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Horizon Zero Dawn Review (PS4)

Sony Interactive Entertainment has released Horizon Zero Dawn for the PS4.

In 2017, I played a game where I took down a robotic dinosaur with a bow and arrow. Of course, the arrows were equipped with a sonic blast that ripped off a disc launcher on the hulking beast’s back. And sure, I tethered the dino to the ground so he couldn’t chase me as I picked up the disc launcher and blasted chunks of his armor off until it eventually topped. But arrows were involved.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a first-party exclusive open world game, a rarity in today’s landscape. It’s a game that possesses many familiar elements that have been recycled over and over again in similar titles. And even with that cozy familiarity, Horizon Zero Dawn is an enthralling piece of media that feels exquisitely fresh and new. It bucks the trend of established mechanics and defies expectations. In short, it’s a masterpiece. But I digress.

Thousands of years into the future humanity’s greatest civilizations have crumbled. The giant skyscrapers that used to line cities are now rusted skeletons of their former selves. Mankind no longer lives in prosperity and has reverted back to an age before technology even existed. Tribes of humans band together in villages both large and small. They hunt for wild boars and turkeys using spears and bows. Clothes are fashioned with furs and feathers. Some people go their whole life never meeting another tribe, let alone seeing the secrets their world has to offer.

Yet the looming presence of the past still walks among the green fields and the snowy mountains. Machines of unknown construction and towering size exert an imposing presence over the world. These tribe members speak of the “Old Ones,” people like you and me, if not a hundred or so years in the future. These machines prowl the world like deer and horses, grazing the wilderness for resources for some unknown purpose. What happened to the Old Ones? What is going on?

That question is threaded through the very foundation of Horizon and it’s an answer that begs to be solved. Developer Guerrilla Games shifted away from the safety of the Killzone franchise to bring players a new world with an exciting premise. It’s that premise which has been the subject of so much discussion since the game’s reveal two years ago at E3. Even if you find some of Horizon’s side quests to be par for the course, some of its gameplay tedious, and the open world nature all too familiar, the desire to know more about the world can fuel almost any player to persist.

Shepherding us towards resolution is the red-headed Aloy, another rare sight in gaming: a female protagonist in a triple-A game. Aloy was born an outcast from the Nora tribe. As a baby she is raised by Rost, a man who is already an outcast, living in seclusion far from the main village. He teaches Aloy to hunt, to craft, and to kill. And maybe when she grows up, Aloy can use these skills to conquer the Proving, a test of skill for Nora youths, and no longer be an outcast.

In the opening moments of Horizon we see Aloy as a very young child, unfamiliar with the world around her and the sentence of exile she has been handed. In those same moments Aloy stumbles into a construct from the past. She doesn’t understand what she sees and neither do we as the player; her questions are our own. Once she grows up Aloy is thrust into the limelight and sent on a quest to understand her origins and her world. Her blossoming curiosity and refusal to accept the status quo make her the perfect vehicle to carry the narrative and the world building. Ashly Burch excels as the voice of Aloy, bringing sincere passion and conviction to the role.

Aloy, much like Sony’s flagship hero Nathan Drake, is a character that reacts. She cheers at a conquest, comments on the usefulness of a plant to be used for healing, and never seems too knowledgeable or too clueless. It’s a quality that may wear thin on some people who wish to wander the open world in silence but I never grew tired of it. Along the way, Aloy meets a great deal of characters who are in need of assistance or serve to add more flavor to the world.

Not every person you meet in Horizon and not every side quest you take part in will be a grandiose venture into the wild. Like many open world games, there will be characters who ask you to gather a couple items, or go kill a bad guy, or investigate something. The game distinctly marks quests as either main quests, side quests, or errands in an attempt to not mask what they are. Main quests award skill points, experience, and items while everything else usually serves to give Aloy a boost in riches or experience.

It’s a testament to the game’s quality that even when a quest doesn’t fire on all cylinders it still remains fun because it allows you another opportunity to go out into the world and live inside this vision of a post-post-apocalyptic future. I often worried that Guerrilla would buckle under the weight of this world, not knowing when to fall into exposition and when to let it breathe. There will obviously be players who want to critical path towards the ending out of a desperate desire to know the meaning behind everything. While being a completely valid approach it’s worth noting that a wonderful balance is struck between the tribal, “current day” aspect of the story and the “what the hell is going on?” nature of why all the lights went out and why all the robots are acting like real animals. Aloy’s story is just as much about discovering herself and the way of life of the people around her as it is figuring out what makes a Thunderjaw tick.

