It begins with a blur. I can see the contours of two people but not much else. Luckily it isn't the infamous screen door effect of the original PSVR at play, but a sack placed over the head of our protagonist Ryas, a Shadow Carja captured by the other Carja. It doesn't take long for the sack to be removed, which is a very good thing indeed as the opening of Horizon Call of the Mountain is so devastatingly beautiful that it would almost have been a cardinal sin to miss it.
The opening takes place in a canoe and apart from looking around you have no means of interacting with the game world. Instead, the introduction is informed by the classic introductions of Half-Life and Bioshock by giving you a feel for the kind of place you will inhabit over the course of the coming hours. This approach might seem a bit strange given how well we know the world of Horizon at this point, but in VR, Guerrilla's vision of the far future is transformed to a very different place. The vegetation feels lusher with ferns dripping with tiny raindrops; the surrounding mountains seem bigger and more imposing, and little details like leaves blowing in the wind and tiny animals crawling around are much more noticeable.
Most impressive of all are of course the machines. They have always been one of Horizon's biggest draws and here they are more impressive than ever. The small Watchers now feel like real threats and the sight of a Snapmaw in the river is legitimately unsettling. But the one moment that is truly awesome is the encounter with a Tallneck that nearly destroys the canoe. The enormous machine is a sight to behold and the tremors caused by its steps are truly felt thanks to an excellent use of the controllers' and headsets' haptic feedback. The frequency of machine encounters in the opening might be a bit on the busy side compared to the rest of the demo but when judged in isolation it's a fantastic introduction to the world.
In that way, Horizon Call of the Mountain gets off to a great start without actually handing you the reins, but after five minutes it's bye bye canoe and hello full control. Ryas is separated from his capturers and heads towards the nearest settlement. That entails a mix of classic VR disciplines like climbing, exploration and bow based combat. Climbing works how you would expect in VR with you grabbing ledges and lianas. Guerrilla and Firesprite aren't out to rethink the mechanic, but it works very well, which is more than you can say about a lot of other VR titles, and it gives the two studios a way of showing you one gorgeous vista after the other every time you reach a new peak.
Where climbing is as expected, the simple act of walking has received a quirky interpretation in a gesture based control scheme that sees you holding down two buttons and then moving your arms up and down. I appreciate the ambition to introduce a control scheme that enhances immersion, but the result made me feel like a combination of Tom Cruise in slow motion and an elderly man taking in the countryside with walking sticks in my hands. Maybe I just have to get used to it, but if not, a traditional stick based control scheme is available as well.
Having climbed mountains and searched through cottages and encampments combat is next on the menu. The only encounter in the demo is a duel with a Watcher. Combat is different than you might expect as your freedom of movement is reduced to moving left or right in a circle. It does feel a little restrictive, but it has the advantage of making it easier for you to focus on aiming precisely with your bow, which, by the way, feels fantastic to use. The system gives combat a feeling of duelling rather than managing crowds, and I'm excited to see how the other encounters against more complex machines turn out.
After a battle won, a couple of bites of a healing apple and another climb, the demo concludes with a view of a burning Carja settlement surrounded by snow covered mountains. An impressive vista with consequences I have yet to understand.
Horizon Call of the Mountain's first thirty minutes might not bring promises of a game driving VR forward the same way Half-Life: Alyx did, but it is amazingly pretty and seems mechanically solid. And the bow is just great. I'm curious to see how the gameplay evolves and whether Guerrilla and Firesprite manage to tell an engaging story when the game arrives in three weeks.