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Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Guerilla Games made their name with the PlayStation exclusive series Killzone; a divisive series with a die-hard fanbase, great multiplayer, admittedly with peaks and valleys in terms of response and quality.

Personally, I’m a fan of Killzone 2 and the woefully underrated Killzone Shadow Fall, but these games aren’t without their notable faults. Instead of returning to the commercially successful well again, this time Guerilla have gone all-in with a brand new IP in a genre they have never worked in: an open world RPG. Horizon Zero Dawn is the result of their risk but does it pay off? With a large, beautiful, varied open world, a compelling central mystery, interesting side-quests and top of the field gameplay, Horizon Zero Dawn is easily Guerilla Games’ best effort yet and by far one of the best games this generation so far.

Set in a future world, a calamitous event has made humans turn back to primitive living, hunting, and gathering and living off the land. Living amongst the humans are machine beasts that behave like animals but are far more dangerous. Aloy, our protagonist, has been shunned by the tribe of her caretaker Rost for not having a known mother, and Rost is left to raise her in the wilds, away from the comfort and community of the tribe. A series of events leads Aloy to be taken back in by the tribe and she is then tasked with exploring the world and to discover the secret of her existence as well as the mystery of the machine beasts.

The story is surprisingly deep in both mythology and storytelling, offering a rich world full of lore and history as well as advancing Aloy’s story as she discovers it. The critical story path will venture off in interesting and surprising directions as we take the journey with Aloy, visiting far off cities, meeting interesting characters and helping them with their plights in return for favours. One story has you discovering a murder plot of a king while visiting an ally for a completely unrelated reason. Twists and turns happen often in the game which, for me, made following the story increasingly compelling.

As you go from story mission to story mission, Aloy will explore the post-apocalyptic world which will take you from the forest, to snow-capped mountains, to the desert to the jungle and between in one of the most beautifully realised and seamless open worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Unlike most open worlds, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn is one I wanted to explore every corner of to discover new areas and environments and it all ties in to the greater history and mystery of the world and the story. It’s a truly marvellous creation.

An open world game that features hunting, crafting, a female with a bow doesn’t sound at all original and if you were to solely judge Horizon Zero Dawn on that alone, it most likely wouldn’t fare well. However, it’s what Horizon does with these well-known systems that is truly where it really shines. Smooth, fluid, rich and deep combat is at the heart of Horizon Zero Dawn. With traps that are fun and easy to use, the best bow and arrow combat since 2013’s Tomb Raider, and tight controls, every combat encounter is as thrilling as the last. Stealth is also an option, and in the beginning of the game when resources are low it’s probably the most viable one. The lower tiered machine beasts can easily be taken down by well-placed arrows or a good old fashioned stealth takedown, but you will soon learn that the larger machines won’t go down so easy. This is where the various tools at your disposal come into play. Traps can be laid in their path that will disable them for a time allowing you to target specific body parts. When enough damage is done these parts will fall off, thus changing the way the machines attack. You can damage a limp enough to severely cripple the machines or you can target a weapon on the machine and pick up to use if it falls off. This is usually the quickest way to success when fighting certain machines and is a lot of fun when it happens.

The world’s economy is also brilliantly designed. Everything you harvest serves at least one purpose and is always useful. What you want the most of, at the very least, are metal shards. Not only are metal shards the currency of the world, they’re also the key component of all arrows types, and using them to craft new arrows will deplete your reserve. This makes mindful approaches to enemy encounters paramount. Certain machines drop certain ingredients for crafting so you will often have to visit feeding grounds of said machines to hunt and use their parts. Yes, this might sound familiar to other games involving hunting but it’s done here in a very clever way and kudos to Guerilla Games for making it so fun to do. In fact, hunting and gathering is not only fun but so necessary that I rarely used mounts in the game because doing so will send you right past numerous valuable resources including healing plants used to regain health.

I could sit here for paragraph after paragraph explaining all of the numerous little things that Horizon gets right with not only their combat, economy and traversal so I will just say that Horizon Zero Dawn just feels… right. Everything about it is smartly designed to make it as fun as possible; from climbing being a simple matter of pressing the stick in the direction you wish to climb, to the way the compass tells you specifically which part of the mission you are headed towards by lining it up in the forward direction, to tagging enemies in their camp, the game takes all of the familiar gameplay tropes and simplifies them in ways that feel intuitive and again, right.

Horizon‘s sound design is pretty damn good, too. All of the main characters in the game are well acted and realised, and machines have unique sounds that are both familiar and foreign, conveying their closest real world counterpart. Cities bustle with activity and life, and the music is stellar from beginning to end. It’s a satisfying mix of music and science fiction type sounds that really work to evoke the world and the atmosphere.

For all it does right, Horizon Zero Dawn is not a perfect game. Facial animations are stiff and artificial, and cut-scenes are particularly wooden, leaving me feeling like I was watching a computer-generated puppet show which is jarring compared to the high bar set by the rest of the presentation.  There are also some perplexing design decisions like not being able to buy multiples of items if needed, or the lack of ability to isolate specific tasks on the world map. And of course, with this being an open world, it suffers from some acute open world jank like characters and enemies floating in mid-air or some strange clipping issues. Lastly, the lack of ability to be able to switch which side your aiming from is really odd considering it’s something you can do in most, if not all, third person games that involves shooting.

On the surface, Horizon Zero Dawn borrows from a litany of other games and it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that it’s merely unoriginal and derivative. However, these well-worn gameplay tropes have been streamlined and polished to a near-perfect sheen.  With its excellent combat system that is extremely fun to play, and its breathtaking world that begs you to explore it, Horizon Zero Dawn easily overcomes its few flaws and delivers a must-play game that, even this early into 2017, is a dead cert to be one of the best games of the year – perhaps even of the generation.

Horizon Zero Dawn is available on PS4.
Sean is a semi-retired, semi-grown up hardcore kid who has been gaming since his hands could grip an arcade stick. A lover and critic of movies, music and video games, Sean is always quick with an opinion, a heaping dose of snark, and a healthy dose of pragmatism. The hill he will die on will always be "gameplay over story".