This is a serious contender for Game of the Year in 2017. Zelda and a few others are going to have their hands full in convincing gamers that they have a more complete gaming experience than Horizon Zero Dawn.
Guerrilla Games has made a name from its Killzone series for over a decade and across multiple generations. They’ve done almost nothing but Killzone, with Shellshock coming in as their first title in 2004, which means they’re probably ready to stretch their creative minds a bit, which they have with Horizon Zero Dawn. When they announced HZD at E3 2015, the project seemed ambitious at best and with a scoop of skepticism served with it. Seeing this wonderful female character rope-a-dope a mean-ass looking robot and then take it down systematically was pretty cool. The small demo they had at E3 2015 certainly looked awesome, but we’ve seen demos from GG before that looked spectacular and didn’t exactly deliver as promised. On top of this skepticism, could a company that was known for first-person shooters the majority of its life really produce a game that looked Skyrim-esque with a touch of Tomb Raider sprinkled on it? Psssh. Whatever. No way.
But, they did.
Boy, did they.
I would imagine that Killzone is now going to take a back seat to this series for years to come. I’m okay with it, especially if GG can produce the same quality, intensity and scale as they have with Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s everything advertised and more. Can you believe that this day and age? Neither can I, but wow, they so delivered.
Let’s start from the beginning of what you need to know about HZD, which is the story of Aloy.
The story of Horizon Zero Dawn surrounds an outcast named Aloy. Raised by a willing outcast named Rost, Aloy spends a good portion of her childhood striving to be the best despite the shunning she gets from local tribes, especially the Nora, who believe that outcasts simply aren’t worth the time of day. Doing her best to avoid living a lonely life, Aloy convinces Rost that she wants to be a part of something greater, so he takes her through the Nora’s Proving, which is an open door tournament, where if she succeeds in it, then she receives a place in Nora’s tribe. She goes through the process and ends up on the short end of the stick, as do the Nora, and her quest in the game begins, as does her adventure to become something much greater than expected.
The story of Aloy is well-thought out. What you just read is about 1/40th of the story that actually makes up her adventure. If I went further than that, there would be a possibility of spoiling some significant moments for you, as well as ruining some of the best adventuring you’re probably going to see in a game this year — yes, probably even Zelda (Nintendo fanboys/girls will disagree, but eh). Aloy’s adventures, which might seem predictable about 20 hours into the game, hit a dramatic and fascinating twist around the 30 hour mark and send the entire game into a different direction. You’ll find a new world uncovered at this point and a portion of the main story that contains so much tension and decision-making on the fly that you’ll have no other choice than to drown yourself in it. I’m tip-toeing, though. I honestly don’t want to give too much away. I had better stop there and tell you about the game itself.
Let’s get right into it.
Presentation: Or How I Never Knew Games Could Be Made Like This
I had always thought that Final Fantasy XV would be hard to top. It is a gorgeous game by its own right and the tapped resources of the PS4 shine through it. Square Enix built a girth-y world that teemed with life and truly felt like a world you could live and reside in, even if most of it was wonderful driving (I want that car so bad). It’s huge, magical, deep…and Horizon Zero Dawn simply puts it to shame visually and audibly.
HZD shows that GG’s efforts to pull the most from the PS4 Pro and PS4 is not in vein. They have built a world like no other in this generation of gaming. The sights, sounds, weather, animals, various scenery (woods, mountains, snowy plains, desert) and such are unrivaled currently in this generation. There has not been a more beautiful game to grace this generation and whatever magical engine that GG used to push the kind of graphics that HZD contains will be difficult to top in the coming years. The draw distance alone in the lands you explore is something to behold. You see a mountain in the background? Well, you can get to it. You see fog rolling in during rainy times and plenty of dark clouds during snowy weather. The cities have multi-tier levels that have residents, animals and whatnot going about their own business at any given time. And when you see the map for the first time and how huge the world is that Aloy resides in, you’ll just be taken back a bit on how GG did this game. Horizon Zero Dawn is just HUGE and breathtaking and feels like you’re actually in a world.
