Horizon Zero Dawn developer interview: Making a world full of robotic dinosaurs

Senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn Joel Eschler.

Senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn Joel Eschler.

Joel Eschler, a senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn, the PlayStation 4-exclusive first-person action RPG from Dutch video game developer Guerrilla, readily admits he’s a control freak but it’s a trait that he believes helps make better games.

On Horizon Zero Dawn, Joel oversaw the game’s environment art which included managing the teams responsible for the game world, lighting and the creation of assets for the game. “My general day-to-day is managing the team at large and managing our goals and making sure we’re shipping the game on time and having it looking awesome. He joined Guerrilla at the beginning of 2016, having worked for 2K in Australia.

Joel says he’s a naturally organised person and a “control freak so a lot of what I do in my day-to-day sort of comes from that OCD side of you that something’s not being done in the best way and you need to correct that. I mean, that’s the most basic level of my job.”

Aloy confronts a watcher.

Aloy confronts a watcher.

Before starting work as a tester with 2K 10 years ago, Joel was studying astrophysics in Sydney. He agrees that it was quite the career shift. “Yeah, I guess it goes to show that when you’re growing up as a kid and you think you know what you want to be that you have no idea. I always grew up playing and loving games but never really thought about having a career in them. I always thought I wanted to study the universe but I had a gap year in university and started work as a tester at 2K and I kind of got sucked in and it’s 10 years later, still going and enjoying it more and more.”

Joel thanks his astrophysics background for helping in his game industry career.

“I think that logical way of thinking and being organised and driven towards certain goals and looking at things as a puzzle to solve maybe, and also being able to recognise patterns, if you drill mathematics down to its basic looking for patterns , I think it has helped. Making games you need to be creative and passionate but you also need someone to be organised. When you kind of put all those things together, a game comes out.

herd_1434425337Asked if making a game like Horizon Zero Dawn was a big risk for Guerrilla, a developer more known for its first-person shooter Killzone series, Joel agrees, adding it was a huge risk for the Dutch development company.

“Not only for the scope of the project, but there was also an existing risk of playing it safe as well. I don’t know what the size of the studio was when HZD started but I think if you make the same kind of game, even if you layer on new features and make it look better and everything, sometimes, I think, people start to look elsewhere for bigger changes and differences so  I think there was difficult for the studio staying on the same track but at the same time the pitch for HZD was so huge and open world.”

Joel says while Killzone Shadowfall added a lot of colour to that universe that the previous ones didn’t have, Horizon Zero Dawn was on a “whole different level, going from that muted pallette to the huge amounts of colour”.

“I think it sparked that interest and that passion within the team really early on and when the pitch was made, I think people really wanted to make it happen. It had all the risks [technically] but it was managed really well with the planning and hiring externally with people who had experience with chained quests and open-world story  building.”

Making the game wasn’t without its challenges, says Joel.

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Aloy and Rost from Horizon Zero Dawn.

” I think Guerrilla had skills in building tactical games but it was all very linear and you knew what to expect:  If you had the player come around this corner, you could have this event happen but going from that to building a world where the player can almost do anything and everything, and to make it fun, I think that was definitely a challenge for the designers. ”

As the game progressed, Joel says the development team had to build a system that took into account the way the ecology was in the world, how the machines moved around, the skills that Aloy had in it.

“That was a challenge and I think that’s been solved by a number of different systems interacting together. On the technical side, there were a lot of challenges, especially the building of a world of this size and populating it with foliage and interesting landmarks. We didn’t have time to hand place every tree and every bush so they had to build a procedural system that would interact with the location in the world, that would determine what the weather would be, that would tell them what type of trees and bushes would be there. The programmers had a real field day testing themselves and coming up with systems that could build a world that didn’t need any hands to touch it. I thought that was really cool.”

scouts_1434425345So, why robot dinosaurs in Guerrilla’s new game?

