Reviewed on PS4, copy supplied by PlayStation.
Taking you to a time where herds of robot goats gracefully stalk post-apocalyptic ruins, Horizon Zero Dawn has a rich setting and compelling narrative. On paper the premise of robot dinosaurs mingling with tribes of cavemen is kind of silly, it seems like something I would have day dreamed about as an eight year old Fortunately, Guerrilla Games have taken that premise and refined it into something amazing.
The story focuses around Aloy, who was raised by an outcast of the Nora tribe. The red headed heroine has a past that is surrounded in mystery, and is intricately connected to the game’s setting. I won’t delve too much into spoiler territory, but as you discover more about the apocalypse, you slowly discover more about Aloy, creating one of the most compelling game narratives I’ve experienced in years.
Starting off with an almost young adult fiction vibe, Aloy must compete in trials to prove her worth and find out who her parents are, but she’s special, because she found an ancient piece of technology at a young age which gives her powers. Yeah, it does sound like every preteen book or film ever. This little adventure comes with its fair share of cliches, including a Malfoy like bully who slings off “zingers” at a disgusting rate. Fortunately, the cringe inducing scenes are short lived, and a twist propels Aloy into the wider world, meeting new tribes, fighting in wars and encountering gigantic metal beasts. At its worst (which is still good) the voice acting is stellar, even with a jarring appearance from Lance Reddick, who is weirdly the only recognisable face in the world.
Once the story hits its stride it’s hard to put down; exploring ancient sci-fi ruins and hearing tidbits of dialogue from long dead predecessors is addictive, and the pacing intentionally keeps you wanting more.
Again, I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, so I’ll keep it vague, but one criticism for the main story is how much information is jammed into the last act. I mentioned before how it’s compelling to hear ancient recordings, well some of the late game areas are so packed with long audio tapes and snippets of text that it’s overwhelming. My gaming OCD kind of makes me HAVE to listen to or read information when I find it, which made the last few quests take an age to complete.
But then again, that’s a genuine modern day gaming dilemma, audio recording and found notes are a way for developers to cram lore into their games without padding them out with too many missions or long cut-scene. Unfortunately for Horizon, that comes at a cost of overloading the player with optional story at a point where the pacing ushers in a sense of urgency.
It’s this urgency that makes the game so damn good, as the pay off is well worth it. Not only is it dark in the best kind of way, but it manages to create one of the best video game premises around. The themes at play are somewhat complex, with a balance between knowledge and deception being teased throughout. The main enemy faction for example may seem terrible, but their actual motive for being so shitty and naughty plays wonderfully into the reason the world is in the state it is; every little detail slots into place, creating a brilliant tapestry.
So Horizon‘s story gets a tick from me, how about the gameplay? A master hunter, Aloy is able to take on the aggressive beasts inhabiting earth with relative ease, well that’s what the in-game dialogue would have you believe, in reality the game is hard, it’s really fucking hard. I’ve written before about how the game took a while to click with me, but once it does, it’s a rewarding experience.
The thing about robot dinosaurs, is that they’re robot dinosaurs, and are inherently fucking terrifying and powerful. Not only do they hit hard, and even the lowest common enemies hit hard, but they are fast. Aloy does have an arsenal of weapons to call upon, each suiting different enemies and situations, but learning which weapon to use when doesn’t come naturally. It took me around three hours of playing before I even realised that certain enemies had weaknesses I could exploit. And even then, being able to exploit them takes some skill.
I’m not ashamed to admit I played a majority of the game on easy mode, and still sucked. But once the flow of combat, with it’s fast dodging and areas of effect, began to make sense to me, I thoroughly enjoyed the fighting. Even to the point where I was seeking long fights with tough enemies for the thrill of it.
Taking elements from plenty of other games, the broader gameplay isn’t all that original, but it works here. There are the usual open world towers for you to climb to reveal a section of map, but by making that tower an environmental challenge via a moving robot giraffe, it feels new, and it’s actually fun to do.
The world itself is rich with environments, content and enemy types, making exploring feel great. Hearing the term “open world game” has started to make me shudder, because more often than not we get huge maps with nothing to do, but that’s not the case for Horizon Zero Dawn. Even after finishing the main story I was still driven to explore, which is a rare thing for me these days, usually once a game is dusted it’s onto the next title, but this one keeps calling me back.
A large part of that is just how stunning the game looks, even on a regular PS4. Colours pop and the world looks and feels alive. Although fast travelling is an option, I rarely went for it as travelling through the world is a joy by itself. Herds of enemies stand in your way, and alluding them becomes a challenge. You feel like you’re actually using elements the game teaches you just to survive and make it to points between missions.
The finer details on weaponry and armour show that the world itself wasn’t an afterthought. Computer chips and chunks of metal are common decorative features, giving some depth to the characters and lore. You get a real sense of the characters lives, as they scrounge a living from the ruins of the past.
Unsurprisingly as an open world game, Horizon has a crafting and loot gathering system. Frustratingly the inventory does fill up rather quickly, meaning you have to spend a fair chunk of time hunting to craft bigger and better packs. Certain ammo types will require parts of machines, such as fire arrows requiring a part known as “blaze”. Stocking up before big encounters therefore is a must, and becomes another part of the game to manage. Additionally there are in game loot boxes, which thankfully aren’t connected to microtransactions. These boxes are often earned from completing side quests, and act as a way for you to receive a reward without obliterating your inventory space, which is a nice touch.
Different machines contain different rare parts, which are needed to purchase higher end weapons or armour from vendors. From the get go there isn’t really a cap on what you can and can’t buy, it all comes down to how proficient you are at hunting and how lucky you are with rare drops.
Overall Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most exciting new exclusives I’ve come across in the PS4 era, the world is rich and exciting, and the gameplay is tough yet rewarding. The setting and conclusion of the main story leaves it open to numerous sequels and content add ons, which can;t come soon enough in my opinion.