Barren wastelands. Decrepit and abandoned towns. Desolate landscapes ravaged by time and trauma. Recognisable landmarks slowly but surely reclaimed by nature after our demise. Games have consistently embraced the post-apocalyptic setting. It invites excitement, apprehension and a deep curiosity, and plays on the thought-provoking hypothetical, the 'what if?'. And when these post-apocalyptic environments and landscapes are incredibly detailed, they can result in great efficacy and power.
After the darkness and dormancy of winter life restarts, almost as if the punishing frosts, snows and winds had never happened. The season of spring starts to take hold, colours reappear, foliage regrows and landscapes transform to offer different looks, feels and opportunities for interaction. This can be truly impactful when it manifests in video games. Where winter revealed the bones of landscapes and their design, spring brings a softer touch, its re-birth and revitalisation draping life and colour back over lands. Spring can empower a landscape to represent and symbolise in its own way. By adding these into games' story arcs and narratives, a whole new side of the landscape can be seen and experienced - one where the land tells stories of recovery, shows an ability to cleanse and has an ability to enhance peace and quiet, all while under the drape of a colourful, full of life landscape, giving the land an entirely new look and atmosphere.
Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds is an expansion for one of the year's best games in just about every sense of the word. This isn't just more of the same - from a technological standpoint, it's a genuine effort to push on to even greater heights, and an impressive evolution of Guerrilla Games' peerless Decima Engine. Pushing beyond the forests and great plains of the original experience, The Frozen Wilds invites players to the northern-most region of the map to explore snow-covered fields and steep mountains. New features are added to Decima to emphasis the new environments and weather systems, but the core aspects of the technology are just as strong as they ever were: from the gorgeous lighting to the world class HDR implementation and smooth performance, there's little doubt that Horizon remains a beautiful game.
Guerrilla Games' Horizon Zero Dawn not only raised the bar in terms of technical accomplishment on current generation console hardware, it handed in the best 4K HDR presentation we've seen from any PlayStation 4 Pro title. The native 1080p output on base hardware scales up to 2160p on Pro, using a custom implementation of checkerboard rendering, but Horizon's presentation is so clean, so solid, so convincing, it passes for the 'real thing' - so how was this achieved?
It's hard to argue with Sony's first half of 2017. The PlayStation 4 has enjoyed a number of exciting console exclusives, including Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier Automata, Persona 5 and Nioh. But after watching Sony's E3 2017 media briefing this week, I couldn't help but feel the next six months look decidedly pedestrian in comparison.
How do you fix open world games?
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With Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games has capitalised on its technical acumen to deliver one of the most beautiful open world video games to date. The environment is massive both in scope and scale, featuring everything from vast deserts and dark forests to snowy mountain tops and abandoned skyscrapers. In this Digital Foundry World in Motion time-lapse, we'll be visiting several biomes across the world of Horizon, showcasing the attention to detail on display. From individual leaves to gargantuan mountain ranges, the detail on offer is breathtaking. In creating this video, we visited four distinct corners of the environment to better showcase the variety on display.
Guerrilla Games has long been known for pushing the limits of console technology, but with Horizon Zero Dawn, the Dutch studio reaches new heights. After spending more than ten years immersed in the world of Killzone, Guerrilla has shifted gear with a deep, complex action RPG with perhaps the most impressive visuals yet seen in an open world title. It's a massive shift in focus and a big gamble on the part of the developer. So what works and what doesn't in Horizon Zero Dawn?
UPDATE 27/2/17 8:45am: Patch 1.02 has dropped for Horizon Zero Dawn, delivering a small range of changes and updates. However, for PS4 Pro owners, the ability to choose two rendering modes is now available with users able to favour performance or resolution. Prior implementations of performance modes in the likes of Knack, Rise of the Tomb Raider and the inFamous titles have seen developers unlock the frame-rate, leading to a much faster, but often more jerky experience. On both counts, this does not happen in Horizon Zero Dawn, which opts for smoother performance instead.
Up until last week, I didn't have a very clear handle on what sort of game Horizon: Zero Dawn was. It was the one with the robot dinosaurs, that much I knew, but details of how it actually played still seemed somewhat murky. It also seemed massively ambitious, given that its Amsterdam-based developer Guerrilla Games is best known for linear first person shooter franchise Killzone. It wasn't the first studio I'd have in mind to tackle a project like Horizon, given that the two properties were like night and day, with Horizon an open-world action RPG set in a vivacious post-apocalyptic world where nature - and those aforementioned robots - have reclaimed earth.
It's early days on this one, but with PlayStation 4K Pro media on the thin side right now, we want to make the most of what we have. Horizon Zero Dawn is easily one of the most impressive titles we saw at the PlayStation Meeting, and it's a fascinating example of the how well the upscaling algorithms work in creating a substantial upgrade for 4K display owners compared to the native 1080p resolution edition found on the base level PlayStation 4.
Some time after the PlayStation Meeting ended, Sony's press site updated with a 4K, 60fps version of the initial asset. While Horizon is a 30fps title, the additional temporal resolution makes frame-rate analysis with accurate frame-time graphing possible, giving us our first work-in-progress look at how Guerrilla's beautiful title is shaping up on the new PlayStation 4 hardware.
It's a 30fps game with some occasional frame-rate dips, to be expected on a title with some months remaining in development. Horizon is also interesting in that it's one of the best examples of Sony's hardware-based 2160p checkerboard upscaling. Unfortunately, the supplied media is nowhere near good enough to get a good handle on how well this works, but alongside the video asset, Sony has released some 3840x2160 screenshots that you can see here.
Watching Sony's E3 2016 media briefing, you'd be forgiven for thinking all of the games made by the company were variations of Naughty Dog's post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Last of Us.
A conversation about video gaming's greatest gunsmiths wouldn't be complete without mention of Guerrilla Games. The Amsterdam studio's Killzone series has always been anchored by the intense physicality of its weapons: their solid handling, their booming audio, the deliberate smack with which every bullet lands. They are true craftsmen, no doubt, though perhaps not the artists and inventors you find elsewhere in this subset of game design - the minds who cooked up the gravity and portal guns, the BFG and railgun, Titanfall's smart pistol, or the eccentric, asymmetric balance of the first Halo's weapon set. Those were guns that could change the world around you, or the way you interacted with it, or both.