I’ve been wracking my brains trying to think of a way to begin this review – usually I’d start by describing the game and a little background on its development; but as Horizon Zero Dawn is one of Sony’s biggest releases so far this year, I doubt I’d be saying anything that anyone who’s considering buying the game doesn’t already know – however, if you have been living under a rock and has somehow missed the build up to release I thought a quick synopsis may help.
Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world action RPG by Guerrilla Games, set in the far future and follows the journey of Aloy – an orphan who grows to be a hunter of the Nora tribe, as she makes her way through a land reclaimed by nature and one where huge robotic machines roam freely. Over the course of the main story, Aloy travels across this vast and sometimes hostile area, learning the machine’s origins, as well as her own.
Now, before I get too far into the review, I’d like to point out that I usually give RPGs a wide berth; I find the idea of inventory management, levelling up to earn skills and travelling expansive areas tedious at the best of times. Yet something about Horizon Zero Dawn had me hooked from the 2015 E3 reveal trailer. I think watching a warrior woman taking down a mecha T-Rex with nothing more than a spear, bow and arrow had something to do with it, as it made me think of the 80s toy line Zoids (which also featured mechanical dinosaurs).
Horizon Zero Dawn begins by introducing Aloy, an infant warded to an outcast of the Nora tribe named Rost, on the day of her naming ceremony. Events flash forward to Aloy’s childhood and the game’s tutorial as Rost teaches his young charge how to hunt, scavenge and craft. One day, Aloy wanders off and falls into some ruins where she comes across a “Focus”, a device that gives her a form on sixth sense for her surroundings, including technology and living organisms. Even early on Aloy is likeable and has a very dry almost sarcastic sense of humour. There are very few child characters in video games that don’t come across as annoying, yet Aloy is just a lovable little scamp.
Aloy, wishing to know of her past learns from Rost that taking part in The Proving, a trial for young Nora tribespeople, grants them an audience with the tribal elders of the Nora. Horizon uses a training montage to skip over the next decade or so, with Aloy blossoming into a young woman with deadly skills. Events during The Proving set Aloy on her greater quest to learn more of her origins, as she leaves the safety of her homeland in order to uncover the truth.
Storyline aside, combat with machines and human enemies makes up the bulk of gameplay in Horizon Zero Dawn. Using her Focus, Aloy can analysis a machine and determine its weaknesses – what elements they are prone to and weak spots on the machine’s body. This knowledge comes in handy when facing off against the larger robots such as Stormbirds, Thunderjaws and Deathbringers. Given a little time and patience to learn a machine’s weaknesses can make the difference between a fifteen minute battle royale that exhausts your ammo (although if you find yourself in this situation Aloy is able to craft ammo on the fly), or a skirmish using a handful of rounds in a third of the time. Battles with humans can also go either way, although Aloy can use her Focus to track an enemy’s patrol route, therefore giving her a window of opportunity in which to strike.
Aloy can make use of her environment in combat, hiding in long grass or by being above or below her target’s line of sight, using stealth to take down an unsuspecting enemy. The ability to throw rocks or whistle to bring a nearby enemy to investigate before launching an assault comes in handy when on the outer fringes of a larger battlefield. Aloy can also lay traps – proximity style mines and tripwires can be used to cause maximum confusion and mayhem. Later in the game, Aloy gains the ability to override some machines, turning them against each other in a Robot Wars style deathmatch, something I took great satisfaction in doing at every possible opportunity.
Any RPG worth its salt has side missions to pad out the game, and give players a break from the trudge of the main story, and Horizon Zero Dawn has its fair share. Most fall into the “Greetings brave adventurer” category, with Aloy being asked to save a loved one or reacquire a treasured family heirloom from thieves. Aside from these genre standards, Hunting Ground missions task Aloy with taking down a specific machine using a certain attack, within a set time limit; locating Tallnecks (massive, lumbering Brachiosaurus-like robots with saucer-shaped heads) and tapping into their cores uncovers the specific locations of certain types of machines. Aloy can also descend into underground factories that produce the deadly war machines, in order to override the core and therefore allow her to override a greater range of the robotic beasts.
As with most RPGs, Aloy begins the game with her native outfit, trusty spear and an entry level bow, but can acquire slingshots, tripwires and rope casts and heavier duty bows by trading Shards (Horizon’s in game currency) and loot scavenged from downed foes and supply crates. Specialised arrows and rounds can then be accessed, including elemental rounds, precision rounds and concussion-like tearblast rounds. Weapons can be modified to deal additional elemental damage, tear and improve the weapon’s handling. Outfits can also be modified to withstand elemental attacks.
Modifications, crafting, notebooks, collectables and the game’s map can all be accessed with a click of the DualShock’s touchpad. All are well laid out and easily accessible. Aloy earns XP through completing the main story, side missions and through combat, and earn a skill point that can be used to acquire new skills, which fall into three categories – Prowler, Brave and Forager – which improve her stealth, combat and scavenging skills.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s world is as detailed as it is vast. The Nora – their lands, people, buildings and beliefs are obviously influenced by Native American culture. Women are worshipped, with matriarchs held in high regard as the wisest of the tribe. By comparison, the neighbouring Kaja’s part of the world looks more like ancient Arabia. Transition through the areas is seamless, changing so subtly that before you know it, you’re in a completely different environment from the one you left. Aloy can reach her destination more quickly by using her override ability on certain machines such as Striders or Broadheads and can also fast travel to any campfire she’s previously visited (as long as she has a fast travel pack – a provisions pouch – to hand).
The attention to detail is astounding, ancient ruins – the remnants of our current day society – stand as a silent testament to “the old ones”. The skeletal structure of once imposing cityscapes and the rusting shells of vehicles can be found in isolated pockets across the map. In the wilderness, organic wildlife such as foxes, boar and turkeys roam free. The level that Guerrilla has gone to struck me when a lone dragonfly drifted lazily across the screen. The detail carries over to the Aloy, NPCs and of course the machines. Everything smacks of quality. The only issue that I had was that I somehow managed to get myself trapped in some of the scenery which required a bit of jumping and rolling to get back out of – this isn’t a glitch per se, but rather getting cornered in a nook or cranny during the height of combat.
The voice acting is at the level one would expect of a AAA release, the cast handles the script well, and dialogue is delivered with emotion; although I did find that Aloy’s dry wit was lost on a lot of the NPCs, especially the lower level side quest characters. There are points in the game where you can choose a line of conversation, which usually result in Aloy gaining a greater insight into her current mission. Certain events or conversations trigger Flashpoints, where Aloy can choose to lead with her mind, her heart or a more pragmatic solution, which option you take will subtly affect the story.
All things considered, Horizon Zero Dawn is a gleaming example of how to do an RPG properly. Guerrilla Games have taken care to construct a world that’s already replete with its own lore. The world feels alive and alien, yet at the same time, there’s a sense of familiarity with Aloy’s surroundings. As I mentioned at the top of the review, I don’t consider myself a fan of the genre, yet lost days to exploring the game’s main and side missions. There isn’t one specific shining star in Horizon Zero Dawn’s sky, rather a whole galaxy. The story, side quests, combat and exploration add up to something really special. Whilst it’s too early to start predicting Game Of The Year winners, Horizon Zero Dawn is a strong contender.