Nearly every console has had its “must have” exclusive over the years…and often, that game serves to set a precedent in the industry. In the last couple generations, titles such as Bioshock, The Last of Us, Splatoon and Uncharted have not only become benchmark games, but more importantly, a reason to purchase the console.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen on a console since The Last of Us…and that’s saying something. Sure, there have been amazing looking driving simulators, and the 2K sports titles have gotten consistently better, but Zero Dawn is on a whole different level. It has jaw dropping CGI segments with seamless transitions into gameplay, and a movement system that is unparalleled. And with all of this goodness, it always works within the constraints of the hardware. Playing the “standard” (IE “non 4K” version) is still the best looking game I’ve played on the PlayStation 4, and if you happen to have the PS4 Pro, it only gets better.
The main storyline is a little convoluted, but until you hit the halfway mark, you’re just kind of along for the ride…so just go with it. Basically, for some seemingly ridiculous reason (which you of course find out later), our character Aloy is an outcast, living just outside Mother’s Heart, a farming collective in a post-apocalyptic world. Even though she has a solid father figure in Rost, she is shunned from the rest of the humans, and violently at that. We get to watch her grow, from an infant to a teenager in the very beginning, where you’ll also learn core game mechanics. As you spend more and more time in the world, you’ll pick up bits of data via emails, voice-recordings and other supplemental material. All of this is found with Aloy’s “Focus”, the futuristic earpiece that’s a focal point of the game’s narrative, no pun intended.
Aloy finds her Focus very early in the story, and it functions as a way to scan and interpret the environment. Not only can it assist in tracking animals, it also highlights the weaknesses and patterns of nearby machines, and allows you to tag enemies through walls and other structures, much like the scout function in Far Cry. This becomes an invaluable asset, since you’ll often find yourself heading into enemy territory hopelessly outnumbered. Sometimes the only way to ensure survival is to track your enemy, then pick them off one by one…and even that isn’t a guarantee of survival.
Be warned: if you’re looking for an explanation of the game’s title, you won’t get it until the 8-10 hour mark. Up until that point, you’re either playing through the main “story” or completing a bunch of side-quests; side work is plentiful, and will set you back ~10-15+ minutes per mission. Additionally, you can set side-quests for yourself, to help find core weapon components. Because of this, I was able to buy/build top-tier weapons within the first three hours of the game: if you’re going to be hunting, you might as well be hunting with the best gear.
There’s an incredibly heavy emphasis on hunting in Zero Dawn, and you’ll need to continually switch up your methods depending on which quarry you’re after. Some will require that you track them stealthily until you can cull them from the herd. Others will have you climbing high to scout out the best terrain to fire down upon them. Still others will have you harpooning them to the ground in order to neutralize their aerial attacks. It can get repetitive, but I can honestly say that each time I started to get bored, the game threw another biome or species at me, and I had a whole new enemy type to figure out. Add to that, the AI acts like the animals they replicate, so you’ll often have to observe their patterns before rushing in to attack, since the pack will often defend against perceived attackers. Worse, there were several times where my attack drew the attention of a nearby apex predator.
There were multiple times where I snuck into a clearing to take down a lower-level ‘bot, only to have another bot hit me from the side, velociraptor style. Moments like that will scare the everloving shit out of you, especially if you aren’t watching your back. Just WAIT until you first stumble upon the “Rockbreakers”.
The machines are designed to hunt and consume “biomass”, so they have a vested interest in hunting and killing you. Luckily, no matter which biome you’re in, there are swaths of tall, reedy grasses for you to hide in. Hiding and baiting lower-level enemies is a necessary means to cut down enemy numbers. Of course, if an enemy physically runs into you while you’re hiding, your cover will be blown…so it’s imperative to move with your prey.
Sound plays a vital role in the hunt, as well as in the game at large. While exploring, the game’s ambient music and sound effects are truly fantastic, so it’s easy to become immersed in Zero Dawn’s world. If you’re detected by a machine or a “bad” human, you’ll hear a whooshing, bass sound that lets you know it might be time to get to cover…or simply run away. Conversely, you may also find yourself hunting humans, and it also behooves you to listen to their conversations…especially if they seem to notice a body. See, unlike other stealth hunt games (IE Hitman or Thief), you can’t hide the bodies or ditch them somewhere else, so you might need to lure them to an out of the way location, or plan your kills in a way that draws minimal attention. OR you can do it the Mick way, and kill someone to attract attention, then kill the person who investigates the scene. Then kill the person who investigates that scene and on and on and on. Of course, that plan only worked half the time, since a multi-corpse pileup resulted in them ringing the alarm. Most outposts are connected to an alarm system, which you might want to destroy right away–it can save you from having to deal with reinforcements if you mess up.
