James Stephanie Sterling
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 Cry, Monster Hunter, The Witcher, Mass 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.