I remember when I saw the first Horizon: Zero Dawn trailer during E3 2015 and immediately became fascinated once the harmonious music kicked in. It was breathtaking to see the mammoth-sized machines roaming a post-post-apocalyptic world that was once home to millions of people. The characters seemed mysterious and I wanted to learn more about the tribes that settled into these new lands. At this point, the questions started to run deeper and so did my imagination. Fast forward two years later and I’m itching to turn on my console so that I may resume exploring the complex world Horizon proposes to the player.
Unlike the majority of video games released in today’s market, Horizon: Zero Dawn is not a continuation of a previously established franchise. It is often risky to introduce new characters and stories without an existing audience, but there’s no doubt Guerrilla Games knew what it was doing from the start. After all, it's known for constituting the classic Killzone series, so what could possibly go wrong? With its newest IP, the seasoned developer shows off its ability to create a fresh take on western open-world RPG games and it’s safe to assume it's just getting started.
The story of Horizon: Zero Dawn follows Aloy—a young female outcast of the Nora tribe who embarks across an expansive region in order to find the truth behind her origins and ultimately her mother. The game introduces you to a singular tribe early on, full of characters that immediately reeled me in with their charm. To tell you the truth, I shed a tear of joy during the prologue as I watched a younger Aloy ascend into the brave huntress we play as for the remainder of the story. Aloy’s short-sighted journey suddenly thickens as she gets thrown into a world full of deadly machines and killer bandits who are out for blood. Yes, slaying your first group of Watchers can be a trembling experience, but it helps if you go over the tutorials provided in the first couple hours of the game.
With several combat mechanics to master, there is no shortage of unique ways to defeat the metal machines you encounter during your travels. By default, Aloy is rigged with a Hunter’s Bow, Hunter’s Spear and a device called a ‘Focus’ which can help you target a specific component on a machine by thoroughly scanning it. Once you shoot the critical components on a machine, it will become considerably weak and allow you to finish off the rest of the fight with ease. There is a substantial amount of emphasis placed on using different elements such as Fire, Shock, and Freeze to take down a machine. You can instantly craft a variety of ammunition depending on what the enemy machine is weak against.
Horizon: Zero Dawn offers several ways to approach your target, with a design focused on balancing both stealth and up-close combat, accompanied by a detailed skill tree. I mostly enjoy crouching down in tall patches of grass and then using the Lure skill to draw a single nearby machine. From there, we have the option to instantly kill it with the Silent Strike skill or override the machine. Override is a greater mechanic on its own and can be experimented with various machines who will do your bidding once they are overridden. It’s extremely exciting to observe a Broadhead mow down the rest of its herd while reveling from a great distance. Keep experimenting and you’re bound to get fascinating results which can result in hours upon hours of entertainment.
Occasionally, you will face off against bandits wielding heavy artillery and such weaponry. This is a major change from my time spent fighting hundreds of robot dinosaurs and I found it to be a little underwhelming. From my understanding, the AI in this division seems to be of poor caliber and the bandits are not very observant. You can easily kill their allies in front of them and they will not retaliate unless you are fully detected by them. Nonetheless, taking over bandit hideouts is a full-time hobby that I still enjoy partaking in, mostly due to the great amount of XP awarded towards the end. It sure makes leveling up a breeze.
A World of Wonders
It’s a beautiful day in the sun-soaked city of Meridian and I’ve just wrapped up another sidequest. The guards set down their weapons one by one as I trudge past them and arrive at the nearby elevator. That’s right, there is a fully-functioning elevator in the city. The sheer level of detail in Horizon: Zero Dawn has my mouth agape during moments like these. When treading through a deep forest during the early hours of dawn, you will come across dozens of ants gently crawling up and down on tree bark, carrying a leaf on their back. During my stroll near Banuk territory, Aloy would occasionally stop to catch snowflakes and make snide remarks about the frosty weather. These are but a few examples of the intricate features waiting to be noticed in Horizon’s lively game world.
While I have 42 hours of playtime clocked into Horizon: Zero Dawn, it feels as though the surface has barely been scratched. Similarly to my saved game in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, there are dozens of quests that I have yet to complete outside of the main storyline, each with their own unique characters and backstories. These quests range from finding lost members of a tribe to uncovering a complicated mystery behind the machines. Not once did I find any of the sidequests to be dull or repetitive. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for other games such as Mafia III and Final Fantasy XV—both which contain mind-numbing fetch quests. It’s always a pleasant surprise to find developers such as Guerrilla Games putting effort into designing fresh and original side-content.
