When Horizon Zero Dawn was announced at E3 2015, it was a very exciting prospect and a standout in the upcoming schedule of releases. An unknown setting merging the old and new, massive robotic creatures, and a charismatic female lead in Aloy – not to mention that I’m a sucker for some archery.
So, why did it take me until nearly a year later to start this enticing adventure? Well… The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild happened. That incredible game took up a lot of my gaming time early in 2017, and pushed back a lot of games (such as Mass Effect: Andromeda, which will be another article…) in my gaming to-play list. Now I have finally gotten to the game, though, and played a decent chunk (around 10 hours), I’m here to warn anyone else against waiting too long to play Guerrilla Games’ fantastic work.
Let’s start with Aloy, the lead character. The determined redhead is a massive part of why this game connects as well as it does – like a Lara Croft or Nathan Drake, she is both hardy and adventurous whilst also being inherently vulnerable and human. The start of the game has you witnessing Rost – essentially a foster dad to Aloy – mysteriously taking this girl into his care. We then skip into Aloy’s childhood, where she takes a tumble from the lush, overgrown wilderness into a foreboding machinated cave underneath. This is the first we really experience of the robotic side to this world, and immediately the duality is intriguing.
This section is pretty short, but brings in key gameplay elements. Aloy finds a tool called the Focus, which allows her to tap into this technological side of the world and understand some of it – including the enigmatic robotic creatures that have seemingly laid waste to the Earth. Weak points can be identified, and audio logs of the long since passed can be listened to. It’s similar to the type of heightened vision that allows you to find key objects in Tomb Raider or Assassin’s Creed, but the way it seamlessly ties into the story makes it more organic and believable.
This is a bit of a recurring theme. Horizon, under everything, does admittedly rely on quite a few conventions of modern third-person action adventures. This early section introducing the base combat, stealth and controls transitions into the start of the main game, where Aloy and Rost are outcasts. You have upgrade systems, an expansive world, many missions – large and small – to keep you busy, and occasionally some proactive dialogue choices to make. This may sound like you’ve played it all before, but Horizon manages to be a fresh, forward-thinking game; you can sense the extra effort going into making each of these systems as compelling as they can be.
Come On, Robot Dinosaurs
Nowehere is that more clearly felt than in the combat, which is like a sort of hyper-visceral hunting. Along with the signature bow, Aloy can use many weapons, such as the Tripcaster to lay trip wires, and the Ropecaster to tie down enemies. Each weapon has extra options too in terms of ammo; take the Tripcaster just mentioned, which can select between different elemental effects – shock to slow or stop a machine, or maybe a blast trap for some raw explosive damage. There are many intricacies to the weapons and the combat itself, elevating it into something more layered, more strategic.
In fact, it almost feels like a real-time strategy game at times. Or, for more specific comparison, a faster version of the live combat in the Xenoblade Chronicles series. Seeing what the enemies are doing, dodging their attacks, and then choosing your approach – perhaps tying them down and then using a melee attack, or utilising the Focus to identify a weak point and target it. Parts of the machines can even be broken off for use in crafting better items for yourself. It’s an immensely satisfying cycle of gameplay that encourages progress. Meeting new enemy designs and working out their intricacies is extra reward past the thrill-a-moment combat. When you first see the colossal Stormbird, it is hard not be in awe.
Going back to the setting, it hits the same theme of taking the familiar and improving on it. On the face of it, it is a game about shooting massive robots, but Guerrilla has added many extra details to this world of two halves. It feels like a place that used to be full of life and commotion, but was hit with some disastrous event related to the out-of-place machines. Part of the draw of this is how astonishingly beautiful the world is, with some of the best art direction on PS4. Getting the natural and machine elements to both contrast and, crucially, accentuate each other is impressive. By the time I get to the full review I will likely know for sure, but at the moment it almost feels more intriguing not to know what occurred for the environment to be as it is – much like how Zelda: Breath of the Wild slowly revealed past events.
The world feels like it has reverted to more primitive, tribal communities. It makes a really interesting juxtaposition with the mechanical elements Aloy witnesses. These parts have leaked into the world of humans – into their clothes, their weapons, even their homes. As you experience more and more of this world with Aloy – who is trying to uncover her unclear lineage – the politics and opposing people of the world show themselves.
At this point, Horizon is really opening up and showing me what it has to offer, and I am totally on board. If you are like I used to be, putting this game off until later, then I urge you to start it up. Guerrilla has made a beautiful, mysterious, and enthralling game here that is becoming one of my favourite games of 2017. Even if it is a bit late…
My full review will be coming soon!