Available on: PlayStation 4 & PlayStation 4 Pro.
Played on: PlayStation 4.
Guerrilla Games, a subsidiary of Sony Interactive Entertainment, are known throughout the land of PlayStation as the studio behind the Killzone franchise. Killzone, a futuristic first-person shooter series, has been around since 2004 and, since that first release back on the PlayStation 2, has been the sole focus of the team at Guerrilla. Not anymore, though. Back in 2010 Guerrilla Games revealed that they were working on a brand new intellectual property, and the wait for Horizon Zero Dawn is, at last, finally over.
It’s taken me a while the get around to reviewing Horizon Zero Dawn. I’ve played 50 hours of the game and explored almost every inch of its gorgeously rendered open world, and having invested all of that time a part of me wants to write a scathing review about how derivative it is.
You see, Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world action role playing game; another addition to video gaming’s most fashionable genre. It features quests, side quests and a strong female character out to prove herself. The main weapon is a bow and arrow, you’re tasked with levelling up and upgrading your skills, you can craft ammo and potions, and you have access to a Focus, a piece of technology that grants access to Horizon Zero Dawn’s version of ‘Witcher’ senses. This is all set within an open world, where you climb towers to reveal portions of the map and follow scripted routes laid out with yellow and white hand holds to sign post the way to scale up cliffs and other surfaces. Almost everything that Horizon Zero Dawn offers has been done elsewhere, often better and more in-depth.
Guerrilla Games are wearing their influences very much on their sleeves with Horizon Zero Dawn, borrowing liberally from The Witcher series, the Tomb Raider reboots and Ubisoft’s open world template. In fact, if you threw the Witcher games, the Tomb Raider reboots and the Far Cry series into a cooking pot together (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild style) I am positive Horizon Zero Dawn would be the result of that recipe.
And yet, in spite of all of this, Horizon Zero Dawn is simply astonishing. It’s open world is breathtaking and it’s systems are so well thought out that they gel together almost faultlessly. The key to this success is quite simply Guerrilla Games’ ability to bring all of these mechanics together in a simplistic way to work in near-perfect harmony.
Let me try to explain. Each system that Horizon Zero Dawn adopts from other games is simplified, but tweaked to rely and interact with each other. For example, the skill trees are basic in nature compared to most RPGs, emulating those found in games like Far Cry. Yet many of these skills directly relate to your ability to carry or find resources. The resources you need are also much smaller in number than in other games, such as The Witcher 3, and yet you need to carefully manage these so you can craft new equipment and ammo. You also need to modify your outfits and weapons, made easy to understand thanks to the colour coding system used, but this again relies on your resources and your understanding of the elemental forces at play within Horizon Zero Dawn. You need to learn and understand the different enemy types and their individual weaknesses and then make sure you unlock the right skills to adapt to face them on fly.
The interaction between these systems is where Guerrilla Games have truly excelled. None of them are hard to understand, often offering simpler and more finite options than their counter-parts in other games. Yet when combined to be all so interdependent on each other, these systems are elevated to a new level.
It’s not just the game systems that make Horizon Zero Dawn excellent though. The open world is stunning and the mechanised enemies that roam it are superb. Each robot is intricately detailed, with each discovery of a new creature creating a genuine ‘wow’ moment. These enemies all have strengths and weaknesses too, once again creating systems that need to be considered as you progress through the game world and encounter bigger and stronger machines; you need to have the right balance in your skills, ammo types, weapons, outfits and mods. Importantly, if all of these systems were as in-depth as they can be in other games, Horizon Zero Dawn would be near impossible; it would become an endless grind of menu management. The simplicity of these adopted systems therefore ensures you can focus on the story and gameplay without ever becoming bogged down as can so often happen in RPGs. I know that, with games like The Witcher 3, when I go back after a break it is difficult to remember how all the systems work; which weapons are best, what resources are worth keeping, and how modifications work. Yet, with Horizon Zero Dawn I will be able to go back in a month or two and simply pick it up and play.
