Title: Horizon Zero Dawn
Platform: PS4 (reviewed)
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release date: Out now
Price: £35/$50 (Complete Edition, as the regular edition is now longer available on the US PSN)
TL;DR: Robot dinosaur simulator with a gorgeous Sun King. And Aloy, I guess.
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So yes, I admit, we’re a little late on this. Horizon Zero Dawn was an incredibly ambitious IP right out of the gate, showing off herds of robot giraffes, cunning stealth, and explosive battles, all in the announcement trailer – sure, it looked nice, but I’d been burned one too many times by new titles, so I gave it a miss until Christmas rolled around, and I could finally give it a whirl.
There’s one thing I can say for sure; it’s a flashy, loud extravaganza that lets you play the badass hunter all you want, with a mostly strong story that carries you all the way through to the finish. It’s a fantastic addition to 2017’s line up, and I’d definitely recommend you pick it up, even if it’s only so you can feel like a badass when you shoot a Watcher straight through the eye.
Primarily, Horizon Zero Dawn, or as I like to call it, Robot Dinosaur Simulator, is an open world RPG that’s set roughly a thousand years in the future, where there’s no modern society in sight, ferocious metal machines roam the wastes, and old tea mugs are dug out of the earth and revered as relics. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and a few scant tribes of humanity have clung to the remains, including the Nora, which is where our heroine hails from. The Nora are horribly isolated, worshipping their deities and refusing to venture beyond the boarders of their sacred lands; they’re so rooted in matriarchal tradition, they shun one particular girl, who happens to be motherless, through no fault of her own.
That girl is Aloy. And one day, Aloy gets sick of it, and decides to run in the Proving, to be allowed to join the Nora elite, and finally be accepted into her tribe, with the added incentive of finding out who her mother is, in the process. Only things aren’t quite that simple, and instead of staying focused on Aloy, the plot spirals out into the greater world, and how exactly things came to be as they are. Whether this wider scope is good or bad, is an issue I’ve been pondering ever since I finished the game.
Graphically, this game makes good use of its sci fi/fantasy aesthetic – the world glitters with a mix of soft pastels and silvery chromes, from the streets of Meridian to the blue cables threaded through the Banuk’s skin – everything is interesting to look at, make no doubt about that. There’s been a lot of love and care put into the machine designs – you can tell just what animals they’ve taken inspiration from, and how they’ve managed to soup them up into something deadly. The character models are also wonderfully distinct; when you’ve got a mix of of several different tribes scattered across the land (where are we, anyway? America?), from the artisan Carja to the war loving Oseram, there’s plenty of culture and tradition to go around. The outfit and hairstyle detailing is always gorgeous, if not sometimes a little poor; Aloy’s hair beading, for example, looks flat on close up shots.
Gameplay, too, is one of those things that’s great in some areas, and really frustrating in others. The game railroads you into using the bow and its variants, whether that’s a straight up damage dealing war bow, a slingshot, or tying down your enemies with rope. Your only other weapon, aside from the incredibly useful traps you can build, is the spear, which can’t be upgraded at all, and is frustratingly ungainly to wield. With the bow, you can slow down time for a bit using a move called Concentrate, and generally, your shots will connect. With the spear, you’re pretty much swinging aimlessly in the hopes you’ll whack something, since there’s no lock on button, and seemingly very little variation in the hard/soft attacks, since you rarely hit anything anyway. The best use I found for the spear was sprinting after animal prey and bludgeoning them with it – saves me wasting an arrow!
The other two big gameplay aspects are stealth, and tracking things through a 3D projection that emits from Aloy’s Focus like a hologram. Amazingly, this is the least irritating stealth mechanic I’ve ever used in a game, although it doesn’t make a lot of sense why you’re only hidden from the machines in the special red grass, aside from the excuse to make jokes about redheads. Basically, stealth is easy to both use and not use – it’s entirely up to you, and a great asset when you see a huge freaking crocodile thing and want to make very sure it doesn’t spot you.
The Focus, on the other hand, gets repetitive, really fast. It’s used to display extra info on the world that only Aloy can access – scanning and picking up data points, showing enemy weaknesses, revealing the paths and tracks of missing people, or highlighting information about the environment. And while this is certainly useful for the people Aloy helps, the quests involving this mechanic are always “look for clues,” or “follow the tracks.” It’s definitely a neat idea that fits into the plot as well as the gameplay, but a bit more expansion would have been nice, to switch it up a bit.