When all else fails, you can always blast in, “LEEROY JEEEENKINS!!!” style and try to survive…but that rarely worked out well for me.
Before starting the game, you should probably make peace with the fact that you’re going to die. Like, a whole lot. Early on, even though I had top-tier weaponry (without the snazzy upgrades, which I’ll mention later), I’d frequently get in over my head. Hell, even when I’d be careful in my approach, I would often end up killed either by circumstance, or by accident. Zero Dawn does a fantastic job of pointing out just how soft and fleshy you are compared to the robots who surround you. You’ll also take damage from falling or dropping from great heights–I fell to my death a lot more than I expected to, mostly thanks to a sometimes-there, sometimes-not invisible guardrail. Plus, some of the fall mechanics can be annoying: at one point, I dove off of a 150+ foot waterfall into ~4 feet of water without a scratch, but died when I fell ~9 feet from a tightrope.
At heart, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an adventure RPG, and in lieu of dungeons, it has Cauldrons; location of ancient technological power that Aloy can rappel into and investigate. Cauldrons are crawling with scores of robots, but also tend to yield bunches of metal shards and upgrades. Successful completion of a cauldron unlocks the next tier of overrides.
The process of overriding is a core part of the game: using your staff, override can open doors, tame robots and activate switches. Taming requires you to sneak up on them, much like the silent execution…but overriding takes significantly longer, which means you may accidentally alert nearby creatures to your location. Smaller, more equine quadripeds can be overriden to function as mounts to help traverse terrain, while their larger counterparts can be “turned” to brethren. There’s something legitimately breathtaking about turning a massive robot, then watching them rage in earth-shaking battle against another massive ‘bot. It brought me back to the first Jurassic Park…or even King Kong, and as Aloy you get a front row seat to incredible, unscripted action.
Or, maybe you don’t.
Like so many other sprawling “action RPG” styled games (like The Witcher 3, Shadow of Mordor, Batman: Arkham City, etc.), there are a multitude of ways to reach your objective and you don’t necessarily have to “kill ‘em all” to do it. Conversely, you can take a three-day break and just hunt the wilds to build your inventory, or seek out crafting materials to upgrade your gear. Thanks to a randomized loot drop system from enemies and animals, you’re never guaranteed to get the pieces you need, and as a result, I spent many an hour scouring the countryside for specific bot or animal type. Thankfully, the terrain is absolutely gorgeous, so spending hours hiking around never completely feels like work.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a gaggle of side quests you can find from survivors in the wild, townspeople in need, or simply by scanning the world around you. If you’re still smitten with the world after you finish the 30+ hour main quest, you can jump back into side quests and hunt your heart out. And honestly, the world is so gorgeous that you might find yourself doing just that.
My only real complaint is that sometimes, the gorgeousness is almost too much, and is especially evidenced in the rapid fire weather changes. Don’t get me wrong: the first time stormclouds rolled in and Aloy got caught in a downpour, I literally pulled people in from the adjacent room to see. Likewise, the first change from night to dawn was incredible…but the more it happens, the more annoyed I’d get when a dawn sunbeam blinded my attempt at a difficult shot or override. Likewise, the rapid-fire change of seasons comes across more as a brag than a event, and time passes so quickly that it almost seems like a glitch. I guess that’s like complaining that “the sandwich I bought for lunch was too incredible,” or “that the girl I date is just too good in bed sometimes.” I’m just saying, with all the other goodness oozing out of the game, the rapid time changes seem a little bit much.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a hallmark of the action/RPG genre; it has all of the death-defying climbs of Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider, the rich hunting mechanics of Red Dead Redemption, the flashy combat of Bayonetta and the story/side-quest depth of Witcher 3. Don’t get me wrong: it completely stands on its own as a fantastic, new experience…but it pays homage to many of the greats by doing so.
Like any game, Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t perfect, and there were a few times that I ran into glitchy and/or control-related problems that had me screaming at my television, but a big part of that annoyance was that it was so good up to that point. And from the hazy beginning to the white-knuckle end, I can honestly say I enjoyed almost every damn second.