Horizon Zero Dawn is the incredibly ambitious action-RPG from Guerrilla Games (of Killzone fame). We first glimpsed this game over two years ago at E3 2015, where its robot dinosaur hunting premise set more than a few chins wagging. So finally after five years in development the game is upon us, but is this PS4 exclusive something to gloat about and rub in an Xbox fan’s face when you’re drunk in the middle of Sydney and looking for a good donnybrook? Absolutely, except don’t gloat as it’s unbecoming. Also, violence isn’t the answer (unless of course you’re being beset upon by a mechanical dinosaur, then violence is most certainly the answer). Horizon Zero Dawn accomplishes an incredible amount in terms of setting, story, gameplay and technical performance, and really, when you nail all those aspects what’s left to conquer?
Praise the sun
Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in a world whose timeline has seemingly been reset, and not by a few years, but rather by thousands of millennia. A great calamity has befallen human society at some point in the 21st century, and humanity as we know it has been all but obliterated; all of its technological wonders and towering edifices that once stood as monuments to human pride have crumbled to dust, and Nature has largely reclaimed Her throne. True to our tenacious spirit the human species does hang on, albeit in relatively primitive hunter tribes. We are no longer the top of the food chain either – no, that mantle now belongs to the scores of mechanical dinosaurs that are roaming around. You play as the wilful ginger Aloy (pronounced aye-loy), a young girl who has lived her life as an outcast of the Nora tribe since her mysterious birth. Intelligent, strong and curious, Aloy must question the strict rules of her tribe and uncover the secrets of her birth and the origin of the machines. Central to her quest is unravelling the mystery of the ones who came before, whose mighty society fell from such lofty heights. Where did they go, and what did they leave behind?
Beware the one-eyed demon
HZD’s post-post-apocalyptic setting is one that I instantly fell in love with from a conceptual standpoint, and it stands as one of the most unique premises to grace a AAA game in a long time. Within this setting, the storytelling is allowed to flourish and manages to touch on quite deep and complex themes and concepts. This is particularly true in regards to the history of the ancient ones and the events surrounding their downfall, where the story brushes with many high concepts of natural philosophy, religion, and the nature of intelligence and consciousness. It is incredibly strong and well-written, and there are transcendent moments of sublime revelation and true emotion to be experienced at many junctions. Running parallel to the mystery of the Old Ones is Aloy’s dealings with the various tribes that represent humanity’s reincarnation. While I found the tribal story thread to be slightly less enthralling, it is nonetheless well realised, and both the world’s past and present are rich with interesting characters and deep lore.
But no matter how good a setting is, a game is not a book but is rather something to be played, and thankfully in this department HZD is no slouch. While most of the rudimentary mechanics will be familiar to anyone who has ever played an open-world action-RPG (The Witcher series is certainly a decent comparison), Guerilla Games have managed to introduce some quite crafty mechanics into the combat which make it consistently satisfying. In tune with its setting, HZD is all about the thrill of the hunt. For the most part you will be fighting mechanical beasts who are faster and stronger than you, and your greatest allies are your wits and the ability to outsmart your opponent. You can go in bows blazing, however the smarter hunter will observe their prey from a distance, carefully planning an attack that will exploit their foe’s weaknesses.
You are given an incredibly varied arsenal to work with, and combining your weapons and changing strategies on-the-fly to adapt to your adversaries is the key to success. Asides from bows which shoot various types of arrows such as armour-piercing, shock, frost and fire, you also have unique weapons such as the Ropecaster, which ties enemies to the ground and temporarily disables them. There’s also the Tripcaster, which can be used to place tripwires in the path of unsuspecting prey which can inflict
various elemental effects if they are stumbled into. Better variants of weapons can be bought or earned and these will increase their potency and give you different ammo types to experiment with. It was not uncommon for me to use four different weapons with multiple ammo types to take down a pesky beast, especially some of the larger megafauna-inspired enemies.
HZD’s post-post-apocalyptic setting is one that I instantly fell in love with from a conceptual standpoint, and it stands as one of the most unique premises to grace a AAA game in a long time.
What a nice pair of…concussion sacks…you have
Cool hat bro
The depth of options available to you makes for some fantastic emergent gameplay. For instance, you can send a Grazer (a gazelle-type creature) running into a robot herd after rupturing its Blaze cell with a fire arrow to be rewarded with a gnarly explosion that damages anything nearby and sets the surrounding enemies on fire. You can also shoot a Ravager’s cannon (Ravagers are large and agile robots resembling a sabretooth) off their back with a sonic-charged Tearblaster arrow and then pick it up and annihilate its mates with it. It cannot be understated how fun it is to blow bits off robot dinosaurs in creative ways. Dozens of hours in I was still discovering new ways to eviscerate the enemy, and with over twenty-five species to hunt you’ll never get bored. You do battle against human enemies as well but I wasn’t nearly as enamoured with this aspect. It’s functional and has its moments, but it can’t be compared to the sheer pleasure of skilful robot hunting. It should be said that enemy AI is a bit wonky at times, and in the early game the hide in tall grass/whistle to get attention/stab in the face tactic is a little overpowered. Human enemies in particular seem to be oblivious to the pile of bodies stacking up in front of a bit of tall grass, or the fact that their friends are slowly but surely dying all around them.
