Creeping through the brush, a young woman survey’s her surroundings. Lumbering through the canyon is a creature of gargantuan proportions, its head swaying from side to side as it scanned the area for intruders, heavy weapons twitching and re-aligning to acquire their next target. Scurrying at its feet are a pair of Watchers darting to and fro as they supplement the giant creatures cones of vision and protect its flanks. A sharp whistle breaks the silence and a Watcher shoots up, immediately on guard and begins to pace cautiously towards the brush the sound came from. As the slender creature steps into the girls hiding spot, a flash of silver lash’s out and pierces the robotic throat, silencing any chance of alarm and putting the first part of her plan into motion. The Thunderjaw circles around a pillar, leaving the second Watcher alone, trailing its alpha predator, and once more a shrill whistle echo’s out to catch the creatures attention. Unlike its partner, this Watcher becomes an ally as its programming is overridden and the pale blue light of compliance wash’s over the machine.
As our heroine lays her trap-wires and resupply’s her quiver, the methodical pounding of the hundred ton machine becomes clearer as it rounds the corner once more, ever vigilant over its territory and both it and the, now turned ally, Watcher process their perspective new threats. The hunter stands, and raises her bow with two arrows knocked, the thrum of two Terrablast arrows send gentle vibrations up her arm. The snap of a bow-string turns into the whine of arrow heads spinning up to blow away armour chunks and the whirl of aggression from the mechanical creatures leaping towards each other. Heavy weapons are rent like so much iron and fall to the floor, forcing the gargantuan beast to move into melee range, its rage focused on the hunter who has damaged it. As she flee’s through her carefully laid gauntlet of traps the Thunderjaw is hammered by explosions and lengths of wire laid to set all who touch it ablaze, all the while being savagely attacked from the rear by our Watcher companion. Arrow after arrow are fired from every angle quickly give way to heavier weapons as supplies run low and a vicious tail swipe makes short work of the diminutive flanker. As she doges charges and blaster fire, our hunter spots the back-mounted weapon she knocked off earlier in the fight and makes a break for it. Ground shaking steps close in on her, and with a final dodge the creature crash’s through a huge stone and couple of tree’s momentarily disorienting it. This window allows for her to not only pick up the weapon, but to turn and unleash the beasts own destructive power upon it, and as it is hammered back farther and farther, metal shrieking and armour plates twisting and rending off under constant barrage, the disheveled monster finally falls, an explosive round hitting it in the side of the head in a glorious display of explosive pyrotechnics. . . . . . . and that was the first time I fought a Thunderjaw.
If you indulged me my little story I, one appreciate it and two want to use this as the foundation for my review of Horizon Zero Dawn. Made by Guerrilla Games, the developers known for the Killzone series, and published as an exclusive on the PS4, Horizon is quickly becoming another developer who went from ‘good’ to ‘great’ when they took a chance and made something outside of their wheel house. This is a boon as they can be considered in the same pantheon as ID, Naughty Dog and CD Projekt Red for blowing the doors off of what people are expecting in a game. However lets talk about the game instead of the people behind it.
From a cynical point of view, Horizon Zero Dawn does “nothing new”. There are similar quest structures in games like the Witcher 3, crafting systems like in Farcry or Fallout. Bow combat from multiple different games and an open world story that blends Uncharted type acting with the ‘do anything you want at any time’ of today’s open world genre. If you ARE a cynic, then this might be a good place to stop for you as I am going to delve into why Horizon DOES do something new, and that new thing is how it marries all of these idea’s into a beautifully polished package, a feat that none of its comparisons have accomplished yet.
The first thing anyone notices about Horizon Zero Dawn is its beauty. The game is gorgeous and, in my opinion, doesn’t have an equal on console, as well as rivals some of the best looking games on PC at the moment. Whether its sneaking through the brush, luring your enemies to their death or pounding the trail on the back of a mount racing through a nest of Glinthawks, the game just flows like warm maple syrup. Everything feels like it is in its right place, as I enjoy the mundane aspects like climbing, because it feels good to do, as much as battling a pack of Scrappers or Ravagers. Simple aspects like running both look and feel solid, while leaping off of a boulder or performing a drive-by on the back of a Strider flow from beat to beat with rarely a stutter. Watching the fog in the forest burn away as the sun comes up and you catch glimpses of the wild life scurrying away from you or catch the faint glow of a machine on the distance.
While it has many virtues to its looks, there are some clear downfalls to be seen throughout the entire game. The primary source of these complaints come from the facial animations in the cut scene’s and dialogue interactions. While they still look great, characters mouths don’t quite line up with what they are saying, and their eyes and head start to turn/shift in odd ways as you learn more about a quest or receive thanks from a stranger you have helped. What makes this small gripe so noticeable is the fact that the rest of the experience is handled with such polish that it stands outs so starkly. There are also instances of ‘glitchy dead’ or corpse dancing, though for myself it has only happened once and while you get smooth animations as you one hand vault over a piece of debris, you occasionally see the floating head of a Carja guard as you are approaching. Again this isn’t a major gripe, but it is noticeable so should be mentioned.
