Best known for the Killzone franchise, the team at Guerilla Games isn’t exactly well-seasoned at taking on a project like Horizon Zero Dawn, so playing through this game has been pretty intriguing. I didn’t set any expectations, nor did I watch any gameplay footage outside of the initial 2015 E3 demonstration, so when the review code showed up earlier this month, I really had no idea what to expect. Let’s dive in!
You start out by meeting Aloy, the main protagonist in Zero Dawn, along with her parental figurehead, Rost, who basically raises Aloy and teaches her the basic skills she’ll need to survive within the embrace. Aloy is an outcast, shunned by All Mother and the braves, so she leads a lonely life with virtually no other companions aside from Rost. The game starts out with you in control of Aloy as a child, teaching you the basics of combat, stealth, and exploration – there’s nothing overly complicated but this section really felt impactful as you get to see how Aloy comes into contact with her “focus” and you see how the relationship builds between her and other characters in the game. Shortly thereafter, you’ll go through the cinematic where Aloy spreads her wings and then you’re thrown into everything Horizon has to offer.
WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT?
You start out in “the embrace” which is basically considered to be the land of your people, and while you’re a shunned outcast, you still live within the area but not within the popular settlements. Nobody is allowed to talk to you, in fact most will react very cold and rude when you attempt to speak with them. Basically, this area gives you a chance to familiarize yourself with the common skills and controls of the game, and gives you a small taste of the mechanized creatures that you’ll encounter, and it’ll toss some easy experience at you to help you get started on leveling up.
As you progress you’ll get to see the rest of the world outside your circle. You’ll make some new friends, and meet new enemies, all while on a quest to find out who you are, where you came from. During the journey, you’ll learn the history of what happened to the world, who was responsible, and you’ll join the fight to stop the machines from destroying all that’s good in the world. All in all, I felt the story progression was well done and I never really found myself bored, overly confused, or frustrated in trying to determine what was going on.
SKILLS, CRAFT & UPGRADE!
As you kill machines, bandits and cultists, you’ll earn experience that goes towards leveling up Aloy. You’ll earn skill points with each new level. The game has a three tier skill tree, similar to that of Tomb Raider, since this game is actually heavily inspired by the newer Tomb Raider adventures. You can earn new skills for attacking, firing more arrows at once, earning more resources in a quicker manner, and much more. All your pouches for carrying specific types of items can be upgraded, and you can crafter potions, traps and more. Weapons can be purchased from any merchant using metal shards, the in-game currency, earned by exploration and looting the carcasses of your enemies. For the more advanced versions of each weapon, required parts for the purchase will also include some rare items that you can find scattered throughout the world or during looting after battles.
There’s a pretty in-depth system in place and it’ll expand to new limits as you progress through the earlier upgrades. Experience points aren’t hard to earn, but in the later levels, you’ll want to start going after some of the much bigger creatures in the world as they’ll give you a lot more than any of the smaller creatures. The system is well balanced and unless you really take your time doing every possible side quest and explore everything before finishing the games’ main story, you will need to continue working on maxing your character after the end-game content. At the time of this writing, I’m level 34 and I have around 10 skills remaining to unlock.
HOPE YOU LOVE EXPLORING…
This is the point where Horizon Zero Dawn truly shines in my eyes – the design of the world. Simply put, it’s stunning. Massive stretches of land expanding as far as you can see in some cases, distant mountain ranges, creeks, rivers, and large bodies of water. The world map is massive and after the first few hours of the game, it’ll all be yours to explore.
But how big is the map? Well, I don’t actually know measurements, but based on the 80+ hours I’ve spent in the world of Skyrim, and the 30+ hours in Horizon, I’d say it’s pretty equal. The difference lies in the terrain as I feel everything is more accessible in Horizon and there’s not as many giant mountains to scale. It’s mostly open land, but you’ll find large bandit camps scattered through the world, both small and large settlements, and cauldrons, which are basically Horizon’s form of dungeons. Cauldrons are indoor/underground areas that you’ll solve puzzles in, and beat some sort of challenging creature, and at the end you’ll get upgrades for your spear, allowing you to override and control larger creatures provided you can sneak up on them.
Unless you purposely go out of your way during the story missions, you won’t actually see everything the game has to offer. I managed to unlock approximately ¾ of the map but I feel like I have another 15-25 hours of content before I can near the Platinum trophy for game. The fact is that I remain excited to see what else this game is hiding, or have I found everything and I’ll just find more of the same? No expectations.
VISUALS & SOUND
Note that I do not have an HDR supported TV, nor is it a 4K model yet, but this game is nothing short of beautiful. Even when you’re looking relatively up close, it’s a pretty high quality. Of course there are imperfections, but that’s an issue with everything in life – you get past those imperfections and deal with them.
The world is extremely varied, featuring forested areas, deserts and snowy mountains. Later in the game is has a slightly alien feel with some of the indoor sections, but it never feels “too weird” or wrong. The weather effects along with varied time of day settings make the world feel like it is truly alive and ever-changing.
So with all these intense backdrops, massive draw distance and inhabited world, where does the framerate lie? I’m happy to say that the game stays solid for the most part. It runs around a steady 30 frames per second (PS4/PS4 Slim). The only times I encountered a noticeable drop occurred when climbing a Tall Neck, and during the end-game battles, but with the amount of action on screen, I’m more than willing to take that drop. Guerilla Games has managed to code this extremely well, and they push the PS4 hardware to the max.
When it comes to sound, I utilize the ASTRO Gaming A50 Gen. 3 headphones, probably the best option in the industry, even if they come at an extremely high price. Everything in this game comes together to make it both an audio and visual masterpiece, with high winds, crackling fires, and the bass-filled footsteps of creatures patrolling the world. I did occasionally feel like the sound isn’t perfectly-balanced in the sense that I couldn’t tell the proper distance to an animal I could hear, or the type based on the amount of noise it made. Occasionally I thought it would be something rather huge, only to turn and look to see a small horse or bird. While it does sound wonderful, it’s also a tad bit inaccurate.
If it’s not already clear, Horizon Zero Dawn is a fantastic adventure that everyone deserves to play. It’s a massive open-world adventure with a 30-hour campaign and potentially another 20 hours of side content, maybe even more. The world is extremely stunning, and it’ll consistently “wow” you during the trek to new areas. There’s enough cool stuff to unlock and craft to keep you entertained for hours, and even exploring the entire map is a quest in itself. Guerilla Games nailed it with Horizon Zero Dawn, and it’s going to be one of the big contenders for GOTY 2017.
The battles are fun, intense, challenging, and satisfying. So much to explore and collect, craft, and upgrade. Horizon truly shines in this aspect. But why is there no shoulder switch for aiming?
As mentioned, sound mixing needed some more work. With a proper sound system, you still can't tell certain factors about stuff nearby. Otherwise the ambient noise and voice acting are top notch.