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The epic landscapes and ruins of the Forbidden West may be breathtaking, but danger lurks around every turn. Aloy’s enemies, both human and machine, have multiplied since the end of Horizon Zero Dawn. Whether she comes across a convoy of cargo machines and their guardians, a squad of rebel warriors looking for a fight, or a pack of Stalkers cloaked in the forest, the heat of combat will bring new challenges… but also opportunities to turn the tables.
Spoiler Alert: Please note this article may contain some spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn and its storyline.
For the team at Guerrilla, one of the goals for Horizon Forbidden West was to significantly evolve the combat design from Horizon Zero Dawn, and to continue to build on the principles of player freedom and choice during encounters in the open world.
“Aloy is a smart and agile combatant,” says Charles Perain, Combat Designer. “In Horizon Forbidden West, the tools at her disposal generate a wide array of tactics that allow her to engage with physically stronger opponents—from fully armored humans to very large machines.
“Our changes to combat design stayed true to Aloy’s identity. First, we wanted to add additional depth to gameplay and increase the skill cap for players, through skills like melee combos and Valor Surges. Players who spend some time perfecting their combat skills will find some efficient and stylish ways to dispose of their enemies. Second, we wanted to cater to a variety of playstyles and really focus on freedom of choice. Through new weapons and outfits, which can be upgraded at a workbench, players can adapt their tactics. Finally, we wanted to design challenging enemies that encourage players to use all their abilities and skills. A whole new set of machines as well as advanced human enemies will keep players on their toes throughout the game!”
“It was important to us that players feel like Aloy has grown in her skills and confidence coming from her adventures in Horizon Zero Dawn and the Frozen Wilds,” says Richard Oud, gameplay animation director at Guerrilla. “She gained a lot of experience and that needed to show in her animations. Our aim was to show that Aloy is more comfortable traversing her environment—without losing sight of the fact that she’s human, of course, so things don’t always go perfectly for her. The grapple mechanic is a good example of this: she is more agile and resourceful, but at the same time we show the physical struggle when she’s being pulled up on bigger inclines.”
The AI team has played a big role in improving the combat system, especially when it comes to increasing the challenge level. Lead AI programmer Arjen Beij: “We wanted enemies to feel more authentic by improving the fluidity and continuity of motion, like making enemies (and companions) more capable of traversing rugged terrain. The AI in Horizon Zero Dawn already supported some dynamic terrain changes, but we wanted to take this further by adding jumping and climbing as a systemic part of their behavior. As you are playing the game, the AI will be searching for opportunities to take shortcuts, where it previously was a cumbersome detour.
“Another example is that more machines are now capable of swimming and have the ability to dive and chase Aloy underwater. Amphibious enemies can also use jumps to get in and out of the water, so if you are unlucky they will combine this with an attack.”
As detailed in a previous blog, the skill tree has been overhauled and restructured, featuring many new abilities that promote and enhance different playstyles or combinations of those. From an animation perspective, increased possibilities for Aloy and her enemies presented some unique challenges for the team.
“We extensively research to understand the anatomy and locomotion of a character,” explains Richard. “There are lots of differences between animating a human or a machine, however the core pillars for what we wanted to achieve with both were very similar.
“First, we wanted to create clarity for players. Each human class or machine is designed around a clear gameplay function, which the animation team communicates to the player through actions, posture, and motion. We rely on readable silhouettes and behaviors that the player can recognize, so you can anticipate or react to an enemy move. We play around with the timing of those movements to not only create windows of opportunities for the player to strike, block, or run, but also to show some personality traits in the animations themselves.
“Then we have the player and enemy responses. We work closely with the game designers to make sure we end up with fun yet challenging gameplay, whilst maintaining the authenticity of the characters. Enemies usually have some time to show their intention, so the player can respond accordingly and get that fast and (almost) instant response from the input.
“Finally, we look at flow and rhythm for both human and machine enemies to make a combat scenario more interesting. For example, we experiment with different ranges (short or long), multiple directions (forward, sideways, up, etc.), speed and timing (fast or slow strikes) and strength (small or big hits).”
Creating clarity and intent in a combat situation was not just a goal for the animation team. “We try to show the state of enemies through acting, posture, and vocalizations,” says Arjen. “The grace period before you are detected is acted out by having the enemy approach you. Enemies will investigate disturbances such as an arrow landing nearby or spotting a machine that you took out silently.’
“You can also escape from combat by breaking line of sight and sneaking away. When enemies discover that you are not where they expected you to be, they will start searching. Human enemies team up and search for you as a group, with the team leader giving orders and coordinating the work. Through animation and context-dependent speech, the player will have plenty of cues to figure out their next move!”
This can help create opportunities during combat. “There are many ways to efficiently tackle a combat situation in the Forbidden West; how a player chooses to do so has a real impact on the duration of the fight, the risks involved and the cost in resources,” says Charles. “Some players prefer clearing enemies stealthily, while others will use the focus to analyze their opponents and find the best tactics to dispose of them efficiently. Or they might like to go head on with the spear and bow… at their own risk!”
Bringing Battles to Life
And those combat cues do not only exist in visual form; Guerrilla’s Audio team plays a pivotal role in breathing life into these epic battles. Senior Sound Designer Pinar Temiz explains how machines, unique enemies to the world of Horizon, have to sound just right.
“Our main challenge for the machines was to balance the established sonic characteristics from Horizon Zero Dawn with the freshness and complexity of the new surroundings and machine types in the Forbidden West. There are machines with even more expressive animations and world functions in this new frontier—which required even more detailed sound design to match. We had to apply what worked well in the first game and build a sound palette that made each machine come to life, while keeping them unified in their ‘Horizon-ness.’
