Published on July 7th, 2017 | by Joseph Saulnier0
Horizon: Zero Dawn
For more than a decade, when people thought Guerilla Games, they think Killzone. It’s a series that I don’t have a lot of experience with myself, but can recognize instantly, even though many have considered it to be overshadowed by its competitors. But for a developer to make a single series for 13 years and still deliver a title such as Horizon: Zero Dawn is incredible. Not only is it absolutely gorgeous, but it’s also brilliantly fun.
HZD is, more or less, an entire game based around Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, which states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What would happen if only one person had the world at his, well… her, fingertips? Imagine if only one person had access to a smart phone and the phenom that is the internet. Could you imagine the advantages this person would have? Now, replace “smart phone” with “network augmented reality device” (we won’t even get into the acronym), set things in a tribal world where anything that is not understood by the inhabitants is likely to be worshipped as a god. Now you’re starting to get Guerilla’s thrilling to new game.
The aforementioned tribal world is Earth, but in a far-flung future where tribal society is the order of the day. Hunters use bows and spears, but in addition to dealing with boars, turkeys, and rabbits, they are also encountering deadly, animal-like machines that rom the landscape. Metal ruins of the old world lie below. This is where players begin with the protagonist of HZD: a young girl named Aloy. As a child, she falls into one of these ruins, considered forbidden by her tribe and much of the world, and finds a “focus,” the aforementioned augmented reality device (again, let’s ignore the acronym). Suddenly, there’s a whole new layer to her, and your, world. She can extract data from computers, detect broadcasts, and analyze her environment. This ends up making Aloy far more deadly with her bow, spear, and other weapons as well.
It also means that we have two branches to Aloy’s story from here on. At first, she’s a tribal outcast, for reasons unknown (but will be revealed), attempting to gain favor in her small community and avenge the death of her caretaker. But as she ventures further away from her old village, she begin working with, and against, numerous factions. The focus attached to her face also means that she’s quickly thrust into quests that get her closer and closer to the truth behind the nature of the world itself. What happened to the ancient humans who came before? Where did all these violently dangerous machines come from?? What do they want? The surface level “this faction of this tribe wants to take the city from this other faction” stuff is all fine and dandy, but once the game starts making good on its initial setup and letting you peek behind the curtain, the story really takes off. It’s a fantastic science fiction tale that quite expertly hangs the next piece of information just out of reach without feeling like it’s stretching it information out too thinly.
By the end, HZD comes to a deeply satisfying conclusion in a way that left me feeling like they should probably never make a sequel, all while hoping they will at the same time. It’s near-perfect story that creates a world and also provides meaningful answers about said world. Games don’t do that often enough anymore. The events of HZD have weight and the game feels less like it’s building a franchise and more like a cohesive statement. Of course, the developers couldn’t help but leave in one little bit that hints about what might happen if, and when, they decide to make another.
HZD is structured quite a bit like recent Far Cry games. You level up, gain new abilities by slapping points onto a skill tree, and hunt for crafting materials that let you hold more things in your inventory. You’ll encounter a handful of bandit camps, tag enemies, and try to prevent them from setting off an alarm if you’re spotted. You’ll climb a few things to reveal objectives on the map, but the game manages to craft up a somewhat original take on this concept that doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge. The stealth is extremely satisfying, easy to learn, and maybe a little too easy to master. Or maybe just the game isn’t set up to handle it well.
Open combat is more exciting, but it can be slightly clunky. You always have a spear, which has a light and heavy attack. With the help of some upgrades, a couple heavy strikes can knock an enemy over, letting you jab them with a critical strike. The ranged combat is a bit more varied and, though available, I never felt the need to use some of the fancier weapons available in the game, such as the ropecaster, which lets you strap enemies down, or the tripcaster, which lets you set traps for enemies. The weapons work as advertised, but the different bows and arrow types always felt like the stars of the show.
Fighting machines, especially bigger ones, gets easier as you progress, so long as you pay attention to an enemy’s weak points. You can knock off armor pieces and components as you fight, so disabling a stalker’s stealth generator will make it unable to become cloaked. Knocking the gun off the top of a big cat machine means it can’t shoot at you. The list goes on. There are lots of bits to chop off of the larger enemies, which is essential to reducing their effectiveness and win the larger fights. You’ll have elemental arrows that exploit specific weaknesses, and a type of damage called “tear,” which is specifically designed to help you strip the machines clean before you start moving in for the kill. This leads to a few cheap moments where you can “Skyrim-hop” you way up a mountain, somewhere a machine can’t follow, then patiently strip off every single piece from complete safety. But in the grander scheme of things, it’s an exciting system that makes every shot count and ratchets up tension in the bigger fights. Of course, if fighting isn’t your thing, you can reduce the number of encounters by learning how to override machines. Overriding a machine sort of tames them, for a short period of time, and makes them aggressive toward your enemies. Or you could always fire corruption arrows to confuse them into attacking each other… point being, the game has options for all game play styles.
The overall story is solid, but the moment-to-moment dialogue is superb as well. Even some of the smaller quests get their own fascinating twists and turns, and characters often defy what you expect of them in very welcome ways. Aloy is well-voiced as a character caught between two worlds, someone who has to try to explain advanced technology to a bunch of religious zealots, who have differing views of her to begin with. It all makes for a really refreshing experience that zigged when I definitely assumed it would zag… on more than one occasion. That said, it is worth noting that a lot of the audio is remarkably out of sync in the cut scenes. In a game with such a fantastic visual design, one that pays such close attention to even the minutest of details, this sticks out more than it would otherwise.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is familiar, but also refreshing at the same time. It’s not a short game, but the storytelling still feels concise and efficient. The combat variations have nice options that make encounters fun, even when you’re just stacking up stealth kills from relative safety. And the presentation end of the game holds up its end of things with an impactful soundtrack, talented voice acting, and a cohesive design that makes all fit together quite nicely. At the end of the day, it’s a great game, it’s Guerilla’s strongest release to date, and I expect to go back in to clean up the side quests and errands I have remaining. If only just to spend a little more time in that world.
4 stars out of 5