There’s a always sense of mystery whenever you get introduced to a new game world – you have to slowly figure out what the history of the world is, who the characters are, how dangerous the environment is, and where the important pieces are… and why you should even care about it at all.
Playing Horizon Zero Dawn is a journey of discovery for both the protagonist Aloy and the player themselves, and with a vast and interesting open world to explore, a compelling story to fulfill, dangerous enemies to engage, and a satisfying combat system, Horizon Zero Dawn is an ambitious game that forcefully grabs your attention and never relinquishes control of it for the duration of its entirety.
Horizon takes place in the far future, dystopian and dangerous. Humankind has regressed to settling in tribes, with modern technology practically non-existent. You will play as the spirited Aloy, who has been an outcast from the Nora Tribe since her birth.
In a bid to both be accepted by the tribe and seeking answers regarding her outcast status, Aloy has focused on combat and training survival to take part in a rite of passage known as The Proving. From there, the story sprawls out into the post-post-apocalyptic remnants of our society.
Strong character work and an intriguing story line helps push the game forward, keeping you guessing in which direction would the story go next – the answer never being glaringly obvious. The main story is intelligently written and provocative, and the overall story helps give focus in an open world with an overwhelming amount of things to do, and things to kill.
The danger in the world of Horizon presents itself either as human bandits, or the more impressive robot dinosaurs. In essence, Horizon is a game about hunting, and the preparation that comes before hand. Each of the 26 different monsters have their strengths, weaknesses, attack patterns and territories, but the constant thing that is true for all of them is that when engaged in combat, all of them are dangerous, and able to kill Aloy within a few hits.
Horizon gives you different options in regards to handling an encounter. You could go stealth – hiding in the bushes, picking off enemies one-by-one. Or perhaps you would like overriding a machine, and make the mecha-nimals fight each other. The direct approach is available as well, though often the most unwise.
Horizon’s combat is precise, often requiring planning ahead, using Aloy’s Focus mechanic to learn about an enemy’s weak points before deciding on the best course of action. Deciding which weapon works best with which monster is a constant learning experience – its often trial and error, and there are no handholding tutorials to tell you how best to fight the beasts, and this leads to a tense yet rewarding experience.
Human bandit encounters are less impressive, but then again, everything would pale in comparison to a battle with a robot beast. While you’re free to engage in any manner you like, I’ve often found it best to stay hidden in a bush and pick the bandits off one-by-one.
Aside from being unable to hide bodies, (which irritates me personally, since this is a stealth-ish game) the hunting philosophy remains the same – big firefights are usually trouble for a single person. You’ll be impressed at how polished the combat system is, from crafting ammo for your bow on the fly and dodging fireballs, to hiding, rolling and setting traps. The combat in Horizon is perhaps its most compelling feature.
With each kill, be it wildlife, machine, or human, comes some XP, and with each level gains you skills points which can be used to invest in Aloy’s abilities. There’s a wide range and while generally useful, sometimes you’ll forget to use a skill simply because there are various options for engaging an enemy.
You’ll also find yourself customizing Aloy’s weapons and suits with different modification, often granting additional damage and/or elemental attributes. Crafting upgrades to your ammo pouch, or your inventory to simply carry more traps and ammo is another thing you’ll be spending time doing.
While not as deep as some other games, it is serviceable and helps drive home the point how MacGuyver Aloy is a survivor at heart and can make something out of nothing.
In between fights, you’ll find time to explore the beautifully rendered open world. I’ve often been awestruck by how hauntingly beautiful the world is – be it the open plains, the ruined skyscrapers or the gushing rivers. I have to stress that this is one of the most amazingly beautiful games available on a PS4, and how all that talk about processing power suddenly make sense.
Villages are lively, with tribesmen chatting around a campfire (campfires double as save points; manual saving though), children running around and playing and merchants encouraging you to peruse their wares.
Although you can only interact with a few individuals in the village, the world feels alive, and some of the little touches with trinkets you gather help build the lore of Horizon’s world.
However, it would have been better if the settlements weren’t just spots to stock up with supplies for more exploration and combat in the very large map.
There is a wealth of things to do with regards to exploration; you could explore machine factory “cauldrons” for hidden treasures, help take back settlements from bandits, look for vantage points that show visions of the “old world” (essentially our present/near future) or perhaps unlock more of the map, Far Cry style, via scaling a tower.
Well, it’s not exactly Far Cry style, considering that the tower is an actual wandering dinosaur. It feels familiar, as although Horizon has borrowed mechanics from similar games, but there’s an originality to help differentiate it from the pack.
As polished as Horizon is, I did have some issues. The camera sometimes sticks too close to Aloy and I realized there was the inability to reset the camera behind Aloy. Furthermore, while the inventory does the fantastic job of telling you what the resources you have gathered is useful for (crafting, trading or sale), the inability to sort them is just baffling.
Within the story itself, I sometimes felt confused by how similarly the characters spoke to people in real life; although this is more of a personal niggle, rather than huge knock on how the story is told. All these flaws just seem as though I’m nitpicking, and generally does not affect the game in a game-breaking manner.
Horizon Zero Dawn is another feather in the cap that is the library of Playstation exclusives. Developer Guerilla has made an absolutely special game, and it without a doubt one of the best games of the entire year.
Horizon Zero Dawn is Guerilla’s first intellectual property since Killzone, and the Studio’s first attempt at an open world role-playing game. The results are impressive to say the least. I definitely expect more good things from Guerilla in the future.