Horizon Zero Dawn

Publisher Sony
Platform(s) Previewed PS4
Yet another potential stunner and hit from this years E3, with guerrilla games free to try pastures new with Horizon:Zero Dawn they certainly grabbed our attention.With the games debut impressing a great many myself included but without anyone clearly pinpointing what or why it all felt so impressive, my view is clear.

Being a complete open-world but having the same tight structure, asset quality and set-piece far more common of a more linear game including the “forest” level from KZ:SF. The star of the demo was new character Aloy, a flame haired heroin not unlike Pixar's own Scottish heroin from Brave. The flowing red locks also help along with other inspirations of popular current shows ...Game Of Thrones. But the bow adds to the influence as this allows her to have and craft multiple arrows which can be quickly interchanged in combat from the pop up wheel. The game is an RPG that allows full XP and skill development, the team have also stated it will not be tutorialised to help casuals so this should help anyone tired of the "led by the hand" approach that some games take. Instead you can choice your own way and style, capturing tanks and resources from the world as per the green canisters here in the demo. Or crafted from the world and making/extending your abilities in a more passive and "hippie" style.

This freedom of choice was also clearly present in the combat, with the bow being a weapon that is growing in popularity it was also joined by the ropecaster, which was expertly used to attach and tie done the behemoth after using the shock arrow to remove the bests own weapon and use it against it. Using time slowing skills to attack the enemies weak points, remove armour before destroying it from the core highlights the sheer complexity lavished on the games combat from one single enemy. Using the surroundings for cover and delay tactics looks great and certainly looks to extend on the work they started with SF which had a pretty decent wealth of design choice and combat options on certain levels, here with such a blank slate and open sandbox they can expand this in every conceivable direction to not only allow open world design but open execution design also. Having no fixed path of success but instead allowing you to make up your own methods that suit your play style, chosen upgrades and of course adversary at hand is as mouthwatering a prospect as the visuals.

The shadow fall engine returns, upgraded and improved but that unmistakable lighting system can never be missed. Using the same burnt orange sun set soaking palette it is a demo in how great lighting and design just as much as technique is important. With crepuscular rays beaming through the tree's along with its deep volumetric lighting system, looming mountains off into the distance, crumbled buildings all open to explore with rich detail and destruction, the opening shots all have the similar assets from the Vektor city, along with the earth shot from the launch trailer a clever and useful technique many wisely use. Having objects that break down including cover is another great addition for such a vast world, but with the enemies from small raptor type seekers and the more imposing T-Rex like armored beasts it all makes sense.

The sheer amount of foliage, View distance, high polygon models (the ThunderJaws are each 550k polygons themselves and in this demo we see 2 of them wandering on screen not alone) compete with detailed touches and armor designed into the game-play makes it all look and feel like a world we can get lost in, helped no-end I feel by its post apocalyptic setting and vibe mixed with medieval style back to basics weaponry as humans can no longer trust any tech.

The time lapse style opening shots from the petal opening, buds growing shows off the diversity of the engine along with the Bokeh effected DoF that has been improved from its original Shadow Fall presentation. So good it could be from a BBC wildlife show absolutely glorious. The sheer amount of geometry, texture detail and subtle effects all create a very CG type look to the game, I guess that many improvements have come from the lessons learned from its first game being shipped, optimizing Shader code and iteration output has allowed the team to vastly increase its Polygon budget which shows from the density on screen and into the distance. SF used a 7 LOD system in memory to generate the varied levels of detail in the game a system that can only have been improved since then with the teams greater knowledge, experienced engine and tool-set and possibly even increased memory allocations.

This is one of the areas I am sure they are going to be working on after this slice was the result of many weeks of hard work you can see the LOD balance and depth/distance system having some very minor pop in and out in the demo but again very minor and incredible early days, performance is a solid 30 bar some heavy lighting and foliage shots from the cut scenes but I expect a rock solid performer come launch.

Some of the improvements most likely made revolve around the Post effects and balance of CPU to GPU work, for example the original SF game had a very heavy CPU dependent load with the entire particle system being managed on the CPU, expect this along with a much higher resolution DoF pass to now be Compute based on the GPU. Some of the information gained from the teams Demo post-mortem after Killzone ShadowFall is very interesting and revealing, highlighting some of the areas they would have improved in for the final game and areas that would have had to wait until further games i.e. Horizon now.

