Horizon: Zero Dawn Review
When the first glimpse of Horizon Zero Dawn was unleashed at E3 2015, it received some of the most positive reception I’ve ever seen for a game reveal. Is it any surprise? A game where you play as a young, badass, redheaded lass tasked with taking on legions of robotic beasts and dinosaurs in an expansive open world. Sign me up. In fact “sign me up” was pretty much the universal sentiment when we finished watching that trailer. While we joylessly celebrated what could be the next big IP from Sony, there was a certain lingering sense of trepidation – we do live in a society that runs on a certain level of skepticism after all.
The game almost looked to good to be true, not only visually, but also in how dynamic it looked. Was it a staged scenario to sell us on a false reality? Was it a tech demo for a far off promise? Was it in the hands of a developer not known for such ambitious projects? Well, with regards to the latter question there was an element of truth, a truth that warranted this wary. After all Guerilla Games, best known for the Killzone series – a series praised for its graphics more than its standard issue gameplay – had never tackled a game outside of the conventions of a first-person shooter, let alone a massive open world action RPG, so there was some legitimacy to the worry – after all we expected The Order 1866 to be the next big thing and look how that turned out.
Well, I am happy to report that while Horizon: Zero Dawn is not the next evolution in open world game design, it’s nonetheless a fantastic game that lives up to its almost insurmountable hype and delivers Sony’s best first party effort since Bloodborne and the start of something very special.
One of the best surprises about Horizon Zero Dawn is in its story. Taking place approximately 1,000 years in the future it tells the tale of Aloy, an outcast living in an unforgiving world ruled by tribal law and run rampant by robotic beasts. Born to no mother, she is raised in shadow, by her guardian Rost, in the lands of the Nora, a fierce hunter-gatherer tribe run by a Matriarchal society, where she was born.
As a child, she comes across a device – akin to a Bluetooth earpiece – called a focus, which shows holographic images from the past while also giving her the ability to see the movements and properties of all life, flesh and metal – a clever way to disguise the game’s elegant HUD. Through the tutelage of Rost, Aloy is trained in the art of combat and survival so that one day she can participate in the Proving, an event held by the Nora that grants the winner one wish, and find out the secret of who is really is and maybe just what happened to the world all those years ago.
What could have been just another generic, throwaway boilerplate mystery to bookend the gameplay experience ends up being an engaging tale from start to finish. Its intriguing, well-paced, will keep you guessing and is lifted by some strong writing and some even stronger performances, most notably a stand-out effort from Ashley Burch – coming off a star making performance as Chloe in the excellent Life is Strange – as Aloy, giving her an incredible amount of nuance and depth that is rarely seen in the medium. She is confident without being brash, exudes a calm innocence without falling into naivety, while enjoying moments of sarcastic wit that rarely devolve into abject cynicism. Most importantly she’s compassionate and incredibly endearing, serving as an excellent vessel to tell this story and an excellent proxy by which the player can jump into the shoes of. She’s destined to become the next big face of not only PlayStation, but of the medium, joining the ranks of Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, and Solid Snake as another badass m’fer who’s just as sharp with her tongue as she is with a bow.
Speaking of bows, Aloy will need all the help she can get while taking out the robotic horde. Thank the All Mother she shored up on those archery skills as a kid and let us be even more thankful that it is such a blast to use. As the main the tool for hunting, whether it be taking on a machine like a Watcher or just a lowly bandit, shooting the bow is precise, elegant and overtakes the most recent Tomb Raider games as the single best implementation of weapon to date.
Before you resort to calling her a Katniss clone, let me tell she’s more than just another chick with a bow, Aloy’s weapon’s proficiency makes Katniss look like Peeta. Not only is she equipped with a quill, she also comes packing with some other pieces: the slingshot, tripcaster, and ropecaster. The slingshot fires elemental explosives that can burn, freeze, or shock enemies into submission, while the tripcaster can set trap that when sprung can incapacitate the enemy, while the ropecaster fastens the enemy down with large ropes, helping you topple even the largest of foes. Each of these weapons is unique and fun to use and coupled with their different types ammunition are essential if you are hoping to mow down everything in your way.
There a great deal more strategy to encounters than you would first believe, with its RPG elements really standing out in subtle and interesting ways. It was always a delight to hone on an enemy weakness with the focus, use the appropriate elemental ammo, and let loose. For example, it’s extremely satisfying going up against a Glinthawk who is showering ice cold death at you only to shoot off its protective chest carapace exposing the source of its ice power and finish it off with a Precision arrow that will effectively turn it’s weapon on itself. Or how about taking on the formidable T-Rex inspired Thunderjaw, fastening it down with a rope caster and using Tearblast arrows to rips off its armor, including mounted weaponry, only to fire its own brand medicine back at it in the form of sawblade-like projectiles.