In the realm of sci-fi riddles, Horizon: Zero Dawn offers its own oddly-designed dungeons which resemble a set of underground dystopias pulled straight from a cyberpunk novel. They’re called Cauldrons and each one contains an assorted mix of puzzles and machines for Aloy to overcome. At the end sits a giant machine inside an enclosed space that is tight enough to make any claustrophobic burst into a cold sweat. If Aloy wins the grueling battle, which is practically a boss fight, she will unlock the ability to override additional machines within the region.
For those familiar with Bloodborne, the Chalice Dungeons are a reminder of what you can expect from the Cauldrons in Horizon. Players will need to construct a peerless strategy in order to get around areas brimmed with machines such as Longleg’s and Sawtooth’s. Each of these machines have their own scouting pattern, so Aloy will need to use her focus in order to track their routes. On the downside, you can only wander inside a total of four Cauldrons, which is nearly not enough for a puzzle-fiend such as myself. Perhaps a free DLC update will remedy this drawback in the near future.
When I’m not engaged in questing or knee-deep inside a Bunker, there are usually tasks to complete at the Hunter’s Lodge and more trophies to collect. Horizon incorporates a variety of activities to fulfill for gamers looking to escape the wild and catch a break from all the action. Throughout the world map, you can discover collectables such as Metal Flowers and Ancient Vessels tucked away in the desert soil, waiting to be found. If you manage to collect a set of these, bring them over to a merchant in Meridian so that he may reward you with a special weapon containing high-end stats and attributes.
Forget about riding Tallnecks. Want to view the world before the machines took over? Feel free to climb one of the many vantage points spread across the map. Each vantage point contains a geocached hologram showing a glimpse of the past, along with an audio tape. There are additional instances in the game where you can scan ancient devices that exhibit text or audio dialogue in order to educate the player on how the present world came to be. As far as extracurricular pursuits go, this is just a small taste of optional activities you can expect during your grand escapade.
The Other Side
As with most daring open-world RPG’s, there are cracks underneath the surface which can end up breaking immersion. For me, the lack of interior properties in the numerous towns and villages I frequented was quite unacceptable, especially after spending dozens of hours in The Witcher 3:Wild Hunt and other comparable games. Unfortunately it doesn’t end here. While exploring ruins and bunkers, I found there to be an overabundance of ancient text and audio logs which are spread too thin between each other. If you think that doesn’t make any sense, walking away from the radius where an audio log was recovered will cause it to automatically stop playing. What if I want to leave it playing in the background and continue down the next path? This is something the developers should think about when attempting a sequel.
Thankfully, there are many aspects I enjoy about Horizon: Zero Dawn and it’s one of those titles I see myself playing months down the road. There are more positive traits to outline than anything out of the contrary from my personal experience. Whenever I launch the game, it takes only a mere ten seconds to reach the load screen from the PS4 dashboard. Although Horizon is swift in this domain, the fast-travel load timings are quite sluggish and you will find yourself reading the tooltips laid before your screen as a means of waiting.
On the other hand, I am fond of the ability to choose between using quick save or manual save to store your progress at a nearby campfire. The game will reserve up to ten quick saves at a time, giving players the opportunity to restore to an earlier save as they please. In regards to performance, Horizon seems to target 30 fps as tested on a vanilla PS4 console. Certain gameplay scenes can cause the framerate to dip into the mid-twenties for a split second. There are mild texture pop-ins but it’s never enough to ruin the overall experience.
At last, there is a comprehensive Photo Mode to meddle around with in Horizon: Zero Dawn and it can end up consuming hours of your time. There are a variety of post-process filters and effects at your disposal that can transform any image into a cinematic masterpiece. I’ve snapped over thirty screenshots using this instrument and each one of my carefully composed images is bursting with style. Some of them look indistinguishable from promotional material, which is saying a lot for the Decima engine being used by Guerrilla Games to render each scene.
To simply put it, there is a certain appeal to Horizon: Zero Dawn which I have not found in any other open-world RPG game. Perhaps it is the addition of shiny robots to the mix or the story of Aloy herself. Either way, this game has my full attention and I wouldn't call it anything less than stellar. If I had to compare it to another game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Shadow of Mordor would be on the top of my list. When compared to these two titles, Horizon is riddled with less bugs, more engaging combat, and successfully incorporates stealth gameplay. Try and guess what I’ll be playing for the next few weeks.