REVIEWS

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Exhilarating Combat with Massive Animalistic Robots

Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • PublisherSony Interactive Entertainment
  • DeveloperGuerrilla Games
  • Release DateFebruary 28, 2017
  • Platform(s)PS4
  • Release Price$59.99
  • Rating
    4/5

Horizon is sold to the player with a simple premise: hunt gigantic robotic dinosaurs with a bow and arrow. What’s refreshing in the realm of AAA games is the amount of craft and polish that this seed of an idea has clearly been given. From the combination of gameplay mechanics to the fleshed out and inventive world building, Guerrilla have put tremendous effort into synthesizing and refining this action title into something which exceeds the sum of its parts.

You play as Aloy, and begin the story as an infant in the care of a hermit you will come to accept as your adoptive father. Over a handful of vignettes that serve as the tutorial, you grow up training for a chance to prove yourself to a tribal society that has abandoned you, learning to climb, fight, and most notably how to use an augmented reality device, called the Focus, you uncover in an ancient ruin. Singularly focused on passing this trial to uncover the secret of your past, the story kicks off in earnest when the ceremony is interrupted by an attack. Driven to uncover the cause of the attack, inextricably linked with the mystery of why an infant girl was outcast from her tribe in the first place, Aloy’s narrative is refreshingly straightforward and personal.

Raptor-like Watchers prowl the wasteland of Horizon

Like all great artists though, Guerrilla has lifted these inspirations and combined them together quite masterfully.

Cynically, the main gameplay elements of Horizon can be clearly traced to recent origins. Without exhaustively listing influences, the Focus augmented reality overlay feels very reminiscent of Detective Vision from the Arkham games or Geralt’s Witcher Senses, while the climbing sections evoke Uncharted, and many of the crafting elements would fit right into any recent Far Cry. Like all great artists though, Guerrilla has lifted these inspirations and combined them together quite masterfully. Layering all of these mechanics into the neo-primitive setting serves to mesh them together effectively. Each feels useful, warranted, and ultimately helpful in tackling the most distinctive element of Horizon: combat with a host of robotic enemies.

Ranging from the velociraptor-like Watcher to the gargantuan Thunderjaw, the robotic denizens of Horizon provide intimidating and rewarding enemies from the first kill to the final credits. Each type of animalistic robot comes with their own behaviors and approaches to combat based on their type of body – birds will swoop, bisons will charge, and cats will pounce. Their body structure also provides a blueprint for the hunter looking to take them down, as the same components that make a Glinthawk’s swoop dangerous can be shot off and disabled with a well-placed arrow shot. Targeting these sorts of components, such as the cannons on a Ravager’s back or the storage tanks on a Fire Bellowback, enables Aloy to either limit the types of attacks available to enemies, cause large elemental explosions, or simply deal massive damage.

Combat with the massive Thunderjaws is intense and strategic

The variety and synergy of the arsenal available to Aloy makes each encounter with the robots an opportunity to experiment with, control, and ultimately dominate the fight.

Tactical combat with the robotic enemies in Horizon is further enhanced by the slew of weapons available to Aloy. While targeting components with arrows is a bread and butter approach, the type of bow and the type of arrow you might choose to craft can be quite varied. Ice enemies are often weak to commonplace fire arrows, while you might want to splurge on an expensive arrow specialised for removing components when it comes time to shoot the cannons off a T-Rex sized Thunderjaw. Tying enemies down with strong cables from your Ropecaster makes aiming substantially easier, while planning ahead and setting traps with your Tripcaster can help set the terms of the engagement. Rain a hail of explosive bombs on your enemies with the Sling or shock them up close with the shotgun-like Rattler. For the more sneaky minded, there are options for stealth kills and the ability to turn enemies to your side with hacking that round out the tools available to you. The variety and synergy of the arsenal available to Aloy makes each encounter with the robots an opportunity to experiment with, control, and ultimately dominate the fight.

The tools available to Aloy encourage exploration of the open world map, which is satisfyingly large without feeling particularly empty. A lush stand of jungle, snowy peaks, and a harsh desert provide many opportunities for picturesque vistas, sprinkled with the skeletal remains of skyscrapers. Robots are grouped into their own various hunting grounds, ruins are sprinkled with salvageable artifacts, zones are rife with corruption that must be cleared, and mysterious technological ruins promise upgrades to your equipment if they can be mastered. While many of these tasks and areas represent simple opportunities for combat, they’re at their best when they serve to both advance the plot and deepen your connection to world of Horizon – luckily, they often do.

Rost instructs Aloy in marksmanship

Dialog and characterization is also mostly excellent, especially for Aloy herself.

Inhabiting this expanse are a handful of intriguing tribes, each with a culture and backstory that is doled out organically through sidequests and a bit less so with codex entries. The animation for the NPCs inhabiting the world is mostly top-notch, forgiving the awkwardness of the smiles, but what really stands out is the art direction. Every individual you meet is obviously a member of their given tribe without appearing the product of a cookie cutter. The visual approach to cultural storytelling is fascinating, and one of the areas where the polish mentioned earlier is so clear; compare this diversity and fidelity of costume to other action games or RPGs and few come close. Dialog and characterization is also mostly excellent, especially for Aloy herself. While you have some minor control over her emotional reaction to certain scripted scenes she generally displays her empathetic and focused personality. While she and her tribe are struggling to survive, she manages to maintain both her sense of humor and her anger without dipping too far into goofiness or dourness.

What keeps Horizon from perfection are some relatively minor quibbles that add a deal of tedium to the experience. Human enemies, in contrast to the animalistic robots, are generally dull as adversaries. Without much diversity or threat, outside of massive numbers, they drag down the sections of the game which focus on them. Stealth, for both these humans and many of the smaller robots, is also a bit comically overpowered. Contrasted with the frantic and thrilling combat against massive robots, this tilts more towards tedium than reprieve. Furthermore, while many sidequests have engaging stories or rationales behind them, even gaining Aloy allies for a climactic battle later in the story, they boil down mechanically to “follow these purple footsteps to a clearing, scan for a glowing item, follow these purple footsteps to a fight with robots.” Something to better change up this formula would have been welcome, especially as we compare these to the main story quests which are quite varied and exciting. And finally, I wish desperately this game were available on PC. The reliance on razor sharp aiming and timing screams for the precision that a gamepad struggles to deliver.

Stealth and surprise are some key tools available to Aloy

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a triumph with a handful of minor flaws.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a triumph with a handful of minor flaws. Exciting combat, an engaging new world to explore, and a likable, confident protagonist combine for a rewarding experience. While I don’t hasten to call this a system seller, I do think that all PS4 owners should give this game a serious look. With such a strong original property, and an exciting fusion of so many quality game elements, it’s clear that Guerrilla Games has a great deal more to offer than reliance on the Killzone series, and I’m excited to see what they’ll be working on next.

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  1. Gosh darnit bring this title to PC!

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