“Machines have unique audio cues that are designed to help the player distinguish between a melee or a specific ranged attack. Melee attacks are communicated by a distinct sound that builds up towards the impact moment, while ranged attacks are communicated through their weapon specific charge up sounds, or projectile sounds. Especially in encounters that involve multiple machines surrounding the player, these audio cues will help attract player attention towards the most imminent attacker or source of danger, allowing them to respond in time.”
Sound designer Lovisa Bergdahl explains how Adhesive, an elemental effect, required a very hands-on approach to create: “The Adhesive effect starts off liquid, bubbly and gross, and slowly solidifies until it cracks and dissolves. To get that sound right, I spent several days playing with slime and going through the sound library looking for the slimiest and stickiest sounds. There are both my own recordings of stretching rubber, sloshing liquids and slime, as well as sound library assets and sounds my colleagues had recorded. It was simply put, disgusting and fun.”
Awe-Inspiring Machines with Unique Abilities
Sound isn’t the only thing that makes the machines in the Forbidden West more impressive and threatening than before.
“The team did a lot of research to get to the core personality and character traits of an enemy, as we were looking to make the world as authentic and immersive as possible,” Richard explains. “We’d usually start with a full enemy overview, including its intended strengths and weaknesses as well as keywords and traits that could fit the character. Then we’d start studying nature documentaries, feature films, encyclopedias, comic books, concepts art, and more—anything that will help get to the core of the character.
“Once we have that overview, we create a moodboard video to clearly show the teams the intended personality, motions, and behaviors. For example, the fast and agile Clawstrider is very vicious and aggressive to encounter. They’re alert and calculated, which was a lot of fun to animate: we added small personality gestures so the player can understand what they are all about.”
Pinar adds: “When the player alerts a machine, intentionally or not, these vocalizations help recognize the mode a machine is in. If a machine is in an idle, non-alert state, you’ll hear much calmer, more sporadic, and stylized natural vocalization to reflect the personality archetype we came up with within their individual sound design.”
New Enemies to Deal with
Aloy does not just encounter many threatening machines in the Forbidden West… She also has to deal with an increased number of human enemies, for example with Regalla’s rebels, a faction of the Tenakth tribe. This led Guerrilla to focus on a more in-depth combat system for encounters against humans, including new enemy classes with their own combat behavior and functions.
Richard begins: “The goal was to make human combat as deep and challenging as machine combat. This meant extending the combat system and adding more variety in the way you encounter human enemies in the world. We want to give the player the option to engage in their own playstyle, whether they prefer ranged or close combat encounters. Switching between strategies resulted in a lot of transition animations which feel smooth and reactive.”
The combat team added a neat new feature to make switching between ranged and close combat feel even more rewarding, according to Charles. “The resonator blast rewards players for using spear combos: whenever Aloy attacks with melee, the resonator in her spear stacks up some energy. This energy can be blasted at the enemy and will stick to them for a short duration. Shooting it with an arrow before it dissipates will deal a huge amount of damage! This mechanic creates a powerful synergy between close combat and ranged combat, encouraging players to transition smoothly between both.”
“Since there are a lot of new archetypes in human enemies, we had different Mocap sessions to help bring these characters to life,” Richards tells us. “We worked with an experienced Mocap actor who knew how to deal with heavy stunt work and was a master in portraying different combat styles and personalities. We would explore idle behavior for specific classes, as this would tell us a lot about the kind of choices we were making for the character. For example, with the Champion class, it was key that the character came across as confident and experienced. So, the actor moved calmly, looking for gaps in the opponent’s defense and circling around while not losing eye contact and continuously closing in. It almost felt like a wolf stalking its prey!”
That starting point of idle behavior and linking the acting to a certain animal really helped clarify the different personalities and approaches for the team, Richard continues. “The Rebel Soldier enemy behaves a lot like a hyena, which resulted in a rowdy and versatile personality with a lot of uncontrolled and ungraceful motion. The posture is hunched over and from a behavior point of view we think of them as being aggressive in groups, but at the same time hesitant in small numbers. They don’t always exactly behave like this from a combat and AI perspective, but it gave the team a better understanding of the character and helped us define choices in poses, combat attacks and personality.”
Gear Up for the Forbidden West
Despite all the danger that lurks in the Forbidden West, Aloy will have plenty of opportunities to gear up and prepare before facing the worst of foes. It’s up to you to decide how to approach a situation, by using your skills, the surroundings, and the cues that the world gives you.
“There are many things players can do to be best prepared for combat,” Charles smiles. “Have Aloy wear the appropriate outfit and weapons, and use the workbench to upgrade them and unlock additional stats, perks and ammo types.’
“The scanning mechanic from Horizon Zero Dawn is still in place, and will highlight your opponent’s weaknesses as well as their movement path. Don’t forget to craft potions and keep your berry pouch filled to the brim in case things go awry. And lastly, mix all the new traversal tools with our combat mechanics to create truly spectacular action!”
“We hope players are just going to have a lot of fun fighting these enemies,” says Arjen. “Initially outnumbered, but then to find their own solutions to the obstacles that the enemies provide. The machines can be formidable enemies, each with their own pacing and unique attacks, yet it should be possible for players to take control of the situation and win by using different tactics. Melee combat has gotten a significant upgrade and in combination with the resonator blast system allows you to string together some pretty impressive moves.”
Richard agrees: “We’re really looking forward to players discovering new machines and all their capabilities. We’ve focused on variety and different gameplay experiences for players to explore as they head into the Forbidden West. We love to see player reactions as they encounter new human enemies and machines, especially really intimidating ones like the Tremortusk!”
If you are a returning player, we hope you will feel a sense of familiarity and appreciate the variety and depth that’s been added to all combat and player progression systems, and for new players, this is a chance to enjoy an immersive and challenging system full of different combat encounters.