Written by Derrick Smith
After 68 hours and 49 minutes of being submerged in the universe of Horizon Zero Dawn, I have finally come up for air with bold proclamations. In truth, there is no way to fully express all of which Guerrilla Games has created here. Yet the idea puts a pleasant smile on my face in recollection of this monumental experience.
With each console generation gamer’s and game critics alike are anxiously anticipating that one game which will undoubtedly raise the interactive achievement bar to new heights. These games are rare gems, possessing a seamlessly unique sophistication throughout. Almost every nook and cranny related to the production value, story and the all important game play is scrutinized with a fine tooth comb and upon entering these worlds you are immediately swept away by their compelling grasp. From the drooling sights, emotionally moving sounds and exhilarating interactive game play, Horizon Zero Dawn is one such game which has left this critic truly amazed and exhausted.
As an open-world RPG, Horizon Zero Dawn places you in the shoes of an inquisitive young lady named Aloy. Forced to live her youthful years as an outcast due to reasons fully explained within the game, a midst an ostensibly primitive reality, Aloy discovers a rare device known as a Focus. Already the inquiring type, the Focus device allows Aloy to see that which is invisible to the naked eye, eventually prompting a larger-than-life mystery, which drives our heroine on her tumultuous journey of discovery.
Horizon Zero Dawn is set on a post-post apocalyptic Earth, where man who was once at the forefront of technological achievement, has in the future digressed, returning to our history’s more primordial existence.
On the surface, Aloy’s new Earth is maintained by various clans, higher social orders, bandit (outlaw) encampments and social outcasts, with interesting ideologies. However, the star of the show is supported by the mechanical robotic beasts, which roam the lands. From the start, you fall in love with Aloy, who longs to understand her place in this massive world of mechanical monsters and rigid bureaucratic rule. While many RPG’s offer the user option of gender choice, for Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games firmly impresses Aloy on you for the entire ride. The result is impactful, giving the experience a meaningful and empowering emphasis.
The world of Horizon Zero Dawn becomes increasingly threatening at almost every turn. Yet, possessing a desire for acceptance and an improved identity, this harsh existence begins to shape Aloy’s personality and survival prowess. Supporting a simple and effective communication dialogue, players are prompted to sometimes express Aloy’s response with force, compassion or logic. These indicators are supported by on-screen item such as a fist, a heart or a brain, respectively. This allows the player to shape Aloy in their desired image. I’ll just say that my Aloy expressed much compassion until I deemed it necessary to make the shift in some cases. In one particular instance, as I drew near the games narrative conclusion, I took the fist approach and my mouth dropped as Aloy became judge, juror and executioner.
Throughout Aloy’s journey she will come across many NPC’s of various genders and occupations, and while the up close dialogue features splendid character models, sometimes the character gestures can be hit or miss earlier on. Because the game looks down right astonishing, it is easier to catch weird or somewhat inconsistent gesturing. However, this doesn’t break the experience in any way, as it seems to improves the more you are introduced to newer characters.
As RPGs go, at first glance Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel as there are glaring influences from previous games within the genre. From Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry Primal to Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher 3, there are clear inspiration indicators here. However, the further ones goes down this rabbit, the more of what you thought you recognized was something completely different, and in many cases, better in fact. Simple enough, Horizon maintains a six tiered UI interface supporting skills, inventory, crafting, the world map, quests and an informative notebook. The skill tree offers three main approaches to the gameplay; prowler, brave and forager. Each category is aligned with twelve enhanced skills for Aloy to acquire through skills point, which are earned though XP.
Aloy’s inventory, which offers weapons, outfits, mods, resources, treasure boxes and the like, works in tandem with the crafting feature. Weapons support the popular loot grades of uncommon, rare and very rare indicated by the distinct green, blue or purple colors, respectively associated with their level of superiority. Outfits also work in this same fashion as specific uniforms offer Aloy distinct combat advantages. In addition, modifications supporting weapons and uniforms also work in this same order, further enhancing Aloy’s progression of physical and tactical power. Yes, we have all seen something like this before, but how it all translates together with the games awe-inspiring gameplay and fascinating narrative is truly magical.
Adding to that point, Aloy’s weapons are the result of mans technological decline where we find her most often equipped with various bows and arrow types. Main weapons items featured at Aloy’s disposal are the rope caster, blast sling, sharpshot bow for long range attacks, the hunter bow for mid-range attacks, the tripcaster and rattler.
