Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PS4 Pro [Reviewed], PS4
Release Date: February 28th , 2017
Disclaimer: A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a brand new IP from the studio that developed all four mainline Killzone games. As you can tell, the game is a huge departure from what the studio had been doing for the past decade. From a linear ‘bro-shooter’, to an open-world role-playing game, how did the development team handle making this quantum leap? Short answer: Extremely well.
To get the obvious out of the way, Horizon: Zero Dawn’s graphics and presentation is gorgeous and often jaw-dropping. The game brilliantly meshes together a artistic art-direction, with a realistic one, and thankfully, you can take pictures in photo-mode anytime you want. During my travels I would constantly say to myself, “Oh, I should get a picture of that!”. Lastly, I thought the cinematography of the cutscenes was put together extremely well, especially early in the game.
Taking my first steps out on an open plain will always live in my memory of the game. The way each grain of grass moves in its own unique way from the wind, how the sun reflects off of the water, or how fireflies glisten in a dark and gloomy, yet somehow vibrant wooded area. I constantly found myself stopping just to take it all in. Panning around Aloy (the main protagonist) admiring the world Guerrilla Games created — listening to the wind blow, robotic machines screech in the distance, and the subtle workings of a beautiful stringed musical score.
Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s story kept me engaged and always eager to get to the next main quest. Aloy is trying to uncover what had happened thousands of years ago that led to climactic events of the past. You can tell how much crafting together the world and story meant to Guerrilla Games — as there’s so much to it. The environmental storytelling is superb, and you find audio files and written documents throughout the game that put emphasis on what had happened to “the old ones”. I’m trying to be as vague as possible, as I want to avoid talking about story elements as much as possible. Aloy’s Journey is one you’ll want to experience without any spoilers or preconceived notions. But expect to feel every type of emotion at some point, because the story is an emotional rollercoaster. Oh, and also expect giant robot machines trying to kill you.
Action RPG Heaven
At its core, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a role-playing game. The amount of similarities to series like Dragon Age and The Witcher might surprise you. However, the skill tree, item crafting, and weapon upgrading is all much simpler than those series, which I appreciated. The skill tree is cut up into three different brackets, Prowler, Brave, and Forager. You can easily upgrade them all throughout your playthrough, without sacrificing one for the other. For weapon upgrades, you find modifications during quests, and just apply them to the weapon for enhancing. It’s all much more basic and accessible to people who aren’t super into RPGs, which is exactly what I think they were going for.
Gameplay is where Horizon: Zero Dawn shines the brightest. Whether it’s taking out small machines or big, there’s always a strategy to it; and most of the time they are heated battles. I was never overly powerful either, I could’ve just as easily died walking to my next quest as I could fighting a boss. As for the weapons, there’s more than enough to choose from. However, you only have four weapon slots during gameplay. So unless you want to constantly pause and switch out, it’s best to choose wisely.
One thing I love is the game doesn’t hold your hand when taking out certain enemies. There’s tons of ways to take out the robotic creatures, but It’s up to you to choose the most efficient way. One awesome way to kill a huge machine is to shoot a weapon off its body, then pick it up and blow him to shreds with his own gun. You can also use potions that make you resistant to certain types of enemy attacks — adding more real-time strategy to the action. You can also accomplish a big machine take-down by stalking them and learning what their weakness is, (using Aloy’s Focus, I’ll get to that) and utilizing all the tools necessary to do so; achieving this makes you feel like a true warrior.
Random Encounters Reign Supreme
Sometimes you’ll be put into situations where you don’t have any health or strong enough weapons to use, so you’ll have to make do — these fights are the most intense. I’ll never forget when I was casually hunting boars in the woods when suddenly a Sawtooth (basically a robot sabertooth tiger) snuck up on me and I had one of the most intense fights imaginable, because I was so ill-prepared. Incredible randomly generated fights like these is one of the reasons Horizon: Zero Dawn stands out among other RPGs. Fighting on your way to the next quest doesn’t feel like a chore, but rather a survival experience.