And it’s just not the girth of the game that makes you say, ‘G** D***’, it’s also in the finer details not left out. The lighting is stunning in HZD. The sun shines down through forests appropriately, shadows and shading are cast perfectly and when the day makes way for weather changes and such, the lighting becomes affected by the change. If it rains, then there are puddles left over in the landscape, which reflect the sun off of them, which can be blinding at times. Hell, even the swaying plants in a windy field play with the lighting that is hitting them and shine when they need to as they sway back and forth. The details even go as far as your character getting pulled in a current when waters are rough in a stream. It’s tiny details that make this game ridiculous in a good way on so many levels.
And things just don’t stop with the environments. The character models are meticulously put together as well.
Aloy’s model is alive, the hands and body movement when she is walking, running or even jumping adjust to the proper place depending on weapon or device that she is carrying. When she is jumping her body adjusts to the landing, depending on height. For example, she will tuck and roll when she can, if they height is right, just to soften the fall of the jump. Other meticulously crafted character movements include her running with a bow in hand, where her arm carrying the bow will fall backwards to allow for the heavy object to flow with her movements. It’s as if GG has accounted for every possible movement situation with Aloy. It’s intricate and beautiful to watch in motion, and all of the character model details and movements are done so with respect to the character’s situation. I haven’t seen another game which takes the amount of character details in account when it comes to the look and movement of the character.
The models for the enemies are even more complicated than Aloy’s, and you’ll find this out when you focus in on one of them for the first time to kill them. There is a bevy of moving parts, shields, wires and whatnot that make up each enemy. The bigger the enemy, the more complicated the model is, which makes you respect the hell out of the developers for the efforts given. It’s as if GG had to challenge itself with each animal model, showing that it can become more complicated as the adventure continues. What’s even more remarkable about the robotic beasts in the game is that once you damage and remove their shielding, and they usually have wonderful weak points to reveal them, then you’re seeing even more design underneath that had not been previously revealed. Guerrilla Games put a helluva lot of work into making these menacing beasts feel like killer robots.
Additional elements that add presentation value to the HZD world also include a great amount of random dialogue, especially from Aloy. While you’re certainly going to get some dialogue repetition from our hero, her random chatter about her current situation usually hits the mark. When she says that she should avoid contact with animals, listen to her! Sometimes she’ll chatter about needing elements and sometimes she’ll chatter about taking down enemies before a fight begins. There is a lot of chatter coming from our hero that adds a layer of believability to the game, as well as reminding us that this is her adventure. Outside of her, the NPCs around you are constantly chattering, especially in the bigger cities, some of it is useless talking, while other times you’ll have dialogue extended invitations to start side quests (an exclamation point is another indicator for side quests, which resides over the NPC character’s head). The amount of dialogue written and recorded for this game is extensive and it adds some great presentation to a big game.
All of this presentation makes for one spectacular audio and visual experience that is unrivaled on the PS4 Pro or the PS4. Horizon Zero Dawn raises the bar way up high and I wish all games in the coming months/years luck in catching up.
Gameplay: Or How I Learned to Point and Shoot Without Much Effort (and other things)
I thoroughly enjoyed Lara Croft and her bow and arrow (not a metaphor) in Tomb Raider. Shooting an arrow into the head of an enemy in that game was a satisfying accomplishment that made me feel like a badass gamer (it doesn’t take much). Having a game like Horizon Zero Dawn almost solely depend on that method of enemy disposal gave me great joy and excitement, though just a sprinkle of concern, as Tomb Raider did require some precise aiming to kill a target. HZD perfected the method of shooting an arrow, giving you the opportunity to point/shoot and ‘focus’ on the enemies, thus slowing them down to pinpoint their weakness with a curious arrow. The button combination to shoot an arrow is easy: L2 brings up the bow, R2 pulls the arrow back and releasing R2 fires the arrow. There’s nothing more to it, though you can push R3 to focus in on the enemy target, thus slowing it down a bit, which allows for the possibility of putting the arrow right where it needs to go. Again, it’s a perfect firing system that doesn’t require much thought or effort, which includes easy aiming. The game gives you every opportunity to hit your target and the only reason you won’t is because you have screwed up your targeting, or the bow isn’t pulled back fully before releasing the arrow. Bottom line, if you miss, it’s solely on you. So don’t miss.