The only other massive gripe with the gameplay is the climbing, or lack thereof. Horizon’s world is full of mountains and sheer cliffsides that look like they’d be easy to scramble up and out of harm’s way. Instead, you’re limited to certain climb points that are man made, and those aren’t the most obvious to spot if your quest marker is leading you upwards and nowhere else. As a result, you either spend hours looking for the handholds, or glitching up the cliffs one button mash at a time, Bethesda style. The problem is, everything looks like you can climb it, and suddenly falling halfway down the cliff that Aloy can’t climb, despite being a magical warrior with godlike reflexes, kind of breaks immersion a little. Climbing ala inFAMOUS would have made me adore this game. The crafting, too, is a nice touch, with plenty of resources to hunt and gather, but the item drops are annoyingly varied; I never ran out of wood for arrows, but incredibly quickly ran out of wire, and buying health potions quickly became the most cost effective ways of doing things, since Fatty Meat was insanely hard to find.
The plot, worldbuilding, and characters are one of those things that waver between “really good,” and “It’s interesting, but there was so much scope for more here.” The tone seems very set in either one genre or the other – aesthetically, it mixes nicely, but in terms of story, it leans heavily on fantasy in some areas, and science fiction in the other. Meridian is the perfect example; Erend is talking about a city of skyscrapers, the first time you meet him, and that conjured up the most wonderful images, of 31st century humans living in the remains of New York skyscrapers. The same thing applies to the different tribes; whilst the initial premise appeared to be a blend of genres, it quickly becomes high fantasy with sci fi influences, not too different from any other fantasy novel, which is a tad disappointing.
The story becomes less personal after the initial narrow scope, focusing less specifically on Aloy’s initial goal (to find her mother) and more about how the world came to be. Why this is by no means a bad plot – it’s interesting, yet a little too simplistic, and the twists are predictable and easy to guess – it doesn’t do Aloy herself any favours. Because the focus shifts so much. Aloy’s goal gets pushed to the side, and she never gets the chance to grow or change as a character, which isn’t helped by the multiple dialogue options, which was an odd choice for a game with an established character. It gives you the option to pick the smart, kind, or aggressive option for certain scenes, which strips away what little character Aloy has; it would have made her presence in the story much stronger had she had a true personality from the get go.
Stemming from this, everything happens incredibly easily for Aloy; the stakes may be high (like finding the villain behind the incident at the Proving) but they’re never immediately life threatening, or make the player think that things have gone seriously wrong. Aloy’s never at a disadvantage for long, and subsequently gets handed everything the narrative has to offer, on a silver platter. Thankfully, the game is entertaining enough for this not to be a complete deal breaker, but it’s a point pretty hard to ignore. There aren’t any truly emotional gut punching scenes after the Proving, because the game dispels any worry or tension too fast for it to stick, so while Ashly Burch does a good job voicing Aloy, she doesn’t really get to use the potential we know she has (go and play Life is Strange, cry a little, and then come back), because a lot of the scenes don’t show Aloy emoting, apart from when she’s angry.
Overall, despite the narrative problems, Horizon Zero Dawn is a long game, with an engaging story, and tons of stuff to do. There’s a whole load of sidequests with memorable NPCs (Nil, you’re a very attractive serial killer), a lot of collectibles to pick up, and a lot of datalogs to find; you’re definitely getting value for money, especially if you factor in the DLC (The Frozen Wilds) which is another 15 hours long. It could have done some stuff better, sure, but for the first game in a brand new IP, it’s a whole lot of fun.
And there’s robot dinosaurs, so I’m not sure what else you can want.
- Robot dinosaurs
- The world is well thought out and the lore is incredibly detailed
- Female, ginger protagonist who takes no shit, and is voiced by Ashly Burch
- Lots of graphical glitches
- Aloy doesn’t get the opportunity to grow or change as a person
- Weird climbing mechanics
Horizon Zero Dawn is rated PEGI 16 and T for Teen by the ESRB. There’s a lot of violence and swearing, as well as the whole “end of the world as we know it,” schtick. On the whole, it’s not very graphic, and I’d say this is probably safe for most ages – there’s no blood or injuries shown.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased for the purposes of this review.