Horizon: Zero Dawn (Available exclusively on PlayStation 4)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Guerilla Games
Release Date: February 28, 2017
Parent Talk: Horizon: Zero Dawn has been rated T for teen from the ESRB because of alcohol and tobacco references, blood, mild language, mild sexual themes, and violence. Horizon is a breathtaking action RPG where players take on the role of Aloy, a young outcast that hunts majestic mechanical beasts to stay alive outside the safety of the populous cities. The mechanical animals she hunts do not bleed, however enemy tribes you go up against are made up of humans, and while attacking human enemies you can expect a certain level of violence. The game is never tremendously gory, even though the violence is realistic.
Plays Like: Have you had the chance to play through 2013’s Tomb Raider or Rise of the Tomb Raider yet? If so, those two games give the best impression of what you can expect from Horizon in terms of general gameplay. Horizon is a gargantuan open world that is fully realized in a way very few open world games achieve. There is a wealth of open world tropes such as unlocking towers, except here the towers are giant moving dinosaur-like creatures. Side quests, vehicular combat, and more are all featured. It’s the way that everything comes together that is truly impressive.
Review Basis: Sony Interactive Entertainment was kind enough to send us an advanced review code. I put in well over 35 hours with the game and completed the main storyline. I played through the game on a regular PlayStation 4.
Horizon: Zero Dawn has been in development since 2011. Guerilla Games wanted to work on something different after the release of Killzone 3 on the PlayStation 3. While it’s true the company would go on to release another Killzone on both the PS4 and the Vita, internally the team was secretly plugging away on what would become Horizon. At E3 2015 the game was shown off to the public for the first time and I knew then that this was going to be a special game, and now having completed the game, I can proudly say it is indeed one special game that all PlayStation 4 owners should experience.
There are have countless open world games released since Grand Theft Auto III hit the scene way back in 2001. Some goofy, some serious, some kid-friendly, others not so much, and some come together in such a way that leave you speechless. This one falls in the latter category. It comes together in such a way that will truly take your breath away. There have only been a few games where I stop and move the camera around because I am so in awe of what I’m looking at. I’ve done that at least a dozen times while playing this game. Aloy’s world is incredibly unique, and without spoiling anything, you will see mountain ranges that are so vividly detailed you won’t believe you’re not watching a cinematic. The dynamic weather system will have it snow one minute, and pour rain another, but in a realistic manner where it doesn’t just rain for no reason. You’ll see the clouds start to move in, the sky gets dark and then it starts to rain. It’s amazing to see in action. When it rains and you’re running through the dense forest areas, you can’t help but stand there in shock at the sheer beauty of it all.
Each area of the environment has been meticulously put together so that there’s a logical sequence to the placement of villages, mountains, desert areas, etc. You don’t just see a mountain pop out of nowhere, you’ll slowly see the land incline and then as the elevation increases that’s when the weather starts to change and it gets cold. It may seem trivial, but it’s this attention to detail that runs through every aspect of the game.
The storyline is one area I can’t speak much about, but it’s far more interesting than the trailers have led you to believe. Aloy is an outcast, she doesn’t belong to a tribe. Her guardian, Rost, used to belong to the Nora tribe many years back but something happened as he was cast out. Typically, criminals are shunned this way, but in the case of Rost there’s much more to his backstory than meets the eye, much like everything in Horizon. Eventually Aloy sets her eyes on an event that will allow her to become one with the tribe and learn more about where she comes from, who she is, and what her place is in this unique world. What happens next changes the scope of the game and over the next thirty hours or so players will try and piece together exactly where these machines come from, why they were built, and just who are these ancients everyone keeps talking about. It’s all fascinating stuff, and classic elements such as finding detailed information hidden away in the game’s world can be exposed if you’re willing to explore every nook and cranny. Believe me, it’s worth it as the back story the game doesn’t tell you is just as, if not, more compelling than the one you’re taking part in.
The gameplay is excellent. The game that most closely matches what Horizon does is the reboot of Tomb Raider, where you explore a massive open world, take on main storyline quests, side quests, and harvest resources to expand your arsenal and increase the number of items you can hold. Fear not though, you don’t actively have to look for resources, they’re scattered everywhere. You’ll see trees, plants, and animals all over the place that you can run up to, press triangle and harvest the resource. Animals must be hunted, but you can see them with your Focus, which works something like Detective Mode in the Arkham games. That means you don’t really have to put much effort into hunting or harvesting, which is good because it could have easily detracted from the rest of the game.
