Note: This interview was first published on 3 June 2021.
Horizon Forbidden West is developer Guerrilla Games’ sequel to their smash hit open-world PlayStation 4 game Horizon Zero Dawn, a post-apocalyptic adventure with a colourful variety of robot dinosaurs. The first game had Aloy unravel the conspiracies that led to humankind’s almost-extinction long ago, but this massive sequel sends her off to entirely new corners of reborn America in order to deal with a new threat.
Guerrilla is intent on making Horizon Forbidden West feel like just as much of an adventure for players as it is for Aloy. Not only are new traversal options - like a glider and grappling hook - being introduced to let players explore the world more thoroughly, but the game has huge new underwater environments that house secrets and goodies in spades. Even the game’s melee combat is getting touched up, due to the developers feeling like it was, “a little bit flat,” in Zero Dawn.
We talked to Horizon Forbidden West’s game director Mathijs de Jonge and narrative director Benjamin McCaw to dig into all the new changes revealed during their recent State of Play game demo, which they insist only scratches the surface of Aloy’s grand return. How far along is the game in development? How much has melee combat changed? Will Aloy finally take to the skies? Read on and find out.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Benjamin McCaw: The presence of iconic American landmarks is part of Horizon’s DNA. And the idea of seeing a post-apocalyptic San Francisco overgrown with beautiful nature and full of deadly machines just felt like a natural extension of what we did in the first game. That said, the mysterious frontier of the Forbidden West includes much, much more than just San Francisco. What you saw in the demo only scratches the surface. Aloy is going to explore many more locations during her epic journey across the open world.
Mathijs de Jonge: The underwater exploration is completely new to this game since in the previous game, you could only swim just below the surface. Now you can go as deep as you want. With a diving mask, you can stay underwater for as long as you like, so you don't have the pressure of an oxygen bar that keeps depleting. You can really take your time and explore these beautiful underwater locations.
And we have, like you saw in the demo, these flooded areas because the game takes place a thousand years in the future, so the sea level has also risen significantly. A lot of the places that we have on the map are now flooded. So you have these sunken cities that you can go into. There are also...I don't want to go into too much detail on this, but there are also specific scenarios, quests and even activities where you have to go underwater to discover certain secrets or to help certain people.
Mathijs de Jonge: One of the big advantages I'm experiencing right now as a developer is how incredibly fast things load. Because normally, if we played our builds, it would take maybe two minutes to load the game to test something. Now it's seconds. Normally, I would be able to check my phone or read an email. Now I don't have the time because it's so quick. It's really incredible. We're also using the DualSense controller with the adaptive triggers, where you can feel the tension on the string when you pull the bow back. We’re also fully supporting the haptic feedback and 3D audio.
I think a lot of the features are a great fit for Horizon because we always try to make the game as immersive as possible. We want to make players feel like they want to be in that world, or that they are actually in that world. So those new PlayStation 5 features like the controller, the 3D audio and then of course, the CPU and the graphical prowess which make the graphics even more beautiful - they all help to make you feel even more immersed in the game.
Mathijs de Jonge: We use ray tracing technology for a lot of things in the game. We use it for the sound engine, for the physics and for the rendering. So we use a variety of technical setups, in terms of ray tracing. I'm not a tech engineer, so I can't explain it in much more detail than this. But yes, we are utilizing it.
Mathijs de Jonge: This is what we call a set piece, and we have quite a few of those scattered around the game throughout the open world, in quests and certain scenarios. We also have destructibility in terms of trees and rocks, and other smaller ruins. So yes, absolutely. There's more destructibility throughout the game, but this is a really big world, so we're not going for full-scale destructibility. That's not what the game is about. We do have places to show off how powerful the machines are, where they can crash through trees or through walls. However, it's not like the entire world can be destroyed.
Benjamin McCaw: I'll let Matthias talk about gameplay but in terms of the demo itself, it takes place in this warm, almost tropical setting of post-apocalyptic San Francisco. However, this is just one of many, many climates and terrain types that you'll experience as Aloy travels through the very variable and open world of the Forbidden West. The map extends all across the western United States. As far as what those specific locations are, we really can't say. We just want the player to experience them firsthand.
Mathijs de Jonge: San Francisco is on the far axis of the world, it's on the side where the ocean is. So we actually start a little bit further east. And we travelled through the map all the way to the coast, which is kind of the end line. And as Ben said, as you travel through that large part of the map, there are a lot of different environment types that you’ll come across. Some of those were shown during the State of Play countdown, where you could see jungles and deserts.
Specific animals live in the drier areas or the more humid areas, and specific machines like being around water, such as the Snapmaws you saw in the demo. I think the new climbing and traversal options are the biggest delta compared to the previous game. With the grapple, you can climb up mountains quicker. With a glider, you can glide down quicker. So this deeper sense of exploration is one of the biggest deltas compared to the previous game. By the way, if you liked The Frozen Wilds, we definitely do still have some very icy cold environments.
Mathijs de Jonge: For Horizon Zero Dawn, we made an open world game because we want players to explore this world by themselves. You have options, choices to go in basically any direction you want. If you see something interesting, like a landmark, then the player is free to go to those locations and explore. This is a lot more open compared to a linear game where you're constantly pushed forward through a tunnel. That's what we did with the Killzone games, but now we want to get rid of the walls and give players freedom to explore these varied landscapes. In the first Horizon, we used a lot of the yellow climbing handholds, specifically placed by designers and artists so the player had one path to climb somewhere. For this game, we wanted to open that up more.
