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The Art of Horizon Forbidden West

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The Art of Horizon Forbidden West

How do you improve on a captivating art style in a sequel?

Arjan Terpstra

23 Dec 2021 ⋅ 5 min read

When Horizon Zero Dawn launched back in 2017, critics raved about the visual spectacle Guerrilla's open-world RPG offered. Horizon's large, colorful and brightly lit vistas were a thing to behold, an exciting game world with the "lush" and "colorful" settings turned to 11.

Artistically, the bold move away from the "50 shades of grey" aesthetic of Guerrilla's Killzone games series (dixit game director Jan-Bart van Beek) was seen as a triumph. The Sony studio harnessed the full potential of the PlayStation4 platform, pushing the technical boundaries of real-time visualization to deliver a large open world brimming with detail. Guerrilla's technical achievements greatly enhanced the overall narrative and visual identity of the game, supporting its strong, overarching themes of nature vs. robots, and humanity vs. technology with the best visual rendering available at the time.
Tremortusk
© Guerrilla/Sony

Aloy battles a Tremortusk. This concept art for Horizon Forbidden West is available as high quality art print from our store. Follow the link for details!

Improvements

With this type of critical success, the prospect of a sequel can be daunting. For how do you improve on a game's visuals, when those visuals already push the limits of what is possible? Part of Guerrilla's answer is: by improving and expanding what was already great. Judging from the first gameplay videos Guerrilla shared, Horizon Forbidden West will bring us the same visual spectacle, but improved in many, often incremental ways.



To start with the obvious: we still get to play in Aloy's world, a game world where the rules are firmly set. It's a post-post apocalyptic world built on the ruins of our 21st Century civilisation, where robot dinosaurs are king, where nature is restored to its proper glory, and where humanity lives in tribe-like societies in ways that remind us of pre-industrialised cultures. This means culture relies on craftsmanship, artisanal traditions that give recognizable cultural identities to groups like the Nora or Carja—as expressed in things like clothing styles, or architecture details.
ShellsnapperHFW
© Guerrilla/Sony

A Shellsnapper rises from a marsh, with Aloy taking cover. This concept art for Horizon Forbidden West is available as high quality art print from our store. Follow the link for details!

Tenakth and Utaru

The world of the Nora and Carja is still there in Horizon Forbidden West, in all its glory, but greatly expanded upon. Details are scarce at this point, but in interviews for the PlayStation blog, Guerrilla staffers discuss work on tribes like the Tenakth and Utaru, tribes that were touched upon in Horizon Zero Dawn, but did not play a large role in the narrative. And for Guerrila, "work on tribes like the Utaru" means: designing a ton of new settlements, new characters and NPC's, new cultural artifacts, weapons. And this is no small task: just think of the time involved in properly designing NPC behaviour and animation, voice-acting, and whatnot.

The same goes for the robot enemies: we get to have the same spectacular story of organic beauty vs. metallic beasts we had in Horizon Zero Dawn, but will hear a different song altogether. This because the roster of blinking baddies is greatly expanded upon, introducing new menaces like the Tremortusk or Shellsnapper, huge mechanical nightmares to aim your bow at. Also improved is the combat design—Guerrilla talks of new melee combos and something called "Valor Surges," to further improve Aloy's battle smarts.

Jumping and climbing

These new robots may be very much in line with what we are accustomed to, and yet our encounter with them may be very different, explained Lead AI Programmer Arjen Beij in another PlayStation blog.

"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. [Also] 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.”

Gesamtkunstwerk

You may wonder why an AI programmer is quoted in a story about art, but this is because of how a game like Horizon Forbidden West works. Horizon Zero Dawn has a great art style (just have a look at our collection of HZD concept art), but it's the technology that makes the art pop in-game: things like the detailed time-of-day system, a dynamic weather system or volumetric light shafts (discussed at length in the Digital Foundry video, below) work miracles in how we perceive a game world. Bump into a machine, and you bump into a gesamtkunstwerk of creative expression, 3D modelling, animation techniques, audio and visual effects, and a lighting system that calculates in real time how light plays on metal objects, grounding the machine in the environment.



And so what "the art of Horizon Forbidden West" boils down to, compared to Horizon Zero Dawn, is: more of the same, but much improved upon, especially in a technical sense. Looking back at some of the downsides in Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla probably knew what it wanted to work on from the get-go. Foliage and water didn't really respond to Aloy when she was running through them, for instance, and with Aloy and the robots now able to traverse underwater, things like water animation will probably be improved upon. And with it, probably the volumetric lighting system will have changed, too, to better show light rays in water. Et cetera, et cetera.

And knowing the new game will run on the new PlayStation5 console, it will probably show big time.

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