Horizon: Zero Dawn is PlayStation 4’s newest exclusive, and new franchise from developers Guerrilla Games. Better known for the Killzone franchise. Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a postapocalyptic future, and without spoiling too much an unknown calamity causes human civilization to collapse, leading machines to become the dominant “species” on the planet. An unknown amount of years has since passed and the remaining humans have regressed back to primitive tribal societies. They view technology as a taboo and a curse from the “Old Ones” and avoid all contact with it. Despite having to fight for survival on a daily basis, humans have been able to peacefully coexist with these robots for many years. But this all changes with something called the “derangement” which has caused machines to become more aggressive towards humans.
Not to mention far larger and more deadlier machines have begun to appear threatening the survival of the human race. One of the many tribes in this post-apocalyptic world is the Nora, they are hunter-gatherers that worship nature but shun “Old Ones” technology and views it as a taboo. The Nora punish wrongdoers by labeling them as “Outcasts”. Outcasts are forbidden from entering tribe settlements, leaving them to survive in the wild on their own. You play as one of these Outcasts name Aloy. As an infant, Aloy is put under the care of another outcast Rost by the Nora Matriarchs. Due in part to the mysterious circumstances of her birth and because she is a motherless child. As such Aloy is shunned by the rest of the Nora tribe. As a small child, she accidentally falls into an ancient bunker built by the “Old Ones”, and takes possession of a device called a “focus”, which kicks off your adventure in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn.
One of the games biggest accomplishments is its narrative, Guerrilla Games throws you the player right into a world that for all intents and purposes can be considered an alien world, intentionally neglecting to give you any backstory on what has happened in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn. Leaving much of it to you the player to discover during the course of the game via text, audio, and holograms left by the “Old Ones”. This lends itself very well to the exploration theme of the game, which in itself is a refreshing change from the long-winded introductions explaining to us in minuet detail what exactly has happened and why. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s first five or so hours is masterfully presented, it sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the game. It introduces you to all of the gameplay mechanics, important characters, conflicts, and relationships found in the game.
Closely linked to the narrative of Horizon: Zero Dawn is Aloy an amazing female protagonist. Unlike most other female heroines we find in video games today she isn’t raised on a golden pedestal and she was definitely not being groomed by Rost her foster father for greatness. Instead of learning her skills to become a heroine, she learned her skills out of necessity and to be able to survive alone and as an outcast from society. It was learned out of a pure need for survival and not a want. Only later does she start using these skills in a heroic fashion. For the first few hours of the game, you watch Aloy grow from a small helpless child into a capable young woman taking on whatever the post-apocalyptic world can throw at her. While Aloy might be a kick-ass heroine she is still socially awkward and naive when it comes to the tribal politics of the world, due to her isolation from her tribe’s people.
This created an emotional bond between me and Aloy making her desire to break free from her exile status and be accepted by her tribe and people around her my desire as well. And I absolutely loved that aspect of the game, as it made her victories and triumphs in the game mine as well. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a post-apocalyptic game, but don’t let that fool you. Unlike most post-apocalyptic video games that portray a bleak barren wasteland, Horizon Zero Dawn’s world is full of color and life. Mother nature has reclaimed all of the structures that humanity has built, and animals roam the land freely. And it is really is refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic world that is filled with vibrant colors instead of the usual drab gray and brown colors. The last game that comes to mind that attempted the same sort style was The Last of Us.
All of this combined easily makes Horizon: Zero Dawn one of the best looking titles I have played on the next generation of consoles. I played this on a normal PS4 and a none 4K display, I can only imagine how it would look like utilizing a PS4 Pro and a 4k display. And this is no exaggeration. Guerrilla Games paid attention to every little detail, from character and enemy robot designs to the amazing architecture and landscapes, right down to the very way the grass moves when sneaking through it, and how Aloy reacts to the environment around her. There’s no shortage of eye candy in this game, and I found myself just randomly stopping during a side quest to take in the games beautiful vistas and views. From the dusty mesas, lush plains, humid jungles and frozen tundras the environments are brought to life in a lush and amazingly detailed way.
