Video Game Reviews

Video Game Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

The other open world game set after the apocalypse and featuring mechanical monsters that require archery to defeat.

Hey, before we do this, how mad must Sony have been when Breath of the Wild’s release date was confirmed? The fact that two major exclusives with incredibly similar premises managed to launch in this scenario the way they did a couple of weeks ago is something that could only happen in modern video games, I’ll say that much.

The good news is that while that statement has a lot to say about the game industry as a whole, Horizon Zero Dawn is a very good video game. In fact, Horizon, despite the stupid naming convention, is a near perfect mix of features packed together in a gorgeous looking presentation. By far, this game is the singular reason to justify the existence of the PlayStation 4; not to mention pretty much buys a free pass to open-world games to continue their proliferation all over the triple-A games market.

To a degree, this might sound like a knock Horizon doesn’t bring as many new concepts to the table as one would expect from a brand new major IP from a major console publisher. Instead, the team at Guerrilla Games appear to have taken a look at every successful major title over the past 5-6 years and asked themselves what worked about those games, and aped what they could. Multiple times throughout my playthrough, I found myself thinking about all the other titles being invoked in gameplay. However, while imitation is the highest form of flattery, Horizon’s presentation is more or less a big middle finger to the competition with a message of “Look at what we did better than you!”

See, Horizon’s greatest strength, even more than the robot dinosaurs, is in the polish. On paper, Horizon comes off as a just another open world game filled with big monsters. It is that, but at the same time actually manages to breathe life into this concept with various quality of life tweaks that hundreds of games before simply have never been able to get quite right. At first, such things aren’t even noticeable by most. I’m pretty confident that in my time with the game, I didn’t see a drastic framerate issue, and if something dropped, the game mitigated it perfectly. The main camera pans appropriately to right stick movement and doesn’t try to ‘help’ course correct. Then there’s dynamic HUD, which is basically what every other game of this kind needs to adapt immediately.

Dynamic HUD is a setting that is more or less HUD customization. Players can pick and choose what appears on the screen full time and what doesn’t. Personally, I just recommend what I did: turn on the default dynamic mode. This shifts everything off the screen save for the compass lining the top of the screen. When an event occurs requiring any other information, that needed part of the HUD appears, and fades away after about 15-20 seconds. Need to see everything? Simply make contact with the DualShock touchpad. No gimmick, no pressing, no swiping. Just contact. I know it’s sounds like such a trivial thing, but it’s worlds apart comparatively. It is perfectly possible to take in as much of the environment without sacrificing information.

Also tailor-made for the PS4 design is Horizon’s photo mode. This game is hardly the first to feature the ever cool feature, but it’s easily the best one. At any point during your adventure, you can pause and go into a full blown studio mode and take snapshots. The beauty is in, again, in the details. Players get full control of everything from aperture, focus, brightness, even the time of the day. When it’s time to save, just use the built in Share button on the DualShock. Don’t want it taken from the player’s point of view? No worries! Want the player character out of the shot? Go for it!

It is pretty difficult to not want to stop and take as many photos as possible, thanks to the gorgeous landscape making up Horizon’s world. Everything is beautifully rendered, with Guerrilla’s new Decima engine working at full to avoid annoying instances like graphical pop in or framerate drops. Given most of this game’s combat is based on long range bows, the ability to properly gauge depth of field is appreciated. (Note: this review was conducted on a base model PS4, my understanding is that the PS4 Pro will run Horizon at a higher fidelity and may also raise framerate. However, I found even the non-4K performance to be beautiful.) This spreads to the characters and monsters roaming the world as well. All of the machine creature designs are recognizable and inspired, and look completely feasible. The same is true of the various human characters that appear. Voiceovers actually match the mouths and inflections of the human models, and the voiceovers are pretty well acted. All of this helps make the world being built by Horizon feel alive and worth caring about.

While Horizon is a technical marvel, it also does have a decently compelling story. Much like other aspects, there isn’t a lot that feels especially unique, but at the same time is very well polished and smartly played out. Horizon is an “open-world” game, and you’ll be pretty much allowed a lay of the land to do as you please. In spite of that, simply following the storyline will take main character Aloy all over the map, as her story often finds itself intersecting with the lives and conflicts of various groups living in the world. This may be seen as too linear for some, but since I was genuinely invested in the goings on, it was mutually beneficial for myself and the game to let things play out, with the occasional excursion to explore. There’s plenty to explore, with a reasonable amount of collectibles and hidden lore out there.

