Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD) is the latest title from long time PlayStation collaborator Guerrilla Games. Known primarily for their highly successful first-person shooter series Killzone the last thing anyone expected Guerrilla to produce was an open-world RPG title. What’s surprised people even more is just how well they’ve pulled it off, creating one of the year’s most successful and well received titles that many are already heralding as “game of the year”.
The game is set hundreds of years in the future. Mankind as we know it has ultimately become extinct. The massive open world is littered with ruins of our time. Skyscrapers appear as giant overgrown metal skeletons remnants of a time unknown to the humans that occupy the world today.
Mechanical beasts roam the world, some reminiscent of dinosaurs, others borrowing their likeness from cattle or birds. Each is a combination of the former world’s advanced technology evolving of its own accord for generations without interference by man.
The humans of the world have returned to simpler times. Living in tribal communities amongst the wilderness they resemble hunter gathers of a Neanderthalic period more than anything. Their tools and ways are primitive and in no way close to the remains of a fallen technological society around them.
You play as Aloy, the game’s strong female protagonist, whom as a child was outcast from her tribe for reasons that become apparent as you progress. Raised by an adopted father in the wilderness the early moments of the game allow you to see her grow under his care into the strong, highly skilled warrior that she is for the its majority.
As the game truly begins Aloy is tasked to explore the greater lands in search of solutions to her once cast-from tribe’s continuing issues with machine and foe while at the same time looking for answers to her own personal story.
As with most open world games, you begin following a primary quest line that in turn unveils the world’s full extent. Peppered along the way are a seemingly endless number of side quests that ultimately have little do with the end result but serve as fun (or normally tedious) distractions and an opportunity to explore the world’s vastness. HZD is no different, following a tried and true method of world building, but it does differ greatly in doing so with far more relevant and seemingly appropriate side quests.
Aloy, a young, motherless outsider is very early on approached to go in search of a random person’s lost family member for example. Her concern and longing for her own family means it only too well fits her character’s likelihood to take up the task. It’s a common thread amongst the side quests and with the exception of a rare few that I’ve encountered rings true throughout the game.
As you explore the world the game reveals itself to be a cross between numerous titles of the same genre. Elements of the world are revealed and the game makes use of a climbing mechanic (albeit a far more cumbersome one) akin to early Assassin’s Creeds. The aesthetic and composition of the world, whilst its own in every way, feels similar to a Far Cry; 3 and 4 especially when you encounter outposts that require clearing as a part of quests.
The game’s biggest influence and in my eyes similarity comes from The Witcher series, arguably the greatest open-world game to date with it’s most recent iteration, The Witcher 3 last year. Just like Geralt, Aloy and her finely tuned side-quests continually fit as the game progresses. Where HZD breaks out into it’s own though is through its more simplistic approach to the RPG elements. For those not wanting to fully engross themselves in the endless finer points of inventory and crafting mechanic the game far more appealing and being a PlayStation exclusive and not a PC title, a necessity.
Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most beautiful games I’ve seen on a PlayStation.
That’s not to say the RPG elements are gimped at the knees. A standard sort of skill tree system, layered on top of weapon modifications, armour management and rudimentary crafting mechanics leave enough depth to satisfy those wanting to dive in and explore the game’s deeper RPG systems.
The game’s fighting mechanic is largely weapon based. Generally armed with bow and spear Aloy’s attacks are often done best at range or stealthily. That doesn’t mean you need to play the entire game hiding in the tall grass that litters the landscape though. A simple light or heavy melee attack offer combat options when in the thick of it and a series of weaponised trip wires and grapple tools offer alternative methods of attack and are required to be employed when tackling certain enemy types.
Each ”animal” you encounter has a series of different properties that will dictate how you approach them. Vulnerable to different variations of weapon type, electrical, water and fire or riddled with glowy bits that explode or encumber the animal each make for a unique experience -especially when you happen upon a new variety at many points throughout the game. It’s these first or large encounters with different creatures that are the lynch pins for the game’s player retention. Each proving slightly more challenging and requiring you to make use of newly learned skills as you progress.
Progression is handled incredibly well being both paced and balanced. With the completion of each element of the primary quest line you’d often find yourself just shy of the level requirement to continue. While initially annoying it would often be perfectly positioned to allow for the exploration to the next point required before actually beginning the quest. The road along the way littered with enough animals, encounters and should you be inclined, side quests, to get you well and truly over the line without you needing to spend hours mindlessly grinding away in a field to continue.
That’s not to say the game isn’t without its issues. The story is definitely engaging but lacks a polish, especially in the early stages of the game. It’s not enough to put you off but enough to disengage in points you probably shouldn’t be.
It’s climbing and obstacle avoidance mechanics are antiquated and glitchy. Giant yellow coloured rope accents anything climbable and feels hugely out of space in the open world. A trope you’ll find in any video game of the last decade it seems out of place in such a beautifully rendered and high quality environment to then smack glowing yellow climbing bits on a rock face.
The act of climbing itself is also a little broken in places. Pushes and pulls on the the controller’s sticks sometimes work and in other seemingly straight forward scenarios just don’t. This movement variance can also be seen in what you’d think would be normal obstacle avoidance as Aloy often encounter trees and smaller rock piles in the world. Instead of auto-processing them she bumps against their invisible bounds continually, stopping the flow of gameplay and requiring you to either back up and move around them or if possible jump over to avoid. The whole thing feels… old. After the fluidity and poetry that is movement in offerings from Naughty Dog in recent years, simple things like this just stand out so much more.
There’s also a version of what’s commonly called ”detective mode” in HZD, which although explained in the story and makes perfect sense in the setting, feels like a complete cop-out and over-used, cop-out gaming trope of today’s industry.
…climbing and obstacle avoidance mechanics are antiquated and glitchy.
Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most beautiful games I’ve seen on a PlayStation. It’s even more impressive on the PS4Pro attached to a HDR compatible TV. The game is Sony’s first tentpole title to push the half-step console and show off what it can really do. For an open world to exist in such a high quality on a home console is truly impressive and the game is worth experiencing if only for its beauty and accompanied sound direction. Where it cuts corners with obvious collision detection out of the window for some environmental elements like grass or trees it doubly redeems itself in the water effects or the textures of a cliff face.
Dealt the cruel fate of launching only weeks ahead of Zelda and Nintendo’s new console The Switch, HZD’s praise was relatively short lived. It is the better game though, despite what any Nintendo fan-boy might say. It looks better, plays better and has a vastly more solid story line with some incredible (and not so incredible) voice acting. Zelda aside the game definitely holds up if only for being a reason for me to turn on the PS4 again after many months of laying dormant to it’s superior PC sister in my study.
Is it game of the year? No, not for me anyway, even with all of its beauty, all of its carefully plotted and attuned quests and streamlined mechanics it still didn’t change the fact at its core you find a paint-by-numbers open world title. Is it something you should pick up and play? Definitely! It’s a fantastic game and if you’re a fan of open world games and any of the Far Cry series I think you’ll get hours of fun and enjoyment from it. Credit too for Guerrilla Games who’ve completely reinvented themselves in creating an entirely new IP in a genre definitely not in the developer’s wheelhouse. Bravo.