Horizon Zero Dawn Review (PlayStation 4)
Horizon Zero Dawn is set in a post-apocalyptic future, but not one I’m used to seeing. The browns and grays of human destruction so typical of these fictional portrayals have been replaced with vibrant natural splendor, snow covered peaks and lush forests that extend as far as the eye can see. Mechanical beasts of all sizes roam these lands, acting remarkably similar to their old world counterparts, even the fearsome Thunderjaw and its prehistoric predecessors. With Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games crafted a beautiful open world filled with life, both mechanical and human, and crammed full of things to do.
The story that inhabits Horizon's world is one of the best I’ve ever played, hooking me from the outset, sometimes it left my jaw hanging open as the game overloaded me with details. There’s one revelation in particular --- one that I’m obviously not going to go into here for fear of spoilers --- that's stuck with me since I encountered it. This story made me ask questions not only about the game but about humanity itself, something every story should achieve in some way, and I look forward to having many a conversation about it once more people are given the chance to dive in.
Aloy is the star of this tale; a girl born without a mother and instantly outcast from her tribe, the strictly devout Nora. The Nora inhabit the Eastern lands, forbidding all but a few of their members to venture outside of what they call The Embrace. Any occurrences outside of their firmly held beliefs are met with resistance. Eventually, other tribes emerge from the wilds, like the Carja, broken in half after a bloody civil war, and the Oseram tribes in the West. Before Aloy can encounter them however, she first must prove herself to her tribe.
This new heroine was an instant favorite, written and animated perfectly by the wizards at Guerrilla. She’s a skilled warrior, adept with multiple types of weaponry, and more than holds her own among the Horizon's other inhabitants. Her search for knowledge about her origin drives her into the most dangerous parts of this new Earth, plundering ancient ruins and taking on all manner of opposition. Aloy is portrayed exactly how a female lead should be written --- strong, independent and human --- and she's character that demanded (and gained) the respect of both other characters in the game and the player.
When she wasn't putting people in their places with her sharp tongue, Aloy spent her time mastering the wilds with her combat skills. Guerrilla’s combat system is masterful, mixing familiar weaponry with brand new ideas that allowed me to take all new approaches to open-world combat. Aloy’s main weapons --- the bow for ranged attacks and a spear for melee --- may be standard fare for action games, but they both felt incredibly natural and at place in this new world. Both offer strong controls, but nothing we haven't seen in this space before. However, the new weaponry was where things got really interesting.
First there’s the Tripcaster, a weapon that fires an elemental tripwire by aiming that two different points on the ground. This was perfect for luring bigger enemies into a stun with the Shock wire, as the temporary paralysis gave me the opening I needed to inflict massive damage. There’s also the Ropecaster, which fires ropes at a beast, then plants that rope into the ground in hopes of immobilizing the target. The larger the enemy, the more ropes needed to keep it still. Although it doesn’t do any damage, the Ropecaster may be the most important weapon against the larger enemies in the game, as those moments of immobility were paramount to success in eventually taking them down.
Perhaps the most important tool in Aloy's repertoire, however, rested on her ear and not in her hands. Focus acts as Aloy's scanner, allowing her to read all of the data points and other collectible lore bits throughout the world. It also offered an extreme advantage in battle. With a simple click of a joystick, Focus let me know where Aloy's enemies are in real time, even when my view of that enemy was blocked. From there, I could plan my method of attack and take each foe one at a time, making me feel even more like a silent and stealthy hunter.
I did have one issue with these weapons though. The five weapons mentioned above were the only weapons I needed to equip for the entire campaign despite Horizon offering a handful more like the Sling. I always saw these different weapons with the Merchants I encountered for trading, but I never felt the need to purchase them. I ended up being right. Each armament was certainly cool in its own way, I just wish there was more of a reason to use them in place of the Tripcaster or Ropecaster.
Crafting played a huge part in my success, both for inventory management and on-the-fly ammo recovery. Horizon offered two types of crafting: quick crafting for things like ammo that is all done in the weapon wheel while in the heat of the action, and heavy duty crafting of expanded inventory pouches via the menu. Both types of crafting require resources, which are found everywhere in the world. Lying on the ground, pilfered from dead enemies both human and metallic, hanging around in supply crates; every inch of this world has something to collect for crafting... and yet there are still some elements that became rare in time of need. I would have traded anything for common wire late in the game, but I kept running out.
One resource found more commonly than others was medicinal herbs, used in an innovative healing method I’ve not seen before. These herbs fill a green meter below Aloy’s health bar, and multiple bars filled are shown with green crosses below that. When Aloy was low on health, pressing Up on the D-Pad increased her health and depleted the green bars at the same rate, fully healing her when possible. The challenge lied in where her health was during the healing process, as Aloy could still die if an attack drained her to zero despite the pouch having been active. There are also potions for quicker healing when need be, but this herb pouch made sure Aloy could heal --- no matter how depleted the resources were --- just by finding some herbs on the ground.
Among all of these awesome features arose two issues. Neither was a major hindrance, but both were enough to be annoying. The first is the climbing mechanic, something we’ve seen time and time again from games like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed. Climbing isn’t great in Horizon, with Aloy routinely climbing the wrong way or missing a jump to another platform and falling to her death. One moment late in the game when she’s running from enemies required quick jumps and the need to climb through some terrain. I killed poor Aloy more during this one obstacle course than I ever did in combat. It’s not completely broken, but Aloy’s climbing mechanics left a bit to be desired.
The second issue I faced involved the waypoint system pointing me to my next objective, and this may be the most annoying thing about Horizon in my eyes. There’s the main objective marker that appears on the map, but the game also places marker “checkpoints” along the path to that objective that I could follow. Most of the time these markers are fine, but sometimes the checkpoints would take me on weird out of the way routes or simply not trigger the next one when I passed. I noticed this mostly when I would try to stealth around a group of enemies in an attempt to avoid combat; because I didn’t walk directly through the checkpoint positioned right in the middle of the group of machines, the next point wouldn’t be triggered until I found the path again. I wouldn't recommend relying too much on those waypoints and place more faith on the map, as those checkpoints may end up leading you astray if you don’t follow them exactly as they appear.
Horizon Zero Dawn is compelling from the first minutes of the game, telling an incredible story and marking it with a deep crafting system and exceptional combat. Aloy is inspiring in her lead role, with the potential to become a new leading face in gaming for a long time to come. There are a few issues, particularly with moving around the map’s checkpoints, but nothing that will ultimately ruin the experience for anyone interested enough to see it through. Guerrilla may have taken a risk venturing into something new, but the move has paid off in spades as Horizon Zero Dawn is a triumph and a definite must-play for all PlayStation 4 owners.
This review was completed using a digital download of Horizon Zero Dawn provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.