Horizon: Zero Dawn Review – Heavy Metal

Rise of the machines.

Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony
Format: PS4
Released: February 28, 2017
Copy provided by publisher

Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s variety of inspirations is one of its most astounding features. Bringing together elements from Far CryMonster HunterThe WitcherMass Effect and more, Guerrilla’s first major original work outside of Killzone could easily be written off as derivative, but it’s the way in which these disparate ideas are brought together as a cohesive, lovingly crafted whole that makes it truly special.

In truth, Zero Dawn does nothing you haven’t seen before in so many open world games. It has side quests, it has big monsters, it has simplified crafting systems, it has stealth and combat and skill trees. It even has its own version of Ubisoft’s weary “radio tower” mapping system that has become something of an industry joke.

Despite its seeming unoriginality, and despite containing so many open world trappings I’d ordinarily hate, Horizon is something special.

A huge part of the game’s creative success comes from the world in which it’s set. Taking place on Earth hundreds of years into the future, humanity is split into separate tribes after a great calamity wiped out any modern concept of civilization. These tribes eke out primitive existences while avoiding the wrath of the machines – constructs that behave like peculiar animals and show little more than hostility toward organic life.

With incredible robot designs and diverse environments that incorporate snowy mountaintops, rich jungles, and arid deserts, Horizon‘s world is remarkable. As the map opens itself to the player, they find themselves in a similar situation to protagonist Aloy – an outcast from her own isolated tribe, coming to realize just how large and varied the world is.

Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, forbid exploration and interaction with old world remnants, and at first the player may feel the game has only forests and pre-medieval settlements to offer. Over the course of many densely packed hours, however, a detailed land full of different cultures in their own unique stages of development is revealed.

While many open worlds pick a single theme and stick to it, Horizon feels so much more real thanks to its believable heterogeneity.

This is one of the first open world games I’ve played in years that actually caught me in the trap of pursuing sidequests, hunting for collectibles, and scouring ruins for loot because it’s a world I simply love being in. Not only is it gorgeous to look at, it’s packed full of interesting locations and the machine threat is as fascinating as it is intimidating.

Simply watching robotic horses graze is a curious sight, and hunting them is even more enthralling.

Using simple stealth mechanics and a whole host of unique weaponry, players will doubtless spend much time tracking and taking down increasingly deadly creatures and harvesting their shiny bodies for precious materials. Environments are full of places to set traps, tall grass to hide in, and vantage points from which to snipe.

Aloy’s skills expand as she levels up to include critical sneak attacks, enhance aiming mechanics, and more. It’s worth checking out all the trees before investing though, as despite being split into three general themes – sneaking, fighting, and gathering – the actual skills in each tree share very little in common and you might miss out on something good if you simply try to complete a path.

Vital to survival is the Focus, a piece of mysterious technology Aloy recovered as a child. Using the Focus, players can highlight machines, get a visual read on their movement patterns, and detect weak spots. It’s also a big part of the many tracking quests that reminds me so much of The Witcher 3.

At first, the Focus and forgiving stealth make for an easy time, as Aloy has a huge visual advantage and the ability to quickly hide after striking. However, machines get larger, more aggressive, and harder to hide from, requiring players to use more tools and invariably resolve confrontations with increasingly direct action.

Key to taking down some of Zero Dawn‘s biggest mechanical threats is in shooting distinct parts of their bodies. The Focus highlights areas that can be torn from an opponent’s frame with enough damage. These include various power cells as well as weapons, some of which can even be used by Aloy if they’re removed. Additionally, the heavy armor that protects most machines can be destroyed with sustained attacks, exposing more of their bodies.

As better weapons are purchased with scrap metal and materials, they’ll make the systematic stripping of machines easier, with some arrowheads designed specifically to tear into vulnerable components more than deal direct damage. There are also elemental effects that can be conferred upon the opposition via traps or specialist arrows – fire deals continuous damage, ice weakens a robot’s overall defense, lightning can temporarily shut them down, and corruption turns machines against other machines.

It’s viable to play the whole game using the many bows on offer, but other weaponry can be purchased. The Tripcaster lays down traps that activate via proximity, Slings can provide explosive or elemental damage, and the Ropecaster is a fantastic little tool that entangles machines and keeps them out of the fight for a significant length of time – a valuable trick when going up against large groups.

As if that wasn’t enough, the crafting system allows for more simple traps to be built, as well as potions that increase health or raise Aloy’s endurance to specific elemental attacks.

