“I have not green lit one game to be developed as a singleplayer experience. Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365”Frank Gibeau, Electronic Arts
This post contains heavy spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn story
Frank Gibeau said it like single player experiences are bad. Let me tell you something about video gamers, we do not need a game filled with micro transaction opportunities and multiple players to feel entertained. Although we love fancy game mechanics, weapon design and other cool stuff but what makes a game memorable at its core is the narrative and characters whom we can hold on to in our memories.
That is exactly what Guerrilla Games shipped in 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn. An absolute masterpiece delivered by the developers of the Killzone franchise. Zero Dawn is undoubtedly one of the best games of the eight generation of consoles. Built on a ‘beautiful post-post apocalyptic’ open world the game is a memorable adventure, one which you can not get enough of.
Mystery of the old ones
Its a stunning open world environment filled with diverse tribes, flora and fauna along with its own share of threats and mysteries. Playing as Aloy, the game’s female protagonist you set off on a journey seeking answers about your past and the old ones, a personal mission which soon turns into a battle for the fate of the world. Very few games have the ability to keep you hooked right from the first minute and Zero Dawn is definitely one of them.
You start your journey as Aloy who is seen as an infant at the very beginning of the game. She is cared for by another outcast named Rost. During the introduction Rost journeys to a sacred cliff where he speaks her name for the first time. Along the way we see beautiful and contrasting landscapes and the machines who somewhat resemble dinosaurs. Throughout the game we are shown fallen buildings, monuments and facilities which relate to the human civilization as it is today.
Horizon Zero Dawn Story
As a child, we see Aloy playing but she is bitterly shoved aside by tribal members due to the fact she is an outcast. She soons obtains a Focus, a small augmented reality device that lets her analyze her surroundings digitally. Aloy is sad by the fact that she is an outcast and pursues Rost for answers about her mother to which he replies that to get answers she will have to win a competition called the Proving. After coming of age, Aloy (Ashly Burch) enters the competition to win a boon by the tribal elders which she intends to use to seek answers about her mother. Aloy wins the competition, but the tribe and Aloy are attacked by cultists who wield strange automatic weapons (machine guns). Aloy is almost killed by the cult’s leader but Rost saves her at the last minute by sacrificing himself. This was a traumatic scene for me that too so early in the game.
Leaving the sacred land
When Aloy wakes up she finds herself inside the sacred mountain and a tribe elder explains that the cultists had gained control of machines which they now use for their missions. While inside the mountain, Aloy learns that as an infant, she was found right at the foot of a sealed door which the tribe believes to be a Goddess. When she approaches the door it runs a DNA scan on her but is unable to complete the scan due to a corrupted file. Aloy then travels far beyond her homeland (The Embrace) to find a possible foe whom she had encountered earlier. Her journey takes us through the stunning open world of Horizon Zero Dawn and we are presented with numerous side quests, item hunts and hidden places along the way.
Dr Elisabet Sobeck
She soon catches up with Oseram (another tribe) foreigner Olin who informs Aloy that the cultists are part of a group called the Eclipse and that Aloy was targeted due to her resemblance to an Old World scientist named Dr. Elisabet Sobeck. The story becomes extremely deep from this point as you discover that the Old Ones were actually the human civilization like it is today but a catastrophic out of control robot army who consumed bio-mass as fuel lead to the extinction of the world. Yet somehow life was brought back to a dead planet.
Aloy locates the ruins of Faro Automated Solutions, the company responsible for building the killer robots known as the chariot line. She discovers that the old world was destroyed thousands of years ago after Faro lost control of its “peacekeeper” military robots. The robots who could self-replicate and consumed biomass as fuel, stripped the planet bare in 15 months after a glitch which severed the chain of command, Earth was reduced to a barren sphere. Project Zero Dawn, a top secret post doomsday plan designed and proposed by Dr. Sobeck, was the plan to create an automated terraforming system to eventually shut the robots down and restore life to Earth. At this point it was confirmed that no matter what, life on Earth was about to end at that point.
Project Zero Dawn
During her journey Aloy is contacted by Sylens, an interested party who wants to find out what happened to the “Old Ones”. Aloy eventually learns that Dr. Sobeck’s Project Zero Dawn was ultimately what made life on Earth possible once again after it was consumed by the Faro robots. Aloy heads for a secret military base which was used as a staging area for Zero Dawn and inside, she finds out that Zero Dawn was a vast underground system of databases, factories, and cloning facilities controlled by a single artificial intelligence, GAIA. Much of the characters in this game were inspired from Greek mythology.
Once all life had been consumed, GAIA developed a countermeasure after hundreds of years to deactivate all of the Faro robots and then began building its own line of green robots supported by subordinate functions to detoxify the atmosphere, restore the Earth’s biosphere and bring life back from the dead. Once the planet was habitable again, GAIA reseeded life on Earth based on stored DNA, seeds and embryos. The first human clones were undertaking lessons and learning about the old world and how not to repeat their predecessors’ mistakes but the program designed for training human clones APOLLO, was sabotaged by Faro who proved his major role in the extinction of mankind, and thus the clone humans were sent back to the stone age.
HADES was one of GAIA’s subordinate functions designed to act as a fail safe protocol and tasked with extincting all life on earth should the outcome of Zero Dawn not be favourable for human existence. Inside the ruins of Dr. Sobeck’s office, Aloy downloaded an alpha registry file to her Focus which would give her access to the sealed blast door from which she was born. However, she is captured by Helis and is nearing her end when suddenly Sylens appears to save her. Aloy returns to The Embrace to help the Nora tribe fight off the Eclipse and the machines after which she enters the mountain’s secret chamber.
