Horizon Forbidden West (PS5 version)

It’s said that the second album is often the most difficult but with Horizon Forbidden West, Guerilla has built on the foundations of its original creation and created a sequel worth playing.

Taking place six months after the events of Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy must once again, save the earth from a catastrophic threat by re-activating Gaia, the powerful AI that helped her defeat the ruthless Hades in the first game.

I played Forbidden West on the PlayStation 5 and diving into the settings menu sees the PS5 version offering two key graphics modes: Favour Performance and Favour Resolution.

Performance provides a higher frame rate but a lower resolution (1800p upscaling to 4K) while resolution runs at 4K but at a lower frame rate (30FPS). I played most of the game on performance mode, wanting better performance given the game’s constant combat, but it looks damn fine in both modes to my untrained eyes. Frame rates in performance mode seemed pretty rock solid, too.

Central to the Horizon series is the machines that wander the game world, a veritable zoo of robot animals bellowing flame, bellies full of flammable fuel and mouths full of razor-sharp teeth.

This time around, though, Aloy not only has to contend with a menagerie of new machines, she also has to content with Regatta, a rebel Tenakth warrior who has tamed the machines and seeks revenge on her people. There is also a new group of enemies that present a much stronger human challenge than Aloy has ever faced before.

The Forbidden West is a big world with desert plains, snowy mountains, rivers & lakes & lush forests, and the environments really are diverse. It’s a land littered with the metallic corpses of human tanks and enemy machines from the events of the first game.

Guerilla says it has listened to player feedback and I believe them here. The climbing mechanic feels much improved over the original game and the narrative is much tighter this time around. Voice acting, too, is more natural, especially for the main ensemble cast, and the visuals, especially underwater, are quite honestly wonderful. Character facial animations are some of the best I have seen in a long time, with highly expressive faces.

One thing Guerilla hasn’t done is change the fundamentals with Forbidden West: Aloy still creeps through lush forests and decaying buildings, hiding in shoulder high grass, avoiding  patrolling monsters but it all takes place in a much, much bigger and more detailed world than that of Zero Dawn, which already was impressive on the PlayStation 4.

I’m just over 30 hours in Horizon Forbidden West so I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on things and I have to say it has captured my attention much more than the original ever did, which I just didn’t gel with. It’s great to see that Forbidden West has improved on Zero Dawn – but it’s not without its faults.

Taken using Horizon Forbidden West’s photo mode.

As in the first game, Aloy scans machines for weak point points using a device called a focus. Machines might have an un-shielded component that can be sheared off and used against it or a component that she needs to complete a weapon build.

There are now hub villages where Aloy can stock up on resources, upgrade weapons using work benches, get side quests (like collecting the ingredients for a chef’s famous stew) or meet up with old friends. She also has a much larger skill tree that in the original game which can be upgraded to improve things like her hunting, stealthiness and combat prowess.

Aloy also has some new gadgets this time to help in her quest to save humanity: The pullcaster will not only let Aloy reach high vantage points but lets her pull open vent covers or drag crates that can be used to access facilities and buildings. She has an arm-fitted sail that lets her glide from high points or from a tall structure onto a tall neck. It’s a nice way to quickly descend from a mountain top and you’re able to cover a fair bit of ground this way.

In more than 28 hours with Forbidden West (which is seemingly only around 25% of the game’s overall completion), I have collected three key components of Gaia, defeated countless rebels and machines, traipsed through the sandstorm-ravaged remains of Las Vegas, swum in crystal clear waters, ascended high peaks and recruited new team mates to help the fight.

So far I’ve completed 12 main quests, three side quest, killed 189 machines killed (91 by critical strikes), overrode four machines (mainly chargers), killed 100 human kills, collected two relics from ruins, lit 78 campfires (I like to save often), ate 437 medicinal berries and obtained 20 legendary items, including all four special gear items.

I climbed tall necks, took on giant machines, saved some miners from certain death and wander countless kms by foot because I forgot to override a charger every now and then.

OK, criticisms.

I felt at times the game world just had too much stuff to do outside the main quests. This is something that all open-world games seem to suffer these days and I think at times Forbidden West suffers from it, too. Pull up the game map and there is almost a bewilderingly huge amount of icons dotting the landscape of things to find: It often became a mass of campfire icons, question marks indicating unexplored features, rebel camps to clear out and undiscovered machine grazing grounds.

Talking of rebel camps, I honestly couldn’t be bothered clearing out the rebel camps as it didn’t really seem to make much difference to the main quests – and fighting the human enemies most of the times was just, well, not fun.