Combat is often hectic, the machines trending toward relentless aggression once sufficiently riled. Battles against larger foes like the Sawtooth or Thunderjaw are often nervewracking affairs with metal monsters that can take Aloy down in only a short amount of time. Preparing ahead of time by laying traps and learning the surroundings definitely helps, but once it all kicks off it’ll be chaos – the fun, frantic kind of chaos as opposed to the messy, uncoordinated kind.

Enemy AI isn’t always reliable, which might be my one real gripe about the game. Laying down traps is one thing, but sometimes robots just magically know where they are even if you’re undetected, and you’ll spend some frustrating time trying to convince them to walk near the bloody things. They also sometimes forget about combat even when in the middle of it, running off and randomly returning.

Outside of these hiccups, battles are mostly thrilling encounters. It’s just that sometimes, sadly, the mask slips and the machines get a little bit too goofy to take seriously.

Loot is a big part of the experience, with Aloy gathering all sorts of crafting components, weapon/outfit mods, and rare valuables on the corpses of her cybernetic prey. Mods can make weapons more powerful, accurate, and elementally aligned, or be slotted into outfits to improve stealth and resistance to damage types.

In lieu of traditional loot (armor and weapons are specific items bought from merchants), modifications become the items of true worth, as well as specific machine parts that merchants require in order to sell their best gear. It’s not enough to just have the scrap metal currency – you’ll need to hunt down Sawtooths and hope one of them gives up a rarely recovered heart if you want that really good Sharpshot Bow.

When not out hunting machines there’s a ton of other stuff to do, and while some of the distractions veer into cheap collect-a-thon territory, there are enough well-written and interesting side quests, enough weird distractions to get into, that the occasional bit of padding is so much less egregious than it is in, say, Far Cry 4.

Optional missions are as detailed and lengthy as any you’d find in a more traditional roleplaying game, while those aforementioned “radio tower” stand-ins are actually fun – huge, giraffe-like constructs that patrol areas surrounded by enemies or unique environmental challenges that must be navigated before the creatures themselves can be climbed and hacked for map information.

Hacking! I haven’t even mentioned hacking, which is something else Aloy can do in order to take control of unaware machines. Most hacked bots will attack others for a temporary length of time, but some can be used as mounts, giving Aloy a big metal horse, cow, or ram to gallop about on. What I love about the hacking is how indicative it is of this game’s whole philosophy – it’s a neat toy with several applications, but it’s not something you’re railroaded into using.

This game is just bursting with options that you’re not pressured into utilizing but can prove wonderful in the right situation. You can’t even wield all the weapons available at once, so it really pays to experiment. Three of my four slots are given over entirely to bow types with my Ropecaster bringing up the rear, but that’s just one way to approach combat – everything’s useful, it’s simply a case of finding the right uses for you.

If I were to compare Horizon: Zero Dawn to any one game, it would be one it actually has nothing in common with – a Raven Software shooter by the name of Singularity. It never got the credit it deserved, but it drew together the best parts of successful shooters – including Half-Life 2 and BioShock – to create a “greatest hits” version of the modern first-person shooter.

It didn’t do anything new, but it did everything incredibly well, and that’s what counted.

This is what Horizon has done with open world games. It’s liberally borrowed from the best and most successful, mixing them together in just the right portions to create an impressive marriage of features that could have mixed disastrously in less skilled hands.

It’s done this while also providing us a fantastic protagonist. Aloy is a determined hunter with a sarcastic streak, at once naive about the world around her and just embittered enough to deliver a splash of cynicism on the side. She’s joined by several affable recurring characters, most notably the bounty hunter Nil – his sociopathic outlook on life plays so well against Aloy, and I would play a game that further details his exploits in a heartbeat.

Facial expressions can find themselves stuck in the uncanny valley, but Horizon is beautiful outside of that. Animations are smooth and full of extra little flourishes that make Aloy and her metal enemies are delight to watch in action, and they’re backed up by terrific sound direction – solid voice acting, terrifying machine cries, and a subtle soundtrack that never gets in the way.

Artistically, Zero Dawn is simply impressive. Every creature looks thematically similar to its brethren but visually distinct, and each one is some unnatural take on a beast seemingly extinct in the universe. I’ve always been a fan of Guerrilla’s visual style, and they’ve really hit it out the park on this one.