“I think in its simplest form the original pitch for HZD given within the studio was the post-apocalyptic world which had been overgrown by nature. Aloy and the machines, and the concept art, that was enough for people to start think ‘Why wasn’t society around anymore?’,  ‘Who is this character?’, ‘What happened – and what the hell are these machines?’  It all sparked from there, with people speculating about the world narrative. It was a snowball that kept on growing.”

Guerrilla games hasn’t been know in the past for its ground-breaking narratives so with Horizon Zero Dawn the development team pulled out all the stops, recruiting John Gonzales, the writer who penned the story for Fallout New Vegas, to head the narrative team.

” Aloy’s story was one that was worked on really hard and Guerrilla did a big recruitment drive to expand out the narrative team. We have John Gonzales, who is our narrative director, and we recruited other people as well who had experience doing immersive narratives within open-worlds. The approach to the narrative was kind of two-fold: There was the world building, which was the tribes that are around Horizon’s worlds, their history, their beliefs, their political structure, that sort of thing, and then there is Aloy’s story, and then on top of that the more personal stories of the inhabitants of the world. So there was definitely a huge focus on building the narrative.”

aloy_village_logo_1465873567Joel says the game’s lead female character, Aloy, was part of the game since inception and the narrative was written as a coming of age story with her having to discover the world and her purpose in it. “I really hope when people get the game that they really latch on to her. We’re really happy with the by-product of having Aloy as a character and showing that anyone can be a hero, that anyone can be interesting and you don’t have to limit yourself to bold, space marines.

“We tried to create this living, breathing world and  think about how they would see their place within it and Aloy is our hero in the traditional video game sense but really as you start out the game she’s actually an outcast from society as a child and you find out pretty early on in the game how that happened so it’s more her trying to prove to herself and prove to the world that she’s living in that she is worthwhile she works on making herself invaluable in the world.”

Now that the game is almost in shops, Joel says the team has lived up to their expectations. ” People were leaving other studios to come and work at Guerrilla. A lot of team are really happy and having a chance to play the game at length for the first time. They’re talking about machines that they ran into on the world that they didn’t know we created, and quests that they didn’t know were there.”

Horizon Zero Dawn is out on the PlayStation 4 on March 1. I’ll get a review up as soon as humanly possible.

Impact Winter: Survival in a winter wonderland

I can’t say Impact Winter was really on my games radar until an email dropped in my inbox today with a new trailer and a date for the PC version.

The survival game lands on PC in digital format on April 12 and its isometric view has really piqued my interest. It’s art style is pretty neat, too. The game is coming to coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this year.

Here, watch this latest trailer to see for yourself.

Here’s the skinny from publisher Bandai Namco on what the game is about: “An asteroid has collided with Earth, and the world we once knew is now nothing more than a snow-covered wasteland. Almost everyone and everything perished in the harsh, sub-zero temperatures. But you didn’t. And you received a radio transmission that has filled you with hope and the will to survive the next 30 days.

“Take on The Void as Jacob Solomon, a lone survivor wandering around the frozen wilderness when he stumbles upon a snow-buried church sheltering four other survivors and their robot, Ako-light. Each with their own unique field of expertise, they’ll form a makeshift team, hunting and scavenging to stay alive despite the weather conditions and slumping morale, while furiously focusing on lowering the Rescue Timer.”

Apart from the blurb above, I know very little else about Impact Winter: Whether there are enemies that try to get you while you wait for a rescue; Whether you can die if you don’t scavenge enough food or resources; How exactly can you lower the Rescue Timer?;

So many questions, so little answers. Here are some images to look at.

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Omen X desktop review: Supercharged computing but at a price

HP’s Omen X desktop computer makes me not want to play games on a console  or even my current desktop PC  ever again – it’s that powerful and that beastly.

Actually, the Omen X is a beast, both in respect to the hardware inside and the sheer size and weight of the thing. Seriously, this thing is a monster so make sure you have the room for it.

