Horizon Zero Dawn instantly peaked my interest when it debuted at E3 2015. A post-post apocalyptic open world game with robot dinosaurs as the main enemy, how could anyone not be interested in that? Horizon Zero Dawn continued to receive great looking trailers and even though the ambitious project was delayed multiple times, it was thankfully not cancelled unlike another new IP I was looking forward to (here’s to you Scalebound). Marking developer Guerrilla Games first departure from the First Person Shooter genre, was Horizon Zero Dawn a risk worth taking for the development studio? I firmly believe it was.
From the first hour Horizon Zero Dawn‘s story presents many mysteries on both a personal and larger scale. Who is Aloy’s mother? Why are her and her adoptive father Rost shunned? Why has society reformed to tribe living? What caused the destruction of the world we know today? These questions all receive satisfying answers at some point or another while new inquests arise alongside some interesting characters that will keep you on your toes. Horizon has a decently lengthy narrative (at around 35 hours give or take) and the story manages to continue pumping along with major plot points for its entirety, delivering some worthwhile emotional payoff.
The main story is largely presented through cutscenes however the narrative presents itself in a number of various ways. A person might be telling a story and you can either listen or walk on by. Items around the world are littered with diary entries and other random notes from the world past, helping paint a picture of what the world was like before (literally in some cases as some collectibles overlay parts of the world with what it looked like at the time). Crumbling buildings, rusted car shells and tanks and other remnants of a generation long gone all contribute to the believable fantasy world that has been constructed.
The character of Aloy is complex, fast thinking and likable. The ability to shape how some interactions play out by being aggressive, smart or compassionate allow you some control in how you craft Aloy’s personality, with some of your actions having minor consequences in dialogue and events at future moments in the story. Other characters around her obviously don’t get as much development as our lead protagonist, but are well fleshed out, developing personalities and motivations of their own that can often be expanded upon if the player wants to engage them in additional conversations. A small detail that deserves a nod is that some dialogue during cutscenes for main story quests will reference side quests (and vice versa) depending on your progress on those missions. While only a couple of different lines from what I imagine would have been said, this makes the characters feel much more human rather than just another NPC.
Side quests are plentiful and unique, each coming with their own mini story that often stands alone from the main narrative or only has loose ties to it. Personally I found this unfortunate as it left me feeling disengaged and the characters you help really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, ultimately being forgotten which is strange as the game often goes decent lengths to give that character a personality and backstory. Luckily the rewards are bountiful for completing them and many of the side quests don’t overstay their welcome, being done with fairly quickly. Apart from the Trial side quests (easily my favourite to complete), many of the missions do just equate to find this person or retrieve this. While a few missions do branch out slightly beyond those premises, more variety in the tasks you are given would have been appreciated. Fortunately this is somewhat mitigated by the other objectives you can complete like the collectibles, mini dungeons and bandit camps
Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t do much too reinvent the wheel in terms of open world gaming, instead relying on doing all of those tropes perfectly with some of it’s own unique aesthetics, story and combat to differentiate itself from what has come before it. Most of your time will be spent following way points, exploring for yourself or engaging in combat and all of those aspects are handled excellently. Aloy controls perfectly with a good weight and feel to her actions as she runs, jumps, slides and crouches through the world all at a nice speed and without a stamina bar to hold her back. Even climbing is fast and fun in Horizon and I normally despise climbing in video games. Traversing this full, varied world is a real joy and the abundance of objects to loot to keep up your inventory stocks never makes a journey feel meaningless. If you do find yourself wanting to get to places quickly you can fast travel to any past campfires you have discovered.
Combat, particularly of the ranged variety, is equally fun and engaging with many different types of enemies and ways to take them out. Stealth, tactical or full-on assault are all options in most scenarios allowing you to play how you like. There were some corrupted zones where I felt like I was playing a Batman Arkham game, stealthily making my way around setting up heaps of traps before causing a ruckus and letting explosions and electricity rain down on the enemy. In some bandit camps I would be forced to go in guns blazing as a watcher would spot me leading to an onslaught of angry tribesman rushing me from both close and a far and Aloy performing dodge rolls like she’s in the circus. Close combat gets the job done but is very basic, with only a light combo and single heavy staff attack at your disposal, the heavy attack in particular being especially damaging to small machines and humans, arguably too powerful. It’s obvious the focus was on range combat with Horizon.
So it’s a good thing ranged combat is handled excellently. There is much more variety here with bows, slingshots, trip-casters and rope-casters are you main weapons, each with a few weapon sub types (e.g. hunter bow, long range bow) to mix things up further. You have a number of other traps you can lay and there are many ammo types with different elemental affinities, all of which are effective in different situations. The rope-caster gets my personal nod for favourite weapon as tying a gigantic robot down is incredibly satisfying and is a weapon I haven’t seen in any other game before. Movement and combat all feel natural and are mapped well to the DualShock 4 Controller. 99% of my deaths were my own fault although I do question some deaths I suffered from fall damage.
Combat would be nothing without enemies to fight and Horizon brings a good variety of challenging opponents for you to deal with, from small robotic velociraptors to more boss like creatures that you’re going to have to work hard to take down. Each robot has a unique set of attack patterns and weak points, meaning you’ll get better with dealing with them as you spend time fighting them in game which is what a good game allows you to do. The first time you challenge these beasts in battle really feels awesome. The help of your focus, which works kind of like Batman’s detective vision, allows you to see enemy weak points, effective ammo types and various points of interest. There was one point where Aloy and hunters from another tribe were essentially in a skirmish against four or five machines all engaging in combat, it was one of those gaming moments where I just sit back and say ‘whoa, this is awesome’.