One word of advice, though – as soon as possible, go into the HUD customization menu and have everything set to “dynamic.” Without it, the otherwise gorgeous game is ruined by an aggressive overlay of text, icons, and pointers.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is just brilliant. I speak as a critic who has played more “open sandbox” games than any one human should and has grown so very weary of them. I should have gotten sick of this thing in an hour, but I’ve been glued to it for days and days and I don’t want it to end. I love existing in this world – a world of desperate survival but of growing culture and a sense of hope. A world of giant metal animals that promise some breathtaking fights.

A world that’s basically Disney’s Brave meets The Last of Us, Enslaved: Journey to the West, Far Cry, Mass Effect, The Witcher, Monster Hunter, Toukiden, and loads of other really, really cool shit.

That’s basically Horizon in a nutshell – loads of really, really cool shit.

9.5/10
Superb 

Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All
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Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All

And no microtransactions do i see a Jimquisition Game of the Year award on the HORIZON

Dajmin
Guest

What you did there. I see it 🙂

Scott John Harrison
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Scott John Harrison

It will be disappointing if micro-transactions are added at or after launch.

Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All
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Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All

Post launch microtransactions are usually placed into games with multiplayer

MJC
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MJC

Usually. Not always. Take a look at Deus Ex Mankind Divided. Microtransactions added at least post review-copies because Square Enix is a bag of dicks. Which is effectively the same thing as post launch because it meant none of the reviews mentioned microtransactions so consumers went in unaware only to get a nasty surprise.

BAH!
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BAH!

Did the multiplayer portion of the game already have MT’s at launch?

Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All
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Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All

Yeah thats true but they have already said that the game will not have microtransactions

Scott John Harrison
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Scott John Harrison

like that will stop anyone.

Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All
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Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All

The companies that have done it they never said that they wouldn’t put them in

Red-Tail
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Red-Tail
Benj
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Benj

The greatness of you comment only just DAWNed on me.

Bebi
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Bebi

Game looks interesting but compared to everything else that came it out this month, it seems quite stale and repetitive.

Not to mention the fog this game has to offer, i’ve seen some streams and the bullshot level of these promotional screenshots is quite high.

Spindrift Prime
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Spindrift Prime

So is Horizon the name of the franchise, and this particular chapter in its story is called Zero Dawn? ‘Cause without any other context, the game’s title sure sounds like video gamey word salad.

William Jones
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William Jones

Does anyone know the performance on a PS pro vs the PS normal?

Baltech
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Baltech

Apparently, they are both locked to 30FPS with Ps pro giving you 4K resolution. (according to IGN)

William Jones
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William Jones

Cool, cheers! Though I think that’s a wasted opportunity for pro owners, I can go ahead and buy it knowing that my experience is a good as it would be – I will end up with a pro at some point, but I’m waiting for there to be enough games to make it worth it, and I can’t afford it for a few months, so for me personally this is good news, even though on an industry scale, it’s bad

MJC
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MJC

PS4 Pro sadly seems to be a wasted opportunity all around. Pretty much all games are the same or slightly worse framerates as developers and Sony continue to try and make more visually impressive eye candy for trailers and screenshots.

William Jones
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William Jones

I agree, the only game on my “buy a pro for” list is Nioh, with it’s 60fps mode. I set myself a target of 5 games, but ideally it would be 10 before dropping the £350 for the console, even if I can claw back £100 or so for my old one.

Scottface
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Scottface

PS4 pro is getting a “Boost mode” with the next update to make all PS4 games (even the ones without developer-made pro-patches) run smoother and in better resolution – assuming it works like they say, that’ll be a good time to “go pro…”

Jiryn
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Jiryn

So, does anyone know why IGN is calling this game an RPG?
Does it have experience and levels?
From all the info presented and the previews, I was sure it was an action adventure affair akin to Zelda, Dishonored, or Shadows of Mordor.. none of which were RPGs. (Though Zelda 2 is an Action RPG)

William Jones
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William Jones

“Aloy’s skills expand as she levels up to include critical sneak attacks,
enhance aiming mechanics, and more. It’s worth checking out all the
trees”

Jiryn
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Jiryn

Yep, I was noticing that after I posted.
I was skimming through the various reviews as I lay here in bed.

William Jones
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William Jones

Still doesn’t exactly answer your question but possibly a stream or video review will cast more light!

Jeffrey B
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Jeffrey B

it seems aloy’s skills can all be unlocked.
so where’s the Role playing?

