Going into this E3, I was ecstatic with excitement. I could run around and play a new Star Fox and watch gameplay from Uncharted 4 and wait two hours to play Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. The abundance of content at this year’s E3 made my first year on the show floor a special one. And then, one title came out of nowhere and stole my excitement.
Horizon Zero Dawn makes a strong case for purchasing a PlayStation 4. While The Last Guardian and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End gave phenomenal presentations, I can see myself waiting a few years and a couple price drops to give those games a whirl. It’s not inherently bad in knowing what to expect from these games, but there’s a lack of urgency to play them. On the other hand, Guerrilla’s robot dinosaur hunting mayhem starring futuristic Merida from Pixar’s Brave is the first game I’ve seen from Sony that truly awed me. The PlayStation 4, Wii U, and Xbox One may have already launched years ago, but Horizon is a reminder that this generation should push itself creatively more often than it has so far.
For the past few years, the industry has been infatuated with continuing franchises. Launch titles such as New Super Mario Bros. U and Forza 5 brought old IPs onto new hardware with very little change to the established formula. The aforementioned Guerrilla Games remained tied to its banner franchise of the previous generation, with Killzone: Shadow Fall launching alongside the PlayStation 4. While these new entries weren’t necessarily mediocre, the imbalance between hardware upgrades and software innovations had been obvious.
This isn’t to say that a new IP equates to innovation. Plenty of new franchises merely echo the ideas of titles of the last generation, such as Battleborn’s similarities to Borderlands and MOBAs. Few developers have attempted to create something truly different; to me, this new generation has felt like a continuation of the last one.
Guerrilla Games is finally stretching its legs and proving what it can do with Horizon Zero Dawn. The developer is free from the restraints of the Killzone universe, ready to embrace the PlayStation 4 architecture and create something completely new. The live gameplay demo I witnessed on the E3 show floor gave me a glimpse into the vast, imaginative world Guerrilla has crafted in Horizon. Plains populated by synthetic creatures stretch for miles on end. Mountains touch the sky far off in the distance. There’s a reason that this game is called “Horizon,” and I assure you it’s not because that’s the main character’s name. That’d be stupid. The horizon is the limit of exploration, a boundary almost impossible to fathom.
Guerrilla’s ambitious open world heavily contrasts the fairly linear layout of the Killzone titles, proving the studio’s range in game development. The archery combat utilizes several types of arrows as well as plenty of slow-motion flips and dives, while stealthy maneuvers between flower fields and cliffs can keep players out of sight from the giant mechanical dinosaurs that wander the world. It’s guerrilla warfare, if you will. The melding of quiet tribal stylings with bombastically exploding beasts blurs the line between prehistoric and futuristic settings, producing a unique atmosphere and look that sets Horizon apart. All of these components make up a game the likes of which Guerrilla has never crafted. The map isn’t just the player’s frontier; this is new ground for Guerrilla as a developer.
The last hardware cycle gave the industry tentpole franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect, while old IPs like Call of Duty and Spyro reinvented themselves, changing the medium as we know it along the way. Now that the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii are firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s the perfect time for developers to start brainstorming again. Games such as Splatoon and Titanfall have already shown how creative developers can be when breaking away from their established franchises. Horizon Zero Dawn is another fine example of this practice.
There’s certainly a place for continuing the success stories of the last generation; however, it’s important to remember just how imaginative a developer can be when freed from the constraints of its previous work. The impressive E3 presentation by Horizon Zero Dawn and Guerrilla Games is a shining example of the praise warranted by innovation in video games.