Before we get started, I'd like to welcome you to the first of a new series of reviews where I'll be taking a look at the feature sets and usability of photo modes as they are implemented across an increasing number of games and how you can get the best out of them. For the first entry, it seemed natural to revisit a title that has been responsible for a lot of people's maiden voyage into virtual photography and one that remains a standard-bearer in some regards to this day, Horizon Zero Dawn.
Title: Horizon Zero Dawn | Developer: Guerrilla Games | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Initial Release: 28th Feb 2017
As a significant departure from the studio's often underappreciated Killzone FPS series, Horizon Zero Dawn marked an exciting new time for Guerrilla Games and an IP that would resonate with players to become perhaps one of the defining games of this generation. Once famously referred to by Studio Art Director, Jan-Bart van Beek, as "f***ing Vikings riding on T-Rexes", Horizon brings together the intriguing mix of tribal human warriors and sentient animalistic machines co-existing in a stunningly beautiful (post-)post-apocalyptic open world that strikes a lot of the right sci-fi chords. Add in the technologically impressive visuals, an inspirational female lead and a solid photo mode that would set the standard for things to come and it's easy to see why Horizon Zero Dawn has been a favourite of players and virtual photographers alike.
the photo mode within is well worth exploring thanks to fully featured settings and relevant use of camera terminology
Key Photo Mode Features:
Free camera (within bounding area)
Field of view (FoV) and depth of field (DoF) control with manual focus and aperture settings
Colour filters and creative borders
Time of day control
Controls & Implementation:
Horizon's photo mode is accessed through the game's pause menu, actually requiring a relatively inconvenient 5 button presses. A minor early complaint but one that can niggle after many repeats and that demonstrates the value of having single button shortcut. Thankfully, the photo mode within is well worth exploring thanks to fully featured settings and relevant use of camera terminology that will appeal to those with anything more than a passing interest in real world photography.
a wonderful and surprisingly rare feature that allows you to concentrate on an unobstructed view of the image
Movement of the free camera is available at all times and handled using both analog sticks, with LS moving the camera along the horizontal plane and RS being responsible for pan / tilt; vertical elevation meanwhile is taken care of by the L2 & R2 triggers. A cylindrical bounding area, centred around the playable character, is in place along with camera collision detection so you can't stray too far from Aloy's location or pass through solid geometry but you are otherwise free to point the camera in any direction you please. Well, almost any direction; panning has full 360° rotation but does lack precision for finer adjustments, while vertical tilting is restricted to roughly 150° meaning you can never actually point the camera directly up or down. Vertical craning is very precise thanks to trigger input but does unfortunately hit a lower bump stop just above the ground level on which Aloy is standing. No deal breaker but, as a result, low angle shots are somewhat restricted and it's not possible to move the camera down a sloped landscape any lower than your character.
The pan / tilt axes and camera roll, operated through +/-89° via a slider in the first UI tab, curiously don't use a fixed point on the camera about which to rotate. Instead the viewfinder orbits around a small sphere as though the camera itself is swinging on a short arm fixed at the opposite end. This goes mostly unnoticed at wider fields of view where it is easily compensated for but can make careful composition of close-up shots quite frustrating, especially in portrait orientation. These are all minor issues though and the camera is generally comfortable to use, allowing for quick and easy framing of your shot in most cases.
Beyond simple camera positioning, a wealth of lens and creative options can be found within a straight-forward, tabbed UI which can be shown or hidden by pressing X. The various sliders and toggles can all be operated blindly while the UI is hidden, a wonderful and surprisingly rare feature that allows you to concentrate on an unobstructed view of the image while tweaking settings. The default camera tab includes a FoV setting, seemingly in degrees, which provides a broad range that will allow you to get even the largest machines comfortably in shot when up close and personal or "zoom" in for a more detailed view from a safe distance.
DoF options include focus distance and aperture f-stop values which combine to give a relatively true to life effect. Camera focus is entirely manual with no auto or lock-on modes; a visual indicator of the focal plane would have been welcome addition for precise focusing but otherwise the feature works well and allows for reasonably close macro shots. Larger apertures (smaller f-stop number) result in a pleasing defocus of both background and foreground content either side of the focal plane as expected, just beware of rough jagged edges that can occur on near-focused objects when using them. The aperture settings have no influence on exposure as they would on a real camera and neither shutter speed or resulting motion blur are simulated here. Instead the amount of light in your shot is handled by an "over exposure" slider which boosts highlights and a general brightness slider which, despite the peculiar units of 0.40-0.60%, exactly matches the 0-100% brightness option found in the game's settings.
playing God with the time of day certainly goes a long way
A vignette tool is also available with size and intensity options varying the extent and opacity of the applied vignette, as well as an ON / OFF toggle; just be aware that selecting "OFF" actually defaults to the vignette effect used during gameplay, equivalent to a setting of 50% & 90% on size and intensity respectively. To fully disable the vignette, set both of these sliders to 0%.