William Jones
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William Jones
Roleplaying isn’t locked to specific game mechanics, no-one would dispute that a roll 20 game is a role playing game, nor would they dispute that Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel are either, yet these three approaches to games are wildly different, and still lead to what nearly everyone would agree is Roleplay. So it is with computer games. Just because a certain set of mechanics holds a virtual monopoly on what is described as a Roleplay experience, why shouldn’t a different, even if similar set lead to Roleplay as well? There is nothing preventing a fixed character, with no player… Read more »
Jeffrey B
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Jeffrey B

lame

William Jones
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William Jones

That says far more about you than me.

Ivan Sorensen
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Ivan Sorensen

That’s a fairly odd criteria for being a role playing game.

Jim Sterling
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There is a case for it as an action RPG. Beyond just leveling, the quest lines and narrative elements follow a lot of action RPGs like The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher.

Mechanically you’re looking at an action game with stealth bolted on, but there are a lot of fundamental elements taken from RPGs as well.

Jiryn
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Jiryn
Narrative Elements and Quests Lines don’t make an RPG. There are many point and click adventure and cinematic adventure games that feature both and are not RPGs. Usually the definitive trait that qualifies a game as an RPG is an experience and character level progression system. Without that it’s just an action adventure game. That is literally game genres down to their purest, most distilled form and in all honest most games now a days are hybrids and amalgamations. But yes, this game looks to actually have a level system, if you look in the upper right corner. Experience gained… Read more »
Uldi
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Uldi

This has been on my list of games I’m interested in since it first appeared at E3. I’m glad that it seems to be every bit as good as I hoped.

This might be an oddly specific question, but you didn’t really talk much about the music. Does the game have that theme that played in the first E3 trailer, the one that is violins and drums when they first show Aloy hunting? That theme gave me goosebumps and instantly put them game on my list.

Scottface
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Scottface

Was that the same E3 where sony had the live orchestra playing to their videos? All the music sounded amazing that year, lol.

Stephen Mc Devitt
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Stephen Mc Devitt

Cool. There’s only two problems I personally have.

1. Too many good games out in the same season with this, NieR: Automata, Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, etc.

2. I hate how my PS4 fills up quickly. So many of these games take up more than 50GB of space.

Uldi
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Uldi

My wallet has given me a restraining order. No games until after I get Persona 5.

Gauzecage
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Gauzecage

Luckily the PS4 has finally gotten an update allowing for external HDs so space isn’t as much of a problem. You can get a good 1TB HD for less than $60, or a 4TB for about $120 if you don’t want to ever have to worry about space for a long time

MJC
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MJC

*Will finally get.

The latest non-beta PS4 software is 4.07 which does not include external hard drive support. Gotta keep waiting, but it’s coming at some point at least.

Gauzecage
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Gauzecage

Thanks for the clarification. I thought the external HD update had finally launched

Scottface
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Scottface

I’m having similar problems – although I feel I can hardly complain about “too many good games out” right now, my hard drive space is certainly suffering – Roll-on update 4.5!

ChaoticPesme
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ChaoticPesme

I’m a little bit reassured now, from the looks of the trailers I got a feeling that it would turn out like No Man’s Sky. I’m a little jelly that you were able to play it this early now.

Edvin
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Edvin

Well, I guess i’m getting this horizon zero dawn game now.

Maroš Goč
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Maroš Goč

Eurogamer – enjoyable but generic and forgettable

Jeffrey B
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Jeffrey B

the most honest review

Combo John
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Combo John

Nope

MJC
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MJC

So many things wrong with this…

1. How do you even know which review is “the most honest”, AKA the one you agree with most, when the game doesn’t come out for another week which means you certainly haven’t played it?

2. Two disagreeing reviews can still be “the most honest”. Reviews are nothing more than the author’s opinion. If one author hates a game and says so in his review, and another author likes a game and says so in his review, both reviews are honest. You need to learn to separate facts from opinions.

Jeffrey B
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Jeffrey B

chill..lmao
comment book report

Jeffrey B
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Jeffrey B

read the review again with you’ve finished the game..

Nemrex
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Nemrex

A world that’s basically Disney’s Brave meets The Last of Us, Enslaved: Journey to the West, Far Cry, Mass Effect, The Witcher, Monster Hunter, Toukiden, and loads of other really, really cool shit.

