February 28, 2017
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a beast unlike any action-RPG released this generation. It most closely resembles The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in size and scope, but the gameplay elements make it seem closer to Monster Hunter, or - occasionally - Tomb Raider. Horizon is a game made of other games, yet in the middle it retains its own identity and originality more than any of the derivative RPGs we’ve seen proliferate over the past few generations.
The game is a technical marvel, and made me actually audibly gasp at times thanks to how involved and intelligent the gameplay mechanics could be. It was an ‘unputdownable™’ experience for me from start to finish, and with production values that put other modern games to shame, it’s presented in such a way that can scrub even the most stubborn of dirty memories of Guerrilla Games’ less-impressive Killzone: Shadow Fall from your consciousness.
What really struck me about the game off the bat was the vibrancy, the colour, the realisation of this post-apocalyptic world. There are few environmental disaster games out there, but Horizon’s world makes you think there should be more - granted, the backstory hints at something more sinister ending life on Earth as we know it, but the result is this plush landscape that just gives Guerrilla an excuse to show off what the Decima Engine can do.
From all the marketing materials we’d seen, we expected a kind-of Far Cry Primal colour scheme and setting through the majority of the game… how wrong we were. Each story missions takes you to a new biome, so to speak, in Horizon’s mysterious world, and from snow-capped mountains to sparsely-vegetated savannahs, ancient man-made caves of wire and metal to rolling, verdant hills, the game manages to make everything just look phenomenal.
I could go on about the graphics all day, but that wouldn’t make for a good review, so instead I’ll move onto the character that’ll take most of your attention through the experience: Aloy. Aloy is something special. Not just in how she handles and the skills she lets you use through her, but the way she’s characterised, brought to life and animated is up there with the best in gaming as a whole.
Aloy instantly comes across as a well-built, pre-defined character and Guerilla obviously sees there’s no need to patronise the player with laborious coming-of-age nonsense or over-wrought backstory: the opening hours of the game are all you need to know about Aloy, her place in this world and her motivation. There’s no bullshit ‘look, look how strong she is!’ bush-beating here: Guerilla lets the story speak for itself, and that straight-laced, matter-of-fact story-telling does justice to Aloy and makes her journey seem so wonderfully organic from start to finish.
Ashly Burch (who you may remember as Chloe from Life Is Strange) brings Aloy to life in a fantastic way: granted, the RPG elements in the story of Horizon: Zero Dawn aren’t exactly expansive, but whenever there’s an option to be had, Aloy’s responses are authentic and believable. When Aloy is talking of her own accord, the subtle-but-ever-present steel in her voice and belligerence in her attitude comes through just enough without ever making her villainous - the writing and the performance strike an amazing balance; one that’s more involved than Geralt’s in the Witcher 3 but never hammy.
I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I’ll keep the story mentions to a minimum. To sum it up though, Horizon’s main missions are well-paced, well-written insights into the various factions and tribes that inhabit the game’s world. They let you sample the combat against various machines, take you to a diverse array of arenas and let you decide how you want to play the majority of the game (as it happens, stealth is your friend - especially on harder difficulties).
If you want to really immerse yourself in Horizon, you’re going to want to pick at the Errands and Side Missions the game has to offer on a regular basis - and don’t worry, because there’s no shortage of them. Some are kind-of cut-and-dry side missions you’d expect of any RPG - go here, kill these things, return. We can forgive that, because at least they’re generally well-written and take you to places on the map you’d otherwise not find. A few of the side missions are more involved, and feel more similar in construction to The Witcher 3’s more notable quests - more emotional, more involved, more important to the world.
Mixing these quests with occasional bursts of story, whilst mixing in various exploration-based objectives and the sublime Hunting Grounds quests equates to a formula that is impossible to get bored of: exploration and platforming is handled like Assassin’s Creed-lite, but that’s OK because somehow it just makes you feel empowered as Aloy: she’s a hunter-gatherer and has been since her childhood - running, climbing and jumping is second nature for her, and as such it becomes so to you as a player.
The same goes for hunting itself. It’s been a very long time since a game made me feel as powerful and skilful as Horizon: Zero Dawn does. When you find a new monster, Aloy’s machine-enhanced ‘Focus’ lets you scan them for weak points, elemental resistances and breakable parts. These are essential if you want to take down enemies without getting messy. Between arrows that can help knock weak components off enemies, various traps you can set before an encounter begins in earnest and elemental match-ups that can be devastating when timed/used correctly, Horizon gives you all the tools you need to come out on top and expects you to learn them or die.
