Platforms PS4
Developer Guerilla Games
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date March 1, 2017

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an action RPG set in a post-apocalyptic future overrun by robots. Players take the role of Aloy, a hunter who was ejected from her tribe and labelled an outcast from birth. Raised by her adoptive father in the wilderness, Aloy embarks on a journey through a strange and unknown world to discover who her mother was and uncover the secrets of the Old Ones.

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Horizon sells itself on the premise that you wander the Earth centuries after an unknown cataclysm and hunt robots with a bow and arrow. When it sticks to this premise it’s a fascinating game. It starts out a bit ropey. When Aloy is armed with a limited suite of basic weapons, combat can feel a bit weak. But as you progress through the game, expanding your arsenal and coming across some pretty tough opposition, these robot fights become immensely satisfying strategic encounters.

The variety of weapons stretches out beyond the shortbow. Aloy has access to slings designed to inflict elemental damage, blasters designed to blow armour and even weapons off her robotic adversaries, ropecasters for tying down robots and much more. Horizon’s combat mechanics are open enough that there are multiple ways to effectively approach any given situation, letting its players truly take ownership of each and every fight.

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Putting all of these options together makes Horizon’s combat some of the most satisfying of the generation when combined with the outright excellent robotic enemies. There are a huge variety of robot enemies in Horizon, each based on a different type of animal and each with specific weaknesses and attack patterns. Fighting them is a joy, from the smaller Watchers and Striders that you’ll encounter early on to the huge, pseudo-boss robots like the Stormbird you’ll encounter on your travels.

Whether you’re crouching in the foliage carefully planning your assault or hurling Aloy straight into open warfare, robotic combat is a delight, creating memories of epic encounters. In my 30-odd hours with Horizon I was never bored of tangling with the game’s robots. And if Horizon had stuck to its guns and thrown you up against its robots exclusively, it’d be a fantastic time from start to finish. Fighting robots sees the game at its most enjoyable.

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Fighting Humans, however, sees the game at its dullest. While Horizon keeps the cause of its apocalypse shrouded in mystery at the beginning of the game, you’d be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Humanity had simply turned suicidal en masse after one or two encounters with them. They have no regard for their own survival, frequently jogging towards Aloy at a leisurely pace as she lines up the perfect shot right between their eyes. Their ranged fighters rarely use cover. When they try they tend to leave their heads exposed.

Their AI is busted, making encounters with them feel pretty boring. Encounters essentially see them happy to simply lineup and wait to be slaughtered. This would be bad enough in its own right, but when stacked up against the always impressive robotic enemies, whose AI feels very adaptive, it comes off as a letdown each and every time. Throw in the game’s tougher elite enemies and bosses, who become bullet sponges (or arrow sponges, I suppose), and these sections of the game are simply not fun to interact with.

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There’s little that breaks the immersion faster than being charged by an enemy who is on fire, has four arrows sticking out of his face yet is still yelling insults at you, slowly advancing on your position as though he isn’t engulfed in flames and there isn’t a collection of steel where his brain should be. Once you’re done waging a frustrating war against boring Human enemies, however, you’ll be back fighting robots and all will be right with the world. Relatively speaking.

The game does suffer from some quirky in combat controls whether you’re fighting Human or robot. General items are tied to the d-pad, which stores things like health potions and smaller traps. Whilst it’s easy to access them when you’re sneakily murdering bad guys without them noticing, during open combat it becomes almost impossible to switch between these items. At least without taking some major damage from the big hit you just took trying to get to your antidote.

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The world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is truly breathtaking. From its opening moments guiding a younger Aloy through an elongated tutorial, the world is simply awe-inspiring. As you continue Aloy’s travels and lush greenery gives way to snowy mountains and harsh deserts Horizon continues to impress. It’s a world that’s easy to get lost in (and not just thanks to some really dodgy pathfinding waypoints) and I got almost as much satisfaction out of simply standing on a cliff edge, looking at at the beauty of the wider world as I did from taking on one of Horizon’s various robot animals in glorious combat.