And here with the entire demo being real-time the engine gets a chance to shine with greatly improved detail and animation, as the last game from Guerrilla had the far more mechanical helmets, drones and armour to render, here with a more human cast it gets a chance to show off more with the mixture of its truly stylized future design, the robot dinosaurs certainly have the angular look similar to the KillZone franchise. Characters faces show of some of the impressive skin and bone mesh movement seen before, again I feel that shader work on skin is still being worked through to compliment the relevant scene and lighting conditions, but as SF and soon to be release Until Dawn show the engine has no problems rendering human faces, very detailed and well animated ones at that, Aloy looks mesmerising in this sun drenched shots and was one of my favourites images from E3 this year, really highlights the artistic style of the team and its impressive tech merged in perfect harmony, superb.

In addition to these benefits the team already had some very impressive streaming tech from killzone 3 which of course was improved for the 10GB of GPU data used in Shadow Fall. Here they have pushed the engine all the way over to a full open world that also sports not only the amazing fidelity seen here but also is fully seamless with no loading screens. This is my big win this generation, having such impressive games that allow full immersion not broken by pre-renders and loading screens they really have excelled. But even here they go further, with trees, rocks and I am sure many other parts of the world all destructible and movable. Not only that they also remain active collision fields with Aloy hopping over them even after its deconstruction. Trees fold and break as the monstrous ThunderJaws attacks, bushes push out of your way convincingly and the overwhelming feeling of an organic world that follows a plausible physics model allowing the robotic inhabitants to act ,and believably so , as the dinosaurs and animals they are based on, mist floats over the grass at sunrise, volumetric light obscures the distance so well you can almost feel the heat from it as the trees cascade shade through it.

The demo also shows other signs of possible game inclusions, the clouds look to follow a weather system as we know the game has a full day/night cycle along with dynamic weather. This may be improved further still by using a full volumetric cloud system as was mesmerisingly used in Driveclub to such stunning effect which still now has the most impressive CGI type visuals so far this generation. The thought that this incredibly fluid and realistic middle-ware solution may find its way into a game like this from such a technical powerhouse studio as Guerrilla is not only exciting but could really set a high bar for all future weather systems in games.

With the volumetric lighting system being a signature look to shadow fall and one they really nailed with the games aesthetic, here they can take this and improve it further still with most likely a higher resolution resolve and higher particle count. It will almost definitely use the same Image Based Lighting system (IBL) that worked to stunning effect in SF. This is a process that dots probes around the world at set points while the level is voxelized and bolstered by additional proxy points to reduce the overlap and artefacting from this system. It not only is used for the lighting system but also a key part of the engines PBR pipeline which adopted a full linear lighting system even at launch which is why the game still now looks so impressive. This entire system complements the engines complete real-time reflection system with a cubemap fall back in case of failed pixel samples which merges with the Screen Space trace which also adds global illumination bounce light into its portfolio. With such a complete suite it enabled the team to have lighting and reflections to all follow this rule with realtime lighting that uses the more detailed area lights throughout rather than the more common point lights, to create one of the most impressive and vivid lighting systems yet seen and the team still have over a year to improve this further still from what we see here and in Shadow Fall.

The same 1080/30 performance level is aimed here like that games single player but unlike SF which used FXAA with a temporal pass for its anti aliasing solution (MSAA was not within timescale) I expect this game to step it up with a TMAA solution as this seems to be a big push within Sony first party studios and the temporal reprojection jitter technique seen in Uncharted 4 seemingly originating from Guerrillas own work from this engine which also worked on the games multi player resolution. This uses multiple frame buffers information to help improve the current and next frames, interpolating the information across pixel samples and colour information it helps reduce overhead on AA while dramatically improving the image clarity and edge detection from noise interference Michael Drobolt's HRAA is another also linked to this team, but a video for one of my technobabble sessions I feel.

Foliage interaction and sheer wealth on display was another high point adding to the visual punch and gameplay, with it being a world you can go as far as your eye can see and exploring this dangerous but beautiful world in control of such a strong lead is something I look forward to along with seeing more later this year, my only concern is I feel the 2016 release could easily and understandably slip into 2017 as the challenge looks vast for the team, but with them being one of the most technically proficient teams in the business, I feel they are also the most suited.

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