Much less interesting in terms of design but still a challenge are the human enemies. These guys are fairly standard run of the mill foes and even the heavy units aren’t too hard to take down outside of taking a few extra arrows before they hit the dirt. The AI is fairly basic and it’s not too hard to hide behind an area you know the enemies won’t go to and slowly pick them off one by one. Make too many mistakes though and you’ll be the one in trouble as they can swarm you to put a quick end to your life meter. My biggest oddity with the human enemies are that the focus shows Aloy their predetermined walking paths just like the machines which I found very odd considering a human wouldn’t be programmed to walk a certain route like the machines would. No matter who your opponent though combat is a blast and offers a great, well paced challenge (at least on the ‘hard’ difficulty which I played with on my play-through). If the game ever gets too hard or too easy you can change the setting at any time in the games menu.
Horizon also employs some basic RPG elements that while simple, do enhance the gameplay and give the player a little more involvement in growth and strategy. You gain experience and level up which mostly awards you with some extra hit points and a skill point which you may use in the skill tree system. Again the offering here is basic and similar to many games before it, but I can’t deny it was fun deciding where to spend my points and it does grant some nice extra abilities and quirks which range from more options in combat to other bonuses such as faster healing and the ability to call mounts.
Another big part of the game is crafting and I was relieved to see it doesn’t get in the way of the action in Horizon, instead supplementing it rather well. Aloy can craft ammo in seconds, even in the heat of battle, while other items require you to make a quick trip to the menu which is easy to navigate (although I don’t see the need for a separate crafting tab that’s identical to the inventory tab). Weapons and outfits can also be enhanced with different resistances and strengths by equipping coils. On a related note, the game economy is very fair and I never felt too rich or too poor if I managed my inventory and currency correctly. The RPG components employed here do a great job in contributing to Horizon‘s exploration and combat.
In terms of a game with realistic styled graphics I would say Horizon currently wears the crown for greatest looking game on the PlayStation 4 system. Detailed character models, incredible looking foliage, dynamic weather, natural looking cliff faces and realistic lighting and shadows. In some sort of technical wizardry the game manages to run at a stable 30 frames per second that almost never dips. My play-through was entirely completed on an original model PS4 with a normal full HD TV, so those who have access to a PS4 Pro and a 4K display should be in for a real treat with HDR and an increased resolution. Just look at these in game screenshots I was able to capture, all in game, no filters applied. They still look amazing even though the PS4 screenshot function is known to reduce quality.
Apart from the graphics themselves, the design work put into every aspect of this games world is just as masterful. Every robot design, character design, the outfits, the villages and the lush and varied world itself, not only does everything look fantastic but nearly every aspect of it serves the gameplay in some form or another. From yellow natural objects indicating climbable surfaces to all the individual components of a robot that can be shot off to limit a robots attack functions, this game is a masterclass in game design, visuals and performance.
Lastly the animations, particularly for Aloy and the robot enemies are again very high level. I was impressed to see Aloy shimmy down steep slopes (with in game commentary from Aloy to boot) and steeds react naturally to jumps and cliff edges. She also reacts to the environment very well with barely any clipping issues or times where I couldn’t fit through a large enough gap due to poor hit detection. Watching the robots engage in combat is a sight to behold as they lunge, shoot, ram, pounce and blast you all in unique ways. Big props to Guerrilla Games for the presentation here, Horizon Zero Dawn truly feels ‘next generation’.
Just as impressive as the visuals, the sound design is another masterpiece. The music is typically sparse and quiet when traveling like in many open world games but this just makes the soundtrack stronger when it is utilised. The music used is impactful and stirs emotion, bringing appropriate feelings during story beats and causing tension in combat. The games powerful main theme permeates through a lot of the games music in one way or another, giving the soundtrack a strong connected feel and sense of theme. The intensity of the music really amps up important story moments and combat situations alike and I love how it goes from quiet when you’re sneaking around enemies to intense as soon as you engage them or are spotted.
Even more impressive than the music is the sound design. This is a fully realised world and the sound is a big part of that. One of my favourite experiences so far was when a very convincing sounding rain storm had just let up and then I heard this loud booming thunder sound effect. I thought the rain had let up to make way for thunder but to my surprise it was a giant robotic Tallneck (think a Brontosaurus) stomping around about 200 meters away. The sound also does a great job assisting gameplay, whether it be hearing an animal or machine that’s close-by but out of sight or letting you know when you’ve landed a clean shot or an enemy, the sound just comes together in a truly perfect way. Combat in particular feels incredibly satisfying, especially when you down a big machine and hear it’s robotic parts glitch out as it hits the ground in defeat with a giant thud. It should be noted the quality and mastering of the sound is equally high level.
The only very slight letdown for me was some of the voice work. 90% of it is great, Aloy’s voice actress does a very convincing job so no quarrels there. Most of the more occurring characters are great as well, but every now and then there will be an awkward performance from a side quest character that kind of reminds you you’re playing a game and there’s someone behind that microphone that just wasn’t very good at their job. In the whole scheme of the audio this is only a small blemish on an otherwise perfectly presented game.
Horizon Zero Dawn is an excellent addition to Sony’s slowly growing list of first party exclusives. A well polished open world adventure with a unique premise, main character and enemies presented gorgeously with almost no performance issues to speak of. Throw in a compelling narrative set in one of the most beautiful and natural maps to date and Guerrilla Games have proven they can make an excellent experience outside of the First Person Shooter genre. The game isn’t perfect but it’s close to it, with most of my complaints being very minor in comparison to the amount of fun I had in this beautiful world. If you generally love PlayStation exclusives or have any interest in this game at all it’s definitely worth your time.