As mentioned, other aspects of the gameplay are more traditional RPG fare which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played an open-world action-RPG. In time-honoured tradition much of your time will be spent gaining experience for downing enemies and doing quests and errands, which you can then use to level up and acquire new skills. HZD also features climbing mechanics in the spirit of Tomb Raider or that other game series (Uncharted I think it’s called), and while it feels awesome to climb to high places it can feel a little clunky given that there are only certain ledges or handholds you can grab on to. You can tell visually which parts of the world can be scaled, but it sometimes felt like I was arbitrarily not allowed to climb a certain rock face. Swimming is also a little sluggish, however neither of these aspects are enough to derail things.
One of the pitfalls of open-world games in general is that they tend to get you to complete repetitive and arbitrary tasks for little reason other than to tick off an empty checklist. HZD handles this quite well in that things like gathering collectibles net you decent rewards from certain merchants, and more importantly lead you to interesting parts of the world that you might otherwise not have seen. There is also a great variation to the side activities in which you partake, whether it be finding a spot to climb onto a Tallneck’s back (Tallnecks are magnificent non-hostile creature resembling a spiny flat-headed giraffatitan) to get the lay of the land or competing in competitive time-based Hunting Trials. The Hunting Trials in particular are an excellent way of becoming acquainted with some of the more unique strengths of your arsenal and unique weaknesses of your enemies, and earning accolades in these trials also grants you access to high-level gear. For every activity in HZD there’s a tangible incentive, and exploring every corner of the map is both encouraged and rewarded.
The side quest design aspires to the superb examples found in The Witcher series, with some mixed results. While they are invariably fun and rewarding to complete, the dialogue and general writing feels a little stilted, and I rarely cared about who I was completing a given task for. Some side quests were excellent though, drawing from the game’s lore at the same time as enhancing it.
I feel like Neo awoke from the Matrix not far from here
This place looks important
For every activity in HZD there’s a tangible incentive, and exploring every corner of the map is both encouraged and rewarded.
Good graphics don’t necessarily equate to good gameplay, but in HZD’s case they certainly help. HZD is nothing short of a technical masterpiece running on a vanilla PS4, with a staggering amount of detail packed into a massive map. Regions of the map seamlessly transition from one topography to another, and a day/night cycle and dynamic weather system can make the same spot feel and play entirely differently. Try hunting a pack of Stalkers (deadly panther-like robots that can cloak themselves and shoot you from a distance) at night in the rain and you’ll see what I mean. Texturing and lighting are simply beautiful, whether it be the wide open savanna plains at high noon or the dingy interior of an ancient ruin shrouded in menacing shadow and dulled neon lighting. There is a fastidious attention to detail anywhere you care to look, and I especially enjoyed the techno-tribal design of the armour and some of the more bizarre fashion (the headwear is a highlight). Aloy herself is quite a striking and powerful character, and this is well borne out in her visual design. The tiny subtleties in the way her face moves and eyes shine give her a realistic human appearance and emotional depth that is incredibly captivating. Certainly one of gaming’s most endearing heroines in recent memory.
With such an extreme level of detail you’d expect the game to perform about as well a drunk toddler in a nativity play, but the framerate never skipped a beat over my near 40-hour playthrough. There are also no loading screens between regions of the map, meaning you can run from one side to the other without being interrupted. When you fast travel to camp fires or settlements there are of course loading screens you’ll have to sit through, but I was continually impressed with just how short they were. I’m not sure what sort of dark sorcery the team at Guerrilla Games is tapping into in order to create such a graphically demanding yet smooth experience, but I like it.
I can see my yurt from up here!
Sony have taken a gamble by backing a new and ambitious IP such as this, but their faith in Guerrilla Games will most certainly pay dividends. GG have managed to pull out all the stops in crafting an action-RPG with a brilliant premise that is utilised to its full potential. Although I have no real-world experience in such matters, if I was part of a primitive tribe that hunted machines with specialised weaponry I am positive this is what it would look and feel like. HZD’s story is satisfying on its own but sets up a world and lore that is rich with potential for many more stories to be told. This is an incredibly strong release, and while perhaps it’s a little premature to be looking at GOTY candidates, expect this one to be up there.
Reviewed on PS4