For Guerilla Games, the transition from the linear first person shooters of Killzone to the third person open world RPG of Horizon Zero Dawn was one of interest. That initial interest has now become a game that excels in all areas, and has created a strong first impression as a newly introduced intellectual property in the Sony head space. It may seem rash to start comparing Horizon Zero Dawn to some of PlayStation’s best exclusives, such as Uncharted, Bloodborne, and The Last of Us, but the overall performance of the game cannot, and should not go unnoticed.
Horizon’s story and world comes in a multitude of layers. What has led the world to become what it has become with humans living in primitive societies while mechanized animals roam the lands they inhabit? As Aloy, an outcast by birth from her tribe, she not only is looking for answers of her own origin, but of the events of the past that have created this new world. Aloy feels a bit like a lone wanderer at times, and all but a few people she meets throughout her story don’t stay around long enough to establish themselves.
Like most games that reference the post apocalyptic / dystopian setting, the dangers of the world take a back seat to vicious groups of humans who seek to gain power. While this approach isn’t necessarily fresh, the way it’s tied into the primary story and the discoveries of the past is done exceptionally well. Even though the narrative is separated between present day conflict and understanding the events that lead to the current state of the world, the structure and how they intertwine keeps the ideas fresh, even dozen of hours in.
One of the biggest challenges for Horizon was to create a compelling and engaging open world to explore, and that challenge was passed with flying colors. From riding through the wintery beginnings of Mother’s Cradle, to passing through Day Tower and entering the massive open canyons of Meridan, to the southern safari layered in trees and foliage, there’s a lot of everything to be offered. Even the tiniest of details such as the ruffling of trees and grass in wind gusts, to the way Aloy’s idle animations reaching out to catch descending snowflakes create an authenticity with the world that bestows a strong sense of immersion. Not only do the aforementioned features of the world give incentive to explore, but they play a pivotal role in combat at times. Canyon pits force you to plan a more tactical and stealthy approach, as you’re confined to a finite amount of space. While the snowy open areas to the north might make you take a more direct approach while trying to maneuver around enemy attacks and trouble shoot taking on multiple enemies at once.
But combat goes much deeper than the locations you fight in. No matter which approach you may take, stealth always seemed to be a preferable style for me. Since you’ll be fighting without allies more often that not, taking out as enemies as possible without being detected is a good start, as some bandit camps or herds of Longlegs can become overwhelming quickly. If stealth isn’t an option, the range of weapons at your disposal can aid you in that regard. While most of what you’ve seen from trailers and gameplay demos consist of Aloy’s bow and arrow skills, they extend far beyond just this familiar primitive weapon. Taking on a swift enemy? Hit them with a sling with freeze ammunition to slow them down. Trying to clear out a corrupted zone of watchers? Light them up with a storm of fire arrows. Want to use a Ravenger’s mounted gun against him? Use a precision arrow to knock it off to use for yourself. There’re many methods to the madness that is man vs machine combat, and executing every one of them is just as satisfying as the next.
Preparations in combat also stem outside of the firefights with a nice crafting and modification system that further adds to the RPG elements of the game. While understanding the strengths and weakness of enemies is one thing, knowing which items each type of machine will drop is important as well. It is true that you can go through the majority of fights in the game without diving very deep down the rabbits hole of tinkering with different element and weapon types, but anyone that is looking to maximize their offense output on the opposition will see themselves running from point to point trying to find the best pieces to fit into their arsenal puzzle. To top if off, each new weapon type is introduced with an optional tutorial objective that both fleshes out the mechanics while giving a nice incentive experience boost.
Back unto the subject of society in this time period, you can see that Guerilla places heavy emphasis on developing the culture in this science fiction dystopia. In every cultural settlement you come across, there’s an established lifestyle that separates one locale to the next. From the highly religious establishment of the Nora, to the conflicting political ties between them the Carja from events of years past, there is a history placed among this world, and among its people that you’ll come to understand the farther along the journey becomes.
The biggest praise I have to give to Horizon is the way in which the lore is fleshed out for the player. Sure you have your narrative direction that hands you the major components of the story, but retrieving scattered audio and text dialog files via your focus begins to fill the tiny holes that create a deeper understanding. The “biggest” issue (which is relatively small) is the occasional forced dialog humor through Aloy which, knowing the layout of the story, isn’t something that she shouldn’t be very knowledgeable of. On top of that, her discoveries appear to resonate with her way too well and way too quickly. However even with these slight hiccups, they do little to no harm to the overall experience in this primitive future.
The execution of Horizon Zero Dawn’s major components result in a fleshed out world with an incredible protagonist. The expectations with a new IP are always going to be set high, especially with Guerilla having cemented themselves as a notable member of the PlayStation family. With a world filled with life in every nook and cranny that is oozing with adventure, we’re the ones luckily enough with a chance to have one of PlayStation 4’s best titles to date.