While these weapons are seemingly primitive, the dynamic associated with besting Horizon’s mechanical monstrosities is the holy elixir that profoundly separates Horizon gameplay from the pack. While many RPG’s are not praised for their standout gameplay, apart from their intriguing story, Horizon Zero Dawn’s breathtaking and countless David and Goliath standoff’s are a wonder of epic proportion. The feeling one gets while trying to be evasive, while accurately landing multiple ropecaster shots in an effort to temporarily control a massive Thunderjaw, Stormbird, Bellowback or Behemoth, just to name a few, before finally getting the upper hand, leading to victory is truly some of the most intoxicating gameplay ever developed. With each battle Guerrilla is constantly throwing mini-boss and final game like boss battles at you, forcing Aloy to learn her craft with proficiency, while building the players confidence.
If you find your yourself hunting for hours, utilizing your Focus device to spot animals (there are also real animals in the world), you are not alone. After almost hitting the 70 hours threshold, I highly recommend players spend time scouring as many mountain ranges as possible, which invite enjoyable platforming, leading to rewarding discoveries.
Complementing the hunt, environments are painstakingly detailed, allowing Aloy to utilize the worlds thick vegetation. As a flaming red head, Aloy’s presence among the tall red grass tactically conceals her position while trying to gain the jump on the enemy, and in most cases, it will be some form of a towering beast, or quick maneuvering robotic cat, sometimes weaponized with cannons. If you find yourself out hunting real animals while maintaining concealment there should not be any surprises as robotic beasts can be spotted and or heard fairly easy. However, our robotics friends enjoy attacking in groups in an effort to quickly overwhelm Aloy for a quick death. So, I found it most beneficial to methodically engage from a position of extreme preparation, especially earlier on when Aloy is still building up her rank.
Eventually Aloy acquires the ability to hack these mechanized beasts for temporary control and sometimes there are explosive fireworks which follow. Upon gaining control of the all-powerful Thunderjaw while on hunting duties in the desert, I was witness to a brutal collision between several large nearby beasts vs my new found friend. Without shooting one arrow, Aloy perched on a nearby boulder and took in the sights and mechanical crashing sounds, which I will not soon forget.
Consisting of a main story campaign, alluring side quests, and errands, among other noteworthy narrative findings within this enormous open world by way of your trusty Focus device, Guerrilla has written a brilliantly told story, filled with narrative branches, all tying into the overarching tale.
Thankfully, there were no random fetch-quests, as each side mission and errands either offered significant meaning to the earlier understandings of the main story or later. The more Aloy discovers of the Earth’s past, the more the present begins to make sense, giving you a sense of unique partiality, leading to a greater self-realization of responsibility. Adding to the narrative, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn is filled with sometimes difficult to reach vantage points, which give impressive clues of the worlds past.
The world is filled with collectibles, audio, text and hologram datapoints, with the added scanned glyphs which in total I decided to read as many as I found, all adding a wealth of meaning to the contrast of the old world and the new.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a technical marvel, and the most stunning, eye-pleasing interactive spectacle this critic has ever seen. Having played the game on the PlayStation 4 Pro in 4K for its entirety, the level of detail truly amazes. Aloys realistic hair movement and crystal clear eyes especially during the games talking points as she stares into the face of the NPC jazzes up the games sometimes longer dialogues with splendid detail. Optimized for the PlayStation 4 Pro, draw distances convey an unbelievable level of structure, with mountain ranges and land monuments showcasing vibrant form. Supporting an immersive day/night cycle, there is never a point within the game where it seems Guerrilla has cut a single corner.
The entire playing field of Horizon Zero Dawn, whether in the icy cold climate, hot barren lands of the desert, the refreshing richness of the lush green lands or the surrounding locales of flourishing Meridian, and even while traversing the Earth’s underbelly within the varied cauldrons, you can never escape its beauty.
For a game this gorgeous, Guerrilla thought it necessary to add a photo mode option and I am glad they have. Easy to use, I have taking over 60 images from my play though and I don’t believe I am done, just yet.
With clear certainty, Horizon Zero Dawn is best new IP I have played this generation. There is absolutely no debate. Where it counts Guerrilla Games has nailed it. Very seldom if ever do we experience a successful RPG with action adventure like gameplay, mixed with invigorating tactical combat, fluid and responsive platforming, alongside one of the most rich and inspiring stories.
I truly never wanted the story to end.