Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Rating: T For Teen
What would happen to the Earth and its inhabitants after society has already fallen? Horizon: Zero Dawn explores this question in Guerrilla’s first foray outside of the Killzone franchise. Boasting a beautiful, detailed open world with dynamic weather effects and tight, responsive action combat, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game for both RPG and Adventure fans alike. Initially teased at the 2014 E3 show, Horizon: Zero Dawn features main heroine Aloy, a relatable protagonist that is a far cry from Guerrilla’s typical, military themed characters from their FPS days.
There is a lot of content in Horizon: Zero Dawn for a T rated game. While there is no explicit gore since combat is mainly against sentient machine animals, there are dark themes that deal with genocide and the dangers that can come from fanatical worship of idols, though the game evades outright endorsing or discouraging any religion. Right off the bat, the game makes it clear that Aloy’s tribe is very religious, as they devote their entire lives to the “All-Mother.”Some characters even start to view Aloy herself as a sort of enchantress since she seems to be among the few with a connection to the old world. Aloy is quick to denounce this so often that it becomes a plot device.
Many character choices throughout the game explore an over-arching theme of self-sacrifice against a man-made, preventable evil. There is even an audio log that can be found where a key character talks about the importance of religion in society and why he insists that all of his employees practice at least some kind expression of spirituality. There are also strong undertones on the dangers of idol worship, including that of technology. This theme reminds me of the fall of man in Eden when Adam and Eve could have avoided sin coming into the world altogether by simply doing as God had commanded.
Other tribes and groups of people that Aloy will encounter worship the sun itself, and there are allusions to Greek and Roman entities hinting that larger forces could be at play in the events that transpire. While there is much to be said in Horizon about paganism and religion in general, the way it is handled is no worse than what one might find in Assassin’s Creed which took Greek and Roman mythos and mixed it with the story of Adam and Eve from Christianity. That being said, minus some minor language such the crude version of “darn,” I am glad that Horizon is only rated T for Teen as no one should miss this game for any reason.
When I first heard about Horizon: Zero Dawn a couple of E3s ago, I was completely blown away by its presentation. The visuals, the writing, the main character, and most importantly, the world that she inhabits, all intrigued me. Guerrilla Games had finally done something that few other developers had dreamed of doing for a long time: they took a significant risk and made a new IP, a unqiue action-adventure RPG hybrid that plays more like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry Primal than Killzone, and at the time it looked like they were on to something.
Simply put, Horizon: Zero Dawn may very well be the best game to have ever come out on PS4, or the best game to have ever come out, period. I understand that I write this while games like The Last of Us exist and already have a sequel on the way but to be clear, when this game fires on all cylinders, and it does 99.9% of the time, it absolutely slaughters the competition, including Sony’s other 1st party exclusives. Uncharted and TLOU cannot match the quality experience that I had playing Horizon: Zero Dawn. It is not often that a masterpiece comes along in gaming but Horizon has reached that level of excellence.
I won’t delve too deep into the story and world of Horizon, as doing so risks spoiling all the wonderful, and mysterious intricacies of its sci-fi/post-apocalypic plot. Players step into the role of heroine Aloy, an outcast of the Nora tribe since birth. For much of the game, it is not made clear why Aloy is an outcast as she is only a baby when this is decided for her. Her caretaker, an older outcast named Rost, agrees to watch over her and he teaches her how to hunt the machines and survive on her own in the unforgiving world of Horizon: Zero Dawn. Aloy works much of her childhood and adult life to compete in the Proving, a rite of passage of sorts, that would allow her to shed her outcast status and finally get some answers about her past and shape her future. However, an attack on the Nora from a new threat forces Aloy to seek out the answers to new questions she never thought she would have to ask, forcing her to venture into an unknown world that has shunned her for her entire life.
The game’s RPG elements work on a basic level similar to Mass Effect‘s system. Weapons can be bought from various merchants and collecting modification components will allow players to add elemental damage to their bow weapons or create electric trip wires to trap enemy machines and hostile humans. Dialogue is handled mostly through a conversation wheel with three main options to choose from Compassion (represented by a heart), Logic (represented by a brain), and Aggression (represented by a fist). Depending on the choices players make during these interactions, a key change will occur near the end of the game, though this is not as significant as what we have seen from other games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect as the overall outcome of the story is still the same. However, this works in Horizon’s favor as the story is very complicated, but in a good way, and real choices would only work to convolute and sour the major reveals if player choice had a much more significant impact on the ending.
Combat is perhaps the strongest element of Horizon, despite its excellent story. While combat for the most part is typical of third-person shooter and open-world games, where it differentiates itself is in the sheer freedom it offers players in how they can approach any particular fight, whether against humans or machines. Players who prefer stealth can stick to the tall grass and let out a whistle to lure their pray straight to them before finishing them off with a stealth kill, or in the case of the machines, re-writing their code so that they fight for Aloy or allow her to mount them for enhanced speed or a quick getaway. Those who prefer a more straightforward approach can simply go in guns blazing and fire off arrow after arrow to quickly shred enemy armor or take out a bandit camp with ease. More tactical players can pepper the battlefield with traps and tripwires, or use the handy ropecaster to hold a machine in place while you work to pick off its more pesky allies. These are not the only ways to fight in Horizon as the environment can also be used to a player’s advantage. For example, enemies will take fall damage if you can manage to make them fall off a ledge. Knocking off a machine’s mounted cannon will allow you to use that weapon against them. Players can even shoot down bundles of lumber that will crash down on enemies and destroy them. The amount of freedom Horizon’s combat allows players to experiment with is almost as large as the game itself.