Even the tropes that don’t get changed that much still work really well in Horizon Zero Dawn. Climbing is simply a case of following a predefined route, yet you don’t have to do it so often that it becomes tiresome. Scaling towers to reveal new map areas is about as basic a system as you can get in an open world game these days, but when those towers are giant, moving, Longneck dinosaur robots and there are only five of them in total, it feels great. Even fast travelling requires thought, with you having to pay for or find fast travel packs until you progress far enough into the game to unlock unlimited fast travelling.
Not that you’ll want to fast travel much in Horizon Zero Dawn anyway. As you might expect, you will find everything from sandy deserts to lush jungles, and open grassy plains to icy mountains. Every single environment is breathtakingly beautiful, and by travelling on foot (or later by riding a robotic steed) you will discover all of the resources you need as well as encountering incidental moments that naturally unfold around you. Invariably, with each twist in the road beneath you, a new and breathtaking moment awaits, be it an old world relic in the distance, a new robot type towering above you, or a settlement waiting to be explored.
There’s also Horizon Zero Dawn’s plot to consider. You play as Aloy, an outcast determined to prove herself and learn, against the odds and the will of the people around her, about where she came from and why she was cast aside by her people. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, as discovering the story for yourself is exciting and enlightening and a huge part of ‘being’ Aloy, but when you put it all together you won’t be able to help but smile. Much like how Horizon Zero Dawn takes many game systems and meshes them all together, it also takes many post-apocalyptic and sci-fi tropes and blends them into a whole. The result is an enjoyable, if somewhat unbelievably over-the-top and ever-escalating story, that’s just a bit too out there and ultimately too hard to believe, even in a world that features robot dinosaurs. On the plus side, the main and secondary quests are varied, featuring interesting characters and decent challenges, with well-measured pacing that helps you remain invested without making you feel like you’ll never reach the end of the game.
What Horizon Zero Dawn offers is a game that blends all of its parts so well that it feels fresh and new, yet familiar. All of the systems are set up so that you learn them over the course of the initial 10 or so hours, emulating Aloy’s own journey of self-discovery. From there on out, Horizon becomes about mastering your surroundings and your abilities, again mimicking Aloy’s journey to master her own destiny and understand where she came from and how that links in with what has happened to the world.
There are some missteps, though they are mostly small and inconsequential. Whilst Horizon Zero Dawn is gorgeous, the performance can, on occasion, suffer. Generally speaking frame rates are as smooth as silk, but in busy areas with a lot of action the engine can struggle. The stealth system is also far too limited. Aloy is only able to hide in one particular type of grass, with a colour that matches her hair. Other grassy areas, even if they appear longer, are no good to her. Guerrilla Games have also indulged in collectables, another open world game trope. There are a lot of them to find, and as is so often the case, collecting them all quickly becomes a chore for completionists.
That’s about it though. Horizon Zero Dawn is a near perfect blend of systems and ideas. A good, if comically absurd, story is combined with a strong and interesting protagonist let loose in a stunning world populated with wonderfully designed enemies. The mechanics are mostly simplified systems that you will have come across before, and yet they are intertwined and balanced to match the snappy combat and open world action. All in, Horizon Zero Dawn is a 50 to 60 hour game, which includes mopping up the main collectables. This makes it long for an action game, yet short for an RPG.
And that’s Horizon Zero Dawn’s big secret. It’s not trying to do anything really new, robot dinosaurs aside. It’s taking everything good about other games and combining them into an almost perfect blend. It’s like going out for Sunday dinner and having the best one you’ve ever had. It’s still meat, vegetables and gravy on a plate, but yet somehow the chef has managed to find away to make it just a little bit better than usual. Guerrilla Games are that chef and Horizon Zero Dawn is their dish – a dash of action gaming, a hint of RPG systems, and a dollop of open world magic.
Cover image from http://www.guerrilla-games.com
All other images from http://www.playstation.com