While fighting machines is the highlight of the game and definitely the most strategic, you will encounter your fair share of human foe in the form of bandits and other tribesmen. While it is not nearly as fun taking on these bow fodder, due to their less than ideal AI, they at least bring about the game’s great emphasis on stealth, which is an ideal way to sneak in and take over enemy encampments. The stealth itself feels quite good and responsive, allowing Aloy to take the quieter approach as effectively as if she went in bows blazing, if you so choose to go that route. Regardless of how you want to play, you can upgrade Kat—er Aloy through a standard issue skill tree that covers the basics from resource gathering bonuses, to stealth kills, to multi-arrow shot abilities.
The weakest element of combat – from a gameplay perspective – is melee. It feels clunky and slow and I felt myself rarely going to it unless it was for stealth kills. It does bring some benefits though including the ability to override robots to either use as mounts or attack and kill their own kin – and who doesn’t want to see robot dinosaurs go at it.
What fun would killing machines and bandits be if they didn’t net you loot, robot parts, equipment modifications and sometimes weapons and armor – color-coded for rareness of course – which can also be bought through merchants by said loot and robot parts. There are tons of different sets of equipment that are effective against different types of elements or weapon types, but I personally found a few I liked a stuck to them, mostly due to the fact that upgrading them was an easier option.
Upgrading equipment is just as simple as assigning any modification to a weapon and reaping the results. Selling items and resources is also made quite simple with explanations given to what each resource is used for, so you won’t have to be worried about selling the wrong thing and even if you do, there is a generous buyback option. It’s this streamlined approach to classic RPG conventions that works wonders with its high intensity gameplay and makes sure you won’t be fiddling around in the menu screen for longer than necessary – though I would’ve appreciated a larger resource capacity near the end game.
So the gameplay is great, but just what kind of game is Horizon Zero Dawn exactly and what makes it stand out? In short, it is another addition to the pantheon of great open world games. It features a large sprawling world with a map that is littered with things to do and places to see. It’s smart in the way it designs its world because it is more focused on density rather than sheer size. It takes the massive worlds of games like Fallout and Skyrim and streamlines and truncates it without losing any of the scope. It makes for a more lean and mean experience that can be enjoyed by casual players who only have an hour here and there to play and for those who enjoy losing hours at a time doing everything there is to do in a beautifully crafted world.
There just so happens to be many things to do, a great many indeed. Besides the very strong campaign that will take about 20 or so hours to get through – if you just want to beeline through it – there are side quests, errands, hunting grounds, cauldrons, lions, tigers, and bears oh my – okay maybe not the last three.
Side quests range from story enhancing endeavors that will connect you closer to the world in its inhabitants, letting you explore otherwise uncharted areas if you were to only focus on the main quest, to your typical bandit camp hijacking missions found in similar games. While there is a good deal of context in these side missions, their quality – in the writing and breadth of activities – varies, but overall they are quite good.
Errands are much simpler fetch-a-thons which end up being more busy work than anything else. There are a few that have a bit more depth to them, but they are by far the least interesting of the lot. Nonetheless they are still a beneficial undertaking if only for the experience and items you will obtain from completing them, so they aren’t a completely unrewarding experience.
Hunting grounds are time trial-based events that test your skills in taking down mechanical beasts using specific weapons or constraints and deliver a good and addictive challenge for those who want to go for the gold. They also net you some pretty cool prizes later on that I will not dare spoil for you.
Finally we have cauldrons, which are essentially this game’s version of a dungeon and they are pretty cool. While they don’t ever reach the depth of even the simplest Zelda dungeon, they are well designed and change the pace up from just straight up action combat to stealthy endeavors with light puzzle elements. There are a handful of them throughout the world and completing them unlocks the ability to override additional – and larger – robotic beasts throughout the world.
Regardless of what you are doing and where you are exploring, you are bound to find something to do without even having to look at your map, whether it be from the alert cries from nearby wounded to a hunting party being attacked by corrupted machines and its this organic sense of discovery that a welcome reward for exploring the wilds.
If you haven’t noticed I have very few negatives to say about the game. That’s mostly because it does everything so very well, but it also has to do with the fact that it has built its successes upon the same successes of what other games have done in the past. If there was one minor complaint with the game it’s that it takes very few chances and brings very few new innovations to the table. Almost every one of the systems found in Horizon has been featured in some shape or form in another game.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as it picks and chooses only the freshest ingredients from the best examples of games in their respective genres. Dialogue trees from games like Fallout and Mass Effect? Check. On-the-fly ammunition crafting courtesy of Tomb Raider? Check. Swinging up the sides of mountainous peaks a la Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed? That’s there too. Hell, as cool as it is to approach and climb the colossal brontosaurus-like Tallneck, it is just a supped up version of Far Cry’s towers. It’s a veritable buffet of open world tropes, but think of it as one of those high class Vegas all-you-can eat joints. It might not have a single dish they’re known for, but you will come away more than satisfied with what’s being offered – if not a little bloated in the process.