As I mentioned above, Aloy uses a device called a “Focus”, it allows her to investigate enemies to find out their weaknesses, and examine areas to find out what had happened there. This aspect of the game feels very similar to the Arkham games. On top of that, Aloy has great tracking skills, similar to Geralt from The Witcher. Luckily, using her focus doesn’t hurt my eyes like Geralt’s “witcher senses” did. Also, I like that it’s an actual device allowing her to do these things, not some random mythical power like Joel’s “listen mode” in The Last of Us. It’s all (kinda) within the realm possibility.
Horizon’s map isn’t ginormous, but isn’t small by any stretch either. While it’s no Witcher 3 sized map, it is jam-packed with tons to do, and secrets to uncover. There’s a bunch of other things to do besides main quests — the land is also extremely easy to get sidetracked in. There are nine different types of quests, some of more importance than others. The map consists of main-missions, side-missions, errands, bandit camps, cauldrons, longnecks, corrupted zones, hunting grounds, and tutorials. Luckily, I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of open quests. Side-missions feel very similar to main missions, many of them feature stories that are intriguing and well thought-out; they are reminiscent of The Witcher 3 side-quests. However, some aren’t nearly as interesting as others. Errands are exactly what they’re called, basically just running from point A to point B, but there is typically machine slaying along the way, which is always fun. Bandit camps are found on the map, and they’re a ton of fun to raid. The goal is to sneak into camps and take out all the enemies. The game features a lot of stealth gameplay mechanics, this is where those features come most in handy. Striking from above and below, precision shooting people from yards away, and stealth killing from behind. All that, plus utilizing Aloy’s focus, you feel pretty damn cool. Then there’s Longnecks, they work the same way viewpoints work in Assassin’s Creed, you climb to the top and activate it, then it uncovers that area on the map and shows you all the other quests available there. I also have to mention, Longnecks are one of the most beautiful, majestic creatures I’ve ever witnessed in a video game.
Past Present Future
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a unique mix of modern, future, Viking, and prehistoric time periods. The game is also more sci-fi then I expected, and I loved that aspect. Also, the diverse types of environments keep things fresh, and the AAA presentation had me in awe repeatedly. The load times aren’t excruciatingly long, the menus are snappy and quick, and I don’t think I ever once ran into a glitch or bug (which is rare for an open-world RPG). Also keep in mind I played pre day-one patch, so it can only get better. The soundtrack and overall sound design is spectacular, with a rare mix of Viking music and Sci-fi music. The voice acting (for the most part) is great. Aloy is an extremely likable character, watching her mature, and overcome the dangerous obstacles in her way is truly a sight to behold. She’s witty, smart, and tough a nails, and you want her to succeed be cause of it. I could go on and on about what I love about the game. However, you might be wondering, what’s wrong with the game? There are a few things.
Early in the game you will do a lot of walking, which even in an amazing looking game like this can get a little boring. Luckily, it doesn’t last too long, as you’re fast-traveling and taking over machines to travel in no time. Also, Aloy’s motives aren’t always clear, I felt sometimes I didn’t fully understood why she was doing certain things. While that can be looked at as a negative, it sort of made her more human, and I can appreciate that.
A few other minor gripes; there are some character models that look odd, sometimes the voice-acting and writing wasn’t great, and sometimes the lip syncing was off from the VO. Also, every now and then I would get stuck on the environment during fights. By rolling into a rock or jumping on fence, It would sometimes stop me in place, resulting in me getting hit by a foe. Aside from that I would have liked if there were more memorable characters in the game. But the small handful there were is better than nothing.
In terms of scope, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a scaled down version of something like The Witcher 3. But that’s not a bad thing — while The Witcher puts its focus on giving you endless things to do, Horizon: Zero Dawn gives you less, but with perfectly executed features. Whether it’s the intricate, well thought-out gameplay, the easily accessible workings of upgrading, the mysterious story, or unbelievably impressive world; in this case, less is more. Guerrilla Games might have created PlayStation’s next flagship franchise.