Game Review: Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4 PRO)

Killzone was, in some ways, Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s Halo franchise. The PlayStation 2 was devoid of a strong FPS, and Halo had been dominating the charts for several years before Guerrilla Games introduced us to the world of Helghan. I thoroughly enjoyed the franchise, even despite not completing the 3rd chapter, a game that I fully intend on revisiting some point soon. Killzone: Shadow Fall, for the PlayStation 4, was an alright game, but wasn’t the system seller that Sony had hoped for. Sure, it looked pretty and had everyone convinced that the PS4 was a graphical powerhouse, but the game just under delivered.

Back in 2010 at a press briefing at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, Managing Director Hermen Hulst announced that the team was hard at work on a brand new intellectual property, confirming Guerrilla Game’s temporary departure from the Killzone franchise. This title, Horizon Zero Dawn, was announced five years later at Sony’s 2015 E3 press conference, and it was the talk of the show. In an industry that is so set on sequel after sequel, it was truly magnificent to see an established studio taking a chance on a new IP, and boy did it pay off as Horizon Zero Dawn is exceptional.

Horizon Zero Dawn is set far into the future, in a world overrun by dangerous robotic creatures and small isolated human tribes, each in varying states of technological and social development. Where these creatures came from and the events that lead to the state of this world is the core narrative to Horizon Zero Dawn and just a few of the many secrets you will uncover.

I don’t want to dive too far into the plot of the game as even early on, there are some wondrous elements to the game that can be somewhat spoiled in the trailers, and can lead to some rather large discoveries that, while a bit predictable, are still vastly entertaining, so I’ll keep it brief. You play as Aloy, an outcast of the Nora tribe. Why she is an outcast is kept from her at an early age as is the identity of her mother. Her guardian, and father figure Rost, who is also an outcast, tells Aloy that the only way to learn the truth about her parentage is to enter in a contest called The Proving. This contest of the Nora people grants a boon to its winner, not to mention also negates their outcast status, and Rost suggests that Aloy uses that reward to discover the truth. The Proving and the events that follow not only guide Aloy to the truth behind her mother but to other truths that have remained hidden for hundreds of years. What starts out as a simple quest to discover the truth about her mother turns into a fight for the survival of all mankind.

Throughout Aloy’s journey to uncover the truth, you’ll meet up with a wonderful cast of characters, with some more memorable than the others. Several of them will have quests to give you, accompany you on them, or require some sort of assistance. My favorite of the supporting cast is Nil, a warrior that is hell-bent on killing bandits. The character is funny, annoying, yet strangely brilliant. You’ll meet up with him outside of most bandit camps and join forces to dish out some justice, just as long as all the bandits die, of course. The voice acting in Horizon Zero Dawn is remarkable and probably the strongest in quality I’ve seen in years. Ashly Burch, who I have become quite the fan of since Life is Strange, voices Aloy to near perfection. Aloy goes through a series of emotional moments throughout the game, sometimes being vastly overburdened by truths that should very well break her, and Burch delivers performances that sell it all. When Aloy was happy, or in a joking mood, I was right there with her, and in moments where Aloy was sad, well, so was I.

I’ve read a lot about people being unhappy with a game of this budget and scope having a female protagonist and it’s rather sad to see this. Several people online issuing boycotts unless they can make their own character, unhappy with the gender of its lead hero. Aloy is a wonderfully written character that feels far more deeply real than many other video game characters in history, being more in line with what SquareEnix is doing with Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider games. Several developers in the industry are moving away from the generic macho hero who kills everything in his path while spouting out one-liners, and this is a good thing. Well written characters like Nathan Drake from Uncharted or Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, or even Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite, are becoming more and more apparent. Strong writing of not only the narrative but of its characters as well is good for the industry and means that not every character needs to be part of a customizational toolset to be enjoyable because let’s face it, the best written ones are not.