Looks aside, I think it is important to move directly into combat, as they have a stronger relationship in this game that most. Out of every aspect in Horizon Zero Dawn that we typically judge a game on, the combat is the crowning achievement you should walk away with. As a third person action game, the shooting mechanics, primarily bow, are second to none. As you upgrade Aloy’s abilities you can gain the ability to knock multiple arrows, to help apply status effects, or the time dilation while jumping to line up that perfect head shot. You can slow time down naturally while aiming without jumping to help you time your shots on charging or flying targets and use the brush to silently kill enemies you lure towards you. Couple this with the ability to set up trip wire traps, tether creatures to the ground and set up individual traps all over to foil enemy flanking attempts and you have a robust combat system to play with over the 30 plus hours you can spend in-game.
What makes these systems so praise worthy is just HOW fun it is to use them. I spent twenty hours in the starting area, running around killing creatures in different ways. Watching the previously mentioned beauty as Watchers twist as they spin up their leap attack, or dodge and loose a pair of arrows into the side of a charger as it barrels past are simply pure fun. As you progress in creature size and complexity, you upgrade your weapons and get new ones that allow you to change the way you play like using the slingshot for area denial or large group damage. You can hide and corrupt a herd of creatures and watch them battle each other to the death, then stroll in to collect the loot, polishing off any stragglers. Lest we also forget that you can actually override creatures, so gain your self a battle companion which aids you in any nearby combat that happens.
I could extol the virtues of the combat all day, but there are negative aspects. From a general perspective, I have friends who don’t like the fact there is no lock on functionality. As a primarily ranged game I personally think that this would hinder the system, but eye of the beholder and all that as I see the rare time you should be relying on your staff you are already kinda boned. Also in the potential negative camp is how the game deals with large groups of mechanical enemies. It is easy to get overwhelmed if you’re not paying attention which can lead to some frustrating deaths, though again this is more of a personal problem and not one I truly consider a game fault.
One aspect that I do find true fault with is battling against human AI. The issue doesn’t stem from the ability to “whistle-kill” an entire camp from the front door, though that is silly, but in the fact that human on human combat seems so lack luster compared to battling even the most basic of the robotic inhabitants. The human AI in general seems to be incredibly dumb as they will run through open fields to attack me in melee only to turn around and run back to cover, all the while I am shooting them in the face, neck, and chest with arrows. When enemies do get into melee range of you, or used specialized arrows you should look out. I have been taken for seventy-five percent of my health by one specialty arrow, and trying to duke it out in melee with even one brawler can result in huge chunks of your health disappearing much quicker than you would expect.
Like with all games, there are two other important factors to consider, the audio and the story. While story is important and I will get to that at the end, I feel that the audio in Horizon Zero Dawn really stands a cut above. Whether you are running in the open planes, your feet thudding against the hard packed dirt, or the hard jingle of Oseram Arrow Breaker Heavy chain mail and plate as you leap through the forests dodging Ravager fire the sound always plays as a companion to your story and fights. The throaty grumble of a Snapmaw you may not have seen in the water beneath you saves you from an untimely death, while the whir of a corrupter allows you to dodge attacks from behind as you fight it’s companions. Combat aside, the musical scores that come filter in from the villages and towns brings a haunting serenity to your travels, sometimes hearing nothing but your own labored breathing from a long run, other times being engulfed in the chants of a congregation as they pray to their god. And sometimes as you check your phone for Facebook or Twitter, because we all do it, your head starts to bop as you are entertained by a nightly band that has just started its set from the local inn.
The meat and potatoes though is the story. While I know what happens, I have not personally finished the story on my play through, as I am going for the platinum trophy. That said, I will not be spoiling the story as the game is still relatively new. What I will say about Aloy, and her journey is that it is both incredible and subdued. We play as a young woman, who is strong, resourceful, witty, empathetic and funny, YET it doesn’t feel like someone is blatantly saying “Hey your playing as a girl”. This point may seem odd, but its hard to ignore in todays games media, or any genre culture media, the push for diversity in both character lead and stories told for. Much like The Last of Us dlc Left Behind is one great example of how diversity and progressive story telling can be done, and the way Aloy unfolds as a character keeps you engaged with her and her story and her story is an interesting one. The trailers say as much but you are an outcast, raised by a fellow outcast Rost, who teaches you the way of your people, and your adventures stem from those teaching and the questions you have from the time you were a small child.
I also found myself really engaged with side characters you meet, some near the beginning of the game, others near the end, which again I won’t spoil. I engage and learn to love them because of how the developers tackle the issue of race, religion, sex and status by not really addressing them. Aloy is part of a tribe that has matriarchs, yet there is no hate or vitriol to be had from that scenario. Other tribes take societal, religious and physical appearances from all over the map. I have seen Celtic, Norse, Native American, Aztec, Japanese, Zulu, Arabic, and Mongolian influences from the real world, with Dwarven and Minotaur traits pulled from the fantasy world. We cannot forget the druidic and shamanistic natures which many cultures have shared. This world feels like it has been lived in for a thousand years, and that has given us a rich pool to wade into and experience.
A small but important note is all of the images you see here, are taken on the regular PS4, as I spent a good five or six straight hours just finding great shots.I truly fell in love with this game, something I have not done in a long time and I think this last shot above is a perfect summation of why. In Horizon Zero Dawn you are a tiny vessel in a world of metal wonder and whether its delving into its valleys, or climbing to its peaks, the Horizion is really the limit.
As with all of my reviews (going forward) I am using a -10 to 0 score where a -10 is utter garbage and a 0 is as close to perfect as you can get.