Aloy herself is also a treasure, and might be Horizon’s most unique submission. Again, on the surface she appears an amalgam of ‘tough’ female game characters-there’s a bit of reboot Lara Croft and FemShep in there-Aloy is well balanced in terms of character depth. Set apart from her people at birth, Aloy carries a certain level of resentment, but also possesses a fair amount of empathy without the naivety usually associated with such things. Dialog options do appear from time to time, similar to Bioware-style conversation trees, but they aren’t employed much and do so in a more diverse way. Instead of mapping options to angry and kind (or perceived good and evil), Aloy’s personality and goals are the primary. Players can choose to tackle such conversations with thought, emotion, or aggression. You’ll get a different sentence and reaction out of that, but then the ball is in Aloy’s court again. Her complications never feels forced or play into tropes. This is reinforced by the fact that things like her gender are really not factors to the other characters.

I do need to derail the positive train for a moment to address a more complicated issue within the game’s subtext. See, in Horizon’s story, the world was decimated by a mysterious mechanical disaster. The remnants of humanity ended up banding together into tribal units seemingly based on geographic location or newly formed religious beliefs-for example, Aloy’s tribe is fairly terrified of any technology. As a result, words like “tribe” and “brave” are commonly used. Facial painting for both warriors and others are present. Many of the clothing designs feel intentionally lifted from traditional Native American dress. I will stress, not one of these groups are depicted as primitive. All characters speak fluent English (a result of story contrivance), are self-sustaining, and have all sorts of innovations at their disposal. Each group has members of various skin colors, genders, and sexualities. They all have different philosophies on the disaster that created their world and technology’s place in the future, and a huge part of Aloy’s arc is about her rejection of basically all these beliefs. However, as one Native American commentator points out; it’s still there. While I at first didn’t notice too much, once it was pointed out to me, I could not unsee it, and the longer I played the more apparent the image of appropriation got. Horizon’s narrative director John Gonzales has commented on this, saying they were not “intentionally being insensitive, or to offend in any manner”, but intent can only go so far. Given my own heritage, I’m hardly the person to make a correct judgement on how egregious these images actually are-but I really couldn’t stop noticing, especially when Horizon starts to reveal the secrets and the geographic location of the game’s map is hinted at. It’s an unfortunate detail, but should not go ignored.

Which is a real shame, because there is still something major to praise about Horizon. Combat is incredibly fluid without feeling too fast. Aloy can carry multiple bows that each possess different types of arrows, and all of them will be needed in the wilderness. While you can’t equip all of them at once, a weapon wheel is made available to quickly switch what is needed, and large gaps in combat allow for planning on what to put on the wheel. Combat doesn’t completely stop, however, so it does take some practice to decide when switching or crafting more ammo is actually worth bringing up the wheel. Often times, stealth or simply avoiding unnecessary combat is smarter, though with the ability to forage for health granting vegetation that can be used immediately keeps things moving. Aloy also carries a melee spear for close encounters, but this is best utilized after trapping a creature or being trapped. Aloy’s skills can be upgraded by a basic level system, again borrowing from Tomb Raider. Skill points are earned on to be spent on tiers, but the higher tiered skills cost more points. It’s plain and simple, but to get some desirable skills you’ll need to first unlock less necessary ones-including one that I am pretty sure I’ve never employed, despite it being a passive skill.  

This is a pretty dense review, but that’s really the point. Horizon Zero Dawn is incredibly dense. With this new IP, there is so much to absorb, and I only want to go absorb more. It may not bring the most original ideas to the table, but in doing just about everything right means a lot. For PS4 owners, this is a must have game. For people unsure about the PS4, this is the definitive reason to buy it. For fans of well-crafted games, this game cannot be skipped, even if there’s a lot of competition lately.  

 

Developer: Guerrilla Games

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platform: PlayStation 4

Released: February 28th, 2017

Copy Purchased By Reviewer