The truth revealed
She finds a recording left behind by GAIA, revealing that a signal of unknown origin (most likely a virus) caused HADES to activate and begin seizing control of her functions. As a last resort, GAIA self-destructed in order to stop HADES. While HADES was stopped, it was not destroyed like GAIA as it managed to escape along with the other subordinate functions before the destruction. Although the imminent threat was nullified, without GAIA to maintain the terraforming process, the entire system began to break down over the years. As a contingency plan, GAIA had created a clone of Dr. Sobeck from her DNA in the form of Aloy. GAIA hoped Aloy would one day find GAIA’s message, destroy HADES, and restore GAIA’s functions.
Aloy learns that Dr. Sobeck sacrificed her life to ensure the Faro robot swarm would not find GAIA. Aloy manages to obtain the System Override in the same room where the remainder of Project Zero Dawn’s development team was killed by Faro. Sylens at this point, admits that he was the original founder of the Eclipse, originally tempted by HADES’ promises of knowledge about the old world. HADES who is now in control of an army means to send a signal to reactivate the Faro robots to once again extinguish all life on Earth.
During the final battle at the city of Meridien Aloy kills Helis and helps fight off waves of corrupted machines, before stabbing HADES with Sylens’ customized lance with the System override attached to it, ending the war. Aloy later journeys to Dr. Sobeck’s old home, finding her corpse, and has a moment of mourning for her ‘mother’. In a post-credits scene, HADES is shown to still be alive, but trapped by Sylens, who intends to interrogate HADES to gain more knowledge about the old world.
Now we wait for the sequel
Have I mentioned that this was one of the few games in which I did not suffer a single drop in frame during the entire gameplay on my PS4 Pro. Its hard to believe that this was Guerrilla’s first venture in the open world genre coming from the dark world of Killzone. Where Killzone was a world in which one would want to kill everybody and get out of it as soon as possible, Horizon Zero Dawn has been designed to make you stay. Back when I was in university last year I remember travelling up to The Cut and using the in-game landscape and soft music as a live screensaver while I completed my thesis. By the way I got 87.5% in my thesis so to all the folks still in university you know what to do to pass in your thesis now.
Beauty aside it is also as challenging as it gets. The AI is smart and you are forced to take a strategic approach if you engage in combat under any of the non-story modes. Each threat can be studied and analyzed for weak points and scavenging purposes via two mediums, one is your in-game user interface called the Focus and its alternate resource is the pause menu guide book which keeps getting updated with every new machine you discover.
The game length would depend on how much exploration you want to do. I was mainly focused on the main storyline which took me ~26 hours to complete the game excluding the DLC. My friend who likes killing each and every machine on the map took ~26 hours to reach the half point of the game so it depends a lot on your playing style but I would say there are certain side quests, collectibles and item hunts which you must complete on the way as it provides more insight on the game and you end up having more solid knowledge of what happened to the world of the old ones.
Making the Horizon Zero Dawn machines
There are a total of 28 different machines in the game all with its own design, behavior and functionalities. Each machine has been inspired by a current or past living creature. One of the machines the Thunderjaw has been inspired by the T-rex. According to Guerrilla, Thunderjaw took 18 months to complete before it was shown at the E3 demo.
Other animals such as jaguars, cheetahs and panthers were the source of inspiration behind other machines which presented a threat to the player inside the game but it was not only the visual inspiration for the machines which was drawn from real life animals. Even the vocal structure of each machine comes inspired from real life animals. Interestingly there are different audio pitch for each stage of the machine’s behavior, you can tell without looking at the screen if the machines are hunting, dormant or have found you.
Where it all began
Its interesting to know that Guerrilla Games had almost ended up sidelining the game several years ago but a last minute pitch by Hermen Hulst (Guerrilla Games Managing Director) changed the direction that the studio was heading towards. While the Killzone games were more linear Zero Dawn was a whole different thing as a post apocalyptic role-playing game.
You could not predict what the player was going to do next. For instance I could jump from the main quests to an item hunt or a side quest as there is no straight path or sandbox restriction in an open world. Guerrilla did realize their lack of experience in this genre and for that reason they brought in John Gonzalez former lead writer for Fallout: New Vegas who served as the narrative director for the game. As the narrative director John was responsible for character development and most of the game’s critically acclaimed story.
The game engine
We offered them a wooden box with a memory stick in it and we were like here, its our engine’s source code.Michiel V.D. (Technical Director, Guerrilla Games)
The whole game was built on an engine which streams the entire game and the world, this results in no loading screens but presents a technical challenge of itself. The game engine took years to get where it is today but the end result was not just the 4K open world game called Horizon Zero Dawn. At one point after Zero Dawn’s release, Guerrilla’s Management team took a 340 slides PowerPoint presentation to Hideo Kojima and at the end of the presentation they presented them the engine’s source code.
Kojima Productions conducted their own performance investigation on the engine and were extremely pleased. So pleased that you are going to see the engine perform again in a highly anticipated game called Death Stranding. Ever since then Kojima and Guerrilla have been collaborating and exchanging feedback, ideas and more which is definitely going to improve both the development studios at game development and we can expect much hotter titles in the future.
Horizon Zero Dawn was an experience I can never forget and I believe Guerrilla Games have ended up creating a beautiful culture around the Zero Dawn franchise. I am not mistaken to say that we can expect at least 2 more games with Aloy being the center of attention because Sony is not going to let one of its top selling PS exclusives end so soon seeing that Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise just wrapped up.
It also shows you how much work goes behind making a single game. For a mere 30 to 40 hours of enjoyment a group of talented individuals dedicated 7 years of their lives. With the release of Days Gone and The Last of Us Part II next year I do not think we will hear anything about a sequel to Zero Dawn before 2020. Whatever the case be, Thank you Guerrilla for not being like Frank Gibeau and having the courage to follow your passion for game development. Who says single player games are dead ?!