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SummaryA stunning adventure that truly hits the mark!
The Good* Highly original, intriguing setting
* Fantastic story and characters
* Combat against machines is amazing
* Outstanding graphics and soundtrack
The Bad* Human enemies aren't that interesting to battle
* Resources are too abundant
* Highly scripted, artificial-feeling game world
The Bottom LinePicture this: It’s 1000 years into the future. Civilization as we know it today is gone. In its place is a tribalistic, hunter-gatherer society using primitive technology such as bows and spears. The world has been overrun by fearsome robotic beasts resembling dinosaurs and other animals from the current time. Earth is ours no more. This is the highly original setting of the open-world action-adventure/RPG Horizon: Zero Dawn, arguably the most ambitious new exclusive IP of the PlayStation 4 era.
Right from the start, this game’s trailers grabbed me, and it was honestly one of the factors that pushed me to purchase a PS4 in the first place. The unique setting and amazing visuals set the stage for what looked like a pretty amazing experience.
In Horizon, you play as Aloy, a girl who has been shunned from her tribe, the Nora, for not having a mother. The only friend she has ever known is Rost, her adopted father who is also an outcast. As a young girl, she acquires a mysterious device called a “Focus” from an underground bunker. This device allows her to view information about the objects and enemies in her world. With this device in her possession, Aloy grows up asking questions about why the world is the way it is and why she has lived her life as an outcast for so long. After dramatic, life-changing events unfold during an event called “The Proving”, Aloy sets out to solve these questions and maybe save her people in the process. The story is highly compelling, to say the least. Although the game is set in our world, it manages to feel like another world entirely, with its own cultures, religions, and histories to delve into. Even the collectibles offers interesting side-stories which bring new insight into the world. Horizon’s story has exceptional pacing for an open-world game: it grabs your attention from the beginning and gives you just enough information after every main quest to make you want to keep going. Seemingly every time I had a question about something, it would eventually get answered in a later mission. There are a lot of memorable characters and some really well-done plot twists, as you slowly uncover the reasons for how this world came to be.. Although Zero Dawn is a brand new game in a brand-new franchise, it has the confidence and charisma of a veteran when it comes to narrative.
Many have compared Horizon to games such as The Witcher 3 and Far Cry Primal, but it’s difficult for me not to compare this game to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Although the two games were released just a few days apart from each other, the similarities in both plot and gameplay features are simply impossible for me to ignore. I don’t think Guerrilla was in any way consciously trying to ape Nintendo’s work, rather it’s simply a happy coincidence that these two games turned out to be so similar. Both games involve a robotic apocalypse, with their protagonists making use of advanced technological devices from civilizations long past. Both games are about solving mysteries of the past. Both games have an emphasis on nature and survival including crafting and stealth systems. Both games have different types of arrows to fire at enemies. Both games have an “air-time” feature, where aiming in mid-air slows down time for precision shots. Both games have underground “dungeons” that hold loot and abilities needed for character progression. And finally, both games are open-world. On paper, the two games couldn’t be more similar. Yet the vibe I get from Horizon is much different than Zelda. If playing Zelda is like watching an animated Disney movie, then Horizon is like taking in a serious action blockbuster from one of their rival studios. Or maybe it’s more like an attempt at a young adult franchise starter from Lionsgate. Who knows. Either way, both provide hours of terrific entertainment.
Before I mention everything else, I must give special praise to this game’s graphics. Horizon: Zero Dawn is arguably the best-looking console title ever made, and if it’s not then it at least sits comfortably alongside Uncharted 4 and The Order: 1886 at the top of the technical hierarchy. “Wow” was all I could think from the moment the game started up. The game world of Horizon, powered by Guerrilla’s proprietary Decima engine, is finely detailed. The draw distance is vast, and the lighting and textures all look incredible. The machines in particular are brilliantly animated, their many moving parts clearly articulated in a fluid way. Each of the world’s tribes have a distinct look in their buildings and the way that they dress. On PS4 Pro there are very few artifacts, frame drops, or jaggies, even when tons of action is happening on-screen, although a few of the more complex areas do struggle just a wee bit on Hi-Res mode. Admittedly, it’s not absolutely flawless. Water looks kind of flat and simplistic compared to other games. Character models look pretty good, though rope-like objects such as hair and jewelry have a tendency to glitch out or clip from time-to-time. Finally, there is the odd bit of texture pop-in. Guerrilla have always had a reputation for pushing the limits of past PlayStation consoles with their Killzone series, but this is the first time they have made an open world game, and it’s an absolute stunner. I’m sure in a number of years (or when Xbox Scorpio hits) these graphics are going to look much more dated, but in 2017 it’s hard to think of a better looking console game.