It’s shame that this amazing new world is populated by bland characters, a fairly rote story and uninspired busy work masquerading as quests. The main narrative of Horizon doesn’t really kick off until around the game’s halfway point. It runs headfirst into a series of tropes and cliches in its opening moments, setting the tone for the entire adventure to follow. Once you start digging into the main meat of the story, uncovering a ton of truly interesting background lore, the story begins to take shape. Though it takes a while, it’s definitely an interesting tale

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The trouble is the characters. Aside from a very small minority, they’re blatant stereotypes, given just enough dialogue and screen time to say spout whatever cliche they need to spout to get the story moving, then disappearing until they’re needed again. You’re given a dialogue wheel to ask questions and learn more about the characters, their situations and the world at large, but a lot of the time I regretted even asking.

Standing in front of a door I wanted to go through were some bickering old ladies. When I chose a dialogue option Aloy rolled her eyes, barged past the ladies and said “talk amongst yourselves.” There are a lot of characters like that in Horizon, who talk endlessly while they stand in the way of the actually interesting parts of the game. There’s some really interesting stuff in Horizon’s story, lore and world building, but it can sometimes be a bother to get to. Basically I just wish more characters were like Aloy – interesting, nuanced and backed by a tremendous voice acting performance from Ashly Burch.

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The same can be said for the mission design. Missions that send you into conflict with the world’s robot population are fantastic. Missions that send you into conflict with the world’s Human population aren’t great. There are also a lot of side activities to partake in, with roughly one million icons littering the map. They’re your usual open-world related tasks – climb this thing to unlock a portion of the map, clear this dungeon, murder everyone in this bandit camp, and so on.

Exploring the map is also an absolute necessity for crafting. How much you can tolerate this will probably depend on how much you like/dislike crafting in general. You’ll constantly be in need of scouring the map for the supplies needed to keep your healing pouch full, as well as the resources to build ammunition, which will require you to harvest both natural resources and drops from enemies. Luckily, the materials you need for most stuff are generously abundant throughout the world.

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Horizon breaks up its exploration segments with platforming. Sort of. In the world at large and throughout many of the quests and activities the game offers, you’ll occasionally need to jump, climb and shimmy to reach your destinations. Platforming is mostly on autopilot. Once you’ve grabbed a ledge or handhold all you really need to do is point the analogue stick in the desired direction and Aloy will do all the hard work. It’s actually harder to fall to your death than scale a massive tower or mountain. Climbing looks pretty great though thanks to some superb animations.

Aloy’s movements flow very naturally from one to the next whether you’re in combat, climbing or simply moving through the world. As I’ve mentioned several times now, Horizon is a beautiful game in almost every aspect. From animations and landscapes down to the dynamic day/night cycle and its gorgeous lighting engine. Its facial animations are a bit iffy, however. When characters are talking to one another their faces are generally locked into a single expression, with only their lips and eyebrows moving.

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Staring into this uncanny valley wouldn’t be so jarring if not for the fantastic job most of the voice actors do delivering their lines, with special nods going to Burch and Lance Reddick particularly. Horizon’s soundtrack is similarly fantastic, whether it strums along in the background as you explore, quietly begins to rise as you stand on the edge of danger or crashes bombastically as it scores a hugely epic confrontation between you and a machine from your deepest nightmares.

Summary

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an excellent robot hunting game. When you’re in the thick of fighting one of its fantastic robotic opponents it feels like one of the best games you’ve played all year. The suite of tactical options unlocked by a robust arsenal of varied weapons combines with the deep diversity of its enemies to create thrilling, thoroughly satisfying encounters. It’s also one of the best looking games on Playstation 4.

But it’s also populated by a cast of mostly bland characters who seem to want to do their best to derail a pretty interesting story, set in a world that looks and feels amazing but lacks much meaningful interactions outside of robot fighting. In its best moments Horizon feels amazing, though these moments are punctuated by some pretty glaring flaws that can pull you out of the experience from time to time. Make no mistake though – Horizon is a great game, warts and all.

8v2


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