Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017)
PS4 / Rated T
RPG / Action / Adventure
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Guerrilla Games
In the months leading up to Horizon: Zero Dawn’s release I thought it was just a unique third-person action game starring a very capable female machine hunter named Aloy roaming around a seemingly post-apocalyptic open world full of tribal inhabitants and bad-ass looking robotic dinosaurs…or whatever you want to call them. It just looked like a cool third-person action game and I did not think twice about it. It was an anticipated title of mine but I did not think it was going to blow me away like it did. Like damn…this Guerrilla’s first foray into this genre of games really impressed me on almost every front.
Aloy’s tale begins during her days as an outsider, living off the land with her father Rost. The two having been together for the better part of her formative years, until the day Aloy decides to put her skills to the test by participating in the trials, with the goal of joining the tribe that shunned her and her father years ago. After a successful day at the trials (among other things that I will not spoil) she becomes a member of the tribe and soon begins to learn secrets about who she really is, and the deeper mystery that blankets the world of Horizon. It is the looming mystery of this semi-familiar post-apocalyptic world that acted as the driving force that kept me playing through the game. The game’s scope starts off small but as you begin to meet new characters and venture farther into the world, things start to open up and things get crazier as you begin to learn about the machines, why they exist, along with a host of other mysteries. There are a lot of crazy ideas and concepts boiling under the game’s surface…more than you would initially imagine.
The best part of it all? These crazy plot points that you encounter later in the game are extremely satisfying. Any writer can throw together some hogwash that connects the dots and explains why things exist the way they do, but Horizon’s writers give some satisfying answers that are actually plausible…all things considering. It is a fantastic bit of science fiction that comes to an end in a pleasing way. I would be fine with the story ending the way it did, but I would be open to another iteration in the series, in whatever form that would take. The game has done very well for Sony at this point, so I would not be surprised to see a sequel in the future.
Now let’s talk about powerful and capable protagonists. Aloy serves as the backbone for the entire story. If there was no Aloy…the game’s story would only amount to a withering skeleton. I was infatuated with her character, as she was tough but also smart. Over the course of the game she unravels a whole bunch of eye-opening revelations that would make the average person nauseous. The way in which Aloy interprets what she sees is what makes her character so fascinating. She is a very well-written character that deserves utmost praise. The rest of the game’s cast were also strong. I was most intrigued by the game’s various social structures that they present to the player. Maybe it was just me, but the ratio of women to men leaders far favored the women. In fact, this is probably one of the most diverse games I have ever played in terms of its various characters. That is not necessarily a selling point for me, but it is certainly a breath of fresh air from some of the other games out there.
Perhaps the game’s biggest draws at a surface level is its combat, specifically versus the hordes of deadly machines that you will come across in the world. You fight a fair share of human enemies while overtaking bandit camps and other locations, but the lion share of combat involves those dope machines that you have seen from the trailers. What makes these machines unique are the various components and weak points on their bodies. It is a fool’s errand to rush into a fight, spraying and praying with your bow-and-arrow. Each machine has a strategy that works best for taking them down. Using Aloy’s focus ability, which is a scanner attached to her ear, you can analyze the machines and plan the most viable fight strategy. Perhaps tripping a machine with a tripwire and then sending a barrage of arrows in its direction towards its weak point is the way to go. Shooting a machine’s cannon of its back might be a better approach. Nothing is more satisfying than giving a machine a dose of its own medicine. There are many different strategies you can take, which is a sign of engaging gameplay. I love these types of games where tactics are just as important as the weapons you bring into battle. You can have the best weapons in the game, but could have your ass royally handed to you on a platter by one of the Behemoths if you do not know what you are doing. Another aspect I adored about the game’s combat is its sense of scale. The machines you fight in the beginning are small and manageable, but as you discover new monsters they begin to get bigger and more terrifying. It makes taking them out on your own that much more rewarding.
Horizon’s world is chock full of collectibles and side quests for Aloy to partake in. However, this leads me to one of my minor gripes with the game, and that is its side quests. I was never bored during my time with the game’s side quests, but a good bit of them fell short in the writing department. Some quests are just your basic “go kill x number of x machines,” while some are a little more substantive and provide some interesting stories. Unfortunately, a lot of these quests just fall a teeny bit short of greatness. There was one quest in, for example, involving a father and his estranged daughter. It starts off as a simple “find my daughter” quest, but then it evolves into something a little more distressing. The game’s writers had something great on their hands, but did not do anything with it. They set up a remarkable story, but then proceeded to swing and miss on its execution. There were several ways the quest could have gone down, some more impactful and darker than the others, but the game’s writers took the easy way out wrapped the quest up prematurely. This is just one single (and vague for fear of spoilers) example of some side quests that did not quite hit the mark. This small shortcoming is what sets this game apart from games like the Witcher 3 and the Fallout series, where the side quest writing is stronger.
To no surprise, the game looks very beautiful. I mean, they did not put a photo mode into the game for decoration. There are a lot of different environments that you will explore, ranging from dense forests to arid desert plains. Each of them look stunning at various times of the day. I often found myself marveling at the incredible vistas that were a commonplace. The character models looked just as beautiful, but I found that there seemed to be some technical issues during scenes of dialog. There were some prominent lip-synching issues that were hard to not notice and the character animations during some of these scenes looked too robotic. There were times were their upper-body movement did not seem natural and at times it felt like I was watching two animatronics at a Disney Theme Park. Fortunately, aside from these issues, Horizon looks remarkable.
All my expectations for Horizon: Zero Dawn were met and sometimes even exceeded. It is one of those games where I will instantly recommend it to you if you own a PS4. If you own a PS4 and have not played Horizon yet…I do not know what you are even doing with your life. I do not think the game unseats Uncharted 4 as my favorite PS4 exclusive, but it sure does give Naughty Dog’s masterpiece a run for its money. Bravo to Guerilla Games for delivering an absolute barnburner of a game.