Horizon: Zero Dawn
Every now and again we experience a game that completely captivates us and consumes our gaming lives for weeks on end. Fallout 4, Final Fantasy XV, The Witcher 3, and now Horizon: Zero Dawn (Horizon).
Taking its place at the top of the list, as the most visually stunning video game to ever be released on consoles, Horizon will literally take you on a journey filled with wonderment and emotion.
From the jaw dropping quality of the graphics, to the intricacy of the character development, I was in awe throughout my entire experience with Horizon.
The concept of bringing together an ancient tribe with the power of enormous machines was perplexing to me at first and I was intrigued to find out how Guerrilla Games was going to pull this off. Initially I was skeptical, concerned that the only gripping aspects of this game would be the stunning graphics, developed on the Decima engine, and the vast open world, however all my skepticism melted away within the first 15 minutes of play time.
Human civilization was nearly eradicated leaving the world in ruins and those who remained reverted into a tribal like existence in the face of fear and blind faith. The world that once was has now been re-claimed by nature with one very important difference – machines now roam the land.
You begin your journey through this mysterious land as Aloy, an outcast of the Nora tribe. Aloy is intelligent, inquisitive, compassionate and fierce. Raised without a mother, she must find her own path through life meeting resistance at every turn. Many questions burn bright in Aloy’s heart and this is what inevitably drives her forward on the quest to find the answers to what happened to the ancient humans that now lay in rubble, where did these mechanical beasts that they live side by side with come from, and most importantly, who is her mother and how does that influence Aloy's purpose?
As a young child Aloy is too adventurous for her own good and finds herself in a near death situation leaving her in the pits of an ancient ruin. Among the rubble, metal and memories of times past, Aloy finds a small device called a ‘Focus’. This augmented reality device becomes your best friend as you travel through the story, assisting Aloy to see the unseen and accomplish feats others cannot.
The depth of the lore, the mysteries that you search for answers too, and the clash between nature and metal, keep you utterly engrossed in the story-line, compelling you to constantly push forward and unearth more of the hidden secrets that reveal the history of the various tribes and ‘All-Mother’.
As the story unfolds, you will find yourself battling the urge to quickly move to the next quest to get the answers you have been searching for, versus lingering in the many villages listening to the elders speak of times forgotten, the “metal devil”, and tales of the gods. This is one area where the extremely well thought-out and intricate lore shines in the game. You will on occasion find certain characters repeating themselves, waiting for you to move on, which is a shame but at times also quite amusing.
The connection to the past and the present is very well orchestrated. You are provided with a glimpse into the past through audio and text logs left by the ‘old ones' before the world was laid to ruin. Searching ruins gives you the opportunity to get a feel for the terror that occurred thousands of years ago, when society began losing hope as the world around them started to collapse. Whilst this part of the story is rather morbid it is also extremely important in reminding you that the world you are in is the tomb of a past civilization where the light of the hopes and dreams of millions was once extinguished. This leaves a very profound effect on you as the connection between the past and present is established.
The piece’s of fabric that make up the social tapestry are inter-weaved in a way that emphasizes how primitive some tribes are in their traditions and provides some very powerful imagery around how living life in a time of turmoil and rigid religious beliefs, dictates how you interact with the world around you.
As the story unfolds you start to see the 'bigger picture' and it is utterly mind blowing. This is one of the most compelling, well-orchestrated, in-depth and captivating story driven games I have ever played.
Regardless of if you fancy yourself as a bit of a ninja, or prefer to go in 'all guns blazing', Horizon allows for you to play the way that suits you best. The transition between running, sliding, and shooting is very smooth and leaves you feeling like you are watching a well-rehearsed scene in a movie.
As you progress through the vast open world you earn skill points which also allows for you to further tailor the game to suit your personal style and preferences. By coupling these skills with various outfits and weapons which you can upgrade, you create your very own experience meaning that no two people are likely to have the same adventure.
The design of the game encourages you to spend time collecting basically everything you see, craft on the fly, upgrade your equipment and actively think about how all those pieces fit together to complement each other.
As you travel along your path through Horizon you will encounter a seemingly endless number of side quests which you can choose to complete or pass up. These quests are not limited to people who you meet in the game though, as you can initiate a side quest to collect the parts you need for upgrades. Often you will find that you are just short of the resources you need to complete an upgrade, and instead of simply waiting until you stumble across it you can kick off a side quest there and then that will take you to where you need to go to harvest the resource you are after. This is extremely useful when you are after some of the harder to find items.