I also felt that at times the game fell into the tried-and-true video game tropes space and I encountered the odd graphical glitch, too. Nothing major but enough to notice. Generally it was pieces of buildings that were missing as Aloy approached the structure then suddenly loaded into view when she got close enough. The HDR also did weird things from time to time, especially when I transitioned from the map screen back to the game, with all the game particles popping a brilliant white before settling down.

Taken using Horizon Forbidden West’s photo mode.

I’d also suggest playing on normal or above difficult as testing it out on Easy mode for a bit proved no challenge at all, even when facing against some of the most fearsome machines. If you want a challenge, stick with the higher difficulty levels.

Horizon Forbidden West builds on the solid foundations laid by Zero Dawn and while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, this sequel gives us a more expansive world and a much stronger narrative. I have enjoyed my time with it immensely and highly recommend it.

Horizon Forbidden West is also a technical showcase for what Sony’s PlayStation 5 is capable of with a truly talent development team.

What a time to be a gamer, eh?

A big thanks to PlayStation NZ PR for the early game code.

Taken using Horizon Forbidden West photo mode.

Horizon Zero Dawn: A review in pictures

I’m enjoying Horizon Zero Dawn a lot. A great big lot, actually. The world is beautifully realised, leading lady Aloy is a great character and the narrative is intriguing. I hope this is the start of a great series.

Horizon Zero Dawn is developer Guerrilla Game’s first open-world action role-playing game after a history dominated by tightly controlled first person shooter Killzone and it’s far from the perfect game, but it’s clear with HZD that Guerrilla has taken inspiration from other games  – Far Cry, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed – but added its own small touches. .

There’s no doubt Aloy is the focus here, and rightly so, but the game’s beasts, mechanical machines based on real life animals, are stars in this game, too, each with weaknesses, smarts and vulernabilities.

Snapjaw (crocodiles), Longleg (ostriches), broadhead (cattle), sawtooth (tiger): Mechanical beasts made from metal, cable and glass  –  you can shoot off individual components, provided you have the right weapon, which will slow them down, revealing weak points. They’re roaming the wilderness in HZD and nine times out of 10 they want to eat you. That’s when you hot foot it out of where they are, or take them down – or die trying.

Horizon Zero Dawn treds familiar paths that gamers accustomed to open-world games have walked before, but I don’t have a problem with that: It does it so well, so stylishly and with stunning visuals, that Id rather play Horizon Zero Dawn than Assassin’s Creed 95 or Far Cry 12. Sure, the game has flaws: fighting the human enemies isn’t as nearly fulfilling as the beasts, the voice acting is hit and miss at times,  and some of the NPC AI is questionable, but the side quests are entertaining and Aloy is a genuinely interesting character.

So to that end, Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that deserves a special kind of review, so that’s what I’m going to give it. I’m not rabbit on for paragraph after paragraph telling you what I did, how I did it and what happened. I’m not going to write clever prose. I’m going to show you the world in pictures, taken using the game’s photo mode.

Enjoy.

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Aloy caught mid-rappell down a ravine.

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A fire bellow back so, so close to Aloy (you can just make out her head in the foliage). This is one of those time the AI is a little wonky: I’m actually surprised the creature didn’t spot me – He was pretty much on top of me.

The same image as above but using the photo mode's sepia filter.

The same image as above but using the photo mode’s sepia filter.

 

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Aloy atop a longneck, Horizon Zero Dawn’s version of Far Cry’s towers. Once overridden, the map opens up a little bit more, revealing a little bit more.

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The photo mode lets you adjust things like camera position, colour balance, time of day and even remove the HUD.

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One of my favourites. The game world is littered with remnants of  the “metal age” when man was dominant. Times have changed.

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Horizon Zero Dawn: The world of Aloy in pictures

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Horizon Zero Dawn is out tomorrow on PS4 – and it’s good. Very good.

I’ve played for a few hours in the Nora shoes of main character Aloy, an outcast who must save the people who abandoned her from a robotic evil, and the game looks stunning. It’s probably one of the most visually arresting games I’ve played on a console.

So, to make the most of those sumptuous visuals, developer Guerrilla have included a rather neat photo mode that lets you tweak a whole lot of settings so you can get that perfect screenshot (including determining the time of day, moving the camera up or down as if on a crane and, nicely, an option to remove the HUD and characters from the scene).

I’ve played around with the photo mode so thought I’d post a few of the images I’ve captured so far. Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that makes you want to stop and take screenshots.

Enjoy.

Thanks to PlayStation for the review copy of Horizon Zero Dawn.

 

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 third-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.