If one thing can be said about Horizon Zero Dawn is that it is unbelievably gorgeous. My playthrough was entirely on a Playstation 4 Pro running in 4K with HDR and it’s very clear that this is the best-looking console game on the market. I’ll also note that the game still looks rather impressive on a regular Playstation 4 in 1080p, so don’t feel like you are missing out visually. While there are some instances where there is a visual blemish here and there, those blemishes are still better than nearly the entire industry. Locations are packed with detail and the lighting systems can make for some incredible scenery. Each type of environment, whether it’s jungle, arid desert or mountains buried in snow, are breathtaking. I lost track of how many times I needed to stop and take in a location’s beauty and just capture a few screenshots in the process. Thankfully, this is made even easier with the in-game photo mode. This feature allows you to stop the action, control filters and settings to get that perfect shot. You can change time or day, remove Aloy from the picture or add borders and various bits to each shot.

Horizon Zero Dawn features a large open world that is begging to be explored. I’m not usually a fan of open world games that are populated by hundreds of icons on the map, but the world offered here is so enjoyable, that I didn’t mind seeking out the various collectibles scattered around the map. There are dozens of missions, side-quests and errands to take part in, with a few of them starting off as seemingly quick activities before turning into lengthy adventures that surpass what a side-quest usually is. Horizon Zero Dawn can sometimes feel like the greatest hits of various gaming mechanics from other games, and the one I find it borrows the most from is Far Cry, with even the map having animal icons in regions that they are more likely to be found in. You’ll also find giant giraffe looking creatures called TallNecks that operate like the radio towers, with climbing them used to uncover huge sections of the map.

Helping you explore that map, and other key features is your Focus device. This holographic accessory from the previous civilization is a wearable item that allows Aloy to see enemy weak points, assist in tracking, and read out other digital information needed to help you make sense of the world. Using Focus is much like Detective vision from the Batman games, offering a single colored version of the world with highlighted items being a bright color, usually in contrast to the primary color. What is great about how Focus is used here is that you can trigger it on and off with some elements remaining highlighted even when not in that mode. This is usually when you want to identify weak points on enemies or use it for tracking. These tracking elements are similar to tracking blood in Far Cry Primal or smells and other elements like that of The Witcher 3. I did find that the tutorial for tracking would pop up almost every time I went to use it, and it became a bit frustrating to see it again and again. When the Focus is used to scan enemies, you’ll be shown what and where the enemy is weak against, and removing these components can take a large chunk out of their health bar. This use of your Focus is extremely effective against large robots like the Deathbringer or the ThunderJaw.

Combat is offered through a few different methods; your bow, traps, and your spear. Your spear can be used via a light attack, heavy attack, a stealth attack and to hack creatures to control them, which I’ll explain further shortly. Traps are useful when taking on large crowds, and nearly the entire game will be played using just your bow. You’ll unlock the use of several different types of bows, each with different abilities, elemental properties, and precision. You also have a slow down mechanic that helps with aiming for that much-needed headshot, as well as picking off the vulnerable components fitted on each robotic creature. You do also have a sling-shot type weapon that works in some ways like the bow, offering different elemental types of damage or status effects. There is also the human threat, but they all tend to go down the same way, with none of them needing a different strategy to take down.

I did find that enemies sometimes would detect traps and avoid them, or run away only to come back into the battle like the AI didn’t know what to do. I also found that the camera is far too close to Aloy during combat and can, and did, lead to much frustration when taking on large forces of creatures. This was especially apparent when taking on flying creatures and ground creatures at the same time as the action can get so in your face that you won’t see the birds dive bomb you, or if you are focused on the birds, being tackled by something off camera ground-wise. While combat can be thrilling, it did get a bit frustrating until I changed up my tactics about how I encountered battles. While you can’t help with some encounters getting the attention of something threatening nearby, you can control a bit of the action on the battlefield with the Ropecaster. This weapon allows you to pin an enemy down and place them out of battle for a few moments, with more ropes being fired to hold them longer. Using this as well as traps made combat far more engaging and less frustrating when dealing with hordes of enemies.