That perfection aside, the game actually gives you the option to change bows and arrows. The higher you go in the game, the better equipment is made available to you. You can upgrade bows by collecting materials from enemies and selling off metal parts for money. The combination of enemy materials and money can equal out to better equipment. The better the bow, the more options of precision and power you have at your disposal. The latter option of that sentence, power, is huge. There are precision arrows you can purchase, shock arrows, fire arrows and even an arrow, and this is my personal favorite of the game, that will literally tear apart the shield/armor of enemies by emitting a sonic blast. It’s pretty cool and addictive to keep firing, though difficult to find resources to put together. There are a lot of cool arrow options in the game that will keep the excitement of the game going.
If you’re not privy to b/a, then you have other weapon options to choose from in HZD. There is a slingshot option that allows you to slingshot different types of shots towards your enemies. You can fire off explosives, shocks and/or ice shots hurled at your unsuspecting enemies. It’s pretty fun, as each one brings a certain reaction from its victims. The explosion is the most effective of the bunch, though the most direct (if you miss, you miss).
The shock shot will actually lay down a certain area of shock that enemies can get stuck in, if they cross over the area. Generally, it will paralyze them enough to perform a melee attack on them (which is limited in time, but powerful in punch). This is a good way to get enemies to either stop or slowdown, which makes it useful (and believe me, stopping/slowing some enemies is useful). Sometimes you need it to buy you some time to escape, other times you need it to finish off a wounded enemy. Regardless, it’s my favorite out of the bunch.
The ice shot is interesting, as it will spill over an ice chill onto enemies, which will either freeze them in their place or slow them, which allows, again, for melee. The ice shot is deadly, as you will find out from some of the enemies that sport it as a weapon, but effective when you’re trying to buy time. It also is very damaging, which, again, you’ll find out when you come across some nasty robot beasts.
Anyway, there are other options to fighting robots other than just a simple bow and arrow solution. You also have trip wires you can set up (explosive, shocking, otherwise), a rope caster to trap enemies or hook them to the ground and other devices to help you work through Aloy’s adventure. All of these options work in conjunction with a focus device that Aloy sports, which also helps to identify enemies, objects and what not (pressing R3 activates that, but only when you’re not pulling back the bow and arrow). Anyway, if all those weapons weren’t enough for you, you can switch between such weapons with ease, as you just hold down L1 and choose a weapon with the right thumbstick during fights. Easy-peasy, though be warned that a fight will continue in slow motion when you access the weapon’s menu, so don’t take too long.
Some of the strategies to move/fight in the game surround that focus ability where you can focus in on a beast and slow down time. You can use it while you jump, while you’re on the ground and/or while you’re sliding. It works well in all the situations, which is amazing considering that most people will only do one of those things, which will more than likely be staying grounded and firing arrows. Let me reassure you that the slide and shoot method is pretty useful, especially when one of the animals is jumping at you in the air. I had a moment where one of the cat-like creatures (not saying which one) jumped at me and I did a running slide underneath him/her (couldn’t see either) and shot them right in the vulnerable bread basket, which ended up as a quick kill — after some other hits. It also saved my life during one fight, as I slid underneath a beast to avoid getting hit and having a better vantage point. The movement in the game feels natural and seamless, as are the controls. They don’t get in the way during the gameplay when you’re taking down enemies, which is a major plus in my opinion.
