certainly made the lighting effects pop. So, a definite improvement over the vanilla PS4, but players hanging on to their older units are certainly not being given a poor product if this demo is anything to go by.

Maybe my concerns over split hardware generations won’t come to pass? Still too soon to tell, but we’ll see. But so far, Horzion: Zero Dawn is looking like a promising, if a little bit familiar, game. It launches March 1, 2017 in Australia, February 28 in the US, March 3 in the UK.

Feel guilt over your hunting with Tom on Twitter @tomdheath. Don’t forget to follow LoadScreen on Twitter, @load_screen, and like us on Facebook.

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