While we are on the subject of side quests, there was one element of the way this was implemented that I found a tad annoying. You can only have one active quest at a time. I know this is not unheard of however, if you find yourself with a new weapon there is often a small tutorial that will instruct you to kill a certain number of enemies to learn how to use said weapon. You must complete this tutorial to get the rewards from it or start again, this also deactivates any other quest that you had active at the time. It’s not a major issue but an annoyance that could have been avoided by allowing for overlapping side quests.
As the game evolves so does your knowledge of how to successfully use your traps and equipment to create some of the most entertaining, almost cinematic, action scenes. This can make roaming the open world between quests extremely entertaining, and whilst I thought I would get tired of the sometimes very large distances that had to be covered to get between these quests, I was never bored or annoyed by it. There is always something happening around you to engage in, or if you just want to get the job done, there is an option for fast travel. Initially, figuring out how to use the fast travel was a bit confusing and it can be slightly restrictive if you don’t have enough fast travel packs in your inventory however, the need to craft arrows and keep your medicine bag full never ends so you will often find yourself opting to take the ‘slow route’ either by foot or on the back of a formidable tamed machine.
When navigating Aloy from point A to point B I did find the way-point system to be a tad clumsy. In the earlier stages of the game I often found myself heading in the wrong direction even though I was following the way-point due to there being two different markers which can on occasion contradict each other. At the top of your screen you are shown images to help guide you to your location, and on the ground there is an active way-point that will count down how many steps you have until you reach that location. The top way-point is a direct line to your location where as the one of the ground is directing you to the paths it recommends you take to get there. This footstep counter doesn’t always show on the screen so you then start to rely on the other way-point which will send you in a different direction. Sound confusing? Well it is however, once you get the hang of it you can easily compensate for it, or simply go into the settings and turn it off.
For those of you who love to spend time looking at scenery, and in this game you will do a LOT of that, there is a Photo Mode* included so you can capture your favorite moments and easily share them with your friends on social media. This feature has been really well thought out and allows for a lot of customization. There is never a point in this game when you are not blown away by how immaculate your surroundings are. I often found myself standing on top of a hill watching the sun set and rise, completely in awe of how stunning the view was.
I never expected to be playing a game at this point of the current console generation that is as picture perfect as Horizon is. I would have thought I’d only get that type of experience on a high-end PC however, that goes to show the power of the Decima engine, the true talent at Guerrilla Games, and the robustness of the PlayStation 4 Pro.
As you would expect, living in a tribal environment, most of the weapons are very primitive, such as bows and spears however, the upgrade system allows for you to turn these into very formidable devices that make the combat system an absolute blast.
Taking down your enemies isn’t a thing of brute force, there is a degree of finesse involved that requires you to identify your enemy’s vulnerabilities, reactions to elemental damage, and exploit them.
One of the most compelling components of Horizon is the combat system and applying that to the 26 odd different species of mechanical creatures found throughout the game. This is where you will find your ‘Focus’ to be imperative as you learn the different critical hit spots for the various beasts. You are left to work this element of combat out for yourself for the most part which makes every kill more rewarding and challenging.
As you progress and unlock skills, I highly recommend you gravitate straight to the ‘Concentration Skill’ as this will allow you to slow down time momentarily and land those critical hits in the heat of battle, and not forgetting to mention how awesome this feature looks in motion. This skill adds a layer of animation to combat which makes each fight scene quite breathtaking.
A bow equipped with elemental infused arrows, the Tripcaster which places explosive tripwire traps, the Ropecaster which can immobilize enemies allowing for you to sweep in for the kill, all these weapons make the combat system a blast to use. By honing your skills with each of the weapons and learning which has the most effect on different enemies, you will be able to take down herds of mechanical beasts in a visually glorifying manner.
If you choose to play a bit more safely, from the cover of long grass, luring away individual foes, you may find this to be quite time-consuming. This can sometimes be unavoidable though as the power of these beasts is to be "respected" and depending on the type of machines you are up against, running in 'all guns blazing' may not be an option. On occasion, you will just have to accept the inevitable and bunker down for some ninja like precision.
Luckily, Aloy isn’t always going to have to do the heavy lifting by herself. Relatively early in the game you will learn the ability to tame beasts by overriding their programming. Different machines react to this overriding in various ways. Without going into too much more detail, which will take a little shine off discovering this for yourself, be sure to explore this element of the game as this adds an extremely fun layer to the combat system.
Being aware of your surroundings is paramount in Horizon. You can quite easily find yourself in a situation where you are grossly outnumbered due to alerting a ‘Watcher’, which is a smaller Velociraptor-like beast that generally patrols the area around a pack, and if you hesitate in taking it down after you are discovered the Watcher will alert the rest of the pack putting you in a very dangerous position. Using your ‘Focus’ to identify the paths they are taking to avoid detection, or lure them out one by one, can quite often save your life and turn a deadly situation into one that is easily managed.
