Horizon: Zero Dawn Review

Release Date: February 28, 2017
Developer: Guerilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Action, Adventure, Open World
System: Playstation 4

Playtime: 45 hours

Guerilla Games and I have never gotten along. Their penultimate, Playstation-exclusive franchise Killzone was a massive disappointment to me. Labelling it the Halo killer, this first-person franchise felt more like a graphical showcase for the Playstation 3 than a solid gaming experience.  The franchise fails to provide an immersive single-player experience and offers an inconsistent multiplayer. When Killzone: Shadow Fall came out for Playstation 4 on day one of its release, I began playing it, hoping it would change my mind on Guerilla Games. Killzone: Shadow Fall was an attempt at combining provocative storytelling with layered gameplay, resulting in an uneven experience. Focusing on the exciting gunfights consistently clashed with the moral conflict central to the story.

Naturally, while watching the unveiling of Horizon: Zero Dawn at E3 in 2013 I could feel the excitement building in me. I knew I was hooked. The trailer provided enough information to create questions, making me want to play the game in order to find the answers. However, when I saw that Guerilla Games was the studio developing it, I had immediate concern. Horizon: Zero Dawn looked to be the inverse of Killzone: open to exploring, an engaging single player campaign, and plenty of secrets to uncover in figuring why the world is how it is. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a world that feels alive; Killzone feels lifeless. This was a risky move by Guerilla Games...one that paid off significantly.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a genuine Game of the Year contender for 2017. In every component of the game, anyone playing can sense the thought and craftsmanship put into Horizon: Zero Dawn. This game is a complete, comprehensive, immersive experience that engages you from the opening cinematic until the very end of the story. Horizon: Zero Dawn deftly balances the line between remaining open while trying to steer players towards playing the story missions. All of this is tied together by a strong, complex main protagonist within a breathtakingly beautiful world.

The Dangers of uncontrolled A.I. development

Horizon: Zero Dawn is in equal parts a parable about Artificial Intelligence and a story about discovery. It provides exploration of a world that is as mysterious as its main protagonist, Aloy. An outcast from the Nora tribe since her birth for unknown reasons, Aloy is determined to uncover her past by winning a coming-of-age competition known as the Proving. The Proving is a skill-based competition for teenagers to not only prove themselves ready to be adults, but also to be hunters for the tribe. It’s also for outsiders to earn their respective spot back into the tribe. Those who win the Proving can request anything they desire from the leaders of the tribe. For Aloy, this means having them tell her about her past.

Years of training results in Aloy winning the competition, even with the proctor of the exam working against her. Unfortunately, her win is cut short by an ambush on her tribe by another tribe called the Eclipse. Although Aloy survives the onslaught; it comes at a price. With the emerging threat of the Eclipse comes a brewing, troubling threat on the horizon. For Aloy, this is an opportunity to protect her tribe…and at the same time discover her identity.

What Horizon: Zero Dawn does best is make players feel like they are visiting a living, breathing world long established and full of mysteries to unravel. Every detail provides a story being told; the dilapidated skyscrapers, the remnants of streets and cars serve as reminders that a world like our own existed before. Now, nature has reclaimed most of the land thanks to the careful watch of the mechanical beasts roaming around the world. As a result, humanity is resorting back to tribal living situations. In the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn, there are many tribes of people stretching across the world map. Each tribe is well thought out, having their own goals, traditions and history.

Of the major tribes, the two tribes having the biggest presence in Horizon: Zero Dawn are the Nora and Carja. The Nora and Carja are foils of each other – the Nora being a tribe dedicated to spirituality and respecting the balance between Nature, Man and Machines. They worship a goddess referred to as “All Mother”: she not only maintains the balance of life on Earth, but provides wisdom and guidance. All of their villages only utilize what nature provides: using parts of the beasts is prohibited. Inversely, the Carja are a tribe embracing the practicality of using the metal from beasts. However, there were factional disagreements within the Carja leading to a splintering of several tribes: the Shadow Carja and Eclipse.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is also really good at lore building. All of the side quests and collectibles within the game provide a small insight into the world as Aloy sees it, and into the world that we know in real life. Collectibles like the audio logs, emails, or transcripts , while optional, feel like they are worth gathering in order to flesh out the backstory to Horizon: Zero Dawn. Considering how strong Horizon: Zero Dawn is at world building, it’s almost a disservice to the player if they do not go looking for the collectibles.

Aloy, the main protagonist of Horizon: Zero Dawn is also one of the strongest written protagonists I have played. Her unending desire for discovering her past as well as how the world came to be heightens the enjoyment of exploration. Her character is also very refreshingly written, breaking apart the unfortunate gender stereotypes that are often enforced. There’s no damsel-in-distress, no happiness found within a man or ridiculous armor sets. Instead, Aloy is strong, confident, resourceful….she’s human. She wears armor that covers her just as much as the next person that would actually protect her from receiving major damage. Aloy feels alive and present, creating a complex character full of ambition and drive. In fact, all of the cast that come into the fray feel complex and real. They are all each driven by their ambitions and desires, stopping at nothing in order to achieve them.

That is what makes Horizon: Zero Dawn a compelling experience: it all feels natural and living. There are plenty of questions that are slowly answered over time. Slowly, the story twists and turns and unfurls, providing enough detail at every checkpoint without revealing too much. The writers here have a solid sense of pacing, making the story feel evenly satisfying from beginning to end. Even when the story begins to pick up pace for matching the sense of urgency the game is pushing, it still maintains a natural feeling of progression. Inevitably, when the big reveal happens about Aloy and her origins (as well as the reason for her birth), it generates a satisfying conclusion.

