*insert heavy metal pun here*
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Released: March 1, 2017
If, like myself, you were instantly hooked on the concept of “post-apocalyptic cavemen hunting robot dinosaurs” after watching the 2015 E3 trailer for Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn, I doubt there’s anything I could say here that would dissuade you from going out and buying it. Even if it turned out it wouldn’t boot up without first being given a blood sacrifice to the almighty moon-gods, your initial reaction would probably be “sure it’s a little extreme, but it’s a fair price for being able to kill a giant robot T-Rex with just bow and arrow.”
Well, you don’t need to worry. I barely have anything negative to say about the game beyond personal nit-picks. In fact, I can say without a doubt that Horizon Zero Dawn is yet another addition to the fantastic AAA line-up that’s graced the first quarter of 2017. Perhaps even the best one so far. Which is why I find its high-quality so surprising, especially when it seems as though, as a game, Horizon Zero Dawn is completely unoriginal.
But I’ll get to that in a moment.
In the near future, humanity has thrived thanks to its mastery of robotic and holographic technologies. However, after an unknown calamity, human civilization has completely collapsed. Many centuries later, the last remains of humanity have regressed to a tribal state, sharing their world with powerful animal-like machines. But recently, the once docile machines have become more aggressive. And with even larger and more dangerous machines appearing every couple of years, humanity finds its survival threatened once more.
You’re dropped into this would as Aloy, a quick-witted hunter and quite possibly the only white girl alive who can pull off dreads. Because of her mysterious birth, Aloy has been an outcast of the Nora tribe for her entire life for reasons she doesn’t understand. Determined to find out who her mother was and why she has been labelled an outcast, Aloy enters “The Proving”, the Nora’s ritualistic contest that grants its winner a single request. Unknown to Aloy, her search for answers may uncover even greater mysteries, including the cause of the calamity that completely destroyed the world that was.
Considering just how much there is to uncover throughout the game’s story, Guerrilla has done a fantastic job with its pacing. The story starts off as more of a personal tale for Aloy, showing how she is treated as an outcast from a very young age and just how badly she wants to know why the Nora treat her like human garbage. It not only gives her a relatable goal, but it also shows just how badass and proactive she is as a character, especially when you see her applause-worthy training montage from a young girl into a capable hunter. As the story slowly introduces bigger mysteries and more characters, it offers just enough in the way of partial answers to keep you engaged from beginning to end. The game is a master at revealing answers, while also managing to hold back just enough information to make you want to know more.
I feel like I should give special mention to Ashly Burch’s phenomenal performance as Aloy, which showed off just how much careful detail and attention was given to her character. Ashly manages to portray this wonderful personality to Aloy that, while endearingly cynical and sarcastic, also manages to carry a mix of compassion and deadly fury for those who deserve either. This is especially noticeable during the certain points of the story in which you’re asked to choose how Aloy interacts with other characters; either compassionately, intelligently, or aggressively. Thanks to this three-dimensional portrayal, all of these options feel like they’re legitimate responses that fit Aloy’s character. They never feel like out-of-place “be a dick” options that you would see in other character driven games like Mass Effect or Infamous. Unfortunately, it can be occasionally difficult to appreciate the quality of the voice acting on offer when the character models and lip-syncing animations are so distractingly entrenched in the uncanny valley.
By the way, allow me to be unprofessional for a moment to say that this game looks fucking phenomenal! Every environment looks so picturesque, at times being packed full of beautiful and varied landscapes filled with greenery and wildlife that I actually forgot it took place in a post-apocalyptic setting. I took quite a bit of my time with the game just traveling from one end of the map to the other, just to see how seamlessly the surroundings changed from lush rainforests and mountainous woods, to rocky deserts and snowy plateaus. It was only after I came across ruins of the old world that it hit me all over again just how fucked up this future has become. It’s beautiful, but also incredibly sad to walk through the rusted skeletons of what used to be skyscrapers and once busy, now dilapidated city streets. Sometimes they can be so overgrown and decayed that you actually have to try and figure out what they used to be.
