Back in the summer of 2016 I wrote a piece for this very site pondering what the future held for Sony now that Uncharted, the PlayStation creator’s most successful series, had drawn to a close with its most ambitious and exciting installment in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
The game was action-adventure in its grandest form, but it was a bittersweet experience saying goodbye to a bona fide gaming icon.
Once the sadness passed and, looking for something – anything – to look forward to, I posited the question: so where would Sony look to next, now that Nathan ‘Cash Cow’ Drake was finally strolling into the sunset?
It was a question that felt incredibly pertinent at the time, especially with E3 following a mere month later. “Would Sony try to invest in something new,” I wondered, “hedging its bets on new characters and worlds, or simply play it safe via familiar franchises with established fanbases just waiting to spend its cash?” The answer, it turned out, was a little of both but not much of either.
E3 came and went. Sony dipped its toes into totally unknown water with Farpoint, a new intellectual property that's played entirely in VR, but for the most part the house that Crash Bandicoot built stuck to what’s worked in the past.
God of War made a return, but even the introduction of a grizzly beard, a refreshing Norse setting and that much derided progeny weren’t enough to shake the feeling Sony would rather make a Norse mythology game with Kratos flinging his familiar chains around than create one without him.
Days Gone was another potential new candidate, but with a look, style and feel that felt unmistakably like The Last of Us with Sons of Anarchy dropped in the middle of it, the post-apocalyptic action-adventurer already felt dated by association.
Roll the months ahead to the PlayStation Experience in December and we saw Sony double down yet again with The Last of Us 2 (a game that Sony was keen to build hype from despite the fact it’s a long, long way from seeing the light of play), GT Sport and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (Nathan who?) all filling out the ranks.
With all those known quantities already jostling for space on the blurry horizon, it was starting to become painfully obvious that Sony might be losing confidence in the idea of new IP. So what’s to become of its next and potentially last attempt to create a new icon and franchise in the form of Aloy and Horizon: Zero Dawn? That, my friends, is the million-dollar question that Sony will decide for itself when the game comes out at the end of the month.
While many are predicting a complete and utter success here, Sony has reason to be hesitant, after all. It’s been burned before with Driveclub’s botched launch and the painful delay of its PS Plus version (which ultimately led to the shuttering of the studio) and the expensive commercial and critical letdown that was The Order: 1886.
Will Aloy and her world of mechanised animals and a post-post apocalyptic (yes, that’s two ‘posts’) civilisation be enough to break the curse? We’re not sure.
And even if it finds a singular success, will it live on to see a sequel? Surely it could replace some of Sony’s ailing staples – LittleBigPlanet was a game very much of its time, a curiosity that’ll forever be a circa-PS3 excursion. Ratchet & Clank has been trotted out so often its wonderful universe now feels trite and stale, and no one even remembers Sly Cooper...
Mascots vs. hardware
The problem is first-party exclusives have changed dramatically in the last 25 years. Way back when in the distant age known as ‘the ’90s’, characters and new IP were created to sell systems. Spyro and Crash were conjured up to fight Nintendo at its own game (a strategy that failed spectacularly before Sony realised polygonal breasts were far more appealing to its tween and young male audience than cutesy creatures).
In those days, sales were driven by software and how attractive one platform could present similar experiences in hardware working within the same technological limitations. First-party exclusives and the brands that were plastered all over them were there to break into the mainstream and elevate the position of video games in the eyes of Joe Public.
These days, Sony’s focus is on hardware. It’s driven by PS4’s evolution into PS4 Pro and the technical benefits of a mid-generation regeneration. It’s driven by a commitment to VR (although this could go either way – lest we forget Sony’s once equally passionate focus on the world of handhelds). The firm’s clever and persistent marketing has turned PS4 into its own mascot, leaving little room for any more new faces.
It’s a feeling that’s grown all the more apparent with the rise and fall of PS Vita and the current rise of PlayStation VR. The headsets and hardware itself are the selling point now. PS4 has become an experience more than ever before.
This is the mountain that Horizon: Zero Dawn has to climb.
And boy, is that mountain only getting bigger with time. If that wasn't enough, it’s launching early in the year, that period of time where everyone goes crazy for a game then forgets it exists when GOTY and award nominations roll around 10 months from now.
A new Dawn
Guerrilla’s open-world adventure is launching in the same month as Mass Effect Andromeda (a series that almost always performs well, regardless of the month if performs in, thanks mainly to the reach of its licence) and a little thing called Nintendo Switch – a new console from the kings of timeless first-party franchises and characters. A new console with a brand new, open-world Legend of Zelda on its arm. Up goes the mountain.
However, on paper, Horizon has every reason to perform well.
It’s been developed by Guerrilla Games, one of Sony’s most talented and underrated studios, and is using a new game engine so powerful it was handpicked by former MGS overlord Hideo Kojima for his new PS4-exclusive title, Death Stranding. It’s become the poster child for Sony’s promotion of PS4 Pro’s enhanced graphical fidelity and smoother processing power.
And, on the advertising front, Sony is doing something it didn’t do properly for The Order: 1886 or Driveclub – dialling back its promotion to focus on TV spots and big ads in national newspapers and magazines rather than bizarre promotion only designed to appeal to the existing gaming community.
That’s also before we talk about the game playing host to a fascinating open-world – though this is perhaps a double-edged sword: Guerilla is going to have to work hard to make Aloy’s adventure feel worth buying in a generation that’s already densely saturated with sandbox games.
So what’s at stake here? If Horizon: Zero Dawn tanks, if it does anything other than stellar numbers, Sony’s confidence in any property that hasn’t proven to be a unit-shifting monster is going to be broken forever. It has to do better than The Last Guardian (a game that took almost a decade to arrive) and it has to do a lot better than The Order: 1886 (a game that almost certainly won’t be getting a sequel, despite its potential).
If Horizon falls short, Sony will regress in its approach to homegrown properties and we’ll see PS5’s first few years populated by Uncharted 5, TLoU 3, God of War 5 and Ratchet & Clank: Please Just Let Us Die In Peace Edition. It’ll be Sony doing ‘a Nintendo’ in effect, gathering its best-selling IP around it like faithful children.
Some might say this is a good thing – and even momentarily enjoy being surrounded by all the old classics – but how will we ever get the next generation of great first-party games if no one ever takes a risk and makes them?