A New Dawn
I have had my eye on Guerrilla Games' epic post-apocalyptic action-RPG for a while, ever since I saw the first teaser on Youtube from E3 - what seems a long time ago now. So when the game came out I was excited to grab a copy - this review is based on significant time with the game, we were never sent a code so me and Ben (the editor and owner of the site) decided we had to review the game regardless, so Ben picked up a copy for me.
Now that's out of the way, welcome to Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Out with the Old World
Horizon is a game that speaks about tribal society in the wake of a great disaster, a new dawn has broken over the world and many years into the far future, things have been reclaimed by nature. The natural order has reasserted itself, mankind has split into tribes, some peaceful, some not-so much. The one thing I took from the opening moments of Horizon was the sheer grandeur of the world design, this is some top-notch stuff right there and it speaks volumes about the attention to detail, detail that's found in one other game I could put in the same category as this: Witcher 3.
If you know my love of Witcher 3, then you'll know that this game has to be something special to even rank up there with CDPR's seminal action-RPG swan-song and one of the best RPG's I've played in well, forever.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a fantastic game, highly polished and incredibly story-driven. It sits up there with Witcher 3 in terms of story, world building, design, aesthetics and the voice work is top notch. There are a few tiny problems with some of the lip-synch when it comes to the characters speaking, and after being immersed in the non-static movement of Witcher 3's dialogues, it's a bit odd to have characters just stand there, no matter how gorgeously they're designed or animated.
You play as Aloy, brilliantly crafted, superbly animated and wonderfully designed. She is my new iconic female character in video games, sensibly dressed and extremely capable. Her voice actor, Ashley Burch manages to bring something to Aloy that has been lacking in a lot of characters, a real sense of humanity and drive. It her story that drives the game, one of tribal friction, and survival in a world taken over by machines that are becoming increasingly aggressive.
What do you do as Aloy, well, read on!
Playing Horizon: Zero Dawn
If you're familiar with third person action-RPG's you should have no trouble getting to grips with the game. You play as Aloy in two stages of her life, as a child Aloy, headstrong and somewhat churlish to begin with - this is HZD's incredibly clever tutorial and it gives you all the gameplay tools you need to be able to conquer the huge story, varied side missions and swathe of fun activities that are on offer once you break out of the main area you begin with.
Then you play as Aloy in her adult life, trained by her adoptive father Rhost and a capable scout, hunter, warrior in her own right. Aloy is able to climb, shoot, swing her spear and sneak through the tall grass of this post-apocalyptic world with the best of them.
The controls are intuitive and extremely easy to get to grips with. A few minutes into the game and I was already having a heck of a lot of fun.
There's a steady flow to the progression in HZD, something that even Witcher 3 didn't quite manage. In HZD however, you can easily break down your quests and side-quests thanks to the excellent quest log/journal and keep track of everything in neat sections. You'll be doing a lot of it, and honestly, none of it felt grindy or even make-work/busy-work ala Final Fantasy XV.
The map is huge, massive, not on the scale of say Witcher 3 but there's enough of the map and enough variety above and below ground to keep you diving back in. The sense of exploration is finely tuned and superbly crafted.
Plus, whilst you can uncover the map yourself, every bit of it, it's more fun to clamber up onto a tallneck (giant mechanical GPS systems) and remove the fog of war that way. You get a neat EMP blast when you rappel down from the top of it too.
Nimble and Capable
She can climb really well, using both designated climb spots and jumps. She can rappel where possible, slide down zip-wires and explore the world around her with a sense of connection that's often lacking in games - a physical connection to the world brought to life via her animations. Aloy reacts to everything, including putting her hands through the tall grass as she walks or runs through a patch.
She can fight really well too. The combat system in HZD is simple, and yet very effective. Right bump and left trigger controls the attacks Aloy can make with her spear, light, good for knocking bits off machines and left - a heavy swing that can knock smaller machines over allowing you to deliver a solid critical hit (if you have unlocked the skill).
She can use her bow and other weapons equally well. Left trigger aims the bow, and right trigger fires it. Simple. Aloy also has a variety of arrow types you can use - shock, fire, blast and so forth.
You can craft ammo on the fly like in the Last of Us.
There are devious traps, potions, tripcaster (shoots a wire with an elemental effect) and the ropecaster (used to tie down various machines by throwing wires at them until they're locked in a trapped state).
Machines have components you can remove, scanning them with Aloy's focus device reveals important strengths, weaknesses and pertinent information, both visually and also in Aloy's machine notebook. Here you can study the best way to take down particular machines, including the epic Thunderjaw.
Aloy has access to a skill tree, and everything that she does in combat and quests nets her experience - you level - you gain a skill point. When you have enough points you can buy skills in the 3 skill trees. I must recommend at least Lure to begin with, which makes stealth a lot more fun.
