Developer: Guerilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Rated: T for Teen
Released: 28 February 2017
Completed: 26 March 2017
I almost didn't pick up Horizon: Zero Dawn. It wasn't for lack of interest. A game where you fight giant robot dinosaurs has all the hallmarks of greatness, but between the release of Nintendo's newest console, the Switch, and a plethora of other high profile releases, including Mass Effect: Andromeda, I figured it would be months until I even touched Horizon. As a result, I was content to wait until the price dropped. Until the reviews started rolling in...
I cracked under the pressure of overwhelmingly positive reviews and picked up the game at launch. After spending somewhere between 40 and 50 hours scouring nearly every square inch of landscape, discovering the secrets of its captivating history, watching a brilliantly-written story unfold, rife with thematic elements that are crucial in our current world, hunting robotic beasts, and collecting every single collectible, Horizon is suddenly the early favorite for Game of the Year.
Admittedly, I haven't finished the new Zelda, which by all accounts is not just the best in the franchise but one of the best games of all-time, but from what I've played of it, I can't imagine how it's going to eclipse Horizon's epic, intriguing story or its thrilling combat.
You play as Aloy, a young girl cast out from her tribe at birth and raised by her surrogate father. What starts as a simple quest to uncover the mystery of your parentage branches out into an incredible narrative about humanity, our fascination and dangerous dependency on technology, social structure and class, warring ideals, and more. Horizon isn't afraid to touch upon tough issues or upset the status quo. Everyone who has been clamoring for a game with more diversity and better female characterizations - Horizon is your game.
The world of Horizon is populated with numerous tribes, many of which are ethnically diverse, and fearless women who aren't afraid to upstage powerful men. Some critics may be quick to write it off as a cheap, forced attempt at shoehorning in diversity to please the politically correct, but in actuality it's all explained very well over the course of the game's story. It's refreshing, quite frankly, to see a world where women are more than handmaidens and barmaids. Instead, they're leaders of a famous hunting lodge and are worshiped as God-like figures.
At its heart, Horizon isn't all that different from games like the recent Tomb Raider entries or Uncharted. I've heard a lot of Far Cry comparisons used as well. Basically, it's a vast open world sandbox you're free to explore at your leisure, completing numerous sidequests and errands, collecting hidden treasures, and fighting its impressive array of metallic fauna. There are stealth elements, light RPG elements, and a basic crafting system - all pretty standard for the genre.
What sets Horizon apart are its absolutely pulse-pounding combat scenarios. Early on, you'll rely heavily on your ability to hide in tall grass and silently kill weaker machines, but as you progress you'll encounter much larger beasts, resembling everything from tigers, alligators, enormous birds of prey, and yes, a T-Rex. Each machine you fight requires different tactics, and you'll quickly find that combat in Horizon is as much about careful calculation and planning than direct confrontation.
Trying to tackle most machines head-on is suicide, especially since many of them roam in packs as real animals would. Instead, you're expected to strategize. You'll have to use your wits and semi-primitive weaponry, which consists of bows, tripwires, slings, tie-downs, and proximity-based traps, if you want to survive.
On paper this may not sound very exciting, but just wait until a snapmaw - the robotic alligator-like creatures - stumbles onto one of your tripwires then begins frantically chasing you, spewing projectiles and swiping its devastating tail. The mad scramble that ensues is video game poetry - a mix of reflexes and quick-thinking as you try to lure the beast into your next best-laid trap while dodging its attacks. Successfully taking down the game's larger machines feels satisfying right until the very end of the game. Each one feels like an accomplishment. Things do get a bit easier over time, but victory is never assured when you're fighting a robotic dinosaur with guns attached to either side of its head or that can flatten you with its giant feet.
Other machines such as the scorpion-like corrupters or the stealthy stalkers are equally deadly thanks to their speed, and the latter's ability to cloak itself, but you're not helpless. Special arrows can knock components off of machines, stripping them of their special abilities if your aim is true enough. If you're lucky, you can stun a creature long enough to rush in for a critical hit with Aloy's spear, but close quarters combat isn't advised against all but the most basic of beasts.
One of my favorite moments in the whole game came as I was exploring one of the Cauldrons - a place where the machines are made. Each Cauldron, once explored, can grant Aloy the ability to override machines for short periods of time, making them fight on her side, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Standing behind a force field in the Cauldron's core was a dormant thunderjaw, the game's equivalent of the Tyrannosaur. I knew as soon as I activated the core, I'd be in for a fight, but I came prepared. I strafed around the entire force field, laying explosive tripwires across the entire area, and behind those, explosive traps, guaranteed to inflict massive damage no matter which way the machine charged. It took several minutes, but it was worth it. After the thunderjaw was awakened, I never had to fire another shot - I simply led it along the path I'd laid out.
