Destroyed beauty is the perfect term to describe the stunning world of Horizon: Zero Dawn. The machine infested post-apocalyptic world is simply breathtaking. It is a rich world that begs to be explored, tamed and mastered. A remarkable achievement when considering this is the first time developer Guerrilla Games has made anything other than their famous first person shooter series Killzone. Much like their new female protagonist, Aloy, Guerrilla Games are stepping out of the past and boldly moving towards a new Horizon.
The tale begins with a hasty ceremony, a naming ritual, which is only for children that have a mother. Hurriedly, a baby girl is held aloft and given the name Aloy. The village Matriarchs arrive and quickly banish the motherless child along with her protector Rost. Aloy and Rost are outcasts, shunned by their native tribe the Nora. As Aloy grows up, she is a precocious child and accidentally discovers an ancient piece of technology called a focus. The focus allows her to track animals, humans, robots, find hidden artefacts, spot weaknesses and read the language of “the old ones”. After rescuing a boy from a pack of robotic creatures, Rost sees that she is special and tells her of the proving. An ancient rite of passage, which upon completion, will allow any outcast re-entry into the Nora tribe and grant one wish to the winner. So, Aloy begins training to win the proving and discover her true origins.
The story that unfolds over the course of 40 to 80-hours, depending on side quests, is excellent. What initially may seem like a simple tale gradually expands to address themes of creation, preservation, religion, politics and what it actually means to be human. These heady concepts are subtly explored in the side quests and dual layered main storyline. Horizon really expands on its lore through the side quests and adds layers of depth to the world, its people and their motivations. The story and side quests are all very well written and provide some excellent world building.
Two main narrative threads weave their way through the adventure. The first revolves around inter-tribal politics and fleshes out the current state of the world, whilst providing a real insight into the way people from different cultures view and interact with each other. Tribes that have been at war bear psychological scars and manifest resentment against one another even though there is a greater threat looming from the machines. Religions also play an important part in how the tribes behave and have clear influences from cultures in our own past. The Nora worships the earth mother in a similar vein to the Native Americans whilst the Carja worships the sun like the Aztecs. There are some very interesting ideas addressed that certainly provide food for thought. One particularly zealous religious leader states, “With unfaltering faith comes insurmountable force” a statement that certainly echoes sentiments from our past and present. An interesting commentary is provided on how extremism can remove a person’s humanity leaving them essentially like a machine. These themes feedback into the story and hold a mirror up to some of the characters, showing that they are no better than the metallic creatures they revile.
The second thread involves Aloy’s quest to discover her past and uncover the truth about the machines. This side of the story is equally engaging. Aloy is a very well written character. She is strong, heroic, sarcastic and vulnerable whilst never portrayed as a victim. As Aloy discovers more about her past, she unlocks more information about the machines and their purpose. There are some fascinating concepts addressed that reflect our own increasingly mechanised world. How much of our history do we take for granted and do we truly learn from the past are just a few of the questions raised during Aloy’s quest. “I wondered how many secrets lay unearthed in this world as we ignorantly go about our daily lives,” quips one particular explorer. These are all fascinating ideas, which are presented in a fashion that does not talk down to or at the player.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open-world action role-playing game. You explore the world, harvest crafting resources, complete quests and level up your character’s skills. The gameplay loop is fun, addictive and surprisingly challenging. Even at higher levels, it is very easy to be annihilated by the various robotic creatures occupying the world and this really enhances the feeling of danger lurking around every corner. This is a hostile unforgiving place and exploring is a tense experience. Hearing the metallic roar or thundering feet of an unseen creature causes the hairs to stand up on your neck and maybe some other involuntary bodily responses.
The game borrows mechanics and ideas from a myriad of games such as Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted and Monster Hunter. The familiar crafting and foraging system is implemented from Far Cry, the stealth mechanics from Assassins Creed are added and refined, the exhilarating platforming from Uncharted is included and the mega creature fights from Monster Hunter are thrown in too. While the mechanics may be familiar to most players, they have been expertly blended into a seamless, cohesive whole. Guerrilla Games have demonstrated a great deal of skill and expertise as a developer in pulling off this blend of styles. The controls are silky smooth and the game runs at a pretty much rock solid 30 FPS. There are some slight frame drops when there is a lot of action on screen at once. Surprisingly, these instances only occurred in a few select places and never lasted for more than a few seconds. This is quite an amazing feat considering the incredible graphics, the size of the robotic creatures, and how many can be displayed at once.
