Horizon Zero Dawn – Review
Developer: Guerilla Games
Released: 1st March 2017
Giant killer robots rule the earth in this epic story of post-apocalyptic human struggle.
There’s something immensely unsettling about post-apocalyptic settings. The feeling that a world that is eerily familiar yet broken beyond repair just makes everything seem that much more disturbing. In Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerilla Games have created a game world that brilliantly captures this feeling. The world as we know it is long gone. Where cities once stood, heaps of rusting, twisted metal poke from amongst the prairie grasses, rivers run where once there were roads and civilisation has been reduced to a tribal state. While humans are trying to work their way back from the Stone Age, machines have flourished and taken on various animalistic forms (I’ll come back to these brilliant creations in due course).
Into this strangely familiar and utterly terrifying world comes Aloy. Her birth is shrouded in mystery, her mother unknown; she is entrusted to an outcast from the Tribe, a man named Rost. The outcast brings Aloy up as though she is his own daughter, teaching her how to hunt, how to scavenge for medicinal herbs and how to avoid and kill the machine animals which roam the world. It is here we learn the basic controls and start to get to grips with this most stunningly realised of worlds. The first moment you get to control Aloy, you walk through the forest with Rost as he teaches Aloy about the medicinal herbs. The sun pokes through the trees and if you’re paying attention, you may spot the ants scurrying up and down one of the trees, carrying leaves as they go. Graphically, the only niggle I have is that the water effects don’t look as polished as the rest of the game. While there’s not a lot of time spent in the water, there’s plenty of it around in the form of rivers, lakes and streams. For some reason the water effects just aren’t up to the standards of the rest of the game.
While the opening is incredibly scripted and linear, the attention to detail in the world is absolutely phenomenal. You’d be excused for missing the metaphorical rails you’re riding on during the opening as, like me, you’d probably find yourself gawping at the gorgeous vistas. The characters, aside from Aloy, are not exactly engaging – at least not initially. There’s a lot of plot kept deliberately vague in the opening and Aloy’s outcast upbringing means that she is greeted with open hostility by almost everyone right from the off. Don’t get me wrong, the plot works well and Aloy’s humanity will melt some of the icy looks she gets from some of these characters as the game progresses. It just means that there’s not a lot of engaging interactions early on. I’d encourage players not to be put off by this, there’s plenty of humanity out there once you get going…
I don’t want to give away spoilers in this review so I’m not going to talk about the story in too much detail. What I will say is that there’s a lot seeded early on and then a lot appears in collectables you can pick up and read, watch or listen to as you explore the world. I’d encourage you not to skip the conversations and info relating to the main quest line as it fleshes out the reasons for the world being the way it is. While the ending is satisfying, there’s a lot left unanswered or open-ended and the post-credit cutscene definitely screams loudly of a direct sequel.
Enough about the story though, you want to know about the giant robot dinosaurs don’t you? Well there’s a great variety of beasties that come in a number of shapes and sizes. From the ubiquitous raptor-like Watchers to the 3-storey tall T-Rex-like Thunderjaws; there’s something for everyone. While they’ll all attempt to attack you on sight (even the deer-like Grazers), they have a variety of behaviours, attacks and weak points that you need to familiarise yourself with quickly. The game has a good learning curve. You start off with Watchers, they will alert other machines to your presence, blind you with a bright flash attack, fire small projectiles at you and jump at you. They can be killed easily from positions of stealth but can be a handful in large numbers. The first really challenging enemy is called a Sawtooth. You’re asked to kill one as part of the introduction and when you see the havoc it has caused before you meet it, you know you’re going to have a fight on your hands. The Sawtooth is a huge Sabretooth Tiger-like cat that towers over Aloy. It can’t be killed in one stealth hit like the Watchers and their Scrapper mates. This bad boy takes some tactical thinking and this will likely be the first time you need to use the tripcaster. The tripcaster is essentially a trap launcher that allows you to string out an electrified tripwire to snare larger machines. It’s a very handy skill to perfect, you will need to use these on the bigger machines to slow their charges and give you time to adjust. The combat with the machines is genuinely great fun. Every new enemy is a new puzzle to be solved. What works for one machine, doesn’t necessarily work for the next and you find that you have to quickly adjust strategies when your plans go awry. I loved this aspect of the game and the feeling of trepidation as you plan your assault is wonderful. There were a few occasions when my carefully planned attacks were thrown into chaos when other machines arrive on the scene completely out of nowhere. You will die in frustration multiple times – it’s inevitable. The first time I tried to fight a Thunderjaw, I died in about 5 seconds flat. The second time I tried to fight one, the fight lasted about ten minutes and I died. Third time I fought one (about 30seconds after the second attempt) it lasted roughly the same amount of time but I killed it. As I levelled Aloy up the enemies became progressively easier to kill but could still not be trifled with. Okay, I could kill several Snapmaw (huge crocodiles) at once, but slack off in a field full of Tramplers (giant bison kinda things) and I’d be dead in a few seconds. The machine AI will very definitely keep you on your toes.
I started my play through on hard but I admit I had to tune it down to normal towards the end due to the sheer numbers of machine enemies in certain encounters. Trying to adjust on the fly while being relentlessly attacked from all angles by enemies that can kill you with one hit just got too frustrating. I probably could’ve found a way to avoid certain enemies and draw out others but I was getting caught up in the story and wanted to find out what happened next. The repeated deaths just got annoying. To be fair, the last few missions were still quite tough on normal difficulty so it wasn’t a total cheese.
The human enemies aren’t so much of a challenge, although it’s still very satisfying clearing a bandit camp using stealth kills and sniping sentries with headshots. This is where the game feels most like a fun of the mill stealth-em-up. It’s not really fair to say that but killing humans is definitely far less fun than taking on the machines. I don’t think this is helped by the sociopathic NPC called Nils who wants your help to take out the bandits. He’s less human than many of the machines you’ll meet in the game.
Aloy, as a central character is great. She’s been subjected to a lot of unjust shit growing up and is treated as a sub-human due to being brought up as an outcast. She is unsure of her place in the world but is able to treat everyone with a level of humanity she has only been shown by Rost. She is influenced by other characters but she is her own person. This is demonstrated by basic conversational choices you can make in certain interactions with other characters. While the level of choice isn’t up there with the likes of The Witcher 3 or Mass Effect, the decisions you make can make a difference as to how certain things play out later in the game. Guerilla have created a strong female character who isn’t sexualised and holds her own with the men in her world. It would’ve been just as easy for this game to have a male lead and that’s why I like that Guerilla decided to choose Aloy. She’s central character done right. I went back and did an early side mission tonight, I think it is around level 7 or so. The interactions between Aloy and a Tribesman who wants her help are superb. After you complete the task and go back to the quest giver, you get the option to tell him that you spared the lives of the outcasts that robbed him. When he learns that Aloy was also an outcast his demeanour changes and he venomously spits hatred towards her. You can choose to put him in his place in one of three ways. I chose to try to reason with him, when the NPC doesn’t stop with the hate speech she tells him that all he has done with his hateful ways is succeed in shunning himself. Somehow it seemed very apt.
There’s a lot to love about this game. It is truly gorgeous. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long using photo mode in a game. Ever. It is truly beautiful. The robot dinosaurs are great fun to take on. The game world and narrative leave a lot of scope for a sequel or two and Aloy definitely feels like she could be the new face of a stellar franchise. Although it has a few shortcomings, I get the sense that much of what Guerilla wanted to achieve was scaled back due to this being a new IP. There’s a lot of ambition here but I get the impression that there’s more to come. I really can’t wait to see what they come up with. It gets a massive thumbs up from me.