Each monster (especially later on in the game) is a difficult encounter in and of itself: it’ll take patience, cunning and dedication to bring a monster down, and the game never patronises you. If you die, you die. Like in Monster Hunter, you need to assess your enemy and make a call based on how you want to proceed: if you build Aloy to be a ranged hunter, get some height, set some traps and rely on your precision skills to chip away at a beast’s health until it dies. If you build Aloy as a fighter, learn how to dodge roll and know the correct places to strike to de-shell an enemy. No matter how you build Aloy, though, learn to take advantage of what the game’s visual language tells you.
This game makes you feel like a bonafide, genuine hunter. And there’s something real special about that. Even if the RPG elements are locked into three types of style (think stealth, power and ranged), mixing and matching various skills allows you to take down all sorts of different beasts in all sorts of different ways. It’s the sort of game where every player will have a different tale to tell about how they took down some lumbering beast, and the availability of variation is really where the game excels.
The game’s combat against the more organic inhabitants does let the game down a bit, but only because it feels ordinary in a game chock full with new and interesting mechanics. More than anything, taking out human bases reminds us of Tomb Raider - hide in grass, pop headshots where you can, assassinate where you can, prevent an alarm from being sounded. It’s by no means unpleasant, but it’s the only part of the game that can feel repetitive: no matter how many of the game’s weakest enemies we slaughtered (the Watchers), we still felt entertained doing so. That wasn’t always the case with Horizon’s locals.
But that’s one tiny blemish on a game that’s otherwise masterful in every other way. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a showcase of what Guerrilla can do, it’s a love letter written by the Decima Engine to a planet that could very well be on the verge of collapse. If you’re intrepid enough to dig into the game’s logs and backstory, there’s a heart-breaking tale of the end of the world to discover, and even if you just dive in for the main story alone, you’re still going to have an incredibly powerful experience.
The game apes mechanics enjoyed by the likes of Far Cry and Tomb Raider, and dials back where it needs to, expanding on what those games were missing. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a benchmark for where story-telling and mechanics should meet, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing where Guerrilla Games takes us and Aloy next. There’s no doubt about it though, Horizon is a masterpiece and one you should not overlook.
The voice acting in the game is top-tier most of the time, and the soundtrack - whilst never particularly notable - always feels ‘right’ for what you’re doing. The audio design of the machines is especially effective, and even the creaks and tensions of Aloy’s bow is enough to make you smile… if you’re into that kind of thing.
If you’re on vanilla PS4, this is one of the best looking games of the generation. Hands-down. The lighting, the amount of detail in the world, and the fact that it’s a true open world with no loading times… it’s mind-blowing. Install it on a PS4 Pro, however, and you enter a whole new plane of existence: there’s a reason Sony is using this game to sell their powerful PlayStation.
The pacing, the story, the gameplay, the exploration - every bit of Horizon: Zero Dawn is a lesson in how to keep the player interested. The only lulls come in more scripted sessions of main story missions… but even then the game rallies with unexpected surprises and astonishing set-pieces.
No part of this game comes off badly: from how it looks to how it plays, the animations of the main character to the characterisation of the supporting cast - every inch of this game has clearly been developed with love and gross attention to detail. Guerrilla Games should be remarkably proud of the game they’ve created here.
Rewards for dispatching a certain amount of machines, obtaining certain amounts of collectibles, making progress in the story, maxing out your stats and exploring various parts of the map: it’s a standard open world trophy list, but thanks to how the game rewards you for doing certain things, it’ll never feel like a grind.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game built around a steady momentum that’ll push you through the entire game without ever making you want to turn it off. It expounds on this generation’s affection for open-world collectibles by making each of them a joy to track down, it strips back bloated systems that don’t truly reflect the hunter-gatherer nature of the game to great effect and it manages to cut out its own distinct personality in a genre it could so easily have become lost in. Horizon: Zero Dawn is an essential purchase for anyone with a PS4. Not only does it show you what the machine is capable of from a technological perspective, but it also proves that there is so much more you can do in an open-world game – from a gameplay perspective – that everyone deserves to play it and see what they’ve been missing out on.