As I sat down to write my review of Horizon Zero Dawn after spending over thirty hours in its sprawling open world, I was struck, and not for the first time, by the fact that this game was developed by Guerrilla Games, the same studio that gave us five entries in the Killzone franchise. Love those games or not (I was never a big fan), there’s no doubt that the franchise never landed the mainstream attention it aspired to. Now, four years after the last Killzone game, Killzone Shadow Fall, we have a game unlike anything the developers have ever created and quite frankly, maybe this is the series they should have made all along.
That will be the last time I mention Killzone in this entire review because there is nothing about this game that tells you it comes from the same team. Horizon Zero Dawn opens up with you playing the role of Aloy, a young girl shunned by her tribe as an outsider. I’m going to be insanely vague about Aloy; her past, present, and future are at the heart of what makes Horizon Zero Dawn special. The first hour or so is a nicely veiled tutorial as Aloy goes from adolescence to womanhood. You learn about the world which takes place many years after the fall of civilization when machines have overtaken humanity, and only small tribes of humans still remain. It reminded me of the 2014 movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, only replace apes with machines.
Continuing down this path of vagueness, the story is told through cut scenes, found letters/diaries and a multitude of conversations. During conversations, you’re usually given a couple of options for how to respond with either being thoughtful, compassionate, or abrasive. These dialogue options don’t seem to have major impacts on the game at large but will give you different responses from the characters in which you’re conversing with. Regardless of whether its cut scenes, dialogue interactions or the found letters/audio logs, the writing may be one of the game's weakest aspects. Maybe it’s a quantity over quality, but the game's setting is far more fascinating than any of the writing gives it credit for. A lot of the dialogue comes across as standard RPG fare and doesn't add much to the overall narrative. I had to, on several occasions, remind myself what my goal/objective of this game was.
If there’s one thing that has held me back from getting into big sprawling RPG’s in the past, it has been the combat systems. Games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3 just never had the more action oriented combat that I craved. Don’t get me wrong there is a ton of intricacy in those systems that I just never grasped or put the time in to learn. But what I loved about my time with Horizon Zero Dawn was that I picked up the combat system within seconds. You can play Horizon as either a straight action game or intertwine stealth into the mix. Like Far Cry, you have the ability to scout out enemies and mark them with the added benefit of identifying weak points and types of attacks that will do more damage. If you really want to cause some chaos and even up the odds, you have traps that you can lay to make your life a little easier. Later in the game, you’re almost forced to use all of the tools in your toolset as enemies become bigger, faster, and more challenging.
Once you make your way through the opening hour of the game, the world of Horizon opens up, revealing a giant map for you to explore. Horizon Zero Dawn does not solve the age-old open world problem of having too much to do. By hour three or four I had a couple of main quests, six or seven side quests, a dozen errands to run, a bandit hideout to raid, and a tall neck to climb. Those last two tasks felt straight out of the Ubisoft playbook. You have these bandit hideouts where you have to eliminate all in sight to take it over, similar to Far Cry. Then there are these very tall machines to climb to unveil more of the map like we’ve seen in almost every Ubisoft game since Assassin’s Creed. The inclusion of both of these are slightly more grounded in the world, but only slightly. I found myself really struggling against being overwhelmed with things to do without losing sight of the main story missions.
Much of the games moment to moment gameplay will have you traveling to one area of the map, discovering another area, and taking out enemy machines. As you progress in the game the machines become bigger, faster, and more complicated to deal with. You will have to use your full arsenal of attack and stealth to wear them down. Some of these battles can take ten to fifteen minutes to complete and can be quite exhilarating. I had one encounter about halfway through the game where a tank like machine had killed me over a dozen times and it was with only the smallest margin of health left that I sprung a rope trap on him and took it out with a fire arrow. Although some of these missions can feel tiresome, the game does a really good job of mixing up the enemies making you constantly adjust your strategy for success.
If you haven't noticed yet, Horizon Zero Dawn borrows a lot from other franchises. Early on in the experience, Aloy discovers a piece of technology that allows her to scout out enemies and scan the environment. When in combat or just moving through the world you can bring up this vision to tag and mark enemies as well as learn about their weaknesses. It's very similar to the technique used in the Batman Arkham franchise from Rocksteady. One improvement though is that you don't have to stay in that mode for long periods of time. Once you've marked your enemies their weak points will remain highlighted and an arrow will remain above them noting that you targetted them. It's a nice system that the developers weaved into the experience without making it feel like a direct take from the Batman games.
One of my biggest struggles with Horizon Zero Dawn is the entire menu system. In order to craft upgrades to your weapons and equipment, you have to navigate a cumbersome menu system that is absolutely atrocious at telling you what you have and what to do. We’ve seen some great advancements in this sort of system that will suggest your best upgrade and make abundantly clear what you need in order to make upgrades to your equipment. This game hides all of the information and often times seems to neglect to tell you that there are upgrades at the ready. More sophisticated RPG savants might find this as a minor nuisance, but for me, it felt like an unneeded chore that took me out of the grand world they developed.
Speaking of the grand world, Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the best looking games I’ve played on my Playstation 4 Pro. The game is just downright stunning. In full disclosure, I’m running the PS4 Pro through a 65” Samsung KS8500 which has both 4K and HDR and this game looks incredible. The color palette really hums in 4K and HDR, and the open world is both unique and masterful in its creation. I was in constant awe of this game. For being a huge open world there were almost no bad glitches or odd open world jank that we are used to finding. Instead, the world is pristine and the framerate remained solid through my entire experience.
I really struggled throughout Horizon Zero Dawn to put my finger on my exact read on the game. From a technical standpoint, the game is a real darling and can compete with the best of them. And yet it’s that the game doesn’t really break away from any of the pre-existing molds that I believe hold it back from being the breakout hit of 2017. It feels almost too conventional. Whether it’s the Ubisoft style side missions, the Batman Arkham vision or the by the numbers storytelling. There’s nothing about Horizon Zero Dawn that breaks out into its own unique experience. I absolutely loved this game. I think it’s a fantastic adventure full of amazing experiences to be had and fully recommend it to anyone who owns a Playstation 4. And yet it does feel like the first game in a series that needs to discover its own unique identity to help it stand out amongst a vast array of open world games that it competes against.
Horizon Zero Dawn was reviewed on a Playstation 4 Pro. The screenshots above all come from the Playstation 4 Pro version of the game. The reviewer did not test the game on a standard Playstation 4 during the review process.
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