Typically, for a game as big as Horizon, the graphics, sound, and other elements take a hit so that all the other systems can work smoothly. However, Horizon is quite possibly the most beautiful game that I have ever seen on a console. Guerrilla has really taken it upon themselves to pack in as much detail into the world and characters as they possibly can. Players can see the individual veins and outline of Aloy’s knuckle bones on her hands. Little details like this make Horizon stand out from just about every other game out there. I am even able to notice the individual cracks and patterns of slowly melting ice over a small pond when carefully tip-toeing across it to avoid the larger machines on the other side—and this is on a standard PS4 unit. I can only imagine how good this game looks on PS4 Pro in 4K.
While the game is certainly visually stunning, the sound design is among the best around as well. With a headset on, I could hear water in a nearby stream, the chirps of birds in the air, and even the angry chattering of a raccoon whose tail I had just stepped on. There are even moments where I can hear, and seemingly feel, the lumbering footsteps of the next towering, mechanical monstrosity wanting to eat me. When I say I can feel it, I am not merely referring to the feedback from the controller rumble. I mean, I could literally feel the ground shaking beneath my feet just based on the quality of the game’s sound.
Voice acting is good for most of the cast, however, you can tell not much care was taken on some of the minor, one-off characters in the less important side quests. Hands down, the best performances are from Ashly Burch, who plays main heroine Aloy, and from Lance Reddick of Fringe, who plays the mysterious, Sylens. Another neat touch with the sound design and voice acting is that Aloy will comment on things that happen to her. For example, she may complain about the cold and the crunchiness of the snow when on a high snowy peak, or she will comment on how she narrowly avoided severe injury after sliding down the side of an embankment. In the screenshot above, captured via the game’s photo mode, I had placed my PS4 controller down for a few seconds after a tough fight and Aloy just began washing her face in the rain and looked up to the sky, closed her eyes and let the rain hit her face. These are just small examples of the incredible experiences Guerrilla has included here to flesh out their masterpiece of a game.
Aloy as a character is also one of Horizon‘s greatest triumphs. She is not a stereotype by any means and you can immediately relate to her whether you are male or female. Everyone has felt like an outcast at some point in their lives. Few have had to make the sacrifices that Aloy has had to make just to prove herself to those who already believed in her. Aside from overcoming years of being shunned by her own tribe, Aloy must also contend with the wondering eyes of male NPCs she encounters and must prove herself as a woman in a world, dominated not only by men, but also machines. Aloy is a realistic representation of what people want out of a female protagonist in games. She is not a damsel to be rescued and is not out to find her prince; she simply wants to earn her place in the world and find out where she comes from to get that since of belonging and acceptance that was taken from her as a child.
Now I said earlier that while Horizon is a masterpiece that every gamer should experience, but it is not without its own flaws. Perhaps the biggest flaw looking back is that about 80% of side-quests consist of the same formula: talk to person A, receive quest, track person B using Aloy’s focus, follow said tracks about 20 in game miles (exaggerated), kill some bandits and/or machines, turn in quest, lather, rinse, repeat. While this type of repetition normally would not go overlooked, I really didn’t even notice this as being an issue until I was about 90% through the game. This is because despite the repetition, the backstories for these characters and side quests were often so good that I didn’t care who I had to track or for how long because I just wanted to find out what happened next and see more of this exciting world that Guerrilla created.
Another flaw is the healing system in Horizon. To heal, players have two options: potions purchased from merchants or looted from dead bandits will allow instant healing, while herbs and other medicinal plants found in the world can be stacked to allow Aloy to heal on the fly. This is similar to how the herbs work in the Far Cry games in that you can still heal with potions, however when you run out of them, you better have herbs on hand as backup or try your best not to die as there are no other options to heal in the heat of combat. This was only really a problem in the late game when several machines attack at once, sometimes with little warning that there is need for preparation, so the game literally catches you off guard. Despite this, potions are easy to come by and can be purchased from just about any merchant, crafted or looted from nearly all human enemies.
In summation, there is so much to love about Horizon: Zero Dawn that all I can say without spoiling the fun is to play it for yourself. Even the fetch quests and collectibles are fun to seek out and find due to the fact that enemy machines change over the course of the game and often appear in greater numbers and sometimes are more aggressive if they are part of a corrupted zone. This adds a sense of challenge and urgency when going back to obtain all the collectibles and complete the hunting challenges in the later stages of the game. One minute, players are riding through a canyon on the back of their newly re-written grazer companion and the next minute they are fighting a trio of angry, robotic buzzard like glinthawks in a desperate bid for survival. Moments like this are plentiful in Horizon and are honestly what make the game so enjoyable. Players never know what they might learn, what they should expect, or who/what they will encounter from one moment to the next. Every decade or so, a game comes along that sets a new high bar of achievement in the industry. These games stand the test of time and delight audiences for years to come, even if they never receive the sequel they deserve. Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of these games and it has rightly earned its place among the pantheon of some of the greatest games of all time.
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The Bottom Line
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that should not be missed. Whether you are a Sony fan, Nintendo fan, or a Microsoft fan, you owe it to yourself to go and buy a PS4 if you don't already have one and play this game. It is easily worth the cost to experience once of gaming's increasingly scarce masterpieces.