Unless you’ve been hiding in a bunker in anticipation of a coming nuclear war, chances are you’ve heard about or have even played the PS4-exclusive game Horizon Zero Dawn. In an era where the role of first-party console exclusives are not nearly as strong as they were in the PS2 and PS3 era, Horizon has entered the market as a surprising addition to Sony’s stable of system-sellers. What’s even more surprising is the fact that Horizon Zero Dawn is a sprawling and massive open-world game made by a studio that effectively has zero experience in open world games.
In the (Kill) Zone
Horizon Zero Dawn was developed by Dutch studio Guerrilla Games. If you’re a Playstation veteran you’ll recognize their name from the Killzone series of first-person shooters. Before their first Killzone game for the PS2 Guerrilla made one other game, which was also their first title.
That game was Shellshock Nam ‘67, a third-person shooter that got mixed reviews from critics. Shellshock wasn’t a bad game on a technical level, but in terms of the setting and presentation people were not too impressed.
Guerrilla’s first big breakout game in the form of the original Killzone for the PS2. For a console that had such a huge library of amazing games, the PS2 didn’t have that many FPS games that stood out in any way. The original Xbox had been blessed with a colorful Sci-Fi shooter franchise in 2001. A little game called Halo.
Finding an FPS to play on the PS2 was not hard at the time, but before Killzone there wasn’t really a game with a standout setting. Killzone brought a level of graphical polish, and world-building that had been lacking on the console until then. But where Halo was a big, bright and pumping game Killzone turned the grimdark Sci-fi to 11. Giving us a story of space World War II, replete with space Nazis and space allies to fight them.
The original Killzone was a game that many people slept on, which is a pity because if you played it at the time just the graphics alone were mind-blowing. Killzone one felt like it was a whole generation ahead of other FPS games on the PS2. Guerrilla really showed their ability to tap every last hardware feature the Emotion Engine provided, which pretty much made them the perfect first-party developer. So it’s no wonder Sony bought them outright.
Whether you thought that the Killzone games were good shooters or not, few people can argue the reputation Guerrilla has built over the years for technical expertise. They have been the perfect launch title developers, showcasing the best of what the various Playstations could do right off the bat.
Killzone Mercenary for the Vita is one of the titles that has come closest to fulfilling Sony’s original promise of a PS3 in your pocket. It’s still the best mainstream shooter on that or any other handheld console.
So, apart from Shellshock and Horizon itself, every game that Guerrilla have done has been a Killzone game. All but one of the Killzone games has been an FPS. Shellshock was a third-person shooter, which is mechanically not that far removed from an FPS.
Interestingly enough, their PSP title Killzone Liberation was not an FPS, but an isometric real-time shooter. It made perfect sense, since the PSP lacked a second analogue stick most first person shooters were just too tedious to control on the system. So Guerrilla made the right choice and switched genres to fit the handheld better. Killzone Liberation is actually a very good game.
Liberation also showed me that Guerrilla was willing to make choices that served gameplay, even if those choices took them out of their comfort zone. Which is good, because when Guerrilla was taking internal pitches for their next game from employees there was no way that the winning idea would ever work as an FPS.
The decision to realize the post-apocalyptic, robotic dinosaur-filled world of Aloy as an open-world game was obviously the right one, but taking on the challenge of developing an open-world game is an immense gamble for a studio that doesn’t have a history in the genre.
If you look at the best open-world franchises of today they are almost exclusively made by people who have had many tries at getting the formula right. We’re on the third Witcher game and while I love the first Witcher, you have to admit that the game was pretty rough around the edges. Bethesda has made multiple open-world games over multiple decades and they still can’t get it quite right from a technical standpoint. We have four numbered Far Crys. Five 3D GTAs. You get the idea. Massive open-world game development is not a club you just walk into.
So how could Guerrilla go from making scripted FPS tunnel shooters to one of the most beautiful and technically-impressive open world games on any platform? Here’s my thoughts.
Power to the People
The first major factor was their willingness to get the right people. Based on interviews I’ve seen with various people from the studio there were about 250 people in Holland working on the game and then an additional 150 from territories in Asia.
In terms of the total number of people who contributed to any degree I’ve heard that over a thousand people are credited with working on the game in total. So the first thing that Guerrilla did right was not to underestimate the resources they would need to do the game right and this clearly paid off.
It’s hard to convey just how technically proficient Guerilla has been over the years. As I mentioned before, their games on the various Playstations have demonstrated an aggressive approach to optimization and making every circuit surrender it’s performance. However, one thing that shows this better than anything is the Decima engine. The ability to create your own cutting-edge game engine is a huge technical mic drop. To then resell that engine to other studios is a sign of greatness.
