Cascading in super-slow motion off the side of a cliff while simultaneously firing three electrified arrows at an enormous robot dinosaur, watching its laser cannons fly off its back as it flies into the tripwires that were set a moment earlier – that’s the kind of fun I’m having with this game. Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world RPG developed by Guerilla Games for PS4. Set in a post-post-post apocalyptic vision of the future, we’re playing as Aloy, a fierce young hunter who has been exiled from her tribe and is seeking answers about her origins. This game had me captivated from the start menu, so I want to talk about why I love this game (and the few things I didn’t love so much).
*Disclaimer: this isn’t a traditional game review, so if you came here for an unbiased, technical review, please try IGN instead. I leave that stuff to the pros.
It’s so, sooo pretty
You’ll read this everywhere: Horizon Zero Dawn is stunning. I could pull every synonym for stunning out of the air until I’m blue in the face, and they’d all be true. Despite being digital and fictional, the landscapes in Horizon make you feel tiny and vulnerable. Not in a way that intimidates, but in a way that makes you feel like a kid finding enjoyment from rolling down hills and climbing trees. It makes you feel like a conqueror, igniting a child-like excitement.
Following on closely from landscape detail – the variety of the playable environment is wonderful and unexpected. I thought, like a lot of open-world games I’ve played, the environment would be repetitive after a while. But nope. This world has everything you want. There’s areas on the map called ‘cauldrons’ which are like mini-levels that help you unlock skills – they look like the inside of Spaceships. There’s vast dry lands, delicious mountain ranges. Everything.
While we’re on this note though, I hate the desert areas. I have to say it. Not because they’re not objectively great – I just hate Snapmaws and those big f*cking Terminator birds and the constant fear of being trampled by those psychotic flamingo robots (Lancehorns). I’m tired of running scared from gargantuan crocodile monsters. Just let me live. I pretty much sprinted around the whole thing to get to all the campfires just so I didn’t have to walk to and from places.
Dinosaurs… ROBOT Dinosaurs
Like many, when I heard there was an open-world RPG being released whose story largely centers around robot dinosaurs, you bet your ass I was excited. Robots are the centerpiece of the game; there’s a whole range of them, from ‘Tallnecks’ which are basically giraffes, to ‘Sawtooths’ which are cat-like robothings. They all have weak spots which can be targeted with specific ammo, so you have to really think before you engage in a battle. It’s wonderful trudging through Viking-inspired lands and overgrown fields only to be confronted with hyper-aggressive robots. That’s the kind of outrageous juxtaposition that only video games can offer.
The combat system is awesome. I’ll come onto what I didn’t think worked so well a bit later, but on the whole, so enjoyable to play. The assortment of weapons, modifications, and ammo is like a gamer all-you-can-eat buffet. For a start, it feels like the ammo never runs out. I don’t know if that’s because I sink hours into looting and scavenging, or if the game is just really generous. But it makes me feel better going into an encounter with a robot T-Rex that I’m fully stocked up on ammo. Aloy’s ‘Focus’ (basically Google Glass with all the plug-ins) comes into its own during combat – it’ll help you figure out an enemy’s weak spots, what type of ammo to use, and see their patrol routes.
Most fights can be won by continuously barrel rolling out of the way – that girl is nimble. But my top combat aspect has to be stealth. You can quite easily (albeit slowly) take down bandit camps and groups of machines by chilling in bushes and taking them out one by one. Feeling like Hitman with hair.
Who run the world? Nora!
It hardly needs to be said why, but I have to talk about how Horizon has totally raised the bar for women’s representation in games. Aloy is an unsexualised, intelligent female character who literally lives in a progressive, matriarch-worshipping society. The Nora tribe’s most powerful warrior is a women of colour, Sona, who is in equal parts powerful as she is respected. There’s a great article here that breaks down more aspects of the story and how deeply Horizon details its almost genderless take on society. It’s an example that future AAAs should follow as a woman-friendly game.
Canon 60D Mode
I loved the ‘photo mode’ feature in The Last of Us too, and Horizon takes it up a notch. I’ve found myself in the Skyrim trap of turning my PS4 on, walking around going ooh, that’s pretty, taking a bunch of screenshots for half an hour, and then turning my PS4 off. Capturing fantastic images has become a mini-game in itself – there’s some really impressive photos coming out of this game.
The weather system is totally f*cked. As much as I love rolling pink clouds, menacing green skies, when it rains – it pours. The weather changes so ridiculously quickly, and when it’s all stormy it’s impossible to do anything. Getting caught in a downpour when you’re trying to stealth-win a bandit camp means getting precise headshots is so difficult. I know this is a petty gripe but it’s still really frustrating.
Tutorial, or lack thereof
Before anyone gets at me, I know Guerilla Games’ art director Jan-Bart van Beek has said the lack of tutorial is to encourage a “trial and error” kind of gameplay. I think this is great to find your own play-style, and get a feel for the character. However, I still find myself stuck on a number of occasions and having to turn to Google. It took me tens of hours of gameplay to realise I needed the Carja War Bow to successfully defeat several types of enemy, which I couldn’t buy without desert glass. Frustratingly, I’d sold my hoard of desert glass a few hours before and had to traipse across the land searching far and wide to find more.
Not Sneaky Enough
Stealth. I have always and will always be a stealth advocate. While the stealth in Horizon is really satisfying, it fails me too often. I’m 99% sure this is because I’m inattentive, but the Special Sneaky Bushes are annoying. When zipping the hell away from a raging trampler in the hope of finding some cover, there’s no time to examine whether or not a certain bush matches Aloy’s hair colour enough to hide in. I’ve been caught out so many times because I think I’m hidden but I’m actually standing in a slightly thinner part of the Special Sneaky Bush. Again, petty gripe.
Oh, Melee *sighs*
The melee combat is pretty much non-existent. If you’re unlucky enough to accidentally hit R1, she takes roughly 5 years to swing her spear, and even then it does barely any damage. It would’ve been nice to have a few more melee options, such as different weapons or the option to mod her existing weapon. Guess I’m used to my favourite RPGs like Fallout where I can go on a beat-down with a baseball bat full of nails.
Overall, this game is incredible and I hope it sets a precedent for future RPGs. I love the characters, the gameplay, the insane graphics, the story. I’m still sidequesting as we speak – I can’t get enough.
I guess in typical ‘review’ fashion I should give it a score. This figure is totally arbitrary as this is the first game I’ve ever remotely attempted to review in my own special way so you have absolutely nothing to compare it against. However, let’s say Batman Dark: Tomorrow is 1 and 10 is Doom (1993).