With all due respect Jim, we all the the main inspiration the developers were enlightened by.
https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/48cd0e1b3d51e42b0fbb14bdb2cd85e89f34e7fb7bb46d3e17907f9da403652e.jpg

Nikita Kress
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Nikita Kress

Looks like 2017 shapes up to be better for ps users. Glad for you guys, hope any of these game will visit PC or will be available on PS Now.

Llyander
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Llyander

Phew. I actually bought a PS4 because I wanted to play this game (Well, that and FFXV, The Last of Us and FINALLY to play Uncharted but this was a huge draw for me as well) so it’s good to know it’s worth it!

Pete
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Pete

Wow, that is a high praise. I hope that will release on PC once day but I guess it’s just a pipe dream.

Aiwass
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Aiwass

Yeah that’s not happening.

Raziel Kõbe
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Raziel Kõbe

Yeah.. wait Zelda and God of War for PC too lol

Jeffrey B
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Jeffrey B

you can play the game at various Youtube walkthroughs

Mark Patten
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Mark Patten

My butthole has never been in a tighter pucker, glad to know that it’s a worthy purchase. Feel justified in pre-ordering for the artbook.

Rachel McVeigh
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Rachel McVeigh

I thought this game looked great from the trailers but I’ve been trying to keep the hype down as I’m trying to finish FF15 & a replay of the ME:Trilogy before Mass Effect Andromeda comes out. This review makes me super tempted to scrap that plan and buy it at launch. Robot dinosaurs & being able to ride a sabertooth tiger are hard to resist.

Drakeonian
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Drakeonian

Hell fucking yeah! Almost finished Nioh, and now this perfectly fills in the void until Mass Effect Andromeda. Can’t wait!

I’m also glad that Aloy has a sense of humour. The demos I’ve seen show her being quite stoic and po faced which, IMO, would’ve been a waste of Ashly Burch as an actress, she’s hilarious.

Adam Robert Sherman
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Adam Robert Sherman

If she acts nothing like she does in HAWP, there will be blood.

Stephen
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Stephen

Well hot damn, Jim. You liking an open world game? That’s significant high praise.
I originally pre-ordered the game and cancelled, due to Zelda being on the horizon (heh heh, pun), but now I’ve gone ahead and ordered again, because it does sound like a game that I’ll most definitely need to make time for.

titaniumforest
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titaniumforest

It’s open-world? And it does the “radio towers” shit? Not another one! Meh, I’ll give it a pass.

Max Smith
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Max Smith

Not buying Zelda too then?

Nikita Kress
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Nikita Kress

Not buying zelda, because Switch.

titaniumforest
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titaniumforest

Dunno. Wait and see, after the last console Zelda sucked so hard (and to see if the WiiU version is fucked). 🙁 BTW meant open-world in the sense of sandbox fuckabout games like Ass Creed and Watch Dogs. Maybe if its like ALBW or Wind Waker then it could be good, I mean having an open world to explore can be great if there’s some structured, meaningful content (see also: The Witcher 3).

marcelostockle
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marcelostockle

I’m a simple guy

Adam Robert Sherman
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Adam Robert Sherman

Considering Jim said it works this time (and since he himself seems to loathe them), maybe you should give the game a shot.

Jessy Exum
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Jessy Exum

There are only like 5 ‘radio towers’ and each one of them is pretty entertaining and different from the environment you have to do it in, and the fact that the ‘towers’, called tallnecks, move.You have to fight off robots in the area (often new and difficult monsters) just to find possible ways to get onto the tallneck, and then hold your ground from monsters until you get the opportunity to leap onto the tallneck. I found it intense and refreshing.

Hu Deegan
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Hu Deegan

Hey Jim, how big is the size of the game, like when it comes to installing it?

Robby
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Robby

I’m sad not to see the ‘Contains Skeletons’ tag. But I’m happy to see the positive review. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Thanks, Jim!

Confever
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Confever

No multiplayer ??

ipitydafool
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ipitydafool

Yes, you can choose higher res or smoother framerate.

Xoxarle
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Xoxarle

How is the performance? No traditional stuttering on regular PS4?

Cameron Ward
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Cameron Ward

Well then, I’ll definitely put this on the rental/purchase list.

SirAngry
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SirAngry

OK, I was kinda hoping for good reviews because the game has looked so friggin’ awesome for so long now, but I was trying to keep the hype down. Starting to read reviews and… my hype is through the roof.

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