What I did struggle with at times when it came to the combat, was the sometimes-cumbersome jumping mechanic when trying to retreat to higher ground. This feels a lot slower than the rest of the movement mechanics in the game and can impede on the fluency of your attacks. The melee can fall victim to this as well, feeling slower in reaction than what you would expect it to be. However, once you get used to both and learn to compensate for them, you don’t really notice it very much.
If you prefer a more combat based experience over a story driven one, you will not run out of challenges in Horizon. From taking down cauldrons of deadly beasts hiding in the mountains, to organism-like death pits, you will never run out ways to get yourself killed. Luckily, you are able to pause the game to craft arrows and upgrade your skills and weapons, so when you bite off more than you can chew you can potentially turn the tide by switching up your weapons and apparel without being slaughtered in the process.
Be sure to watch your footing though, or you may fall victim to some extremely amusing death sequences as it’s very easy to get caught up in an intense battle and forget to watch where you are walking.
Don’t fret if you fall into the water during combat with a lit fire arrow though, as apparently, they are water-resistant??
One of the most important aspects of a solid RPG is character development and how those characters facilitate a compelling story line. Horizon has created a world full of characters that I have grown to love, despise, pity and admire.
I was blown away by how much emphasis was put on building a solid back story for the integral characters as well as those who you interact with on a semi-regular basis. There is so much to take in that at times you forget that you are playing a game as you sit and absorb all the information being thrown at you. It’s extremely refreshing to be provided with so much understanding of who these people are that you are about to spend the next 20 – 50 hours with, instead of being left to guess and make up your own theories like many other RPGs fall victim too.
I couldn’t help but fall in love with Aloy’s character. She is tenacious, curious and has just the right sprinkle of sass. On a many occasions, there is dialogue between her and other characters where her witty and sometimes unforgiving sarcastic responses had me saying “Yeah you tell him! You go girl!”.
When roaming the open world Aloy will quite often mutter to herself, which provides you with feedback on how you are playing the game. This adds an element of humor that keeps the ‘grind’ of harvesting plants and materials fun and entertaining.
Ashly Burch (best known for her voice acting in Borderlands 2 as Tiny Tina) is a perfect fit for Aloy’s character, providing you with some very emotional moments where the pitch of her voice leaves a lasting impact during critical sections of the dialogue.
You become attached to Aloy’s character, creating a much more personal experience as you grow to feel responsible for her and want nothing more than to help her find the answers that she seeks. This attachment also encourages you to spend time mastering the combat system so you don’t have to watch her repeatedly dying at the hands of grossly overpowered mechanical beasts.
Rost, who is extremely important in the evolution of Aloy’s character, is one of my favorites. His impact on Aloy’s morals, principles and skill development is heart-warming (even if his voice does remind me of Russell Crow).
As you venture though Horizon you will feel a massive variety of emotions invoked by the relationships developed throughout the game. I laughed, I cheered, I gritted my teeth, and I even cried (more than once).
Visual and Audio
This is where Horizon stands out in the crowd and is visually the most spectacular game I have played on a console. The graphics are impeccable, leaving you standing motionless in the game repeatedly as you take in the pure beauty of every aspect of the environment.
Jaw dropping, breathtaking, visually superior, are just some of the words that come to mind when trying to convey the outstanding degree of detail and use of lighting in Horizon.
One small gripe that I have, and this is seriously a first world problem right here people, is the change in weather conditions and transition from night time to day time is too quick. The sunset is simply stunning however, it’s gone in a matter of seconds and suddenly, it’s night time. I would have liked this transition to take a little bit longer so you could not only enjoy the beauty of it as it sweeps the land, but also so it doesn’t break your immersion by drawing your attention to how fast darkness settled in.
The soundtrack in Horizon is simply enchanting, setting the scene to really draw you into the primal/tribal world in which you are exploring. You never feel overwhelmed by the transition from game sound to battle music, which many games these days seem to take well over board. The game stays true to itself by staying humble yet compelling at the same time.
The sound effects are flawless, I have not encountered even one instance where the sound didn’t match what I expected to hear, even right down to the ‘bacon-frying’ rain which leaves you wondering why you suddenly feel hungry after ever down pour in the game.
This element of the game adds an extremely important layer of authenticity to the primal vibe of Horizon and allows for you to completely immerse yourself in the experience.
Please see below for our overall score and summary of the newest addition to the Action-RPG genre.
*All images were taken in-game on the PlayStation 4 Pro using the Photo Mode.