When it comes to gameplay and mechanics, Horizon: Zero Dawn does not try and re-invent the wheel and does not bring anything new to the table, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At its heart, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open world RPG game that borrows heavily from other franchises. For instance climbing the “Tall Walkers” to get a better view and open larger parts of the map and vantage points is clearly something borrow from the Assasins Creed franchise While the crafting and creating of weapons and using elemental attacks borrows heavily from The Witcher and Skyrim franchises. Guerrilla Games also took inspiration from other games like Two Worlds, Titan Quest, and Might and Magic VI. And it delivers plenty of: “Hey they got this from XYZ, but they implemented it in a new and interesting way” moments in the game.
It has to be said there is something really satisfying in using your arsenal of low-tech weapons enhanced with salvaged futuristic parts to defeat your enemies. Fights in Horizon: Zero Dawn can be tackled in either two ways: Stealth or brute force which is pretty self-explanatory, and in my experience, a stealthy tactical approach is the best. While brute force might seem like an easier option the game does punish you badly as the brute force method still requires you to think tactically instead of rushing headlong into a battle. Many of your mechanical enemies in the game have different elemental weaknesses not to mention other conventional weaknesses, which brings your “focus” ability into play. Early on in the game, Aloy discovers a handy device that when used scans your enemies and reveals their armor or elemental weaknesses.
It can also be used to track the enemies movements handy for when sneaking around and it is the only way you can also interact with the technology in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn. Aloy’s arsenal of weapons includes several types of bows with several distinct types of elemental arrows, as well as slings which can be loaded with different payloads depending on the situation you find yourself in. You can also upgrade your weapons and armor to deal or withstand certain elemental types using the available upgrade slots on them. Not forgetting the traps and tripwires that can either freeze, electrocute or set enemies on fire. Also later on during the course of the game you gain the ability to override your robotic enemies allowing you to either ride them making for faster travel or making them fight by your side for a limited period of time or till they get killed.
You can also purchase various items from vendors conveniently located across the world if you are too lazy to craft your own items. But expected to pay plenty of shards, the currency in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn. Loot in the game is totally randomized in the game meaning you won’t find the same item twice when opening boxes or looting robotic corpses. And it was somewhat refreshing to discover that the game has absolutely no microtransactions and that it does not have any pay to win models. So it requires good old gamer elbow grease to get those upgrades for your weapons and armor. Add to that a silky smooth combat system and you have yourself a game that makes every combat encounter feel fresh and challenging. The beauty in Horizon: Zero Dawn combat system I simply cannot properly express in words.
You have to experience it for yourself to truly understand it. But if I had to summarize it in a single sentence: It is its simplicity but also how it easily adapts to your play style and the given situation you find yourself in, that makes it such a great combat system. And like most open world roleplaying games you gain experience from fighting enemies, completing side quests and main missions. Using the experience you have gained you can upgrade various abilities like increasing your abilities with your bow or spear weapons and improve your stealth abilities. This is pretty crucial as just like with the Witcher 3 you cannot enter certain areas till you are the same level as the enemies. While nothing stops you from entering these areas nothing also stops you from getting killed almost immediately when entering said area.
And like any other open world, role playing game side quests can also be found in the game. Which basically amounts to fetch quests, finding a lost item or a person. While these are pretty much the staple of any role playing game they are varied and different enough not to get too boring if you mix them up while doing the main story line. Which brings me to the dungeons in the game or “Cauldrons” as they are called. Basically, areas where you navigate through a selected area while fighting a variety of enemies and a high level “boss” at the end. After clearing the area you unlock the ability to override a bigger selection of robotic enemies to aid you in fights and you also gain a fair amount of experience and resources in the process. I cannot go into too much detail regarding this aspect of the game as it forms part of the story and contains plenty of spoilers for the game itself.
The only real big issue if you can call it that I have with Horizon: Zero Dawn is the hidden items and collectibles that you find throughout the game. There is no reward or payoff for finding these items aside from the trophies you get for collecting them. And aside from the occasional bad voice acting and some lip sync issues and jarring cutscene transitions there is not a lot I can complain about in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games have struck the perfect balance of exploration, dungeon crawling, and combat in Horizon: Zero Dawn in one of the most visually stunning games of this console generation. It really took some balls to develop a new IP in a genre they almost have no experience in, but their gamble has paid off. Which allows me to wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone out there.
[Editorial Note:] There are so many aspects of the game and story I had to leave out due to spoilers and not wanting to make the review too lengthy, so hopefully this review didn’t come out too disjointed.