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Horizon: Zero Dawn is the first game to let me go hunting with a clear conscience

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I'm a vegetarian. I tell you this not to show off, or because I want you to cook me dinner, but to explain why I hate the animal-hunting sub-systems that have become part of modern video games over the past few years. 2013's Tomb Raider demanded I lance an arrow through an innocent deer's heart for emotional punch; Far Cry 3 forced me to eviscerate several endangered species just to get my hands on a bigger wallet; Red Dead Redemption tried to get me to skin so many animals my house would've looked like the home of a small-scale Ed Gein. I felt horrible and conflicted every time.

Horizon's animals are robots

Horizon: Zero Dawn wants me to hunt, too. The creatures of Guerrilla Games' third-person action game graze peacefully by themselves or in small family groups, snuffling quietly to themselves as the dappled sunlight hits their flanks. My character — sporting a fur jerkin and long braids of red hair — has an array of primitive-looking but spiky weaponry with which to coldly kill them. Their death would benefit me in the long run, giving me items that I could use to make more tools to kill more things with, but I won't see that benefit any time soon — I'm playing an early version of the game on the Tokyo Game Show floor.

The demo's limited scope means all there is to do in Horizon: Zero Dawn at this point is kill animals. I should feel awful, feel as guilty as I do when I kill innocent creatures in other games. But I don't care, because Horizon: Zero Dawn's animals are robots. They move like animals, sure, in herds and packs around the lush wilds of the game's forests, and they're built like animals. A small and aggressive cyloptic breed attacks me like a gaggle of angry geese, hurling their long-necked bodies at my character, while a beefier brand of bot gallops away from danger, moving like a cyber-cow.

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But they're definitely not animals. The exposed wiring and blinking red LED "eyes" give that away, and so too does the ability to reprogram their attack patterns by jamming your weapon into their neck, turning them from foe to friend like a horse-whispering hacker. Using your half-spear-half-USB-stick like this even makes the larger cow-like creatures rideable, giving you a mount from which to loose arrows, throw bombs, and twang slingshot projectiles at even bigger robots. Assuming, of course, that you can get close enough to tame one of these beasts. If they spot you, they'll scatter, making it sensible to creep through the long grass that dots Horizon's forests to get the jump on your potential new robot friend.

Most smaller robots went down after a few prods with a spear or projectiles to the face — at least what I think is the face — but bigger specimens require more careful combat tactics. I found a giant enemy robo-crab idling down by a stream whose back supported a box that I was sure contained a treasure trove of goodies. The crab was bigger than anything else I'd seen, with nasty pincer claws and a shield — a honeycomb lattice of energy — that it projected to its front to ward off attacks, but it was slow. I rode around it in circles, shooting first its claws to stop it from launching blurts of electricity at my position, before targeting its rear-mounted treasure box directly, and luring it into traps. In addition to melee and projectile weapons, Horizon gives players devices they can lay down to damage enemies, including tripwires that electrify unwary AIs, and balloons that contain explosive gases. By the time I'd ripped the container from the crab-bot's back and rendered its claws useless, I finally felt sorry for the creature, and put it out of its misery with a freezing slingshot pellet.

Your weapon is half spear and half USB stick

Horizon's close-range hacking would be easier over a nice safe Wi-Fi connection, but such luxuries are gone in the game's world. Horizon is set in our future, but something's gone wrong in its past, some event resetting humanity's technological advances, and driving us back to the bronze age — albeit a bronze age with huge robot dinosaurs waddling around. It's not clear what actually happened to mess the world up so badly, but the latest trailer shows cities going dark as their lights blink out, time-lapse shots showing grass growing through roads and plants taking over urban environments.

The TGS demo I played didn't feature these ruined cities, setting its action instead in a lush and untouched forest, but nearby mountains and valleys seemed to be reachable, either on foot or on the back of a friendly robot. It also didn't have much of an objective — beyond downing as many blameless machines as possible — but the trailer suggests that main character Alloy is going to face aggressive humans as well as AIs on her quest to work out what the hell happened to society. We'll find that out too when the PS4-exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn is out on February 28th next year.