This wasn't so clear in the State of Play, but in the open world of the Forbidden West, you can climb anywhere. You also don't have to ping the Focus all the time. As was explained, the Focus ping is only for places where the light conditions are bad. At night for example, when you cannot see climbing points immediately, you can ping it just to see more clearly. Even without the ping though, you can always climb up places. We added the glider so you can quickly go down as well, which really speeds up traversal. Now you don't have to go around mountains anymore, like in the previous game. It feels much, much more free.
Those mechanics intermingle with the rest of the game. You can also surprise enemies from above with the glider. You can even mix and match some of these mechanics as we saw in the gameplay demo, where we were using a grapple to spring into the air before switching to the glider. Instead of going further up by climbing, we also looked at ways to explore downwards - and that's why we looked into water exploration. We wanted to create a very beautiful world underneath the surface of the water, one that players would also want to explore, and that's why we added the diving mask and all the new swimming abilities, like the boost that you can use to go through currents. There is also a dodge mechanic that you can use to dodge away from machines. You can use smoke bombs in water to blind enemies and get away from them. There are more tools to use underwater as well, to help with traversal and getting around these dangerous enemies.
Mathijs de Jonge: Good question. We added new machines that you can ride in this game like the Clawstrider - you can ride that one. There might be more, but I can’t get into specifics. Unfortunately, you can’t ride the Tremortusk. The key reason for that is that quite a few years ago, we prototyped riding the bigger machines for the first game, and we noticed that if you put the gameplay camera behind that, it makes Aloy really, really small on the screen.
You're basically only controlling the machine, and that felt so strange, because we always want the game to feel like you're playing as Aloy. It felt like you were playing as the machine, so that just broke the gameplay experience for us. We always want to have the camera quite close up to Aloy as well, because you are her, essentially. That’s the big reason we abandoned that. We did try it, but it didn't work well for the game, unfortunately.
Mathijs de Jonge: For the PlayStation 5 version, we are supporting two modes. One is Performance Mode. And another is something like a Quality Mode. The Quality Mode is 4K 30 FPS, but the Performance Mode is indeed 60 FPS. So yes, we do have a 60 FPS version for the PlayStation 5.
Mathijs de Jonge: We felt that the melee combat system in the first game was a little bit flat. You had a couple of moves, but throughout the game you would have new skills, new outfits, new weapons - but melee did not really evolve. It was pretty simple. So for this game, we wanted to give the player more options and more room to grow stronger in melee, specifically. We’ve completely redesigned the skill tree for this, it’s all new. One branch of the skill tree is all about melee combat, where you can acquire new melee combo moves with skill points.
These new moves do more damage, such as the Resonance Blast. This is what we also showed in the gameplay trailer. The Resonance Blast is a move you get by hitting the enemy multiple times and charging up the spear. You’ll see rings at the end of the spear light up, and when that's completely full, you can hit the enemy and reveal points of damage - that was the blue ring from the demo. You then follow that up with an arrow to do a lot of damage. This is a specific move available via the skill tree.
We’ve added other things to the skill tree as well. One ability gives you a bar at the bottom right of your screen that grows when you pull off technical actions during gameplay. For example, removing helmets or shooting a weak point - we reward this kind of tactical play with special combat XP which charges the bar. When it fills up, you can execute one of these special moves.
We also have weapon techniques, which add more depth to the combat. So every weapon class in the game, like the slingshots or bows for example, they all have one or more special weapon techniques. One special weapon technique that we showed in the gameplay trailer, for example, was in the very last shot. You see Aloy get down on one knee to execute a very powerful arrow shot that takes the Tremortusk down. That was actually a weapon technique that the player acquired through the skills screen. You can cycle through these weapon techniques and switch to different ones, with more being gradually unlocked as you progress.
Mathijs de Jonge: We are aware that this feature is very, very high on the wishlists of many gamers, but I cannot confirm or deny anything about this. I can only talk about what's in the actual gameplay demo that we showed.
Editor’s note: We sure heard about a lot of other stuff that wasn’t shown off during this demo, though… What are you hiding, Mathijs?
Mathijs de Jonge: We have just successfully completed our beta milestone, which is pretty far along. We're now in the final stages of development. So we are polishing the game and fixing bugs. We are also wrapping up certain aspects of the game, like some of the machines being behind schedule - because it takes an enormous amount of time to build them. We're working on the final cinematic. So, we're really wrapping up. There's still a lot to do with a game of this size and magnitude, but we're in the final stages.
Mathijs de Jonge: I don't think the cross-generation development was limiting in any way. When we started with the concept of this game, we had so many great ideas that ended up being included - to the point that we didn't really think about hardware limitations or anything, we just wanted to design a really nice, unique experience for the player. An awesome adventure. That's how we also brainstormed all the quests and events the player is going to go through. I think that the big delta between these two consoles, apart from the 3D audio, quick loading and DualSense of course, is on the graphical side of things. On the PlayStation 5, we can add so much more detail graphically. We can see the tiny hairs on Aloy’s face, for example. You can also see a ton of detail from far away.
I don't think many people notice in the demo, but you could see moss growing on the rocks. On the PlayStation 5, each individual strand of moss is rendered individually. So this machine is so powerful, and it can add so much more detail to the image. I think that's one of the biggest deltas, next to the processing power of the machine. We also use it for a specific lighting rig. This is a cinematic lighting rig that we normally only have time to use in cinematics. Because the PlayStation 5 is so much more powerful, we have it on all the time. During gameplay, there's a very high-quality rendering and lighting system on a lot. So there are all these extra features that make the game look even better.
Horizon Forbidden West will launch on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.