In this day and age, when new AAA games ‘need’ massive development teams and long years to become a reality – and this means the costs are insanely high to do so – Horizon: Zero Dawn proves unequivocally that there is a strength to be had in planning and integrity. This gorgeous, masterpiece-level game has successfully accrued sales of over 2.6 million units in its first week of being out. And damn right it should, the quality of every individual bit and facet is outstanding, but the fully formed whole it brings to your table, as a result, is truly a work of art. So join me as I take a look at Horizon’s featured and parts, and see why the world greets this mighty little title with the respect it deserves.
Arriving exclusively on PlayStation 4 – Horizon: Zero Dawn came to us as a humble offering of fun – there were no hidden tricks or ill will embedded in it. We didn’t see ‘necessary’ microtransactions that would hinder or imbalance the gameplay. There was no trickery, no pretence, and this made the experience entirely natural – pure even! There was no fanfare over pre-orders or DLC offerings, it did not seek to start life as a mere product to be looked at with derision. Nowadays, this is a blissfully rare experience that is quite powerful, the respect from a developer, to a consumer, that they will not be ripped off or financially targeted – that the experience of the game itself was stellar is not a coincidence at all. The biggest punch to other, ‘bigger’ companies is that this is a new IP – it had nothing to fall back on previously. It could not rely on established characters, or lore, or anything, really! Horizon boldly stepped out of the dark and delivered us one hell of a title, all on its own, and with respect.
And for this, it has *my* respect. That Horizon: Zero Dawn looks beautiful like a dream come to life certainly helps earn my respect – with a vibrant and wide-reaching color palette, the game looks quite brilliant. If you venture up to the many high points and look down on the world below you, teeming with both life and death, you will see so much! The snowcapped mountains look properly imposing as they loom over you – the infinite sea of green in some areas a beauty to behold, as is the daunting brown of the deserts. And off in the distance could be large, deadly machines, determined to take you down – with some more than capable of doing so. Horizon is another one of those wonderful ‘See it, go to it’ type of games, though the path to your destination might be a winding or non-obvious one. Travel itself vigorously helped by the option to fast travel between checkpoints already discovered in the world, with an early and easily attainable item granting you infinite fast travel charges.
This lush, detailed world is filled to the brim with enemies of many types, almost all of which are distinct enough from one another in their tactics to be considered a threat. From the lowly one-eyed, low-health watcher enemy you will journey outwards from. Out towards the granddaddy of mechanical monsters, the ThunderJaw. A gigantic metal dinosaur with insanely damaging attacks, a massive frame and all the armor and health in the world to come at you with. The exuberance of felling one comes second to none, even if the exact adrenaline burst gained will never match the first one you put down. It is a tough fight – as most fights can be! Until you are used to the battle system and perhaps obtain better weaponry, encounters can be very tough without correct positioning and reactionary dodges. Horizon, in fact, has a similar dodge-roll mechanic from the Souls series, albeit with no stamina to manage.
In battle, you have access to your melee spear, a bit slow and unwieldy, but it soon unlocks the ability to override machines, making them mounts for you to ride, or turning them to your side for a short while to even the odds. That is, if you manage to sneak up on them. There is a passive stealth mechanic in this game whereupon you are told and warned how much an enemy can see you. If they come near you without detection, you can opt to perform a powerful starting strike to deal high damage, or perform an override and gain them as at least temporary allies. Machines that can be ridden on will perform that function as well – and while it is a good way to travel, I found myself walking through the world, taking in the details and sights with giddy glee.
Your main weapon will likely be your bow, however. Trusty, accurate and reliable, later versions of the bow come with different attacks that use up different arrowheads. For instance, the basic Hunter bow will come with a ‘normal’ arrow that does ho-hum damage and ‘Tear’. ‘Tear’ is the statistic used to determine armor damage on a machine – and of course, they are all armored. A high Tear rating will help you rip bits of armor and weaponry off these things, often to use against them in spectacular fashion! The regular bow also gains access to a Fire Arrow early on – igniting enemies gives you a few seconds of their panic to sort yourself out, can also trigger certain component-based traps and does damage over time! The final arrow for the Hunter Bow is a ‘Precision’ arrow that does more damage and tear damage than the regular arrow, for instance.
