Guerilla Games, known for their Killzone franchise has broken from their mold and ventured into uncharted territory with Horizon: Zero Dawn. Not only with the genre going from a first-person shooter to a third-person action RPG set in an open world but also the story they have tackled with the protagonist Aloy. While in the past their stories haven’t been anything to hand out awards for, the amount of passion & creativity that is present in Horizon speaks well for their future.
The story of Horizon consists of Aloy, a curious individual who knows the harsh reality of loneliness, growing up in a world overrun by machines and any hint of humanity has been lost to time and nature. Evidence of our own life are present in eroded sidewalks overgrown with weeds, or buildings crumpled and forgotten. hidden by time itself. Even though being brought up by Rost, her mentor/protector, Aloy never knew her origins, which causes her to seek out anything that might give her answers, not only the ones she wants to know but ultimately the ones she fears as well. And while, for the most part, I too felt compelled to continue her discoveries, this wasn’t as often as I had hoped, and I was forced to change my gameplay style to better assist in storytelling. At numerous times during my playthrough, I was wandering around the world, not really knowing where I was, what I was supposed to do, and more importantly, why I was doing it. This could have been a great opportunity for a recap of what I have done in the game, akin to the loading screens for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and shown progress or my objective through the Focus. For quite a while I was on the brink of war with the machines yet felt no real urgency behind it or the consequences of not acting with haste.
And this isn’t an issue that only Horizon: Zero dawn is facing, but an issue that most open world games deal with. How can we convince the audience that there is a sense of urgency when the game will only progress when the player chooses so? Luckily the side quests and other activities that await you are oriented in a way that makes sense to not only the audience but also to Aloy as a character. The Hunting Grounds or training are designed in a way that is not only fun to do, it’s rewarding when you put in the time necessary to master the skill. While there definitely is abundance of fetch quests, Horizon tends to blend most of them into the story or at least a side plot when it can. Instead of just gathering materials for the sake of a quick EXP reward and some metal shards, the games currency, you are helping gather hide or fat for potions or tunics which feels more natural.
There were moments during the main story which conflicted with me from one perspective or another. When Aloy spoke to the tribes once they witnessed what her purpose was, she pushed them away, shunning them for those very same actions she just committed. While ultimately looking only to help her world and the those who inhabit it, Aloy felt distant from those she looked to helped, only bringing her true self forward on a few occasions. This is more of a pacing issue over anything and will improve as Guerilla’s experience does as well.
Gameplay in Horizon is rewarding and fresh while also being somewhat repetitive in nature. The choice to remove any form of lock on capabilities was a welcoming change for open world games, especially with its focus on ranged combat. With multiple bows to choose from that assist in many different ways from securing lines of wire to the machines to stop them in their tracks, to electrified trip wires. The varied machines that populate the world, as well as the Human NPCs, do bring a sense of change from time to time, but I ultimately found myself resorting to one of 3 tactics to dispatch my enemies; Stealth kills, flaming arrows, or my slingshot with ice bombs. Stealth kills were easiest once the option to perform them was unlocked, creating a repetitive segment until I found larger machines. The Ice Bombs and Fire Arrows were used depending on the type of machine I faced, using the Focus, you can see it’s weakness and exploit them either through sheer force or meticulous planning. I dabbled in the latter but preferred the former, using fire arrows to overheat the machines, exposing their cores in the process, or freezing their protective plates and breaking them off with the Ice Bombs. I fully learned the benefits of experimenting with different types of bows and slingshots during my first cauldron, the games dungeons, where I was up against a Fire Bellowback. After multiple, and I mean multiple tries (excess of 20) I finally tried my sling shot, at first, I was hesitant because of the draw speed as well as lack of range compared to the bows, which forced me to get up close and personal with the Bellowback. But once the armor plates started to freeze, it was a dream come true. Plates flew off with every hard-point arrow I notched.
The Machines themselves are a nice change of pace and in my eyes show as much variety as something like Elder Scrolls. With chargers, Grazers, Sawtooths and Watchers replacing the normal Horses, Deer, Alligators and Bears we are used to seeing. Add to that the few variants for enemy NPCs and combat can get quite hectic at times.
One of the areas where Horizon shines above other games not only in its genre but also generation, is its visuals, boasting 1080P graphics with 30 frames per second for almost the entire game, and 4k rendered visuals for the Playstation 4 Pro, it is quite a feat for what Guerilla was able to accomplish. Not only are they able to have combat smooth at the 30 frames for most battles save a few, they were able to pack in a lot of detail into each bit of scenery, from ants crawling on trees to a beautiful day-night cycle and included weather. The Facial animations are some of the most life-like recreations bested only by Naughty Dog and Uncharted 4. The sound design is another accomplishment that shouldn’t go unnoticed, from the mixture of ambient, tribal and techno synth music Guerilla Games managed to show its soul of the game not only in visuals but also in the music, we are living in a post-apocalyptic land overrun by technology.
Horizon Zero Dawn, while falling short on some narrative aspects, still is a very good game. With the excellent visuals matched by sound design and a world feeling quite alive at times, it should be on everyone’s list of games they have played.