Outside of the story, Horizon really shines in its open world and preparation for hunting the large robotic beasts. The world is full of mystery and populated by data points that provide an insight into humanity before the apocalypse. Every area has its own distinct look and feel. Lush temperate forests give way to harsh deserts and tropical rain forests. The diversity of the various areas is excellent and adds to the feeling of taking part in a large journey. Preparation for hunting the creatures in Horizon is essential. There is no indication given on how to fight the beasts and it is up to the player to observe their patterns and develop the right strategy for taking them down.
Each robotic creature can be scanned using Aloy’s focus. Doing so will reveal weak points on the creature, its movement pattern and any susceptibility to elemental damage such as fire, ice, and electricity. Various weapons and traps are available such as combat bows, slings, freeze traps and many others. Developing an understanding of how to use them all is great fun adding depth and planning to the hunts. There is nothing quite like the thrill of taking down a huge creature using a well-executed strategy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when fighting the human opponents in the game. Mindlessly charging at you or staying at distance firing arrows is the extent of their tactics and can be easily exploited. While this is not a major issue, the game would have benefitted greatly from better human AI that provided a different challenge to the animalistic AI of the machines.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a visual tour de force. This is quite simply the best looking open world game available on a console to date. Some of the vistas are breathtaking and will make for some amazing wallpapers. Fighting one of the huge creatures at sunset or by moonlight adds a real sense of theatre and drama to proceedings, framing the action perfectly. The encounters, under the right lighting, can feel epic. Texture work is excellent, the lighting effects are incredible and the ambient weather effects are some of the best seen yet. The mist slowly rolls in on the wind, dust storms are whipped up and the dynamic rain in the lowlands gives way to large snowstorms in the mountainous regions. The machines are all distinctive and are very well animated. There really is an unnerving and terrifying believability to how some of these creatures move and operate. Aloy’s animations are also excellent and add to her overall personality. She will hold her hand out to catch raindrops when it starts to rain, pull her arms in when it is cold and she hunches over using her arms and hands to climb steep hills. The level of detail on display is very impressive, whilst also feeling that it is there to service the game, and not just for show. There are minor issues with lip-synching during certain conversations, which can be distracting, and there is some occasional texture pop in. Fortunately, these minor issues do not detract from the overall experience.
The audio design is incredible. Every machine has its own distinct roar or noise, which instils a mixture of awe and fear at the same time. Each forest and area have a different soundscape. Tropical rain forests have different ambient creature noises when compared to the temperate forests. This is subtle, clever design, and really enhances the experience. The voice acting is also superb. Ashley Burch, Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2, turns in a great performance as Aloy. She provides a steel, warmth, and melancholy that is deep and endearing. It is very hard not to root for her throughout the course of the adventure. There are a couple of slightly hammy performances, such as Warchief Sona’s bizarre delivery, which do pull you out of the story at points. However, the quality of the voice acting shines during the key emotional moments. The soundtrack composed by Niels van der Leest, Joris de Man and The Flight has a timeless quality on par with Skyrim and The Witcher 3. Compositions such as “City On The Mesa” will forever be engrained in the psyche of gamers for years to come. Each individual track has been meticulously crafted to reflect each area, city, village and culture. There are instrumental influences from many cultures around the world such as Polynesia, Africa, and South America that all combine to create a truly beautiful score. In contrast, the mechanical synth pieces that feature machine scratching noises, uncomfortable grinding, and techno trance elements provide an unnerving listening experience when exploring some of the more unnatural areas of the game.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a remarkable achievement when considering the developer’s pedigree. Creating an open world game is a notoriously difficult task and Guerrilla Games have pulled it off with some aplomb. Every design choice has been measured, carefully considered and doesn’t feel there just to show off. While there are minor performance issues and some small niggling problems there is nothing here that detracts from the 40 to 80-hour campaign. The myriad of gameplay styles blends together to create a smooth and challenging experience that feels polished and fun to play. Incredible audio design, stunning visuals, and a beautiful open world combine to create an amazing backdrop on which a surprisingly deep and thought-provoking story is told.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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