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HORIZON: ZERO DAWN is the Machine-Hunting Action RPG of Your Dreams (Review)

HORIZON: ZERO DAWN is the Machine-Hunting Action RPG of Your Dreams (Review)

There’s something that’s always intrigued me about the post-apocalyptic genre. I, like many other people, can’t help but wonder how humanity would cope and adapt to an unlivable wasteland. More often than not, the answer is, “chaotically.” The premise is something that’s been covered more times than anyone is willing to count. There’ve been zombies, hostile cannibals, and dangerous plagues—you name it. But what would it look like if Mother Nature were able to reclaim the damaged world, and a new civilization could flourish? Guerrilla Games (Killzone) has boldly left the first-person shooter genre to tackle that idea head-on with the ambitious mechanical monster-filled PS4 exclusive, Horizon: Zero Dawn.

As we’ve discussed in the past, the game takes place in the post-post-apocalypse. Following the fall of the old ones (a civilization very much like our own, but even more technologically advanced), nature has taken back the land, robotic creatures dominate the earth, and a handful of primitive tribes are stationed across the map. It is in this new world where we find Aloy (voiced by Ashly Burch), a motherless girl who was outcast from the superstitious Nora tribe at birth and raised by her foster father and fellow outcast Rost. It’s clear from the get-go that the game’s badass protagonist isn’t going to let anything stop her from finding out what’s really going on. The mysterious identity of her mother and a tragic event push her beyond the borders of the sacred Nora lands in search of answers not only about where she came from, but what led to the world mankind now inhabits. It’s this dedication, curiosity, and authenticity that make Aloy one of the best characters in Sony’s stable of PlayStation favorites.

The world in Horizon is delightfully diverse, and brimming with historic traces of a forgotten world. Aloy spends the duration of the adventure scaling the peaks of snow-capped mountains and roaming through arid deserts, lush jungles, painted canyons, and crumbling ruins. Beyond the natural beauty are remnants of the metal world. That juxtaposition of nature and machine is truly mesmerizing. When coupled with the dynamic weather system, day/night cycle, vivid color palette, and detailed realistic textures, the post-post-apocalyptic playground is a feast for the eyes, and especially fun to capture in the game’s photo mode. Heck, even the people in the game looked stunning, and more realistic than most of the video game characters I’ve seen. It’s no wonder Hideo Kojima hand-selected Guerrilla’s Decima engine for his upcoming Sony exclusive, Death Stranding.

Landscape and NPCs aside, where the graphics engine and art design truly shines is with the machines. There are 25 creature designs in total, featuring the likes of deer-inspired beasts that are easily spooked, crocodile monsters capable of lunge attacks and elemental damage, and massive hawks that scavenge the wastelands and terrorize you from above. My personal favorite, however, was the panther-like Stalker, which is capable of going invisible just so it can ambush you. Finding and facing these monsters was a new surprise every time.

Because the creatures take inspiration from the animal kingdom—albeit with a mechanical twist—their body language is recognizable and therefore easier to read and react to. But that also means they should be dealt with differently. This understanding and the skills I unlocked played a crucial part in determining how I would go about a situation. Early on, skills like the lure call, and silent strike, enabled me to sneak around the map and pick off enemies one by one. Once I started encountering larger machines, I opted for stronger weapons (all of which can be modded with rare weapon upgrades), the Double and Triple Bow Shot, and tear arrows to remove components from the beast as a means of crippling it. That said, the skill tree wasn’t as imaginative as I was hoping for. The marriage of futuristic machine tech, and primitive weapons is truly special and would have benefitted from a more creative set of abilities.

Horizon Zero Dawn

The fun comes in the hunt. Figuring out how to best approach before engaging in combat was as easy as scanning the machine (or hostile human) with Aloy’s intel-gathering focus device. Doing this revealed useful information about the machine’s elemental weakness, patrol path, mode of attack, and loot that they’d drop. For example, scanning the massive T-Rex-inspired Thunderjaw revealed a crucial tip: removing the disc-launcher from the beast’s back allows you to then wield it against the monstrosity. There are also components that can be removed or damaged to reduce the machine’s modes of attack, and deal critical damage to the beast and those around it. As a result, combat is incredibly strategic, and varied depending on the machine Aloy was fighting. The ability to craft ammo on-the-go from natural items found in the environment is simple, and leaves more time to focus on how you’re going to take down enemies.

Beyond fighting them, machines can be overridden once Aloy unlocks a particular device in the game. While some, like the Charger, Strider, and Broadhead, can be mounted, others will come to your aid during combat. I was even able to take control of a Thunderjaw, which I then unleashed on a nearby Thunderjaw—trust me, it’s a lot of fun. Aside from the first batch of machines, the ability to override subsequent tiers is unlocked via exploring the landscape and entering cauldron facilities when you aren’t busy tackling the main quest.

Horizon Zero Dawn Review

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to additional things you can do in the game. Bringing up the massive map shows bandit camps you can conquer and loot, ruins to explore, hunting trials that help you hone your combat strategies, and so much more. To make these show up on the map, there are several Tall Neck machines that can be scaled and overridden throughout the land. Doing so clears the fog from the map and reveals special locations players can travel to. There also special relics planted throughout the world that can then be sold to special merchants for rare items. There is so much to do, that I’m still playing the game a good 20 hours after completing the main story—and haven’t gotten bored yet.

Without divulging any spoilers, I will say that the mysteries Aloy uncovered on her journey were equal parts fascinating and creative. My hat goes off to Narrative Director John Gonzalez and the team for keeping me engaged, surprised, and delighted the whole way through. Seeing it all through such a relatable protagonist’s eyes was the icing on the cake. Thankfully, the backstory extends beyond the main story and can be gleaned through the interesting audio/text data points, side missions, errands, and the overgrown ruins that are peppered throughout the land. Of course, learning more through logs is nothing new when it comes to story-driven titles. I’m guilty of hunting for these artifacts only to fulfill a requirement on a trophy/achievement list.

Horizon Zero Dawn Img

The curious thing about Horizon, however, was that I was actually driven by a desire to learn more about the central plot, so much so that I returned to early locations to find and read every last message I could find. The notes paint a colorful background of the humans who once inhabited the earth. In fact, there are several memorable characters that can only be found via reading the texts, a true treasure for those who look. There are similarly interesting characters who can only be encountered if you hunt for side missions to complete. The good news is that despite how rewarding uncovering this lore is, it isn’t necessary to enjoy the overarching story.

But of course, there were a few things that didn’t quite work out well. There was noticeable texture popping throughout my playthrough, but that may be rectified once consumers get their hands on the title. Another issue that got under my skin was that there were certain times when NPCs who were adamant about getting my attention repeated the same phrase over and over. Though it didn’t happen often, there was a particular boss battle where the enemy repeated the same two phrases for the duration of the fight—which didn’t help how stressed I was by the onslaught of hostile machines. There were also a few minor glitches where I got stuck in rocks, and couldn’t fast-travel a new location. Thankfully, these issues were few and far between.

Horizon Zero Dawn Machines

The Verdict

With Horizon: Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games has made a stunning transition to the world of open-world action RPGs with a brilliant new IP. Though there were a few graphical hiccups, and nitpicks I had about the skill tree, there’s no denying the fact that the game is a masterpiece in its own right. The mysterious narrative, strategic gameplay, and beautiful world making this a title worth exploring and one you won’t want to miss. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few more side missions to track down.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5

4.5 burritos

This review was completed using a PS4 copy of Horizon: Zero Dawn provided by Sony Computer Entertainment. The game is set to launch on February 28, 2017.

Images: Guerrilla Games/PlayStation

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