Similarly, Horizon’s soundtrack is also outstanding. It combines lots of “primitive” sounding instruments such as bongos, ocarinas, and didgeridoos with a technological atmosphere to create something that perfectly fits the game’s dichotomy of nature and technology. It also brings a real sense of awe and mysticism to this sci-fi story that gives it just a touch of fantasy.
Horizon follows the tried-and-true structure of past open-world RPGs. You can follow the main story or talk to characters to learn about side quests and challenges. Doing all of these earns you experience points, which translate into earning skill points. You then put these skill points into one of three trees (stealth, combat, survival) to enhance Aloy’s abilities as the game goes on. Don’t expect to make hard choices, as everything in the skill trees can be unlocked eventually.
Combat in Horizon is primarily focused on using ranged weapons. You’ll be using different types of arrows, as well as slings, bolt-guns, and ropes to take down the machines. You can also utilize traps and tripwires to give you a tactical advantage. Nevertheless, much of Horizon’s skill is all about aiming shots properly, something that is definitely more difficult to do on a controller. Indeed, there were amore than a few times where I noticed an arrow “curve” to hit something, so there’s definitely some level of aim assist happening here. In addition, there is also an ability that allows you to slow down time when aiming a shot that is super useful when playing with a controller.
You can also use melee attacks. Light attacks are fast and easy to combo, while heavy attacks do much more damage but take much more time to complete. There is no lock-on system of any kind , and you cannot cancel attacks after the button is pressed. This makes melee feel very sloppy at first, and although I eventually got used to it, it never felt especially great. Aloy just kind of attacks anything in the general direction she is moving. This is occasionally unreliable, especially if you’re trying to hit something small. It’s clear that ranged combat was the focus, though it is nice to have the option when things get too hectic (and they sometimes do!)
Stealth is a vital component of Horizon’s combat. Most areas have patches of tall grass that you can hide in, though some enemies are capable of “scanning” your position inside of the grass. Nevertheless, as long as you stay inside the grass and don’t pop out to aim, you won’t be detected. You can also hide behind objects in the environment such as walls and rocks, though you’ll need to be a lot more careful when doing this. Enemies can detect the player by sight as well as sound, so it’s important to stay crouched, move slowly and find places where Aloy won’t be seen. Certain outfit types reduce Aloy’s noise and visibility.
When fighting machines, you can scan their parts with the Focus beforehand to formulate a plan of attack. Shooting specific parts of machines will disable their abilities or deal tons of explosive damage, allowing you to take them down much easier. For example, some machines have guns which you can shoot off, then pick up and use against them. This is also useful if you’re trying to find a specific part type for trading or crafting. Utilizing status effects, such as shock, burn, and freeze can really help to turn the tide of battle. Some combat encounters have several different types of machines at once, making for some very intense battles where you’ll need to make use of everything in your disposal.
In addition, you can also use Aloy’s spear to override machines, which will turn them against each other. If done right, this can give you a serious advantage against tough machines. A few types, such as Striders and Broadheads, will also act as your mount for a short amount of time after being overridden. When riding a mount, the machine will generally try to stick to the road it’s on, though it can be annoying when a machine doesn’t turn while you’re just moving forward.
The machine fights are incredibly thrilling, especially when you take down a new type for the very first time. The tougher fights require careful planning as well as quick improvisational thinking. But they are always supremely satisfying to kill off - you truly feel like a hunter when you fell one of the bigger machines.