The review unit came running an Intel Core i7-6700 CPU [@4Ghz], 32Gb of memory,  and – get this – two (yes, two) nVidia GTX1080 GPUs. That’s a helluva lot of computing power, especially when placed alongside my home PC, which is running an Intel i7, 8Gb of memory and a many generations old GTX660Ti.

Design & features

omen-by-hp-cube

The Omen X’s cube shape isn’t going to endear itself to everyone with the way it looks but it’s nice to see a PC manufacturer looking outside the square (excuse the pun) when it comes to case design.

As the image shows, the Omen doesn’t sit on a side but is tilted on an angle  thanks to a build-in stand at the bottom.

Once I’d found the right spot for the Omen [on the floor, next to my day-to-day PC],  it didn’t look too out-of-place in the lounge were my normal PC lives  and blended in with its surroundings, at least until I turned on the in-built LED zone lighting that illuminates it with a variety of colours, that is  – then it became a visual focal point.

The lighting is controlled by a desktop app and you can have all four front panels shining the same colour or have a different colour for each one. It’s a nice touch, even if the app is a little finicky when you try to fine tune the colours using a wheel interface.

HP has thought about all the  heat such a monster PC will generate as well and thermal management includes a tri-chamber design to separate components and optimise thermals with dedicated cooling in each chamber. The Omen X  also includes support for up to three 120mm liquid cooling radiators with top mounted exhaust vents.

The way the Omen X sits on its stand also helps with airflow, meaning your gaming beast will stay [relatively] cool when the frame rates are ramping up.

Testing

A monster PC needs monster testing, so I found the most graphically demanding game I had to thrown at it. So, I tested the Omen XP on games  Titanfall 2 (EA), Battlefield 1 (EA), the new Tomb Raider and Gears of War 4, and benchmarked it using 3D Mark’s Timespy and Firestrike tests and UniEngine’s Heaven and Valley bench marking tools. All games were tested at a resolution of 1080p as that’s the maximum my LG IPA monitor can handle.

With Timespy, the Omen XP returned a score of 87.65 frames per second on the first graphics test and 77.63 on the second graphics test. The lowest frame rates it reached was 16.42. Firestrike returned a graphics score of 36, 949 and a physics score of 12, 033.

In UniEngine’s Valley benchmark, the Omen XP returned a score of 5222, with maximum FPS of 183.3, average FPS of 124.8 and a minimum FPS of 38.7. All tests were done in Direct X 12 unless that wasn’t available, where DirectX 11 was used..

In terms of games, the Omen XP was able to comfortable handle perhaps one of last year’s most graphically demanding PC games, EA’s Battlefield 1 with aplomb, running the game at its Ultra presets in DirectX12 without skipping a beat. I guess with two GTX1080s it should be able to do that without running up a sweat.

Top be honest, the Omen handled Gears of War 4, Tomb Raider and Titanfall 2 all with the graphics settings at the highest possible, making for some stunning visuals, something my GTX660Ti can’t come close to.

 

Verdict

omen-by-hp-cube-chassisI loved the Omen X: It’s a beast of a gaming PC that in the review configuration will have no trouble playing any current or future game at its highest graphical settings. I like that HP has taken a risk with its design, too.

That power comes at a price, though.

The Omen X retails in NZ for $5999 [Noel Leeming currently has the single GTX1080 Omen X 900-070a for under $5000],  but the review unit – which isn’t available in NZ with the configuration it came in – would set you back $6999 [if you could get it here, of course].

Yes, the Omen X was blazingly fast and I loved playing games on it  – and it was sad going back to my usual desktop with its ages old GPU – but maybe I’m out of touch with how much a top-end PC costs [because I’m old?] but personally, $7000 is a crazy money to me to pay for a computer. If you shopped around  for components, chances are you could build a comparable PC for a much, much less.

That said, I doubt HP are targeting the PC building crowd: It’s targeting gamers who want a blazingly fast gaming PC with top-end components, that looks a little different and is prepared to pay for it.  I’d happily replacing my current PC with the Omen X but in the harsh reality of the real-world, my budget doesn’t stretch to it, sadly [I’d have to do a lot around the house and buy a few bunches of flowers to score enough brownie points with my wife to even pluck up the courage to ask if I could buy one!]

