Review – Horizon Zero Dawn

As I have discussed with friends in the past, I do not believe any game deserves a perfect score.  There is always something that could have been better, that pulls the player away from the experience.  That being said, Horizon Zero Dawn from Guerrilla Games comes about as close as a game can get.  With great action, a well realized world, an engaging story, and a host of characters, Horizon Zero Dawn deserves to be on the shelf of every Playstation 4 owner.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a third person (also known as over-the-shoulder or behind-the-back) action open-world game with roleplaying elements set in the distant future.  The player takes control of Aloy, an outcast hunter of the Nora, one of the tribes of people who exist after a great calamity wiped out much of humanity.  The tribes exist with little technology, living off of the land like early societies.  Roaming the landscape around the tribes are large robotic creatures known as “machines”.  Largely the driver for the primary story arc, the machines look like animals from Earth’s past and present.  While these machines have largely operated around humans without issue, they have become increasingly aggressive to anyone who crosses their path, resulting in attacks on the Nora lands.

Aloy’s story begins at a coming of age competition known as the Proving where the winner can become a Nora Brave, a protector of the Nora people.  The Proving is attacked by an outside group of people, prompting Aloy to begin her journey into the lands outside of the Nora plateau.  There, Aloy will face increasingly ferocious machines, other tribes both friend and enemy, as well as landscapes not seen by other Nora.  Her drive is to find those who attacked the Proving, determine why the machines are aggressive, and ultimately seek the story of the world and herself.

The plot of Horizon is well written and extremely well paced for an open world game.  I felt like I was discovering the truth behind the new world right along side Aloy, always wanting to drive forward to find the next nugget of lore and step in the story.  Horizon features many of the standard open world game features, such as main story arcs, side missions, and some collectibles.  Unlike some other games, however, I did not feel like the main story was generally hindered by the existence of the other activities.  Why would I go help this person find their cow when I’m busy stopping a nuclear missile launch?  Instead, Aloy’s journey of discovery is supported by the other activities.  I felt like I was doing these things to gain allies and become stronger/more skilled for the fight ahead rather than diverting completely from my main task.  This does, however, fall apart a bit during the end game, as is typical with open world games.  I had progressed in the main story enough to know I was marching toward a final large sequence, only then to stop my progress to finish up the side missions scattered around.

The story and lore of Horizon’s world is only supported further by the open world Guerrilla created.  Aloy comes across centuries old destroyed cities, complete with the husks of buildings towering above and blocking out the light.  Rusted out weapons of war can be found in the sites of old battles.  Former technology known today reduced to artifacts.  Even sport stadiums now house tribes.  All of these remnants of the past give way to new settlements and cities, built by the hands and basic tools of those who have survived.  Deserts, forests, snow capped mountains, and grasslands create an excellent backdrop for what humanity has created.  Dynamic weather systems and day/night cycles also create a more immersive world, one that I never got tired of traversing.

The action in Horizon is as refreshing as the attention to story.  Aloy’s primary weapons are a spear and bow.  As she hunts the machines (or is hunted by them), Aloy can attack with bow and arrow, picking off weak points on the mechanical bodies.  Aloy is able to purchase new bows and similar weapons as well as new types of arrows, like fire, freeze, and explosive.  These can be used in various combinations against enemies to aide in taking them down.  Stealth mechanics also come into play, hiding from machines or other people for a quick takedown opportunity.  Progression is provided via skill points and a skill tree that helps to increase Aloy’s attack or stealth prowess.  At the beginning of the game, I was very much afraid of taking on any of the world’s machines.  By the end, I was a confident hunter ready to take on just about any challenge.  It felt like an appropriate progression as I ventured through the world.

I cannot close out this review without touching on one of my other few issues with the game.  With story, animations, and voice acting being so good, my immersion was often jolted when engaged in conversations with other NPCs.  The game uses a separate camera view during dialog, going between those who are speaking.  In these sequences, it feels as though the animations are sub par.  The characters have excessive body and eye movement, over emphasizing every point.  It’s very much a Ricky Bobby I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-hands moment each and every time.  It’s just a gripe, but one that stands out prominently against the backdrop of the rest of the experience.

When Guerrilla Games first showed Horizon’s gameplay, the industry could not believe that this first person shooter developer was taking on an open world action game.  By all accounts, Guerrilla made the right call and created a terrific gaming experience.  I enjoyed every minute of the 60+ hours I put in to platinum the game.  If you own a Playstation 4 and have not yet played Horizon Zero Dawn, you owe it to yourself to pick it up.  The game can be found in its Complete Edition (includes the Frozen Wilds DLC) for $12 to $20 US as of the time of this writing.

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