It's no small feat for a developer to leave behind their successful franchise for a new beginning. The risk of choosing a new IP over a familiar name is daunting, but so is the reality that a misstep could jeopardize the company's future. For years, Guerrilla Games made a name for itself with the Killzone franchise before making the decision to set out in an entirely new direction. Despite such a change of pace to go from a first-person shooter to an open-world RPG, expectations have been high for Horizon: Zero Dawn since its reveal. After spending a lengthy amount of time with the game, I'm happy to say that it has exceeded all of them.
Horizon's massive open world is one continually shrouded in mystery. Littered throughout the many intertwined biomes are the ruins of the Old Ones — the humans who lived there sometime in the past that disappeared for reasons unknown. Left behind for the world to reclaim, these structures are now mere shells of the towering presence they once were and nature itself reigns supreme over the world. Horizon is undoubtedly one of the best looking games of this console generation and takes full advantage of the power of the PlayStation 4. This is the type of game for which photo mode exists, and you'll likely find yourself constantly stopping for scenic shots of the beautiful landscapes.
As natural as the world has become, there is something very unnatural that is persistently looming in the distance: the animalistic machines that roam freely across the terrain. These hulking robots inhabit the world as ordinarily as any turkey or boar you'll come across, but the question of where they came from is just a part of Horizon's overall mystery. They envoke a sense of anxiety of what lies along the unexplored road ahead and a similar feeling of awe at the discovery of a new and much more visually impressive machine. While their existence is obviously out of place to the player, it never seems that way in the eyes of the humans who coexist with these creatures.
One of the few who questions the purpose and origin of the machines, as well as much of the unknown of their world, is the protagonist Aloy, whose journey begins in her early life. This is what makes Aloy such a refreshing character throughout the game — that she has an urge to chase down the truth of the world around her rather than conform to established beliefs. There are several tribes with whom Aloy interacts along her journey and each has its sets of culture and theories about the reality of the world. These tribes make up a system of religious and political undertones that are persistent throughout Aloy's travels. One flaw to the overall narrative is character animations during conversations. It's only a minor gripe that rarely ever ruins the moment, but it is very apparent that the lip syncing does not line up the way it should. Considering how good the characters look otherwise, it's surprising that a blemish like this is so apparent.
Among the pillars on which one may rest the quality of the game, Horizon's story may be its strongest. It's a fantastic sci-fi tale that presents a massive list of questions to the player early on and answers nearly all of them by the end of the journey. The means in which the biggest secrets of the world are revealed are also handled masterfully by continually sending the player to new locations on the far corners of the map. Rather than feel like a cheap ploy to extend the game, it seems like a necessity to hammer home Aloy's quest for the truth of what happened to humanity and why the present world is shaped in such a manner.
While side quests and collectibles in other games may at times feel like useless fodder, everything in Horizon seems as if it has its purpose in the greater storyline. While it is all optional, players would not have as much appreciation for the world that Guerrilla built by skipping out on most of it. Of course, to fill the time in between the journey to each new location, Aloy has a lot of ground to cover and a lot to accomplish. Fortunately, the other major pillar to hold Horizon up high is its gameplay. Every first encounter with a new machine feels like an entirely unpredictable experience based on the uncertainty of its strengths and weaknesses. While some machines are relatively easy to take down, most battles are absolutely hectic. Those battles make for memorable moments throughout the journey.
Aloy has a lot of weapons at her disposal to handle her enemies, which include both these machines and bands of humans. It all begins with her Focus, though, a piece of technology that gives the wearer an augmented reality view of their surroundings, which includes scanning enemies and gathering pieces of intel. The key to every fight with machines is to target their weak spots to induce more damage. Part of this relies on tearing components off the machine by putting enough hits on that particular section. It's particularly gratifying to chip away part by part, sometimes even to reach critical spots underneath for higher damage.
The primary tool of the trade for doling out damage is the bow and arrow, and Horizon's depiction of using the weapon is especially good. The act of going from steel arrowheads (for tearing off components) to elemental damage ones is simplified with a user interface that allows for a seamless transition. You can tinker with these weapons further by using modifications that are purchased from merchants or looted from your fallen foes. While some may provide bonus damage against components you're trying to dislodge, others can improve the handling of the weapon and so forth. The RPG elements also work their way in as Aloy levels up and gains skill points for an unlock tree. This one is far more watered down than what you'd find in some of the other major RPG games, but it does offer some useful perks for bow hunting.
Assuming you have enough of the game's primary currency, metal shards, to afford it all, you can essentially get ahold of all of the main weapons and gadgets fairly early on in the game. Rather than just paying for everything with metal shards, some items also require the player to trade resources they've scavenged in the world. For example, a certain upgraded outfit with which you want to equip Aloy may cost several hundred metal shards as well as a scavenged resource like a Thunderjaws's Lens. You may be able to buy one from a specific merchant, but in most cases it means that you'll have to go back into the wild and find one if you don't already have it. It inherently encourages further exploration in order to earn the reward. The process of bartering for resources and equipment with merchants in Horizon is something I'd like to see replicated in other games going forward.
Regarding going for the Platinum trophy, Horizon may not present much of a challenge due to a lack of difficulty-based trophies, but it will require a time commitment. A majority of the estimates on the site indicate that you're looking at 40-50 hours to complete the game entirely. Exploration is highly encouraged here, so plan on gathering all of the collectibles and taking down at least one of every machine. Achieving a Blazing Sun mark in all of the Hunting Grounds trials may prove to be the toughest thing to accomplish, but there are plenty of tutorials already out there to help out if you need some pointers. While Horizon may be a lengthy platinum, it will certainly be one that's worth every minute to obtain.
SummaryHorizon: Zero Dawn is an incredible sci-fi tale set inside one of the most engrossing open worlds to date. Everything in Horizon has its purpose in the greater storyline, so side quests and collectibles have meaning, battles make for memorable moments and the story is one of the strongest elements in the game. The beautiful landscapes and animalistic machines envoke both anxiety and awe as you explore with Aloy, whose urge to chase down the truth of the world around her rather than conform to established beliefs is refreshing. This is undoubtedly the beginning of the next big franchise for Sony and stands as an absolute must-play for anyone who owns a PS4.
- Incredible sci-fi tale with plenty of payoff to justify the journey
- Beautiful and massive open-world
- Engaging gameplay with over two dozen machines to discover and conquer
- Occasionally awkward conversations due to issues with lip-syncing
The reviewer spent almost 28 hours exploring the world and taking down machines. Along the way, 38 of the game's 56 trophies were unlocked. A personal Playstation 4 copy of the game was purchased for this review.
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