Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4, 2017)

As the story of Horizon began to show its hand, about 40 or so hours into my time with it, I was excited to see it through to its conclusion. The bizarre dystopian world was starting to unravel, and I was very close to learning how it all came to be. With that in mind, I started to focus entirely on the game’s main quest – foregoing side activities and miscellaneous sight-seeing.

When I did this though, it didn’t​ sit right with me. In my own head, I wasn’t playing the game properly. In the dozens of hours that had come before this, I enjoyed Horizon as a real ‘stop and smell the (robot) flowers’ game. A game of exploration as much as a game of action. A game where I relished talking to villagers who were selling their wares at the local market, just as much as I did the large-scale dinosaur battles.

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Horizon is so much more than the sum of its parts. On paper, it’s an open world action game with crafting, RPG elements, and a post-apocalyptic setting – you know, every triple-A video game ever. But with its wonderfully well-developed protagonist, jaw-dropping visuals, and a very unique twist on the ‘after society has fallen’ setting, it manages to elevate itself above other games with those very over-done descriptors.

If the world of Horizon was confusing to you when it was first revealed (a Native American-inspired society of tribes, juxtaposed with robot dinosaurs? And it’s set on Earth just a few hundred years in the future? What?) then, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the story of the main campaign. The world of Horizon is more than just a backdrop for our protagonist’s arc – how it came to be is a major plot point. You’ll spend as much time learning about what happened to society as you will about what drives the tale’s heroine; Aloy. It serves as great motivation​ – a legitimate sense of discovery driving you forward.

The gameplay is similarly compelling; offering solid stealth and combat mechanics that develop over time. The second half of the game introduces foes five times the size of the first half, and gives you more tools to experiment with when taking them down. Tripwires, ropecasters, proximity mines, freezebombs, electric arrows – the list goes on. The arsenal is robust enough to allow you to play as you please, but there are strategic bonuses to using certain items in certain fights. Aloy’s ‘focus,’ a plot-device MacGuffin that gives her ‘video game protagonist analysis vision,’ highlights the various parts of each dinobot, with suggestions on how best tackle them. In some instances, mounted weaponry from the machines can be blasted off and used against their former owner; it’s wonderfully satisfying. Some gear is locked behind side quests meaning the aforementioned deviations from the main campaign are often worth it. You’ll meet a colourful cast of warriors, get some new toys, and accrue XP to unlock new abilities in the game’s simple skill tree.

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The nuance and variety in the robot battles is juxtaposed by the idiocy of fighting human enemies. Foes of the homosapien variety have uninspired AI patterns, and even fail to live up to them on occasion. Whether they’re snipers, brutes or beefy sub-bosses, most rival tribesman just charge at Aloy mindlessly, often getting hung up on level geometry or immediately losing interest the second you disappear around a corner. It feels antiquated and lacking in polish – which are not terms I’d use to describe the other 90% of Horizon. Goons fumbling their way through scenery aside; Horizon wows at almost every turn. The game is an almost never-ending series of vistas, with ‘god-rays’ poking through the clouds every morning and a giant pale moon at night. Almost every location is sprinkled with airborne snowflakes, flower petals or ash, which along with the swaying brush and trees makes the environment feel alive. The elegant orchestral score, along with Aloy’s charming monologues about the scenery or weather, mean the game is beautiful to listen to; a ‘podcast game’ this is not. With a robust ‘photo mode’ at your disposal, it feels like developers Guerilla were well aware this was a world worth poking around endlessly.

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Horizon: Zero Dawn is a beautiful and satisfying game. It establishes a fascinating premise and actually sticks the landing in the final act; a rarity in video games. The gameplay is open-ended and varied, with the silly human enemies and repetitive side quests not tarnishing the thrill of the game’s core missions. While Horizon works magnificently as a stand-alone title, this is certainly a world I’d happily revisit in years to come.

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