Guerrilla Games turn their attention away from the nightmarish landscapes of Helghan and the Killzone series, and bring us a post-apocalyptic open world with a twist. Set on earth, hundreds of years after a mysterious event, Horizon Zero Dawn sees humanity split into primitive tribes, with the remnants of “The Old Ones” all around. Oh, and there are robot dinosaurs. Lots of robot dinosaurs.
Game: Horizon Zero Dawn
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
Amidst the uneasy harmony that exists between man and machine is Aloy, a flame-haired outcast from her tribe since birth, and her mentor, Rost. Desperate to prove herself, she undertakes training with Rost to force her way back into the tribe and learn the secrets of her mysterious past, as well as the history of the machines, where they came from and what happened to humanity. It’s a story that takes some really impressive twists and turns as it unravels itself in front of you, and should keep you thoroughly engaged throughout its 25 to 30 hour lifespan. As a character, I warmed to Aloy pretty quickly, her somewhat sarcastic sense of humour and confidence belying the almost child-like wonder at the events that unfurl throughout the game.
Open world games are ten-a-penny at the moment, and it is somewhat relieving to see Guerrilla put a different spin on it. Their unique take on a post-apocalyptic world is as daunting as it is beautiful, with danger littered across the entire map. Herds of machines wander the land as if it were their own, and will remain docile until they’re disturbed. Aloy’s fragility is amplified during the early going, when you feel woefully ill-equipped to take on the mechanised beasts with nothing more than a small bow and arrow, spear and sling. However, as the game opens up, so do the combat choices, with elemental attacks and other weapons slowly presenting themselves with enough regularity to keep the combat feeling fresh and inventive. The ropecaster is a particular favourite of mine, with the ability to tie machines to the ground whilst you find a weak spot to exploit proving, at times, invaluable to keeping yourself alive. Finding those weak spots is made possible thanks to the Focus, a small yet useful device that looks a little like a Bluetooth headset. Unlike the chunks of plastic hanging from the ears of many a tosspot sat on their laptop in a coffee shop, however, the Focus provides a holographic HUD for Aloy to interact with things in the world.
In fact, it’s the Focus that sums up what makes Horizon such a special game. The majority of the weapons and technology is strikingly primitive, with the aforementioned arrows, slings and spears being the dominant methods of combat. However, this is a world in which the smartphone once existed. Where skyscrapers once graced the skylines of most major cities, and where technology was such a primary component of everyone’s lives, the relics of Aloy’s past are pieces of technology that we would class as futuristic. It’s a really interesting concept, and one that Guerrilla have played their hand almost perfectly with, ensuring that we as players are just as amazed as Aloy is by the outlandish, but can also have a chuckle at the mundane being misconstrued. Where else, for example, could you find an open world game that puts coffee cups as collectibles, having the protagonists mistake them for ancient ceremonial vessels? Or have a set of keys be described as “ancient chimes”? Horizon does it with a wink and a nod to the player, but without ever feeling like it’s pushing its luck. Whilst there are moments that will make it feel a little generic, Horizon is not your typical open world game, for all the right reasons. Yes, there are spots on the map you can climb up to reveal certain areas (Assassin’s Creed had better step its game up, because these towers are walking robot dinosaurs!), but the way that Guerrilla have brought the side missions to cross over with the main story is unexpected and quite impressive.
Equally as impressive, if not more so, is the way that this game looks. I think Horizon might possibly be the best looking game I have ever seen, period. To have this level of graphical fidelity throughout an entire open world is simply unheard of. From the detail in the characters’ faces through to the painstaking design of the machines, right down to the overgrown wildernesses that were once main streets in cities, Horizon looks like what would happen if C-3PO left a game of Jumanji open for a couple of decades. The weather systems in the game are dynamic, with fog and rain rolling in unpredictably, adding another element to consider as you traverse the barren landscapes. There are sections that remind me of Red Dead Redemption in both gameplay and design, and yet there are also sections that remind me of Star Trek. It’s such a diverse game in terms of its settings. I played the game on the PS4 Pro and the standard PS4, and it looks fantastic on both, with the standard PS4 only really dropping a few frames in very busy areas. nb: There is a Day 1 patch which will ‘improve performance and enhance visual fidelity on the PS4 Pro’, which at the time of writing we have yet to receive
It isn’t perfect, however. There are times when the camera focuses too tightly onto Aloy, making things feel a little bit restrictive, and there are a few moments in the story where the pacing could be a little bit better. Additionally, I felt the game could do with a little more signposting. There were fairly early mechanics and areas in the game that I didn’t really delve into until quite late on, whether that’s because I missed a tutorial along the way or not I’m not sure, but I don’t think I did. There are numerous times throughout the main story as well that just felt like it was going to devolve into “Go here, kill these, then go here” ad nauseum, but ultimately, it straddled that line well enough.
A magnificent technical achievement, Horizon Zero Dawn mixes up the open world style in all the right ways, with an intriguing premise that kept me entertained, and which dug its hooks into me the deeper I got into it. A stunning game that deserves your attention.
Plus, it has robot dinosaurs.