Guerrilla Games showed new gameplay footage from Horizon Zero Dawn at Paris Games Week, which gives us a look at what we can expect when it launches next year. Based on the immense animal-like robots you face and the items you scavenge from them, it’s clear that HZD was at least partially inspired by the Monster Hunter series. Unfortunately, by embracing an information-heavy UI and traditional RPG leveling, Guerilla is missing some of the best lessons MH has to offer.
Though there are some obvious differences in style and universe, Horizon Zero Dawn’s roots seem firmly planted in Capcom’s Monster Hunter series. MH excels at making the player feel physically insignificant relative to the massiveness of its enemies, and HZD seems to have captured that in the player’s battle versus the hulking Thunderjaw. Being forced to maneuver around and under your foe creates more three-dimensional battles, which makes combat so much more interesting and tactical than just fighting something head-on, and I’m glad to see HZD incorporate this element into its gameplay.
Another of MH’s features present in Horizon is that the player carves resources from the carcasses of defeated enemies and crafts with them, for example using hides for armor. Though many RPGs have the player gathering loot from dead enemies, by literally gathering the flesh and bone of your fallen opponents the process of resource gathering feels more significant. You aren’t just taking some guy’s armor, or stealing whatever happened to randomly generate in their pockets, but you are wearing their scales for protection and killing things with their bones. It’s incredibly primal and goes a long way to connecting you with the game’s creatures, in the same way that living off the land can give you a stronger connection to nature than a suburban lifestyle. The robotic enemies are clearly different from Monster Hunter’s organic ones, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities of combining the tech you scavenge with natural resources to expand your arsenal.
Those elements of Horizon Zero Dawn are looking good, but there are other elements of the game that have me worried. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one which scares me the most is where HZD makes one of the biggest departures from the MH series: it gives way too much information in combat. Almost every RPG nowadays gives opponents health bars, and many show you exactly how many hit points of damage your attack just caused; HZD won’t be an exception. But health bars and displayed damage are just interface elements, abstract ways to show information that could be done much more tangibly, like graphically showing your attack’s effects on the enemy.
Monster Hunter doesn’t show you enemy health bars, and though you may have a general idea, you never know exactly how much damage you’re dealing; instead, the damage is shown through your enemies’ injured bodies. This makes a huge difference in gameplay.
When you can’t check how much health a enemy has left at any time, you have to be much more engaged in the game. If you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, if you’re just hacking away blindly at an enemy, you’ll have no idea how the battle is progressing. In Monster Hunter you always need to be in the moment, because how you’re progressing guides your every move. Does it make sense to sharpen your weapon, or is the fight almost over so you can forge on? Did your opponent just move to the next area, or is it going back to its nest because it’s on the verge of defeat? With health bars, and especially if your every attack shows precisely how much damage you’re doing, that information is always a second away, and the action loses some of its suspense. If you have to figure this out on your own, you also learn more about the enemies’ habits, strengths, and weaknesses. The signs of what to look for become more clear as time goes on, so that not just your character but you yourself become stronger. And when you look down on your defeated foe, and see its torn wings, its cut tail, its broken horns, the victory feels that much more significant.
What’s weird about Horizon Zero Dawn is that it does both: you can see the damage on your enemies, for instance with destructible armor plates, and you see a health bar with points of damage displayed every time you land a hit. Why? I was a bit dumbfounded watching that walkthrough, because the ability to concretely know how injured your enemy is, just by looking at the enemy, renders those UI elements more than redundant; they become a distraction. Honestly it feels disrespectful to the player, as if Guerrilla doesn’t trust you enough to tell from the context of the fight how the fight is going, so they throw way too much at you instead of allowing you to figure it out yourself. The producer’s reasoning for this just confused me more. “It denotes that there are in fact RPG elements hiding behind the hood.” This makes it sound like they looked at some RPGs for features, made a list, and started checking it off, instead of considering whether that feature was actually necessary. HZD would be better off scrapping the unnecessary UI additions and following MH’s “show, don’t tell” approach.
The other major departure from the Monster Hunter series is the standard RPG leveling. In most RPGs (and in Horizon), the character gains experience points and levels up, increasing their stats. In the process of leveling, the character gets better gear, but the important distinction here is that the primary difference between a low-level and high-level character is the stat difference. In MH, your character doesn’t level up at all; instead, you get better gear from killing and carving better monsters. The difference between these two styles may seem trivial, but it has real gameplay consequences. Let’s imagine you’re stuck at a boss or high-powered enemy. If your character levels up from any combat, you can usually grind your way to gaining the attack stats needed for victory, whether or not you yourself get any better at that battle. On the other hand, if your weapon’s stats are the only ones that can be improved, and you need to kill the thing you’re stuck on to get a better weapon, then you as a player need to improve to continue. Not going this route isn’t a bad thing per se, but I think it’s a missed opportunity. Game developers like Guerrilla could take a different approach to their games’ RPG elements to design mechanics that encourage their players to grow. Instead they are going with a tried-and-tested method which decades of games prove can work, but has opportunities for exploitation which does nothing to help the player themselves.
This is not to say that Horizon does nothing that Monster Hunter doesn’t do better, however. MH games have always started incredibly slowly, by making the player complete several fetch quests before getting a taste of combat. Guerrilla emphasizes action throughout the walkthrough and has the pedigree from Killzone for fast-paced gameplay; I don’t expect HZD to shift away from this. Not only the pacing but the gameplay itself seems to be faster, at least in this snippet: items are gathered more quickly and the player moves with more agility. Plus, giving the player a vast open world to explore also creates opportunities that MH’s more closed-off environments never could, and I am excited to see how Guerrilla takes advantage of this.
They’ve got to be careful, though. Guerrilla’s previous franchise, Killzone, was announced as a “Halo killer,” but that led to it being stuck in a certain mold which it couldn’t break free from. Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t billed as a killer of anything; there’s nothing it’s supposed to beat, it is free to be its own thing. By adding elements carelessly to show that, yes, this is an RPG, Guerrilla Games is in danger of falling into the same trap. Instead, they should consider all possible sources of inspiration, adapt and refine what’s needed from each, and create a truly great experience.