Guerrilla created the Decima engine for the PS4 and we’ve already seen it used to great effect on Shadowfall and Until Dawn. It will be the engine that drives Hideo Kojima’s upcoming game Death Stranding.
Whatever you may think of it as a game, Shadow Fall was gorgeous game on a technical level, but I would never have thought that same engine could make a game like Zero Dawn due to the scale of creating an open world game with level of technical prowess. It’s not just the engine either. Until Dawn is also a very pretty game, but Supermassive was not able to get great performance in comparison to what Guerrilla can tap from their own engine.
When you look at the behind the scenes technical details during the development of
Horizon, there are just so many incredibly clever ideas that all add up to something I’d have a hard time believing runs on a PS4 and yet, there are still well and good moments that remind me of the limitations of the PS4. For example, the engine loads and unloads assets on the fly just a few degrees wide than the actual viewport of the game’s camera. If the camera isn’t looking at it then it’s not being rendered or taking up memory. This means the game can pack the visible part of the world with more detail with the user being none the wiser.
The distance level of details scaling in Horizon is also aggressively tuned. For example, at the precise distance where the player would be physically incapable of telling the difference between a polygonal tree or a 2D sprite Guerrilla uses sprites. From the player’s point of view the illusion is out of sight. For people with level of sheer technical kung-fu the technological challenges of making an open-world game is a manageable one.
Attention to Detail
Thanks to the army of people they brought in to work on this game the attention to detail in Horizon is mind-blowing. I’m not talking about graphical fidelity, but the amount of thought that went into everything this new world is made of.
For example, if you look at the production notes for a tribe like the Nora they’ve thought about everything. What does the architecture look like? What level of technology do they have? Is the clothing practical?
If we move to the Carja, Osram or the Banuk, each one of them is distinct and different. There is no rhyme without reason in this game. Interestingly, Guerrilla brought in the same German design company that helped create the look for the wildlings in the TV series Game of Thrones. Not because their own artists couldn’t design or draw, but because these guys are also experts in anthropology. Making the Nora a tribe that could really exist and look the way they do. That obsessive level of thought is consistent throughout the game. This is also a game that makes incredibly extensive use of motion capture and the overall level of animation detail is jaw dropping. This is one of the only games where I haven’t yet spotted those little transitional animation cheats where my character snaps from one type of animation to another. The game may be locked at 30fps, but at least each of those frames is filled with actual unique animation.
Stealing from the Best
The biggest reason I think Guerrilla were able to pull such an extreme change in genre and direction off successfully is simply because they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. They have decades worth of open-world games to borrow from and Zero Dawn really plays like a “best of” album for all of those great open world titles that have come before it. The creativity and uniqueness of the game comes from it’s visual style and setting, but mechanically it’s all been done before. Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, Far Cry and many more games have their DNA liberally splattered all over Zero Dawn.
This is an approach straight from the playbook of Naughty Dog, another Sony-owned first party developer. Their Uncharted series and The Last of Us are also games which don’t do anything fundamentally new. They just do a better job polishing the presentation of their games than the people who pioneered the playbook. It’s the strategy of polish and cohesion. Taking the Model-T as inspiration and making a hypercar. They both have four wheels, but the hypercar is a diamond next to a lump of coal.
It’s almost the opposite of what happened with Mafia III, where the concept and writing were really something special, but the actual mechanics were so rough that you had to grind to find the special moments in the narrative. Zero Dawn, like The Last of Us, is tuned and polished with a level of obsession that makes you question the sanity of the people behind it.
Despite my own personal feelings towards losing interest in the game due to how derivative it can be at times, I can acknowledge why many may be enamored by the actual minute-to-minute experience of playing Horizon. The game is a gourmet hamburger. It’s the taste you love, but it’s made to a standard that you didn’t think a hamburger could be made. It’s not just ground beef. It’s Kobe beef. It’s not just cheese, it’s $450 a pound white stilton gold. But at the same time, I think that it is important for all of us when looking back at the games we play, to learn and understand the difference between games that truly innovate gameplay mechanics and design and those that simply polish them to look nice. Sometimes that difference can walk a very fine line.
Horizon Zero Dawn represents a turning point for Guerrilla, I think. They’ve pulled off something I would have dismissed as impossible for the studio when Shadow Fall first launched. They have reinvented themselves from a company that makes shooters not to a company that now makes open world games, but to a company that can apparently do whatever they set their mind to.
Time will tell if this is a one-hit wonder from Guerrilla, but nothing I’ve seen of what went on behind the curtain suggests it will be. More importantly, Horizon Zero Dawn makes most other AAA games’ presentation look sloppy in comparison and hopefully it’s a title that will raise the technical bar across the board as we enter the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio generation of more powerful hardware.