Fighting human enemies isn’t quite as exciting as fighting the machines. Your best options are either to take them down with a stealth strike from your spear or a headshot from your bow. You can also shoot fire canisters to cause explosions. Unfortunately, you cannot move bodies after they are killed, which can easily give away your presence if they are spotted. This goes for machines, as well, though you could argue that they would be too heavy for a person to move. This is further compounded by the lack of a proper cover system and oddly shaped environmental obstacles in the human camps, which make moving around undetected a bit more frustrating than it should be, at least at first. It becomes much more enjoyable once you get the stealth skills and armor and learn how to smartly take out enemies where they won’t easily be seen. Humans are much more fragile than the machines, and though they can hit hard, their AI could certainly stand to be improved. The best fights with humans utilize both machines and humans at the same time.
What is done really well are the game’s dungeons, called Cauldrons. Cauldrons are special areas that are considered taboo by your tribe, and they have a very different feel compared to the rest of the game, with pyramid-like architecture, sparking wires, and tons of moving parts to climb and jump. The cauldrons are rather linear but make up for it in terms of their size and atmosphere. You can earn tons of experience and loot by going through them, as well as unlock the ability to override more types of machines.
Horizon offers a fairly robust customization system. Each set of armor and weapon can be augmented with various modifications which you’ll find from defeated machines as well as chests. These modifications increase resistance to ranged, melee, and elemental damage, as well as stealth bonuses. You can also modify weapons, which grant additional damage and “handling” (reload/aim speed) for each weapon. Interestingly, “better” weapons don’t necessarily improve based on raw damage - rather they give you access to more ammo types as well as more modification slots. I could sometimes sense that Guerrilla were straining to come up with three different ammo types for each weapon, as some are definitely more useful than others, but this doesn’t hurt the combat much in the end. Everyone is going to have their own play style with this game, which is great to see.
Most of the side quests offer interesting stories which help to flesh out the world. While these stories are usually quite entertaining, they are occasionally let down by hit-and-miss voice acting and facial animations. The voice acting for the “important” characters is phenomenal, but it’s a grab bag as to wether or not the next side character will be well-acted. Nevertheless, there were some very well-written and acted quests that I came across in the game, and they only get better as you deepen your understanding of the world and characters. It even got to the point where I didn’t mind that I had greatly out-leveled the main quest because they were just so enjoyable to do.
Horizon is a big game, but it’s not overwhelmingly big. Most collectibles are fairly easy to find, especially with the help of maps that you can purchase. There’s only a few towns to focus on, and most areas are only used for one side quest. The game almost never feels overly tedious or frustrating, which is key in retaining the player’s interest over a long game such as this one.
The biggest issue for me is how “scripted” the game can feel at times. Horizon can come across as artificial and scripted. Most NPCs don’t seem to have much of a reaction to your presence, there’s a lack of interactive objects in the environment, platforming and climbing are all automated along very specific paths, and invisible walls abound all over the world. Horizon is single-mindedly focused on telling a story, and though it also offers very solid gameplay it sometimes does so at the expense of player agency and sense of freedom. For example, it can be really difficult to notice the specific path to scale a particular building or cliff, which can be very annoying at times.
Another nitpick is that the game just showers you with crafting resources, especially during the mid-to-late portion of the game after you’ve unlocked certain skills. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good, as there are a ton of things to craft in this game, from ammo, to carrying capacity, to potions and traps. However, you’ll quickly find that your inventory fills up dangerously fast, and until you fully upgrade your carrying capacity, expect to be dropping a lot of things just to make room for essential items in your inventory. On the flipside, there were rarely situations where I found myself out of resources and had to play smart in order to complete a mission or kill a machine. These were some of the best moments in the game, and I would have wanted to get more. From what I understand, you do get less resources on the harder difficulties, but to what extent this affects the game I’m not really sure.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is easily among the very best new IPs that Sony has introduced to the gaming world. It might be derivative in a number of places, but everything is so well-crafted it’s hard to resist. On top of that, it’s rests on top of a unique setting and is threaded through with a moving, thought-provoking story. It’s this world and its details that take what’s already a good game and makes it a great one. This is one of the most enjoyable open-world games I’ve ever played, and I hope to see further adventures with Aloy in this world for years to come.