Breathtakingly beautiful and impossible to look away from, the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is visually stunning. Ruins of modern civilization, dense lush forests, frozen tundras, deserts…everything is crafted in such painstaking detail that it is hard to fathom the amount of hours spent crafting the world. Not to mention, the design of the world makes sense: each diverse environment contained in the world pairs with the ideology behind the tribes inhabiting them.

For example, the lush, green mountains and surrounding forest represents the balance the Nora are always seeking between man and nature. Ultimately, it’s very apparent how much attention to detail Guerilla Games was putting into crafting Horizon: Zero Dawn and succeeded in delivering a living, breathing world for players to explore.

Combat is How You Make It

Horizon: Zero Dawn not only excels at storytelling, but also succeeds in providing exciting, challenging gameplay. Battles against enemies require keeping track of different enemy’s attack styles and using that information to adapt in order to win the fight. In one moment, Aloy could be facing off against a giant creature spitting fire that can also lob fireballs in ranged combat. The next, another creature that can project a shield and shoot electricity might try ambushing from behind. When the battle is over, Aloy might have fought off dozens of various types of enemies. Challenging players to pay attention to the situation and analyzing the information quickly on their feet is something Horizon: Zero Dawn loves doing: battles are about finding an advantage and utilizing it in order to survive.

That’s where the biggest tool Aloy has up her sleeve comes into play: her Focus. The Focus is a metal chip that Aloy wears around her ear that works as an amazing multi-tool. One very useful ability it has is being able to analyze a creature and find vulnerable points in their armor, their strengths, and weaknesses. Enemies having different weaknesses also means different types of weapon and ammo to analyze a determine an enemy’s weakpoint. Horizon: Zero Dawn gives players plenty of tools and weapons for experimenting with in battle. Having all of these tools, traps and weapons also means more versatility and strategies to approaching any enemies. For instance, a player can set up a shock trip rope to shock an enemy beast and make them vulnerable to a critical melee hit. Another could be lobbing using an arrow designed to rip off armor and following up with a sticky bomb on the same spot. An enemy’s weakness also increases the critical hit chance allowing significant damage to be dealt. Players can also modify their weapons with upgrades ranging fromincreasing damage to adding elemental damage The mods sometimes feel superficial, but the small amount of help they provide can end up being a deciding factor.

If there’s a situation where players begin feeling like they are in a losing battle, the game has a quick wheel semi-pause menu allowing for crafting ammo or changing weapons in the middle of battle if players have the right material.  Having the quick wheel allows the fluidity of the battle to remain feeling organic. Complementing the arsenal of weapons is Aloy’s ability to hack. As the game progresses, and depending on the player working on side quests, Aloy is able to learn how to “override” (or hack) different creatures to either help her in battle, or use as a transportation. Some of the hacking remains indefinitely, while others last for a short duration of time, providing enough of a diversion to escape. Horizon: Zero Dawn provides plenty of ways for a fight to go, hoping that no two battles feel like they play out the same way.

Unfortunately, there are moments where battles can feel pretty overwhelming and get out of hand quickly. There are plenty of moments where players might feel like they’ve earned a respite, only to learn that an enemy was getting ready to ambush you from behind. Other times it might be the sheer number of enemies facing off against Aloy when the battle starts. Mistakes often end up being costly, especially with how many battles players will have to get through in order to explore every inch of the map.

Outside of battles, a lot of the gameplay focuses on emphasizing discovery. There are collectibles to be discovered, hunting grounds, and machine discovery sites that are completely option but worth investigating. There are several moments where players are having Aloy say based on Logic, Empathy or Brashness. All of the gameplay elements come together to make Horizon: Zero Dawn a thrill ride from beginning to end.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a Complete Package

Simply put, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a complete experience, thoroughly detailed in every category conceivable. Everything is layered and texturized to work together, generating the feeling that players are stepping into a living, breathing world. The story’s emphasis on discovery, both on identity, the past, present, and the future is immersive.

Aloy is a fantastic main protagonist who sheds away all sexist stereotypes possible. Her personality shines through thanks to her voice actress, Ashly Burch: her inflections, emphasis, and personality make Aloy feel realistic. Gameplay can sometimes be overwhelming, but it’s challenging, engaging, and exciting. With how much Guerilla Games is packing into this game, it would be easy to think some details slipped along the way. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a gamble by Guerilla Games that’s asking players to trust them, give them a second chance to prove how good they are. Horizon: Zero Dawn showed that Guerilla Games is a studio ready to take on big challenges, and do so in strong fashion. This is a must own game, and is one of the contenders for Game of the Year for 2017.

 

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About

The moment he was born, Terry Randolph knew he would play video games. Okay....not the exact moment he was born, but definitely at an early age. His affinity for video games was cemented in the multiple tantrums he threw while being dragged away from playing Sonic the Hedgehod at his daycare when his parents came to pick him up. Since then, Terry continues to enjoy all the experiences gaming provides. He also loves to write short stories and ambitious novel projects. Last Token Gaming was born from both his love of writing and video games. Twitter: @wanderinganbu Email: terry.r@lasttokengaming.com

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