Developed by: Guerrilla Games
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: Out Now
To sum up Horizon: Zero Dawn in one, bittersweet sentence? It’s the best game of 2017 that isn’t The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After the initial hours (as documented here), Horizon Zero Dawn hooks you like few games can and, to be frank, shows up a lot of other open-world action games. Guerrilla Games’ foray into the genre has produced a beautiful and intriguing world, with thrilling moment-to-moment action.
Woman & Machine
You witness the story of Horizon through the eyes of Aloy. She is determined, fierce and likeable, looking to discover her mysterious birth after being raised by father figure Rost outside of the Nora community they came from. They were both banished from the tribe, and the opening hours of Horizon introduce gameplay ideas within this restricted area. Yet, wherever you go, the lush world houses a major juxtaposition; coexisting in this world are both primal clans of humans and violent robotic creatures. Developers Guerrilla went to great lengths to make this all believable (y’know, as much as it can be). The machines are mainly modelled on animals and dinosaurs, oddly fitting into the environments. They stand out, but are still part of the food chain.
The clear question is: what is going on here? How did this happen? Horizon starts to give you hints in the early hours, and later developments in the story deliver – events are sometimes told in surprising directions, taking dramatic twists that engross until the end. It’s a new take on an apocalyptic story, taking beats from other stories of this kind but tying them into the intriguing world. Aloy is at the emotional centre of all of this, just trying to work out where she came from – as a result, she is the ideal player perspective. Our emotions at discovering the secrets of Horizon are matched by her.
At the start of the game, you play through a sequence where young Aloy comes across a cave containing remnants of the past. She discovers a device called the Focus, which lets her interact with the advanced technology around her- in-game, this means being able to access audio logs (there’s a lot, but they’re good), interact with closed-off parts of the world, and exploit the weaknesses of the machines she fights. The Focus is an example of how Horizon seamlessly fits in the ideas of other games, and then offers a new take. In this case, the game takes the heightened vision of games like the new Tomb Raider titles and gives it a distinct spin. Guerrilla have used inspiration in really positive ways, not just taking ideas but working out the best way to use them within the setting of Horizon.
Girl on Fire
The biggest standout of Horizon is the combat. Using bow, tripwires, tie ropes and more, Aloy battles both humans and machines. The latter is where the game is most dynamic; with the Focus to help, you can identify the many different types of machines and their individual attributes. Early enemies like the Watchers can be tackled pretty easily, but as the game progresses, you soon have to adapt your approach to the situations. Take the crocodile-like, sea-faring Snapmaws. They are vicious up-close, but a quick scan exposes that they’re weak to armour-piercing arrows. Create some distance and break their outer shells, and suddenly the confrontation becomes easier.
Or maybe you’re being assaulted by the aerial scavengers, Glinthawks – dodge their ranged attacks, discover their weakness to fire, and you can find a way to bring them down. Planning is crucial, and elevates the action in Horizon to a new type of real-time strategy; you’re thinking on the fly, but without any jarring pauses – it’s all remarkably smooth and refined. Think of the mindset you have in the battles of Xenoblade Chronicles, but faster-paced and mixed with more visceral movement. The ability to dodge attacks is perhaps the most important tool you have; timing your dodge with the telling audio cues of a major assault is a sure-fire way to make yourself feel like the best player in the world.
The aforementioned variety of approaches keeps it interesting, too. Aloy is a hunter more than a fighter, and has the toolset to match. Maybe you prefer to hold the machines in one place using the Ropecaster, and then go in for melee attacks? Or, perhaps, use trip wires and traps to do some of the work for you? One personal highlight was a tough fight against a Thunderjaw (one of the strongest machines, not that I’m bragging) in one of the dungeon-like Cauldrons, where my health was low and things were looking tight. Then, it walked into one of my traps, set off a chain reaction around the room, and fell – heart racing and mind transfixed, the personal payoff was amazing. Oh, and these Cauldrons? Complete them, and you gain the ability to override machines, turning them to your side. This is most useful when sneaking up on your enemy, as it takes some time to do.
With such a range of options, it’s good that Guerrilla got the UI and presentation spot-on. Holding the R1 trigger slows time down – doesn’t stop it, so that Snapmaw charging at you is still coming – while you choose from your weapons wheel. Here, you can also select your ammo type, and even craft it on the go, keeping up the pace of the action. Different ammo can mean elemental effects, or new ideas like the Terrablast Arrows. These emit an energy burst that is very effective at knocking parts off of machines and exposing vulnerabilities. Sometimes, if you knock a weapon off an enemy, you can turn it to your advantage. That’s right – attack robot dinosaurs, take their guns, shoot them with those guns. It’s hard not to find it all simply awesome.
