Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn, the first non-Killzone title Guerrilla Games has developed in over a decade, takes a tired post-apocalypse concept and breathes new life into it. It’s been awhile since a game surprised me, but the original setting, captivating story and amazing graphics made it easy to get sucked into the game and play it for hours on end. However, what really sold me on this open-world adventure is the open world itself.
Horizon’s open world is one of the most unique I’ve seen. Not in terms of gameplay or even visual design, although both are pretty excellent, but the world as a storytelling device. The game doesn’t feel or look post-apocalyptic; on the contrary – tribes of humans live off the land, hunting and gathering in the lush forests, vast plains and majestic mountain tops. The only evidence of a lost, advanced civilization are the skeletal ruins of buildings that peek out of the greenery, and the machines that for some reason replaced most of the wildlife. Uncovering this “futuristic past” is Horizon’s main appeal and it’s that intrigue, more than the actual story, that drives the game forward, at least in the beginning.
The story takes the reins once it gets to the good parts. While protagonist Aloy is an interesting and compelling character overall, her origins feel a bit too generic. She’s an outcast from birth who is out to prove herself to her tribe and finally get some answers about her past. Without giving too much away, the story takes a very surprising and interesting turn midway through the game, but it’s Aloy’s personal journey of discovery and self-discovery that’s supposed to capture players’ attention and make sure they stick around until the good stuff. It does the job, but I won’t blame you if you decide to focus more on the side missions instead of the story missions for the first few hours.
However, once the story gains some traction, and you delve deeper into the mystery at the heart of the game, you find an amazing, clever, touching and creative narrative that will absolutely make you forget the slower beginning. Seriously, Horizon has one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve ever experienced in a video game. It perfectly balances raising questions and answering them, and each new revelation leaves your jaw on the floor and the occasional tear in your eye.
So while the story missions are more about the world that was, the side missions and errands are about the world that is. They’ll take you all across the map, from the jungles in the south to the snowy mountains in the north, and along the way you’ll meet many different people and do many different things to and for them. One mission will see you hunting down escaped prisoners, and another will send you to investigate a village where the machines are all docile. Each side mission exposes another tiny piece of the world and the people that inhabit it, and it’s always interesting.
But it’s not all exploring and talking to people. Fighting the machines takes a big part of your time in Horizon Zero Dawn. At first, combat is a hot mess of flailing, rolling, shooting random arrows and lots of screaming. As you study the different machines and weapons, and unlock new skills, you start to come up with smarter tactics to take down each type of machine. This slow learning curve might make combat a bit too chaotic and sometimes frustrating at first, but it also makes you feel like a real hunter – one that studies their prey, lays the right traps and uses the best weapons to take it down.
The machines themselves come in all shapes and sizes. From the horse-like Striders to the T-rex-sized Thunderjaw, each type of machine has its own unique design, attacks and weaknesses. Some machines are weak against certain types of damage, like fire, electricity or ice, and all of them require planning and quick thinking to take down. You can tear them apart piece by piece, or utilize their weak spots to take them down faster but lose crafting material in the process. You can even sneak up to a machine and override it so it will fight at your side or let you ride it. Whichever machine you hunt, and whichever tactic you choose, it’s always exciting, fun, and can be extremely challenging.
Humans, on the other hand, take one or two arrows to the head before they unceremoniously go down. They only offer a real challenge if they attack in large numbers, and aren’t very exciting to fight. It’s not that clearing a bandit camp isn’t fun, but it mostly feels like an unnecessary distraction from the better parts of the game.
Even though the combat, exploration and even platforming are pretty darn great, Horizon does fail in one specific area, which is communication. The game is not that good at introducing new systems or tools to the player. New weapons just appear in the marchants’ stock, and there’s no real way for you to know if you should get them or not. It can lead to situations where fighting certain machines is much harder than it should be, just because you don’t have the right tools for the job. I’m not asking the game to hold my hand, but it would have been nice if there was a way to be made aware of new weapons and what they do.
Horizon looks great on the PlayStation 4, with gorgeous environments and highly detailed character models. I’m particularly fond of Aloy’s animations as she fights and climbs, but the scenery steals the show. It’s literally impossible not to stop and and stare at the landscape in awe; awe for the sheer detail and polish that went into every area. Luckily, the game has a photo mode which lets you capture all this beauty and share with those who don’t own a PS4. PS4 Pro owners will really notice a difference in quality. I mean, the game looks amazing on both consoles, but the Pro takes the graphics to a whole new level I haven’t experienced before. Voice acting is also top notch, with stars Ashly Burch, JB Blanc, Lance Reddick and others all doing a tremendous job at bringing their characters to life.
Other than a few nitpicks, Horizon is an awesome game. Awesome and breathtakingly beautiful. To tell the truth, I wasn’t expecting to like Horizon Zero Dawn as much as I do. The setting seemed simple enough at first, but Horizon turned out to be so much more than fighting robot dinosaurs. That’s right – killing robot dinosaurs isn’t even the best part of Horizon. The expertly crafted story, world and combat are all wrapped in cutting-edge graphics and inspiring visual design. Horizon Zero Dawn really takes advantage of everything this console generation has to offer, and delivers an amazing experience. It is truly the dawn of a brand new IP that has the potential to redefine open-world games for years to come.