To survive in this natural and metallic wilderness, players will have an arsenal of mostly archaic weapons. The starting bow can be equipped with standard and fire arrows. Players quickly learn how to pick up items from the world and craft on the fly. Crafting is as simple as holding down a couple buttons and watching your inventory fill up. It might not be proper roleplaying but it keeps fights tense and fluid. The game shows that each robot has a weakness—like the Watchers’ massive glowing eye—that can deal massive damage or a killing blow when hit.

Larger robots have multiple weak points and areas of interest which are highlighted by using Aloy’s Focus. The Focus is a Bluetooth-like earpiece that serves the same purpose as Batman’s Detective Vision and Geralt’s Witcher Sense. Quests requiring Aloy to use the Focus to follow trails aren’t the most exciting but they rarely last more than a handful of minutes. The real use of the Focus it to highlight enemies, track their paths (because they are robots with set patterns, after all), and detail the level and specific weaknesses of that enemy. Strike a Sawtooth in the blaze canister on its underbelly enough times with a fire arrow and it will explode for massive damage. Whether its frost or electric damage, each robot has specific weaknesses that should be memorized to help make battles easier.

Aloy’s arsenal and armor can be changed up over time to expand and tailor to certain playstyles. Those who prefer stealthily hunting prey can equip armor to make Aloy harder to see and arrows that benefit precise movements. An expansive skill tree exists to provide benefits to how you might play but I never felt like I absolutely needed one skill over the other. Because battles can change so drastically, having a full repertoire of weapons, skills, and knowledge is essential. The sling is great for lobbing elemental bombs but the ropecaster and tripcaster are just as useful to trample and stun a rushing foe.

Throughout my battles in Horizon I always felt challenged. The game is definitely a bit softer on the normal difficulty so I ramped it up to very hard. Regardless, each encounter with one of the larger beasts or a pack of smaller ones is a thrill ride. The first time I fought a Sawtooth I burned through all my health reserves and dozens of arrows. After besting it I felt like I had just beaten a boss in Dark Souls. The fact that a solitary robot can prove such a challenge is admirable because Aloy is a human taking on robots, she shouldn’t breeze through these encounters. Each time a new robot is encountered feels like a test of wits and those stakes continue through most of the game. Nearly every battle with a mechanical beast in Horizon feels meaningful and rewarding.

The same can’t be said about enemies of flesh and bone. Human opponents are mostly encountered in bandit camps and story missions. Not only can they be disposed of with headshots, human AI isn’t that great. A person can see a dead body, go investigate it, and immediately expose themselves to a stealth kill. It’s possible to hide in tall grass and let a pile of bodies stack up at your feet and no one will be any wiser. Robot AI can be manipulated in the same way at times but the stakes are so much higher.

If there is one definitive thing to say about Horizon, however, it’s that this is one of the most gorgeous games ever created. Simply put, this is one of the best looking games on a console. I played on a PS4 Pro but even on the base model, it’s breathtaking. Watching the individual parts of a giant robot move and work in unison as if it could actually exist and then watching those pieces be flayed off by an arrow are so cool. But the scope of this intimidating world is nothing short of immaculate. There were countless times where I would get to the top of a hill or just be walking down a path and stop Aloy in her tracks to just soak up the visuals. The included photo mode is justifiable because this is a game where you will want to constantly pretend you are an amateur photographer and take the perfect picture.

Soon after the game starts there is some massive, octopus-like mechanical behemoth sitting atop a mountain. Though dead, its arms extend for what feel like miles. You want to know what the purpose of that thing is and how it got there because everything in Horizon tells a story. Transitioning from the various biomes shows how much delicate care was put into crafting every inch of this world. Despite sometimes awkward lip-syncing and plastic looking faces, I was even impressed by the level of detail and realism in character models and their faces. Horizon just oozes beauty.

Guerrilla games could have played this one very safe. Since Grand Theft Auto 3 and Assassin’s Creed, open world games have been following a few cookie-cutter paths towards the open world formula. Go here, do that, see this, collect that. As addicted to open world games as I am, I can still recognize that it has become a tired genre that was in need of a shot to the arm. In 2017 I can say that I played an open world game with towers but rather than climbing up a building, I climbed up a massive Tallneck that stomped around the world. And after I hacked that tower and opened up my map, I stood there and took in the world. My mouth was agape when I dived into each Cauldron, mysterious locations where players engage in tense battles and fun puzzle platforming. Like any other open world game, I scoured for collectibles because I wanted to know more. Even when I thought the story was over, it picked back up in an incredible way that had me hooked all over again.

Horizon Zero Dawn came at the beginning of 2017 in one of the best and busiest seasons in recent memory. There are so many games still to come but I can stop thinking about this world and this setting. I can’t wait to go back. And I can’t wait to see what is next. The open world bar has been raised exponentially.

Score: 9.6 out of 10
Reviewed for PS4
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