I mentioned that you can utilize the robotic creatures to your benefit using your spear by hacking them. This process will change depending on the level of compatibility your spear has. You’ll upgrade it via locations called Cauldrons. These locations are sort of like mini-dungeons that have usually have a boss at the end, and once defeated, you can then control them via your spear. Hacking enemies that look like horses will allow you to ride them and have a kick attack that can be rather helpful. I started a battle with the large T-Rex shaped ThunderJaw when I was ambushed by a group of Ravagers until I crippled the ThunderJaw to the ground and hacked it to fight for me, needless to say, the Ravagers didn’t last long.

The robotic forces vary in types from the small and agile Watcher, or the Alligator inspired Snapmaw. In fact, many if not all of the creatures are based on real life counterparts. This was done so that you would see a creature, recognize what it is based on and already have some sense of how it would act. If you are quick enough, or stealthy enough, you can get the drop on many of the creatures and perform a stealth kill, and this works well enough against human enemies as well. These brief moments of stealth are when you find sections of tall grass to hide in, but be warned, some creatures won’t be fooled by this tactic.

To aid in combat, you’ll unlock various skills to purchase using skill points. These points are earned while leveling up, completing quests, or achieving a perfect score during your hunter trials. If you max out Aloy at level 50, then there is a good chance you’ll unlock every one of the skills. These vary in abilities like attacking from ledges, increasing strike damage, harvesting more resources on a kill, or improving your dodge roll. My favorite skill ability has to be firing up to 3 arrows at once, making some combat sessions end quicker as you’ll do far more damage. Damage, both incoming and outgoing can also be affected by modification items that you can equip to weapons and armor. These, like most items in the game, work off a colored system; Green is low tier, then blue and then finally purple at the top. There are outfits that you can equip to Aloy that come with various stats as well as a different visual appearance and modification slots. You can also track down the Shield-Weaver outfit later on in the game that makes you nearly invincible, should you uncover the necessary items to unlock it.

As you kill enemies or find resources on the map, you will gather items that can be used to craft them into traps, potions or ammo for your various weapons. The crafting system is very thin and doesn’t really offer much depth, but it works well enough to be useful. You’ll need to upgrade your storage capacity to your various “pouches” in order to gather a lot of items and trust me, it will fill up very quickly. Often I would have to go to the market and sell off a ton of my items as my bags would fill up fast. To purchase items at the various vendors you’ll use shards, and I wish more options to earn shards would have been implemented here. You’ll earn reward boxes constantly and often I would have dozens and dozens of them still in my inventory because of the 12 traps I could hold, I had over a hundred of them waiting to be used in boxes and remained there because I couldn’t hold more than the max. This would lead me to sell some, take them from the boxes and repeat. I also had to leave hundreds of items on the battlefield because my storage was always full. I wish a “convert to shards” option would have been made available so I could clear out my queue of boxes and not waste my spoils in battle, even if the conversion gain was minimal.

Another issue I had with the buying and selling of goods was the inability to buy in bulk. You can sell items in bulk no problem, but if you want to buy 300 wire, you’ll need to buy them one at a time, with each purchase requiring you to hold down a button for a full second. While items like this drop in battle quite regularly, the ability to buy them is painfully slow and something that is easily patched, should after release quality of life improvements occur like they did somewhat regularly in The Witcher 3.

In the end, Horizon Zero Dawn is astonishing. While it doesn’t offer us anything really new to the open world genre, it takes what has worked so well in other games and combines them into a marriage of finely tuned mechanics. While it’s not unheard of a game borrowing or being inspired by other games, it’s remarkably rare to see a game use those elements better than where they are sourced from and that is what Horizon Zero Dawn does so well. Combine that with a world that feels real, filled with real people, with a protagonist that is superbly written, and you have the makings of a stellar franchise. Despite my issues with the game, because those issues can be somewhat frustrating, they pale in comparison to the overall package. Horizon Zero Dawn is to be applauded and I wish that other developers would jump off the sequel train and offer us fresh new experiences like this masterpiece.

Horizon Zero Dawn was reviewed using a retail copy and all screenshots were taken using the in-game Photo mode.


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