Horizon Zero Dawn aims to fill the open-world gap between GTA and Skyrim

Inside Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games' most ambitious project yet.

E3 2015 came with its fair share of surprises, but it's Horizon Zero Dawn that might just be the biggest. Guerrilla Games has been known as the creator of the Killzone franchise, a series of linear, first-person shooters, for the last decade.

With Horizon Zero Dawn, the company is looking to expand its work into the realm of role-playing games with its "most ambitious game" yet, senior producer Mark Norris told Polygon.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a third-person, open-world game set 1,000 years after the fall of civilization. It's a "post-post-apocalyptic" world — in other words, don't expect the barren wasteland most end-of-the-world games seem to favor. Horizon's world is green, lush and filled with much scarier monsters than your average zombie. Animal-like robots roam its open fields, and they're not terribly friendly. Enter Aloy, a young hunter outcast from her tribal society.

"They're a form of creatures that have never been seen."

Aloy and her ability to take down machines was well-documented at E3, thanks to demos both on-stage at Sony's E3 press conference and behind closed doors. These robots range from smaller, deer-like creatures to massive threats unlike any animal alive today. They're a curiosity to behold, but Norris said that the machines of Horizon serve a special purpose.

"They're a form of creatures that have never been seen," he said. "The machines represent one of the core mysteries of Horizon: Where did they come from? Why are they here, and probably most importantly, why do they look the specific way that they do? Why do they present a danger to the world of Horizon and the player herself? What does the player have to do? Does she have a unique connection with the machines?"

In a narrative image for Horizon Zero Dawn, the hero Aloy is instructed how to aim and fire her bow. Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

An educated guess would suggest yes to this last query. Norris describes Aloy as a fierce hunter with a special ability to take on overwhelming odds. Machines are present "often greater in number, almost always greater in size, and always more heavily armed." When Aloy takes on enemies, she has to be fast and clever. During the behind-closed-doors demo, she employed special weapons help her trap foes and launch attacks from far off. There's a huge tactical element that Guerrilla is expanding on from its time with Killzone.

"What we always wanted to do on Killzone was, of course, to be a little more than just a shooter," Norris told Polygon. "We wanted to be a very tactical and strategic shooter. I think we pulled a lot of what we learned on Killzone, in terms of how to create compelling combat scenarios, and pulled that into Horizon Zero Dawn. What we have to do now is just make sure that we layer in the encounter design and the level design from open worlds that fits that sort of combat paradigm that we've pulled over from Killzone."

Even with the new title, however, the producer said that future Killzone projects aren't totally out of the picture.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Aloy fights a Thunderjaw Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

"I wouldn't say necessarily that we're turning away from doing Killzone," Norris said. "What I would say is that we're incredibly excited to be doing something new that we haven't done in more than 10 years on a new IP. We are excited about doing something that's not necessarily a first-person shooter."

To beef up the game's RPG cred, Guerrilla has recruited developers who've worked on franchises such as The Witcher and The Elder Scrolls. Former Fallout: New Vegas writer John Gonzalez is working on the script. According to Norris, Guerrilla has its sights set high for how it hopes to fit into the RPG genre.

"If we had a slider," he said, "... you would say that open-world games kind of fit along a slider between super action open-world games — maybe you'd look at a GTA or maybe you'd take a look at an Assassin's Creed on that side — and then the really RPG-ish open-world games. Maybe you'd put a Skyrim on that side, or maybe a Fallout. We think we actually kind of fit somewhere in the middle. We haven't seen a lot of those RPG elements yet, but there are a lot in there and we look forward to showing quite a few of them down the road."

Horizon Zero Dawn is heading to PlayStation 4 next year. Norris said that while the game isn't going to break the mold in terms of new ideas, Guerrilla hopes to combine those elements in a way that feels fresh.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Stormbird above trees Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

"When we see a lot of post-apocalyptic worlds, we see a lot of grays and we see a lot of destruction," Norris said. "It's almost like a sense of sadness. That's not what this world is. It's bright and it's lush and it's vibrant. Once we put that, the sort of nature reclamation idea over the top of these highly technological machines, it creates a mystery. I think it's the mysteries that we're most excited about."