Developer: Guerrilla Games
It was probably a risky move for Guerrilla Games to step away from the popular Killzone first person shooter franchise and commit to developing an entirely new IP in genre they are not all that familiar with — but we're really glad they did. With an unique setting and narrative, and an interesting protagonist, hopefully the risk of creating Horizon: Zero Dawn was well worth it for Sony and for the studio.
Horizon: Zero Dawn tells the story of Aloy, a skilled hunter formerly of Nora tribe. For unknown reasons Aloy and her adoptive father were cast out of the clan when she was just a child and forced to live on the fringe of the settlement and shunned by the rest of society (or whatever left of it there is). The once modern world has been overtaken by mother nature, and mysterious mechanized creatures now roam the planet. Human civilization has found a way adapt, as it always does, and various factions, friendly and not-so-friendly, have taken root and learned thrived in the hostile environment. Humankind's relationship with with Mother Nature (or “All Mother” here) is a prevalent theme all throughout Horizon: Zero Dawn, and there’s something to be said for the message presented within the context of our real-life climate concerns. Either way, the robotic creatures are becoming more and more aggressive, and possibly corrupt, and humans are on the receiving end of their wrath. Through a series of events at the start of the game, Aloy is able to gain some knowledge of previous generations and find a way to not only learn about the beasts and where they may be coming from, but to interface with them in her quest to protect her tribe (and likely the planet) from destruction.
Horizon: Zero Dawn can be best described as a 3rd person, open world action role playing game, though it touches on other categories. There’s a straightforward experience and skill tree system in place, and nearly every action performed or quest that Aloy completes will earn her XP, loot, and/or skill points. XP provides increased in base stats such as health; Skill points allow Aloy to unlock new and improved abilities, including improved stealth moves, attacks, resource gathering; Loot and materials are used for trading with vendors to purchase weapons, items and outfits, or crafting objects such as potions, weapon ammo, storage capacity and whatnot. If you’ve played one of Ubisoft’s recent Far Cry titles than you probably know what to expect from Horizon as many of the systems feel like they were modeled after those to an extent. What is in place is thankfully streamlined and easy to follow and never feels as if you are required to spend a ton of time managing inventory. There’s just enough strategy in selecting which skills to unlock, or what modifications to apply to equipment, though nothing that could be categorized as overwhelming. You’ll spend more time exploring the game world and less time fussing with menus, which is a huge plus in my book.
Aloy is a nimble-footed bow hunter, who is also handy with a staff, various traps and a sling, and she’s also adept at stalking and taking down down biological and mechanical creatures (as well as fellow humans if need be). She definitely has raw skills, but it is the use of the Focus augmented reality earpiece she picked up and learned to use as a child that gives her the upper hand in many situations. Being able to track, tag and research lifeforms and objects in the environment plays a large part in her extraordinary success as a hunter. It’s also a feature that players will need to utilize all throughout the game.
The weapon and item wheels are well thought out in Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Aloy can easily switch up her strategy by selecting new weapon types at will, activating items, and even crafting ammo on the fly. Since she is not terribly overpowered most of the time, stealth is a hugely important skill all throughout the adventure and tracking foes through tall foliage all sneaky-like is something you’ll be doing a lot of. There’s no part of the game that ties you into one specific play style however, and most quests can be tackled however a player sees fit. Horizon is an absolute joy to play and Guerrilla really nailed nearly all facets of the control mechanics, especially archery. The gameplay is solid and enjoyable whether you’re navigating across the varied environments, taking down beasts and enemies alike, or climbing tall structures like Nathan Drake.
The overworld map is quite large and sprawling, again resembling something you’d find in an Ubisoft title. The small area you begin in eventually opens up into many story quests, side quests, errands and optional activities across the lush and gorgeous world — much like any modern RPG. Even with access to mechanized mounts and a limited fast travel feature (allowing players to jump to previously unlocked save points), exploring and traversing the map requires effort and time. As one may expect, the further a player ventures from the safety of the more civilized areas the more dangerous the world becomes.
There are always several activities available to tackle at any given time in Horizon and it’s really, really easy to get distracted by some interesting sounding side quest or the need to hunt and gather materials and resources. The quest system neatly breaks down the category of each activity, the rewards, suggested experience levels, and even the required distances to travel before a player commits to any set of tasks in particular. It’s very easy to just switch gears and activate another primary quest and you’re never locked into your selection. Horizon is a fairly long and well-paced experience which can be difficult at times for impatient gamers who don’t spend some time working on side tasks or honing their hunting skills. It's really just about right, though if gamers find it too easy or challenging they can dial up or back the difficulty at any time.
Guerrilla also put together a helpful and interesting dynamic “job creation” system that allows players to create a quest, or job, out of something as simple as obtaining materials to purchase a new outfit. The newly created activity then guides players through the steps of the process using the information that Aloy has gathered from the world and its inhabitants.
Enough can’t be said of how absolutely gorgeous Horizon: Zero Dawn is. It wouldn't surprise me if many PS4 and PS4 Pro players pick it up just for the incredible visuals, even if that would be doing Guerrilla Games a disservice. The juxtaposition of futuristic tech and ancient “modern” civilization with an overgrown post-apocalyptic setting makes for stunning set pieces from beginning to the end. The mechanized creatures, obviously modeled after real organic mammals, reptiles and birds, are fierce, insanely detailed and animated, and the main human characters are impressively rendered and textured. There are some wooden NPC performances from time to time (the facial expressions mostly), though for a game of this scope it’s not a big deal. The weather systems and day to night cycles, which occur at a rather fast clip, are really the icing on the cake when it comes to the graphical presentation. Chilling out and watching the shadows and sun rays move across the landscape never gets old. There’s no doubt about it, Horizon: Zero Dawn runs like a dream and is a showpiece at any resolution on any PS4 model, that’s for sure.
On the audio side, Horizon: Zero Dawn puts in fine work as well. The soundtrack features an epic sweeping score that chimes in just at the right moments with intense beats when needed or more adventurous tunes when exploring the world and cities. For a RPG of this type, there’s a surprising quantity of voice work in Horizon. Aloy is pulled off nicely by Ashly Burch even if some of her lines make her sound like she is from a more modern era. The cast is diverse and inclusive and Aloy plays her part as leading woman well. The NPC voice acting is serviceable and occasionally long-winded, ranging from over the top serious to unintentionally funny. It has a certain charm… and even though I usually feel bad skipping through the dialog sometimes it just had to be done.
So what else can we say about the game? If you own a PlayStation 4 or are thinking about getting one in the near future there’s not many excuses to not pick up Horizon: Zero Dawn. The five years of time and effort that Guerrilla Games poured into the title is evident, and it’s certainly one of the best open world action RPG experiences in recent memory.