Beyond camera-centric settings, Horizon's more creative photo mode options include character body poses and facial expressions, along with a handy toggle (L3) to make Aloy look directly at the camera, great for really refining your portrait shots or drawing her gaze towards a certain object. A selection of themed borders can be found along side a 6-position game logo and location contextual postcard-style greetings message while a pleasingly varied set of colour filters can be applied with variable intensity. Although only one filter can be applied to the final image, the included range of vibrant colour to B&W to cross-processed effects offer an interesting range of tones and can be easily used to change or fine tune the colour of your shot.
Perhaps the most interesting single feature though is the full time of day control, complete with both solar and lunar rise and fall. I remember feeling a slight sense of disappointed when I first learned that Horizon's photo mode would include such a feature, in some way it felt like this was taking away the real world reward of chasing the sun to find the best light for the shot and, while there may be some truth in this, honestly, it makes much more sense to have control. After all, we are in the virtual world here and playing God with the time of day certainly goes a long way to diversify the photo opportunities, or at least greatly shortens the time needed to wait for them. You should always try varying the time to perfect your shots, sometimes a simple change in lighting angle can lift a flat or dark subject to be something more striking while at other times the scene can be completely transformed.
It goes without saying that even the best photographic tools are of little use if you have nothing interesting to take pictures of but Horizon Zero Dawn certainly doesn't disappoint here with abundant interest on many levels.
The large open world is beautiful to behold with several diverse regions from snowy mountain peaks to arid deserts or the sight of lush forests reclaiming intriguing ancient ruins each bringing a unique feel. The atmosphere is enhanced further by dynamic weather, including rain and snow, as well as both volumetric light and cloud effects which deliver variable and believable cloud formations across the skies as well as gorgeous shafts of light falling down through misty areas. All of this works in conjunction with the aforementioned dynamic time of day to produce an open world that is crammed full of arrestingly beautiful opportunities just waiting to be captured.
her spirit and engaging personality that will actually have you wanting to photograph her more
Populating much of this world are one of Horizon's biggest draws, the machines. A fascinating part of the game's story and lore, these mechanical beasts are equally as interesting to look at as they are to fight thanks to an extraordinary level of complexity and detail in each of the unique types. From the ever inquisitive Watchers to the mighty T-Rex inspired Thunderjaw, the machines of Horizon are a photo opportunity the likes of which you can't really find anywhere else.
Of course, they are not alone in this world and an engaging list of supporting characters add plenty of human interest but it is undoubtedly Aloy that is the star of the show in that regard. Her striking red hair and interesting range of costumes are immediately attractive as a subject matter but it is her spirit and engaging personality that will actually have you wanting to photograph her more. Thankfully, Horizon features excellent character modelling with intricate costumes, realistic physics-based materials and stunningly detailed skin textures and eyes that are all ideally suited to portrait work and abstract close-ups. Remember that the visibility of Aloy's armour headpiece can be toggled in the main game settings and a range of face paints can also be unlocked by completing New Game+ on the harder difficulties to add something a little extra to your shots.
If you are even vaguely serious about virtual photography, Horizon Zero Dawn is a must
Horizon Zero Dawn is a fantastic technical achievement in console gaming and is still one of the most beautiful games available today. It's especially pleasing then, that it also includes an excellent and well featured photo mode that allows for some stunning virtual photography. The entire concept of the game offers interesting subject material and the use of real world camera terminology and effects further adds appeal to those with interests in photography. If you are even vaguely serious about virtual photography, or even if you just want to have a blast taking a selfie with a robot sabre-tooth, Horizon Zero Dawn is a must.
Full Feature Set:
Field of View: 6 - 114°
View Roll: -89 to +89°
Hide Player: On / Off
Face Paint: (available after completion of New Game+)
Facial Expression: Normal + 6 presets
Body Pose: Normal + x presets
Depth of Field: On / Off
Focus Distance: 0.5 - 150 m
Aperture: f / 1.2 - 22
Brightness: 0.40 - 0.60 (0.01 increments)
Over Exposure: -4 to +4
Colourise (colour filter): Normal + 13 presets
(Filter) Intensity: 0.0 - 1.0 (0.1 increments)
Time of Day: 24 hr cycle, per minute adjustment
Borders: 8 presets (incl. 21:9 & 1:1) Logo: None + 6 positions
Greetings: Location contextual message
Vignette: On / Off
Size: 0 - 100% (25% increments)
Intensity: 0 - 100% (10% increments)
Toggle Look (at camera): On / Off
Toggle Grid: On / Off
Hide UI: Yes
(via in-game options)
Disable HUD: Always on, always off, dynamic
Favour Resolution / Favour Performance HDR: On / Off Show Headpiece (Aloy): On / Off