There will be certain animal resources you will need to find to upgrade your quiver for example. When you hunt boars, turkeys, foxes, racoons, and fish they have a random number generator which dictates which resources the animal will drop. Often you will need either the green uncommon or blue rare drops. Because there are so many animals everywhere though, it never becomes a hindrance or burden and very early in the game you will be able to upgrade most of your gear at least once so long as you invest a good twenty to thirty minutes hunting.
The combat system and to a larger extension the weapons are incredibly fun and engaging. For the most part you’ll be using your bow and arrows to hunt down the bulk of your adversaries. From hunting wild animals, which require one arrow to take down, to taking on human and mechanical beasts alike, the combat is incredibly fun to partake in. There are several elements to the combat depending on the situation at hand. So, let’s break down each one. Wild animals we already discussed, use your Focus to see where they are, highlight them with a quick press of the R2 button and take them out.
Human enemies are smarter and require some finesse to take down. Once again you can use the Focus to see through walls, and plan your attack as you can mark enemies, but you can also see their walking pattern which is incredibly important for when you’re hunting the machines. I typically stay far back, mark all the enemies and then take them out with precision arrows, one of many different types of arrows available to you. Like everything else in the game, ammunition needs to be made from resources you find. Absolutely everything in the game requires resources, but fear not, you can also buy goods from traders you meet along the way. The form of currency is metal shards which everyone carries so when you defeat a human enemy and loot their corpse you’ll likely find some shards as well as potions and other items of use. The one wrinkle to watch out for with human enemies is that they can bring in reinforcements if one of them reaches the strategically placed alarm signals. A good tactic is to snipe all the enemies surrounding the alarm, then use stealth to deactivate the alarm and wipe out everywhere else however else you want.
Stealth is important because Aloy has a wild array of weapons as her disposal so she doesn’t just need to use the bow and arrows. You can also use her trusty spear. If she sneaks up on a person you can press the R1 button to activate a stealth kill, which is not only satisfying, but incredibly useful as no one hears the sounds, but they may see the body so be careful where you perform the takedown. The world is covered in beautiful long flowing grass, which is just perfect for Aloy to use as cover, and this is important when taking on the mechanical beasts. This is where the combat changes dramatically.
The wonderful creatures you’ve seen in all the trailers may look majestic, but when you must take one of them down, things get nasty. Each type of machine needs to be handled differently, and this is an element I absolutely loved with the game. The simple Watcher enemies can be defeated with a nice clear shot to their front lens, but before long you’ll be facing much stronger enemies that require multiple strategies to take down. One enemy I fought was something like a giant worm that burrowed into the ground and popped up rather unexpectedly. He ripped me to shreds the first time I faced him, but then I looked through my inventory to see what options I had available. The first thing I did was I used the Focus to highlight any potential areas of weakness on the creature. These areas become highlighted in yellow. The thing is you can’t just shoot them and be done with it. Sometimes these spots are protected and the creature needs to be immobilized first so you can target that specific area. Some enemies are weak against one of the three elemental attacks in the game, fire, ice, and electricity. Some are weak against a specific weapon you have, so you really must plan your attack before just jumping in and going crazy or you’ll be destroyed.
In the case of the worm fight, I decided to use my Ropecaster, which shoots a rope into an enemy and ties them to the ground, but wouldn’t you know it, he just burrowed underground so that didn’t work. I then tried to use the Sling to shoot frozen grenades at the creature to see if I could freeze him, which typically causes extra damage, and while it was working, I found it was taking too long, so I finally used my Tripcaster, which shoots out a trip-line with a small explosive attached to it, and boy did that work. Every time the creature would lunge at me, I would have it setup up so he would trip the line and cause an explosion. Shortly after, the creature who once destroyed me, was now dead. Talk about a feeling of satisfaction. Every time you stumble onto a new machine, you will do the exact same thing, try and find a good strategy to use against it. The best news of all, your strategy could very well be completely different than mine, and that’s where the game shows its biggest strength.