It’s clear that HP’s Omen X isn’t aimed at everyone but for those with the money, the Omen X is a fantastic option in terms of computing power and interesting design.

Astroneer: The mining/resource collecting/building game that is my go-to game right now

My base in Astroneer is coming along nicely. To the left is the rover I created with extra storage attached to carry more resources. The blue lines radiating off structures are oxygen lines. If the Astroneer runs out of oxygen he, well, dies. The space ship is directly behind the Astroneer.

 

Astroneer is a space exploration/crafting/resource gathering game that’s in pre-Alpha. That means it a long way off being finished but it’s been my go-to game lately.

I don’t want to compare it to last year’s disappointing No Man’s Sky, because the two only share a few similarities, but Astroneer’s developers, System Era s Softworks, made the right decision by putting the game into Steam’s Early Access program. It cost me $24 and I have to say it’s perhaps the best $24 I’ve spent on a game in a long, long time. It’s also available on Xbox One and from the Windows store.

In Astroneer, you blast off from an orbiting space station and land on an uninhabited planet. There you use a space vacuum to suck up resources like resin, compound, copper, aluminum etc to build a base. As you explore, you’ll come across wrecks of space craft that you can scavenge for parts and resources as well as deep caves that while containing vital resources, often contain deadly plants that spew poisonous gas.

As your base gets bigger you can make things like a 3D printer that lets you print a rover so you can drive farther, weather vanes and solar panels to power all your equipment and, eventually, a space ship that lets you blast off and explore other planets in the solar system.

As you explore the planet, you'll come across crashed space ships. They'll often contain much-needed resources and parts that can be used on other vehicles.

As you explore the planet, you’ll come across crashed space ships. They’ll often contain much-needed resources and parts that can be used on other vehicles.

It’s a hell of a lotta fun. I’ve got some videos here of my base in progress, driving the rover around and one of the randomly generated sand storms that will kill you pretty much instantly unless you’re hiding somewhere safe. Oh, it also has online co-op so you’ll be able to explore and create with a friend.

Astroneer isn’t perfect: It glitches out every now and then and my Astroneer has got stuck in structures forcing a restart, but dammit, if it isn’t fun. Even the way your Astroneer dies is comical: He can suffocate when he runs out of air and he sort of grabs his throat then spirals around, falling to the ground. It’s hilarious.

The developers have said the game could be in pre-Alpha for a least a year but they’re firing out patches pretty frequently to fix some of the problems people have encountered. I’ve noticed frame rate drops when I’ve got too many of the game’s tethers laid out and while my Astroneer is carrying a research item.

I’ve attached three game play videos I took while playing: The first one shows the progress of my base as I build; the second is footage of me driving a rover across a planet’s surface; and the third shows a violent storm as it ravages my base. I’ve seen video and photos of some people sculpting as variety of things using the game’s vacuum gun.

Look, I’m loving Astroneer and I’m excited to see where it goes in the coming months and see whether I can boldly go where no man has gone before …

 

Merry Christmas to you all – and thanks for sticking around

It’s that time of the year, dear readers,  when gaming sites and outlets tell readers what their top games of the year were.

I can’t really do that here: Looking back, I realise I’ve not played a lot of games this year – and I’ve bought even less – but of those I did played, I enjoyed: Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Uncharted 4, Deus Ex Mankind Divided, Firewatch and Inside. I enjoyed much of The Last Guardian, too, but the experience was just marred too often by the at times too realistic animal AI of Trico, the game’s eagle/cat/dog creature, which made for a frustrating time –  and that’s a real shame.

I want to say thanks so much for sticking around and reading this blog. I really do appreciate it. I know the blog isn’t as flash as many around, or updated as regularly, or have a staff of hundreds that pump out stories by the dozens. I’m one man who loves video games and writing, and believe me when I say this blog is a real labour of love for me: I don’t get paid to do it, I don’t get sponsorship from anyone. I rely on the support of a handful of publishers who have stuck by me since leaving Fairfax NZ – and I appreciate that support and the support that you, the readers, give me.