Why mention these so specifically? Because there are other bow types that do distinctly different things. The faster-firing but much weaker War Bows offer a tactical edge to your combat, one that will be NECESSARY for survival at times! Shock Arrows for instance, build up a bar on each hit. IF the bar should fill, a small overload wracks the machine with inaction for a generous amount of time, rendering you free to scurry about and plan ambushes, lay down traps or run away. The all-important Freeze arrow has a similar bar – but once that fills up, enemies are encased in a heavy layer of Ice, become a bit more sluggish, and – more importantly – take extra damage from all attack sources for the duration! Freezing an enemy and tearing its shoulder-mounted heavy weaponry off to use against it is a lovely experience. Finally, Corruption Arrows build a bar that, whence filed, drives the machine targeted insane for a short duration – it may attack friend and foe alike. It is feasible, and encouraged, to launch a few of these into a group you plan to fight and see how their in-fighting gains you the advantage, before engaging.
Another point for combat is the skill point system – killing things awards EXP and that means you level up which means you get skill points. These can go into passive skills such as faster healing or being able to land from a jump without alerting anything nearby, to the more impressive stealth-triggered sneak strike which brings a fair bit of first strike damage to your chosen foe. It’s not a bad system and gives you the option of how to tackle the game in a way that better suits your play style. If you’re a bit bad, you’ll want to heal, to turn enemies to your side temporarily. If you love the stealth, you go and pick the noise-reducing options, with the middle road of aggressive combat also available to you with useful upgrades like double or even triple knocking arrows, an ability that lets you target weak spots better, and drastically buffs your alpha strike damage.
Aloy – the protagonist – is quite nimble and responsive to your commands. Able to scurry up handholds, larger jumps and walk across wires, among many other things, you will not find yourself lacking in traversal options in this world. Early on it is explained quite well why and how Aloy chooses to attain these abilities in a way that fits with the narrative. And boy oh boy the narrative…it would be impossible to paint a full picture of the staggering scope of the story without smashing it with the spoiler hammer, but I can safely say that within the first fifteen minutes or so, I was on this character’s side in a cold, unfriendly world. Aloy is quite a well-rounded person despite her circumstances, with the only slight eyebrow-raiser being the fact that her voice actor also did Chloe from Life Is Strange. Going from a whiny-emo teenager to a survivor of this world was a little bit jarring, but she does grow into the role nicely.
I have not been the victim of any serious glitches or problems, although at one point I did experience minor animation issues that were patched soon afterward. The game runs fine and stable on a regular non-pro PS 4 and it looks GORGEOUS on your average 32″ TV. About the one problem I had with the game was a personal one – the constantly full inventory of being a pack-rat reluctant to sell anything! Practically, money becomes meaningless once you can afford the penultimate versions of the weapons you want, and despite the gamut of choices – a single piece of basically any armor will do, according to your tastes. They do claim to offer unique benefits, but I never had a trouble just going about combat with non-combat armor for instance.
The flow of Horizon: Zero Dawn is straightforward – you start out as a little girl and experience the world a little bit in relative safety. You are then introduced to the stealth mechanics and then you grow up. I make it sound more awkward than it is – but once grown up, more things happen and you are brought into the proper open world. You can now go anywhere your heart desires and get destroyed by the local wildlife of places you’re only meant to get to ten hours later! Early exploration can find you beneficial side-quests, resources and locations, however, so it’s worth striking out on your own every now and then.
The tail-end of the story sets up a massive cliffhanger and sequel hook, a signal that there is definitely more to come. I would love to see more of this world as a fully fledged game rather than bite sized-DLC, but which it will remain uncertain. The Developers have already promised story-DLC content to be coming out, but only after a week of the actual game being out first. It’s safe to say that their big gamble paid off so well surprised even them! To firmly establish an IP like this has not been done in quite some time, and we are all the richer for it. I am quite eager and curious what is next for the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn, personally. As you find out about the powerful revelations to do with the past of the planet and certain choices made, the current situation starts to make a whole lot of sense, and possibilities branch out in front of you – possibilities that I am very hopeful we will get to see in another title from these great developers!
In summary, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a masterfully done work of art on many levels. A technical marvel to behold, a joy to play, and engrossing in its story. The journey begins with just you but soon opens up more and more, with the final few bits raising the stakes quite substantially. This, to me, was a proper adventure – full of exploration, combat and investigation. I can’t remember the last time that a title manage to swallow me up quite so much, and in the same way. If you own a PS 4 and are on the fence about whether or not you should give your time or money to this title – then let me assure you, if you even remotely like the idea of anything in this game, you will adore what it does with them.