As you complete more and more missions you’re awarded with experience, which slowly levels Aloy up over time. Every time she gains a level she unlocks a skill point which can be allocated to a wide array of unique and helpful abilities. You might be able to harvest more resources from a single source, reload your weapons faster, run while staying in stealth and much more. Speaking of upgrades, your weapons and gear can be retrofitted with enhancements that cause extra damage, or give some other perk in battle. The best thing to do is mess around and have fun with these unique elements as you never know what the results will be.
As you progress far enough in the game Aloy will eventually learn to hack creatures so they fight for her, she can learn to ride some as mounts, and so much more. One of the more incredible aspects of these features is that they come together in a game with virtually no loading at all. It’s an impressive sight to behold. When you die there’s a short load time, and the same when you first boot the game but outside that there’s virtually no loading whatsoever. The only exception to the rule is when you fast travel somewhere. Even saving your progress can be done in about two seconds at campfires, either manually or automatically. It’s impressive considering how incredible everything looks.
And oh, those looks. I already mentioned I stopped to look around a dozen or so times, but really, I can’t stress this enough, this game looks incredible in motion. It’s breathtaking how amazing everything came together. If you thought last year’s Uncharted 4 looked amazing, wait until you see this. Keep in mind I played the game on a regular PlayStation 4, so I can only imagine how much better it looks in 4K with HDR on the PlayStation 4 Pro. I won’t get into the finer details, but Horizon is one of the nicest looking videogames I’ve ever played, period.
The sound design is also superb. From excellent voice acting to a beautiful soundtrack, the audio came together in such a way as to compliment the visuals. The audio is also dynamic meaning it will change based on the environmental situation, so not only battles, but whether the weather is really coming down hard, or if there’s something critical Aloy happened to figure out while she was on-mission.
There are a few elements that didn’t come together quite as well as Guerilla Games may have hoped for. The first of these is the dialogue tree. While it’s great being able to ask questions, and get more information out of NPCs, the choices you make feel as though they don’t really have any consequences. The system works great from the perspective of information gathering, but there’s little to no weight behind some of the choices you make.
Another element that is ok, but nothing overly special is the mission variety, particularly if you take part in the side quests. Too often Aloy must race off to a location, Focus on the area to find tracks and then follow those tracks to eventually fight either a mechanical beast or a bunch of humans. This was offset by what I mentioned earlier though, that each new enemy encounter is unique in and of itself, and I suppose that was Guerilla’s argument for perhaps not having more mission diversity.
One area that cracked me up on more than one occasion was the acrobatics system. Much like in the Uncharted series, Aloy can perform some rather impressive acrobatic feats, however these are always scripted. She can only jump up to a specific spot if it happens to have a yellow border, if not she can’t. It’s bizarre when there are areas she can’t reach that are shorter than the ones she can, all thanks to this mysterious yellow border.
Finally, the last elements of the game design that you must watch out for are with very specific resources not always available everywhere. Under most circumstances, you will easily be able to craft whatever you want; however, ammunition is the one exception and that can force you to fast travel back to another area to harvest a few specific resources you’re missing so that you can continue with a mission that requires you to hunt down certain creatures. This rarely happens, but when it does it can be slightly annoying. Thankfully you can always buy what you’re missing from traders, however I like to save my shards for big upgrades and often the prices can be a bit steep for ammunition.
Much like most open world games, I experienced a game breaking bug while playing the game, that Sony had to send me instructions on how to revert to a previous save point and avoid the bug. If not for cloud saves I wouldn’t have been able to review this game for you as I was already 14 hours in and wouldn’t have had the time to restart from the very beginning. The good news is this bug has been squished in the day 1 patch, but be warned that there will likely be other bugs present.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an outstanding accomplishment from Guerilla Games. While I had a few nitpicks with the game, overall it came together in such a way that few new IPs do. It is also a technical achievement that will leave countless PlayStation 4 fans floored when they see it for the first time. It comes with my absolute highest recommendation. If you dislike open world games, give this one a chance as it may surprise you. If you’re a longtime fan of the genre, this is a no-brainer. Horizon: Zero Dawn is already a contender for Game of the Year. Job well done Guerilla Games.
Final Score: 9.5/10