I sincerely appreciate your support. It means the world to me and I appreciate every single one of you that visits the site. I might not be the biggest or the best or the most popular, but I hope you enjoy what you find.

This will be the last blog for the year as I’m going “offline” for a couple of weeks to spend time with my family, relax and recharge the batteries. Fear not, though, I’ve already got some content planned for the week I return and hopefully the support from publishers will continue and I’ll be able to keep bringing you game and hardware reviews and opinion pieces.

So, thanks again. Enjoy your Christmas and New Year and wherever you are, stay safe. See you next year.

Dead Rising 4 review: Jingle bells, jingle bells

Many of you may know that I have a teenage son, Mitchell, who is a pretty dab hand at stringing a few words together as well as a fine gamer (he can kick my arse when we play co-op). He’s a long time fan of the Dead Rising series so I thought who better to give Dead Rising 4 to than him. So I did. Enjoy.

 

In Dead Rising 4, you return to Willamette, the setting for the first game.

In Dead Rising 4, you return to Willamette, the setting for the first game.

Video games have come a long way from when they were first developed over 40 years ago. What was once a simple principle involving sending a little white ball from one side of the screen to the other between two white slabs, has now become a multi-billion dollar industry. The term “video game” is incredibly broad and continues to expand every day as new games that break the barrier of what is considered to be a conventional video game are developed.

However broad this term may be, zombies and video games go hand in hand. Raise your hand if when you think of video games, you think of zombies?( If you did in fact raise your hand, you probably shouldn’t blindly follow the instructions of an article.) All jokes aside, you wouldn’t be alone if you did put zombies and video games in the same basket. In fact, I probably would, too.

The Dead Rising series is potentially the most successful zombies franchise to date, ruling out Call of Duty zombies because technically it’s a game mode, not a primary franchise.

The Dead Rising series was the first zombie, beat ’em up game that I truly delved into and continue to thoroughly enjoy to this day. The fourth installment of the main series brings us back to its origins somewhat, as the original protagonist, Frank West, a photojournalist looking for his big scoop, is brought back with more badassery than ever before.

Dead Rising 4 is set in Willamette, just like the first game, but the world is immensely bigger. Unlike the first Dead Rising, you are not just limited to the confines of the mall the entire time, which is a welcome change, as you can explore the chaos that has unfolded in Willamette since the first outbreak. That’s right! I said the FIRST outbreak. Willamette has had a pretty unlucky run. DR4 is set sixteen years after the events of the first game, during the Christmas period, and one year after the events of Dead Rising 3, though feeling as if it acts as a soft reboot of the series. The Christmas theme does get a little irritating after a while though, I’m not going to lie.

I can’t help but feel as if Capcom have gone for style over substance in DR4, which is a real shame. For longtime fans of the series like myself who have been playing since the first game will feel a slight hint of nostalgia when entering Willamette’s Parkview mall, which was the primary setting for the first Dead Rising.

Willamette Mall in its Christmas livery.

Willamette Mall in its Christmas livery.

However similar the new Parkview mall appears visually, the flow just isn’t the same – something just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s the fact that not as much focus was put into the mall itself in DR4 because it only acts as a transition point from getting one from one side of Willamette to the other, rather than the setting for the whole game like in the original.

It appears as if the mall’s main focus is pointless areas like a lacklustre go-kart track and a shipwrecked pirate ship. I feel like this primary focus on these nonsensical areas took away the nostalgic feeling from the first game and didn’t add any memorable personality. Capcom really missed out on massive opportunity to capitalize on the nostalgia and bring back an iconic classic to excite the fans. Instead the new Parkview mall just doesn’t feel the same.

What I love about Dead Rising 4, though,  is that, yes there is a clear story to follow, (a fairly decent one too, I might add) but if you just wanted to mess around and free roam, there is nothing to stop you from doing so.