I guess other than its lack of innovation, the game’s biggest failing – if you can even call it that – is that it doesn’t do any one particular thing better or differently that really makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd. The Witcher 3 has better side quests, character development and world building; Breath of the Wild has more dynamic and organic exploration as well as freeform climbing; Metal Gear Solid V has better stealth and a more addictive gameplay loop. But, where those games may flounder in one particular area – I didn’t care for the combat in The Witcher 3 for example – Horizon sticks the landing on pretty much every front, delivering all 8’s and 9’s across the board.
That is except for one domain in particular. The visuals.
Fuck everything I just said about this game delivering 8’s and 9’s because when it comes to the technical wizardy the folks at Guerilla are concocting over in Amsterdam – drug-aided or not – this game nails the quadruple axel combination and then some. Without a doubt, this is the showpiece of the generation so far. It delivers one of the most beautiful rendered video games worlds ever seen on a console with incredibly decadent vistas ranging from deserts, to snowcapped mountains, to lush jungles teeming with all matters of Flora and Fauna that are only further illuminated with the help of one of the most impressive lighting engines I have ever seen. There were times while traversing the dense forests that the light would hit the foliage in a way that I had to do double take just to make sure I wasn’t staring at an actual photograph from someone’s actual Amazonian adventures – it’s that impressive.
Equally impressive are the character models and facial animations. Other than a few awkward Uncanny Valley moments – particularly earlier on with young Aloy’s unproportionately large noggin – characters are brought to life with a staggering impressive amount of detail, right down to the freckles on Aloy’s face or the glint in her eerily realistic eyes. This is not just reserved for the main players, but even the most humble of NPC’s who look just as good as the rest of the crowd.
Not only is this game a stunner from a technical perspective, but also it is equally impressive from an artistic one. Guerilla has created a seamless world that marries the technology from the time of ancient sapiens with the futuristic machinations of its world’s automatous mechanical beings. You wouldn’t think it would work this well, but it does. Its especially impressive seeing the little details that goes into the weaponry, the armor, and even villages themselves that really enforce a cohesive world rich with history and rife with intrigue.
Each villager, solider, man, woman and child you come across are all adorned with relics of the land whether it be the carapaces, computer cables, or motherboards of the robotic horde that make up their elaborate headdresses, pauldrons and other wears. It’s an incredible joy talking to NPC’s for the sole fact that gazing upon their dress’ tell just as much of a story as anything they have to tell you themselves. For example, you will be able to distinctively tell apart a member of the Carja and Shadow Carja just by the armor they wear, just as you can make inferences into the Oseram’s history of metalworkers and legendary craftsmanship by their own garb. One’s royalty might be determined by the sheen given off by their ornaments while an elaborate helmet made from the casing of a Thunderjaw will instantly tell you that you are in the presence of a great hunter.
Speaking of Thunderjaws, the single most impressive thing about the design of the game is in the incredible construction that went into making every single one of these incredible mechanical monstrosities. You can literally see the individual pieces that went into making each of these entities come to life. It’s not just in the way they look either but also in the way they animate which gives them personality of their own. The Watcher’s will fling themselves recklessly at you, tripping in the process, while the Shell-Walker will scuttle around defensively the moment it takes notice of Aloy. It’s these details that make every encounter with one of these behemoths that much more intense and really set them apart from the generic fodder that is seen in other open world games.
The aural side of things holds up its end of the bargain too with some fantastic voice work that really brings life to its characters. On top of the aforementioned performance of Aloy, almost all of the characters you meet have a unique voice and while not all fit with their particular model, they are nonetheless performed admirably. Most notable are the excellent performances for characters like Errend, Varl, and Vanasha, who are elevated above cookie cutter creations and have enough personality and substance that I actually cared enough to remember their names, quirks, and personal stories.
The game also has an excellent, if understated, score that mixes the haunting vocals and violins of the main theme with the more dramatic flair from intense combat situations. I only wish the audio track wasn’t as soft as it is because the score definitely gets lost among the screams and cries of enemies, in and out of combat.
4.25 out of 5
In what could have easily been an overambitious mess in the hands of a lesser studio, Horizon Zero Dawn is the prototypical child of near flawless execution. Guerilla Games have really stepped up their game and portfolio from studio known for making solid entertainment, overstated by technical prowess, to one that can make a game as great as the sum of its many moving parts.
It’s a true testament to its craft that while it never really pushes the envelope in innovating the open-world model, it does everything it sets out to do so well that I never felt it wore out its welcome over my 40 hours playing. It has excellent combat mechanics, a great story, an intriguing world and an awesome new protagonist to boot. It’s a game you can easily pick up and play regardless of your skill level, whether you are a hardcore or casual gamer, and get fully lost in. It just so happens to be Sony’s best first party game in years and I can’t wait to spend some more time with Aloy in her brave new world.