Once defeated, you can harvest many valuable resources from the machines. It’s a fulfilling Monster Hunter-style cycle of taking down enormous beasts and getting better items from them. Many actions reward you with EXP, and levelling up is a way to upgrade skills and get more health. In addition, plenty of other RPG-like elements are within the menus – as you roam the world, hunting takes on a more tranquil form. Tracking non-robotic wildlife, picking up crafting materials, and gathering medicinal herbs (don’t skip them, they’re invaluable in combat) keeps you busy as you progress. All of your findings are useful in some way or another. Robotic or natural, resources can be used to expand upon ammo capacities, add augments to your weapons, and purchase sweet new outfits for Aloy. It is an undeniably rewarding gameplay loop – and it all ties into bringing this world to life.
See, whilst not breaking through conventions like Zelda: Breath of the Wild does, Horizon: Zero Dawn is instead excellent at incorporating them. Horizon has many elements not dissimilar to Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and many other third-person open-world games. Take the towers that this genre tends to use (even Zelda). Traditionally, you climb to the top in order to reveal details about that portion of the map – these are in Horizon, sure, but in the form of a machine called a Longleg. Each portion of the map has one walking around it, and this is a machine you don’t fight – rather, you must find a way to climb it. This requires tracking the route it takes, analysing the environment, and working out your approach; it’s a puzzle that organically fits into the world, and is immensely satisfying once you get to the top. Horizon takes ideas from other games, but maximises their potential within this beautiful setting.
Oh, and my word, what a beautiful world it is. The detail that has gone into producing such a stunning environment is staggering, with different biomes all over the map. The sound design and soundtrack matches it, whether it is the synthetic roar of machines or the birds tweeting in the trees. Animals, weather, and lighting differentiate just as much as the combat does, and stops the game ever feeling stale. There are plenty of times when you will stop to just take it all in, with the soundtrack powerfully complimenting it all. The art direction, mixing in technology and ruins of the past, only adds an extra layer of intrigue to everything. Tribes have even taken the machines and incorporated them into their clothing, creating fascinating results. Whether it is a snow-covered mountain, a barren desert, or the glorious central city of Meridian, the temptation to explore is constant.
There are many other settlements and points of view in Horizon. Merchants and side quests originate from these areas; don’t pass on them, as the stories are worthwhile. These aren’t the general fetch quests that many other open-world games fall on. In Horizon, storylines range in scale from local feuds to protecting the position of the royalty. Characters make lasting impressions, and may just be valuable to Aloy later on. Dialogue has the choice wheel seen in Mass Effect, helping you give a voice to Aloy as she builds relationships. Visually, character models are high quality, but sometimes the animations are a little wooden – it’s something that you get used to, but also one area that could be improved in a sequel.
If we’re talking about tiny niggles, then here is one that may not have even came up before March 2017. Climbing in Horizon is occasionally a rough experience, where you find yourself jumping repeatedly to try and inch your way up. When more scripted, with handholds and planned jumps like you’re Nathan Drake in Uncharted, it’s all good – but when looking for the collectibles and areas further away, it can get a bit messy. After the revolutionary climbing in Breath of the Wild, it is noticeable.
However, it’s hard to criticise something so small in a game that does so many big things right. Most of Horizon is about building – the more you play, you build confidence. The more of the story you witness, the bigger a picture you build. The more you interact with the world, the better items Aloy can build. Sometimes you’ll engage a herd of machines just for the satisfaction of engaging in combat, and trying out new techniques. Open-world games can feel like you’re just going from icon to icon, and it’s nice to see Horizon show them up. A lot of design and thought has gone into making each element interesting and different, and it’s a delight to play as a result.
It’s hard to think that Guerrilla Games’ is the studio which made Killzone for so many years. Horizon is stunning to look at, intriguing, and thrilling. You’re either being consumed by the dense world, or grinning as you engage in combat with a machine (which is also trying to consume you). This is a technical achievement, a gameplay achievement, a storytelling achievement; if Guerrilla isn’t already working on more Horizon games, they’d be out of their minds. Aloy can, and should, be PlayStation’s new face for a long, long time.