If you’re feeling so inclined as to “chop till you drop” without thinking too much, you can, which is a really awesome thing. I won’t say too much about the ending because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone if they decided to purchase DR4, but I will say that it pissed me right off (but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

If you’re a longtime fan of the series, this is a definite pick up, as it brings back that classic Dead Rising feel into a whole new story. I wouldn’t say that the story is amazing in comparison to some other big titles of 2016, but as far as a beat’em up story goes, it is pretty great. I do not believe that anyone would be disappointed or regret their decision in purchasing Dead Rising 4, as long as they go into it treating it like a whole new game and not some direct comparison to the original.

Nostalgia is a funny effect that often leads us to believe that what we have experienced in the past is far superior to what we have now, even if it wasn’t. So my advice is, do not play Dead Rising 4 and find every single flaw or gripe with the game and constantly think that it is sub par because they changed a few minor details. Entering with an open mind guarantees that you will enjoy the game. I think that’s where most reviewers have gone wrong. They treated it as a direct sequel to the original, rather than a series reboot.

What Capcom have managed to do is recreate the same sense of absurdity through the game’s crafting system. The crafting is still hilariously fun. There are so many different combos that make absolutely no sense whatsoever but still make for a truly enjoyable experience, there is no denying that Dead Rising 4 is fun. I can’t remember the last game that I played where it was possible to have so much fun by doing absolutely nothing. There is nothing better than coming home after a long, hard day at work, putting your feet up and slaying hordes of zombies with big hulk fists.

A Christmas wreath + a car battery = a whole lot of carnage!

A Christmas wreath + a car battery = a whole lot of carnage!

To this day, the Dead Rising franchise is the only series in which I can think of, where a player would trade an assault rifle for a knife and a pair of boxing gloves. That’s what makes the game so enjoyable. The fact that you can have so much fun with something so stupid as a Christmas wreath and a car battery is an incredible thing and really speaks wonders about what Capcom has been able to achieve with the series.

Dead Rising 4 was played through to completion on Xbox One using a code provided by Xbox NZ.

Win a copy of The Last Guardian & a The Last Guardian T-shirt

thelastguardian tlg_orange_phoAfter a wait of what seems almost like forever, PlayStation 4-exclusive The Last Guardian is finally out on the PlayStation 4, and thanks to the great team at PlayStation NZ, Gamejunkie NZ has one copy of The Last Guardian and a T-shirt to give away to one lucky reader.

The Last Guardian tells the journey between a young boy and a bird/cat/eagle beast called Trico as they have to escape the prison they both find themselves in. The two become inseparable friends as their journey through the game progresses.

You can read my thoughts here but  Trico can be, at times, stubborn and temperamental, just like a real animal. I’ve got a dog called Drew and he reminds me a lot of Trico with his mannerisms and behaviour.

I forgot completely about how much time I have for this so I’ve decided to make it really simple to enter the draw: In the comments section below or on the GamejunkieNZ Facebook page, I want you to tell me in 50 words or less, who would be your inseparable partner on a journey like that undertaken by Trico and the young boy in The Last Guardian. Tell me why you made your choice, as well.

As with all competitions, there are terms and conditions, so here they are for your reading please:
1) The prize is one (1) copy of The Last Guardian on PlayStation 4 and a The Last Guardian T-shirt. You must supply the PS4 yourself to play it on.
2) The competition is only open to those living in New Zealand and must have a valid New Zealand address that the prize will be sent to.
3) The competition is open from December 13 until 7pm on December 19. I will contact the winner by DM or email.
4) Entry is by writing in the comments section on the GamejunkieNZ Facebook page or on the comments section in this blog who would be your inseparable partner on an epic journey. Feel free to like the page as well (I’d be forever grateful).
5) The decision of the judge (that’s me) is final and the prize will be mailed out to the winner by PlayStation NZ. Hopefully it’ll get to you by Christmas, but no guarantees.