Horizon Zero Dawn Review
From the makers of Killzone, Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most hotly anticipated games of the year. Following the life of a warrior called Aloy, born into a post apocalyptic caveman 2.0 era, it depicts a world where humanity has renounced or lost most of its technological prowess. Think neolithic with occasional wifi.
Aloy’s world is littered by the remains of a once sophisticated society and robotic dinosaurs who want to kill everyone. When I first heard the name Aloy I foresaw an onslaught of metallic puns and a high probability of meeting someone called Steele. If anything however, the story starts out a little too seriously, and is driven by overacting characters preaching endlessly about their beliefs and the All-Mother deity they all worship. I learnt early on that Aloy and this All-Mother are deeply connected but no one will talk about it for religious reasons. This introduces you to some of the most corny dialogue imaginable. Characters will repeat their introduction until you choose to speak to them and this is incredibly annoying. At the beginning most of these conversations centre on the belief that some of the folk think Aloy is evil or a sin. Long ago, they forced her out to live in the wilderness with another outcast called Rost (too close to Rust for comfort.) He trains Aloy and as she ages from child to adult, this is where Horizon really begins.
Horizon’s overbearing start melts away into an adventure in a believable world full of character and interest. On the surface it is easy to forget how much role playing game content Horizon Zero Dawn has. Following the game as I have done I focused my attention on the slick action based combat and intriguing story about fantastically metal dinosaurs. Aloy always had choices in combat and choices are what role playing games are all about. Horizon contains a fully realised loot system with crafting and upgradable items. Raw materials are all around you and constructing supplies is crucial and everpresent. There is a dialogue system where the player can chose both questions to ask and answers to give. Occasionally these choices become flashpoints where I could choose between the smart option or the more emotional. One thing I disliked is that my choices did not seem to influence the story as much as a Mass Effect for instance. In fact it was hard to see where it influenced anything beyond alternative dialogue. Horizon Zero Dawn has three level-up based skill trees called prowler, brave, and forager. Each both represents a set of stealth, combat, and survival skills respectively and three totally different ways to play the game. These add great variety to the way I was able to play the game. Some skill combinations within each tree felt a little overpowered in my opinion; such as being able to both lure enemies in shadow and apply a one hit kill from stealth. In combination and with a little patience I could clear an entire camp without a sound. Such kill grinding reminded me of the haycarts in Assassin’s Creed. Ultimately it is up to the player if they are happy to grind it out like this and such techniques do nothing against the larger special robots. Maxing out a skill tree genuinely gave Aloy the ability to have a different playstyle and a different experience.
The equipment I was able to use also augmented and added variety. Aloy can equip four weapons at once but can have many more stored. From her trusty spear and set of bows, there are also speciality weapon types such as tripcasters, slings, and ropecasters. Even a frontline brave can mix things up by using a tripcaster to lay some shock tripwire traps on the route of a potential retreat. Of course as a stealthy player I had the opportunity to use these for ambushes as they were intended. Combat is effortlessly fluid and never ceased to be fun and fulfilling. Being open world there is a randomness to it that is spectatular. On harder difficulties I was often losing a fight until something in the world changed the odds in my favour. Right at the beginning I was being chased and beaten by the Metal Gear Solid style bipedal robots only to leap up on top of some tall rocks. It was at this point I discovered their secondary attacks. The terrain can be used to cover your escape or lure enemies into bottlenecks. Climbing is a simple but satisfying dot to dot affair where Aloy can follow a preset path marked out by ledges outlined by yellow rope. Aloy can jump grab any of these but like any open world game it is possible to make your own path. The yellow edge theme carries over to other places Aloy can grab such as on certain enemy types. Consistently there is a connection between Aloy and her environment that is at the heart of the design of the game.
The game is visually impeccable, incredibly detailed, and just unfurls beauty in HDR if your TV can support it. It is advertised as a 4K experience on the PS4 Pro but whether we are at the point of true 4K gaming on consoles is far from certain. What is certain however is that Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the prettiest games to ever appear on a console. Its misty lakes, mountain passes, and desert trenches breathtakingly represent every possible vista imaginable. The world has extremes of environment that each subtly blend into one another. A dense jungle seamlessly gives way to grassland for instance. The environment influenced my play style and the resources I found. Playing as a prowler with maxed out stealth attack skills I loved the rocky outcrops where I could change profile and launch attacks from above or below. As a brave, flat open territory allowed for my bow skills to do the talking as enemies attempted to close the distance in straight lines. Each part of the world is realised with a gloriously designed array of enemies, wildlife, and settlements all influenced by a day night cycle.
Horizon Zero Dawn does everything it can to bed the player in its beautifully atmospheric world. Firstly, fast travel is severely limited and its use charged by fast travel packs. If I wanted to cover the ground, I covered the ground. Later on in the game there are other options for getting around that do not include fast travel. The constant demand for the player to replenish their ammo and special items using the natural world’s resources kept my need for exploration alive. In other games I found myself harvesting feverishly only to stop later in the game as these basic items became more and more obsolete. In Horizon Zero Dawn, all the basic components are needed again and again to craft ammunition, potions, and upgrades. A high level player will still need plants they saw in the first few hours of the game. It’s a design decision that ties together the story of Aloy, her resourcefulness, and knowledge of the natural world. That’s not to say I did not find it a grind at times but upgrades from the forager skill tree certainly help in avoiding constantly hunting for resources.
A great deal of good gameplay ideas are appropriated from other games. Hunting based upgrades is there from Far Cry and more specifically Primal. I like it as it drives you to spend time hunting in the world. One criticism that I have is that the equipment scaling is off. I had purple rare items before I had a chance to upgrade my common or rare items. The makers of Horizon Zero Dawn also seem to have taken their artificial intelligence problems from their previous Killzone games. The robotic enemies often appear smarter than their human counterparts. Human guards seem oblivious to Aloy as she sticks out of bushes and takes down their comrades. It does detract from the experience but not enough to stop enjoying it.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a tremendously fun and epic experience. It’s one of those titles that has its failings but the good is so overwhelmingly good I was prepared to let them slide. If you enjoy open world role playing games with dynamic combat I could not recommend this more.
Exploration at its finest
Progressive upgrade system and skill tree
Dialogue is ropey
Waypoint system is a little buggy
Beginning is a little slow
Weapon upgrades too changeable