There isn’t much Guerrilla Games is keen to impart about the backstory or plot of futuristic post-apocalyptic action-RPG Horizon Zero Dawn. We know that it’s set 1000 years in the future, and that the world has been overrun by mechanized creatures. We also know that recently, large portions of this machine ecosystem have succumbed to a strange corruption that makes their behaviour erratic and hyper aggressive.

Today, I was told that Zero Dawn is the story of a woman coming into her own, but the identity and backstory of fire-headed protagonist Aloy both remain inscrutable. She’s an outcast, but doesn’t understand why, and we know nothing of her origin story. This isn’t thanks to some black ops marketing strategy either: “One of the fun things is that you will be exploring the world along with her,” says Guerrilla Games senior technical level designer David Ford. That is fine by me, I’m happy to be surprised – especially when John Gozales (lead writer on Fallout: New Vegas and Shadow of Mordor) is on board. In fact, Zero Dawn is being written by a completely new writing team at Guerrilla – no-one from Killzone: Shadow Fall is involved. At the risk of sounding snarky, that’s probably for the best.

Zero Dawn is the story of a woman coming into her own
Horizon Zero Dawn's gameplay is catching its hooky premise
Horizon Zero Dawn's gameplay is catching its hooky premise

The hands-off portion of my time today with Zero Dawn focussed on the RPG elements within the game: its dialogue, crafting, and item systems. It began at the gates to Aloy’s home village, situated far to the north of the world on sacred land betwixt meadows and mountains. You’ve probably already noticed that like Guerrilla’s last effort, this game is quite pretty, a luscious take on the almost post-human earth. Even so, it’s a dangerous place, and Aloy’s village is basically on the frontline of the battle against the corrupted machines.

Her tribe is safe within its timber walls, but outside are all manner of deadly robots, and even hostile human tribes. Via a Mass effect-style dialogue wheel, I chat to an NPC who sends me to investigate Mother’s Rise, a village which has been a target for the corrupted as of late. My ultimate goal appears to be finding the source of the corruption, but for now we are in damage control mode, beating back attacks, and protecting the weak. The push to reclaim these lands will come later.

Before I head to Mother’s Rise, it’s off to a shopkeeper to trade some of the metal shards I have collected from downed machines for a shadow sling and a sharpshot bow. Both weapons have socket slots and so can be augmented to increased range or damage against specific armour types. Shards are also used to craft certain ammo types, so there is a tension there between buying things and being able to replenish ammo. I also equip a tracker that allows Aloy to scan the environment for resources, and also machines to see their patrol patterns, weak points, weaknesses, and level. This is a must once outside those gates. Knowledge is power, and so is a pointy stick.

On the village outskirts is a downed and still-smouldering raptor that serves both as a reminder of a recent attack and as an omen of things to come. And it’s just past its helpless form that our demo converges with the one we saw at PlayStation’s press event this week. The short version: beyond this point we encounter a bulbous Shell Walker, pull it over to steal its cargo, use this scrap to craft explosive traps, and fight a Corruptor from the back of a tamed, buffalo-like Broadhead. When we see it a second time Guerrilla’s David Ford notes that “everything is explorable for kilometres”.

Horizon Zero Dawn's gameplay is catching its hooky premise
Horizon Zero Dawn's gameplay is catching its hooky premise
Horizon Zero Dawn's gameplay is catching its hooky premise

Then it is on to a hands-on session with a separate slice of the game, and it is instructive. Here, I am are given free roaming ability in a valley patrolled by skittish Broadheads, aggressive watchers, docile Shell Walkers, and a well-protected Corrupter. There is a balance to this machine ecology and it’s integral to the story. There’s also a natural ecology present including rabbits, geese, fish, and foxes – all of which can be hunted for crafting materials, or just because you are secretly a machine double agent. Much else provides crafting resources, including rocks and trees. Hunting and capturing these is a simpler task.

Gameplay is typical of third-person action games, and in its current state plays like a rougher version of Shadow of Mordor, minus the melee focus. Aloy can run, crouch (in grass or behind rocks, for instance), and dive roll; and an eye on the HUD (all of which fades when not essential) shows her stealth status. Then there are one-hit stealth kills from cover, traps to set, tameable rideable beasts, and a scan mode reminiscent of Mordor’s wraith mode.

Taming requires Aloy to tether a machine to the ground with the handy ropecaster, with different machines requiring a more or fewer ropes depending on their affinity for bondage and overall sass level (these may or may not be the term used by the devs). Once pinned, a robot will stay put until it takes damage, so the ropecaster is not only good for acquiring a steed, it’s useful as hell for crowd control. Even so, getting close will see them lash out all the same, and some require you to remove some of their armour with other attacks before you may safely tether them in place. And who said romance is dead?

if I wanna shoot fish with fire arrows from the back of a quadrapedal robot, I will, thankyouverymuch

Confrontational melee, while a viable option, isn’t as satisfying as sneaking around or slinging rocks or arrows at things from afar, possibly because there are only two attacks (fast and heavy), and locking on can be a pain. The movement controls need fine tuning as well, and the frame rate isn’t yet perfectly stable, but what’s here is promising for sure.

There are also some wonderful animations. My Broadhead tried its hardest not to jump off a short cliff into the river, but in the end what I say goes, so if I wanna shoot fish with fire arrows from the back of a quadrapedal robot, I will, thankyouverymuch. Shooting parts off higher level machines to disable them is also very satisfying, in a “pulling the wings of a particularly aggressive fly” kind of way.

Despite the announcement (and little else) of PlayStation Neo, that gruntier piece of kit hasn’t changed the game’s development path, with Guerrilla focussing on the vanilla PS4 for now. Tantalisingly, the studio also tells me “we’ll talk about VR at a later date”.

Although the initial concept for Zero Dawn has been around since 2010 or so, work has only ramped up on the game in the past two-and-a-half years at Guerrilla. However, I’m told the vision has always been strong, and I think that’s reflected in the congruity of the gameplay and world. It all fits together into a believable whole.

Honestly, I wasn’t super impressed by Horizon’s reveal last year. I like the world, but wasn’t convinced about the gameplay, and small sections of my mind are haunted by Shadow Fall’s underwhelming campaign. But I remain optimistic for this one. Who are the old ones? Why are the machines corrupted? Why is Aloy an outcast? I have no idea, but Aloy's a great lead. After today’s demos, I’m keener than ever to follow her journey.