Even when I wasn’t marvelling at the game world, I still found myself spending time just admiring the visual design of the many wondrous machines that inhabit it. Every machine takes on the appearance of different members of the animal kingdom, ranging from deer and buffalo, to more dangerous beasts such as giant eagles and the aforementioned T-Rex. You’ll even see them act like mechanical wildlife at times as you come across herds of them being protected by raptor-like “Watchers” that scout the surroundings for predators. And yet, every machine’s appearance feels like it has some kind of intentional design to it for the sake of carrying out specific tasks. Take for example the deer-like “Grazer”, machines with horns that double as rotating blades designed to cut grass and harvest the nutrients into small tanks on their backs. Because of this, I always found myself just hiding and watching each machine’s behaviour, occasionally theorizing the practical purpose behind their designs.
At this point you’re probably wondering why I think Horizon is an unoriginal game, especially after just gushing over how much I love the game’s story and overall presentation. Well, to put it simply, all of its gameplay mechanics are ripped right out of other popular games, almost unabashedly at times.
It borrows the platforming and climbing mechanics from the Uncharted series, right down to the brightly coloured “climb here, stupid” handholds. It even borrows the tall grass-based stealth mechanic from Uncharted 4, even using the same bloody eyeball stealth meter from Skyrim that opens and closes to tell you whether or not you’re hidden from view. It has the same crafting system from the recent Far Cry and Tomb Raider games, seeing you use the resources you collect from the environment, as well as dead wildlife and machines in order to craft different kinds of ammo for your bow, health items, traps, and even extra inventory space. Even its exploration, levelling up, questing, and dialogue mechanics are basically make the game feel like a weird The Witcher 3 spin-off if you squint hard enough. Hell, Horizon even has its own version of “Witcher Sense”, seen in Aloy’s “Focus”, a device that highlights item containers, enemy weaknesses, and even allows Aloy to investigate crime scenes and follow footprints and blood-splatters during certain quests.
Combat also seems to be heavily inspired by the Monster Hunter franchise, especially when you’re fighting the machines. They all have various weak points that can be exploited via elemental damage or specific arrow types to either inflict heavy damage, knock off its weaponry, or obtain specific resources that can be exclusively found on their bodies, such as electric coils for shock-based ammo. As a result, Horizon feels like it has a very patient approach to combat, asking you to stay hidden and analyse every enemy, craft together a plan of action using your various tools and traps, and then set it all in motion. At least when the occasionally shoddy AI actually does what you want it to.
This can lead to some incredibly satisfying moments when your plans come together, especially when you manage to effortlessly take down a group of machines with nothing but your wits, a few trip wires and a few well-aimed fire arrows. But at other times it can make for some tense and exciting experiences when the game drops you in front of a massive and powerful machine, forcing you to analyse them and improvise a plan of action while also trying not to get torn apart by a set of chainsaw teeth.
Despite its daunting size, exploring the world of Horizon outside of the main quest line is incredibly fun thanks to the amount of side content that’s been packed into it. Besides completing side-quests and errands, which serve as their own intriguing little stories, you can also look around for “Tall-Necks”, towering machines that serve as an awe-inspiring, walking version of the generic “Ubisoft Map Towers”. Finding these will help clear the fog-of-war that covers the game’s map, as well as help you find old underground ruins that can contain audio and text logs to expand on the lore of the world, or even “ancient” high-powered armour, as well as dungeon-like “Cauldrons” which can be explored for handy resources and unique combat encounters.
If you’re looking for some more challenging combat, Horizon’s got you covered. For general hunting purposes, you can find various gathering spots for almost every machine type, no matter how dangerous. You can clear out bandit camps for some human hunting fun, or you could even try tackling the game’s numerous “Corrupted Zones”, which offers stronger and deadlier variants of normal machines. You can also visit the game’s various hunting grounds, which offer an array of interesting challenges that will not only test your skills, but can even net some decent rewards, such as new weaponry for those who perform well enough.
This is what makes Horizon Zero Dawn such a fascinating game to me. Despite basically being made up of different gameplay elements from some of the best and most successful open world games available, it somehow just…works perfectly. It’s clear just how skilled Guerrilla is, completely understanding how and why each of these elements worked in the games they originally belonged to. This allowed them to figure out exactly how to blend them all together to make this whole new experience that not only feels incredibly satisfying to play, but is contained within a beautiful world and engaging story that still feels fresh and jaw-dropping even after my many hours with it. In less capable hands, it could have been a disaster. But in Guerrilla’s hands, it became a masterpiece.
Final Rating 4.5/5
Final Recommendation: Grab it now! No, seriously. You can’t miss this!