Eventually Aloy can slow down time with her focus, allowing for better aim in ranged combat.
There's a lot of crafting in HZD, you'll make ammo, you'll make upgrades to your carrying capacity. You can hunt animals Far Cry style for their various bones and skins to make these pouch upgrades. You'll also spend a lot of time hunting machines for their valuable bits, bits you can either use to make more ammo or barter with the plethora of traders in the game.
There's a lot to buy. New weapons, new outfits and these can also be modified.
It might sound overwhelming, but these things are introduced in a sensible way.
Later on you can gain the tinker skill, which lets you remove and re-adjusts modifications to weapons and outfits. You can carry up to 35 outfits, so you can buy several of the same kind and outfit them with different weaves - increasing your stealth, protection from ice, fire, shock and so on.
The same goes for weapons, you can own several different ones all with their own modifications.
You can also use the Create a Job feature to make a small quest which will lead you to the location of much-needed resources for barter, crafting and so on. You can't afford that new War Bow, well, just hunt some of these things until you can.
Be warned, shards are your currency, but they're also your ammo. Rather like Metro 2033, you have to be careful and weigh the pros and cons of what you need to buy, compared to making some new hardpoint arrows with your last few shards.
There's a lot of stuff to find in HZD, plenty of little things to discover, a lot of lore to take in and none of it's gated behind things that are too hard to get to grips with. There's legendary weapons and at least one awesome outfit that I'll leave you to discover for yourself.
The World that Was, the World that Is.
HZD is a game about change, change in a young woman's life, her tribe, the world that once was compared to the world she now lives in. Aloy reacts to it, it reacts to her and as you make your way through the story with her, it's an incredibly satisfying journey with some incredibly cool moments. Aloy can make some meaningful choices on the way, picking from her brain, brawn, or compassionate responses that will play into the game down the line.
As you hunt machines, animals, humans and discover the backstory of HZD you are drawn further into it. The world is beautiful, with an incredible level of detail across the different biomes. From forests, rivers, snow-capped mountains, desert mesas and more, the world design team have done a fantastic job on making Aloy's world come to life in spectacular ways - similar in many ways to how Red Dead Redemption set a new bar for world design.
HZD does the same with the weather, day/night cycle and aesthetics of the game. From the animations, to the textures, art style and variance across all the different tribes - in a few words it is a pretty game, a beautiful game, a gorgeous game. It also runs superbly on a regular PS4, and looks utterly spellbinding on a PS4 Pro.
The music is superb for the game, and the sound design is fantastic. It comes to life with the various ambient sounds as you explore the different biomes, day and night, it is truly spot on, top-notch sound work.
Hunted by the Machines
The true star of the show are the machines, not only are they incredibly well designed, their AI is utterly impressive. Each machine has its own AI subroutines as well, and they are all different. Your main machine type you'll meet early on is the Watcher, efficient guardians and hunters, they protect many of the machine herds that you'll come across.
They have a passive patrol state, evinced by a blue glow from their eyes. If they detect something odd, such as carcass of a friend, or even a glimpse of Aloy when she's not in tall grass and crouched, they'll begin to investigate - their state changes to yellow. They gain marker indicator to let you know, either a ! Or a ? If they're going to come and check the area out.
This is where Silent Strike (stealth kill) comes in handy. You can lure them with the lure command, then strike them when they get too close. Stealth is superb in this game.
If they spot you they'll go into attack mode, you'll have to fight or flee. They'll hunt you down, or call in their friends nearby. If you injure them, they'll flee or fight until they die.
It's not easy to predict what they'll do.
There have been times when I thought a wounded Watcher would limp off, and suddenly they rear up and attack you with raptor-like speed. It's what makes the combat system so much fun in melee.
Aloy can also dodge, so she can get out of the way.
This is some of the best AI I've seen in a game for a long time.
Everything has been animated in a fantastic fashion in HZD, the machines again are the star of the show, moving parts, so much detail and so many little things on them that catch the eye. The way they navigate the world, each one moving in a different way.
The people too, everything about this game screams AAA title.
More to See and Do
There's so much more to see and do, the single player story is engaging and Aloy grows on you over time - her journey shapes her, the world around her, and it's worth exploring every nook and cranny of this superbly made map.
I've left some things out of the review, you'll discover them in your own time and you'll learn about them - hopefully experience the same sense of wonder.
Nioh, Horizon: Zero Dawn, these are the two great games on PS4 right now and if you do not own HZD - you need to pick it up as soon as you can, because chances are, you won't want to miss out on this and certainly - you won't want to put it down when you do pick it up.
Aloy's world is worth exploring over and over.
Right up there with Witcher 3.