Another optional, but recommended, activity involves clearing out corrupted zones, where machines that are impervious to Aloy's override ability patrol, leaving a poisonous trail in their wake. One such area contained two rockbreakers, gigantic burrowing machines that are exceedingly strong and difficult to kill since they expose themselves in limited bursts. Instead of taking them on directly, I overrode a nearby behemoth, which then charged into the corrupted zone and took out both rockbreakers for me while I hung back and watched.
Scenarios like these are plentiful in Horizon. I felt just as proud of using my enemies against each other as I did taking them on myself. Each encounter played out differently, and they were all rewarding and exhilarating.
Exploration is the other half of the game, and I was surprised by just how free I was to explore. You have the customary waypoint marker that tells you where you need to go next, but you can often find alternate paths by cutting across rocky mountains. As with most modern games, there are places you're clearly supposed to go, marked by handy scuff marks or yellow handholds, but if you don't mind doing that video game thing where you jump like an idiot repeatedly into a wall of rocks, you'll often be rewarded for your perseverance and uncover a makeshift shortcut. At times, I was scaling practically vertical surfaces - implausible, sure, but it definitely beat running around the base of the whole mountain. Fast travel is available for really long jaunts, provided you have already found one of the many campfires scattered across the map in the general vicinity of where you need to go, but early on you'll have to do all your exploring on foot.
What surprised me most about Horizon was its impactful story, however. As solid, if not exceptional, as its gameplay systems are, the story presented is original, meaningful, and moving. It's not bogged down by the trying to be "mature" (read: throwing a ton of f-bombs your way every few seconds). The characters are well-presented, and often multi-faceted. Take, for instance, Erend - a drunken warrior of Oseram who befriends Aloy, and later shapes up in the wake of a personal tragedy to prove his worth. Sun-King Avad is another such character - the ruler of the game's largest city, Meridian, who rose to power after murdering his own bloodthirsty father. Avad is loved by many for ending his father's reign of terror, but there are plenty of others who feel he's too soft, and still others who feel he betrayed his people by ending long-standing feuds with other tribes.
The game's political landscape is an obvious allegory for the world we currently live in. There's talk of refugees, both sympathetic and decidedly less so. Citizens of various camps and towns talk amongst themselves of women in positions of power, and the pros and cons of such things. Aloy's own exploits are met with both acclaim and revulsion. Many see her as a hero, but there are those who see her as a savage.
Horizon's world is a mixture of primitive culture and advanced technology. It's post-apocalyptic, but there is lush greenery, bountiful plants to harvest, flesh and blood animals to hunt, crystal clear waters, breathtaking sunsets, and weather ranging from heavy downpours, gentle snowfall, and dust storms. The geography is dotted with relics of the Old Ones - crumbling structures that were once skyscrapers, a crashed airplane, and familiar sights like traffic signals now covered in overgrown vegetation. The crux of the story is discovering how the world got in this state. Who were the Old Ones, and what happened to them? How did the machines come to be, and why did they turn violent? The answers are revealed in satisfying fashion.
The engine that drives the game is as impressive as its story and combat. Horizon is a sight to behold. There is some pop-in, and there are occasional graphical glitches where things will miraculously get stuck in mid-air, but generally you'll be too enamored with the game to notice. Overall, the scenery is often majestic, making the robust photo mode found in the pause menu a thoughtful inclusion.
Like the graphics, the sound is pretty spectacular as well, though not without a few foibles. Some of the voice acting is definitely not up to par with the rest, and it stands out when you hear it. Music is also a bit hit and miss. There are a handful of really excellent tracks, including the game's main theme with its choral vocals, but the ambient music is forgettable, if you even notice it at all.
The sound effects, however, really shine. You can hear creatures, living and machine, traipsing through the environment all around you. Explosions result in a satisfactory room-shaking boom, and they're plentiful given the nature of the game's artificially crafted enemies. Creatures all make distinct noises, including sounds that alert you to their current state. This gives you a helpful advantage, even when they aren't in view, of knowing you'd better hide unless you're looking for a fight.
I'm sure I could nitpick Horizon to death, but what's the point? No game is flawless, but games like this come as close as feasibly possible. I rarely ever bother with the optional collectibles in games, but I had so much fun exploring the world, tangling with the machines and the human enemies inhabiting it, and uncovering every bit of lore the game had to offer that I felt compelled to do it all. This is going to be a hard one to top for Game of the Year, considering it's arguably my favorite game on the PlayStation 4 to date.
Horizon: Zero Dawn was completed on a PlayStation 4 with no cheats.