Staying with enemies, the AI in the game is actually quite impressive in terms of NPC and enemy characters. The NPC characters, which help you out in certain situations against robots, will make decent decisions when trying to take down a baddie, even going as far as acting as distractions when you need to break away from the battle. Human shields against beasties is the best way to describe them and they are ferocious in battle…although they will more than likely die after a period of time. There are also bandit NPCs on the road too, which are fantastic human shields to bring unwittingly into battle. For example, there was a moment where I was raiding a bandit camp and had more than a few robots on the other side of it. I lured the bandits out of their camp and then lured the robots up from the bottom of the hill, then I escaped off to the side to watch the wonderful battle between bandits/robots ensue. Robots were killing the bandits and vice-versa, which meant less people/things for me to kill and less ammo to waste. The AI for both animals and NPC enemies is to see threats and attack accordingly. It works brilliantly, as well as makes logical sense when it comes to their reaction to each other. There are far too many games in the industry where two competing NPC factions don’t recognize the other in the heat of battle. HZD is not one of those games.
As for the robot enemy artificial intelligence, it’s good. If you can hide long enough in tall grass, you won’t alert them to your presence, but if you move around, you’re toast. And usually it’s not just one robot that sees, seeks and attacks you, as those solos will call in reinforcements. Yes, they are bastards, but beautiful ones at that for being smart enough to get help in killing you. So, yes, the AI is pretty impressive here, even going as far as robots running away when they’re hurt (and you can hurt/damage them, which slows them down — picture cats with hurt paws and you get the picture).
Continuing with enemies, there are some interesting beasts out there that will cause you some trouble and who react different depending on their/your intentions. You will find herds of cattle/ram/horses that you can trap and take over in the game, even going as far as riding one for a vehicle around Aloy’s world, as you’ve seen in past demos for HZD. You will find giants beasts, such as the Sawtooth (basically a robot sabertooth) that will relentlessly track you down during a fight. Sometimes those enemies will run before fighting, which presents you with a chase. Sometimes that chase will turn itself on its head, as herds don’t exactly like seeing their brethren strung up and killed. Be very aware of your surroundings. There were more than a few times where I thought I had killed something and distanced it from other enemies and ended up during my scavenging of the killed’s parts getting my ass kicked royally. Knowing where an enemy/enemies is/are while you’re hunting or defending will keep you alive. Knowing those boundaries and distances between you and them will keep Aloy’s adventure going unimpeded.
Having said that, if there was a knock against HZD it would be in that last sentence, as there are some clear action boundaries that robotic beasts will hit and not go beyond, or at least willingly go beyond. For example, there was a fight between me and two Sawtooth enemies (lucky me, right?) that had me run for the hills…or just across a large stream. The Sawtooth enemies would not cross over the stream for any reason, other than me pulling them in, and that took effort. All of that means that if I had enough patience I could just sit up high and pick them off slowly. I’m an old guy, who has infinite amount of patience, so I took advantage of such situations over and over again. Kind of like Skyrim, where you can put yourself in certain places and positions to keep enemies at bay while you kill them, HZD has this same problem too, though you will find times where you believe you would be safe, but end up being a biomeal for the beasties. That said, you will be thrilled at times that the boundary exists, especially when you need to scavenge for parts because you’re low on ammo. Regardless, you have to carefully judge your surroundings when you’re fighting and find those boundaries and limitations before engaging, even if it feels a bit cheat-y. Ultimately this is a flaw in HZD, but nothing that will take the adventure out of the game, especially when some of those enemies are so relentless in their fight to kill Aloy. Having a bit of revenge to torture them slowly is at times fun.
While Aloy is out taking down mechanical beasts, she/you will come across material for various purposes across the lands you explore. You will see medical leaves to help replenish health, sticks to help you build arrows and other small natural items that will help you craft and put things together to help Aloy’s adventure along. You will find a lot of these items along the way and you should collect as many as you can because you will have to craft ammo. Before you frown and pout about having to give effort to play a game about a kickass woman taking out robotic beasts, you should know that you can purchase these resources and ammo from traders in towns (and sometimes out of town) for a price. This means if you hate crafting things and having to give effort to play a game that GG has been developing since 2011, then you have an out for your laziness. Just keep sipping that Mountain Dew and chopping on Taco Bell, as you don’t have to worry about giving effort. For the rest of us, we’ll be enjoying our progression and creation of items that will help us establish an ongoing edge of effort during gameplay. If you’re reading this as sarcastic, then you’re right. I’m sure someone will bitch about this aspect of the game, but you should promptly ignore them. They are stupid.
Anyway, crafting is a big portion of the gameplay and it integrates itself into it seamlessly. If anything, it creates a challenge during gameplay. Challenges are still a thing, right? They are for me.
*jumps off soapbox and throws up both middle-fingers on the way down to those who need it*
Speaking of challenges, Horizon Zero Dawn has plenty of them in the main and side quests. The main quest follows the story (duh) and it has a load of challenges along the way. There are some BIG challenges, if you get my drift. Like I stated at the beginning, I won’t give away anything, but I will say that the story of Aloy flows well throughout. Guerrilla Games did a superb job of laying out something engaging and memorable, so enjoy the journey, as it is a helluva fun road to travel.
The side quests are broken into something as simple as running errands, clearing hunting/corrupted grounds (corrupted robots are harder to bring down — they are scary looking as well) and other small journeys to open up more of the map. There are quite a few side quests, which is to be expected in a game of this magnitude. There are some tough journeys too, including going through hunting trials to help Aloy join a hunting guild, which requires her to ditch powerful weapons at one point before starting a fight. Yeah, that’s fun. Anyway, side quests are a great way to level up and work well within the overall gameplay scheme.
On the leveling side of the equation, there is a level tree that you can level up through using XP you gain from completing missions, side quests, and taking down enemies (certain points assigned to each enemy can equal out to some good XP, so choose your enemy wisely). You can level up things like silent melee attacks, more powerful melee attacks on robots and even being able to lift heavier weapons that you obtain from fallen robots (you can knock off parts and use them against enemies — SO MUCH FUN). The level tree is broken up into three categories:
Prowler: Prowler focuses on Aloy’s physical movements, such as reflexes, melee attacks and aiming (there are more, but you get the idea).
Brave: This focuses on precision, power and weaponry usage, such as a double shot attack (using two arrows instead of one).
Forager: This focuses on scavenging, gathering and improving aspects of combat. There’s a lot here that will help you prepare and prevent issues along Aloy’s adventures.
Between the three categories, there is initially 36 level-ups in the overall tree, with 12 in each category. Not too bad when you’re trying to improve and each one doesn’t seem unreachable, which provides you with the motivation to gain more XP as you go along, as well as take on side quests and bigger beasts. A game that creates motivation is always a good game.
Overall, the gameplay design here has the best of everything with the minimum amount of flaws. You get a great backend system with an easy front end that provides an entirely new view on how much fun a bow and arrow led game could be. In addition to the gameplay design details, there’s also so much to explore and so much to do with the gameplay design put together in HZD. All of it is fun, addictive and makes you wish it wouldn’t end.
With all this said, is this game worth you time and money? GOD, YES. Are you crazy? Honestly speaking, I didn’t expect this big of a game with HZD. I knew it was going to be pretty, like all Guerrilla Games are in their own way, but I didn’t expect the game to raise the bar with current generation games. I didn’t expect a Skyrim-esque girth to the gameplay and didn’t know that I would be pulled in so hard to the game that I’m left wanting more and more (instead of typing this review). This game is something that could potentially be used as a building block for GG to branch out to other new IP and stop using Killzone as a reason for existing (though, I wouldn’t mind another one). Horizon Zero Dawn proves that a big time developer like Guerrilla Games is more than a one-trick pony and that Sony might want to pick their brains for new and exciting titles in the very near future.
So, yes, this game is worth it. It’s more than you wanted and everything you desired out of this generation of systems. Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger on this one.