WARNING! MINOR PLOT POINT AND SIDE QUEST SPOILERS AHEAD
Guys, I have something to tell you. I think that Guerilla Games has a spy probe inside my brain as it is the only way that they could make a game that has so enraptured me since the original Uncharted game. Horizon: Zero Dawn as of writing is earning my vote for the prestigious SWN?! Year End awards as Best Game of 2017. I am late to the party, having only just finished the game in late August – six months after its initial release – but given the upcoming release of the Frozen Wilds DLC, now seems like a good time to talk about this marvelous game.
‘So what is Horizon: Zero Dawn?’, I hear you ask. I was not 100% certain either when I bought it. Back when it was originally revealed at E3 a few years ago, Rich and I joked on the podcast that it was just another bow game except with robot dinosaurs. While that sounded fun enough that would give a huge disservice to Horizon: Zero Dawn. In essence Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game about a hunter, Aloy. Aloy was brought up as an outcast of the Nora Tribe by her adoptive father, Rost. Frustrated as a child about not being able to play with the other children and suffering prejudice for being motherless, Aloy is desperate to find out the truths about her origin and why she was an outcast at birth. Wanting to know more, she learns that the winner of the Nora Proving – a coming-of-age ritual where candidates are tested to see who can attain the rank of ‘brave’ – can request anything of the matriarch’s who lead the Nora. Rost trains Aloy to hunt and be the best hunter and fighter she can be, so she can learn the truth about her past. She has one advantage though, being an outcast she is not restricted in, though heavily chastised for, exploring the metal ruins of the “Old Ones”; a civilization of our not-so-distant future where we have fully moved on to fully automated systems. Aloy, discovers a focus device allowing her to gain an advantage in her hunting techniques. This sets in motion a journey that not only asks who Aloy is, but what happened to the old world that led to humanity being separated into primitive tribes and why have machines fashioned after animals come to pass.
I have mentioned in other reviews, perhaps all of my reviews, that I love rich and engrossing worlds. Unsurprisingly, Horizon has this in spades. It has a journal, that similar to the Mass Effect Codex, which will provide detailed background information for each enemy, parchment or electronic device scanned. These are not told by a cold dispassionate narrator but instead from a first person perspective. As such, the information you gather is only as good as the author. Neither will you be given all the detail about the old world in one scan, but rather need to piece it together from the small insight you grasp with each scan; not to mention plot points and side stories that are abundant in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Aloy’s story is a large driving factor to all of this, but so too are the stories of the “Old Ones”, as one of the collectibles details the story of a young man who is touring the area before the unknown apocalypse strikes. He describes his issues being a troubled teen and having substance abuse issues, as well as fighting with his mother and stepfather. These collectibles, while completely optional, were so engrossing that I had to keep chasing the audio files I received along with the written entries in his diary. The same goes for nearly every other collectible in this game. They are so well embedded in the world that even finding a coffee cup of the “Old Ones” had me excited because it had a name on the side, I needed to know who that was and my data collectibles and story progression let me learn about these items. With Horizon being an open world game too, I was able to get all my collecting done to satisfy my cravings before undertaking the amazing main story.
I think the main factor that led me to fall in love with this game, is that clearly the story was written first and the mechanics were built after the fact. One example of this is that Aloy, while a capable hunter, can still be bested by even early level machines you encounter even after significant progression through the game. This ties into the story that she is still young and knows little about the world. The world is no longer the domain of man and what remains just happens to live in the pockets where it is determined to be safe. The game while an action in nature – with a light RPG style levelling mechanic – is still one of mystery and intrigue that made me want to go further down the rabbit hole. Even when the end came and Aloy had her answers, I still wanted more; to know what was going on in the world outside of the small area that the Nora occupy or have access too. While I have some stories of the “Old Ones”, I want to learn more. Without giving away major story spoilers it’s hard to accurately tell you exactly what I want to know more about, but the new DLC seems to suggest that more answers may be coming.
When writing these reviews, I do like to be critical of the games/shows/movies I look at. While Horizon: Zero Dawn is rich in story, action and gameplay, the one area it falls down is facial animation. That’s not to say the game isn’t absolutely gorgeous, nor that all facial animation is bad. In fact by the end of the game, it looks like the animation department were nailing it, but Aloy especially in the early game has some poor facial animations where she either has a blank expression despite obvious emotional stress in her voice, or immersive-breaking, over-exaggerated angry or strained faces. This lessens as the game goes on, but it definitely gave me trouble in the early hours of the game, coupled with the game starting off fairly slowly. Consequently I initially was not sure why there was so much hype around the game. However, these two issues fell away as the game progressed and I became fully invested in what a great job Guerilla Games did in creating Horizon: Zero Dawn.
If you are reading this and wanting a recommendation as to whether to get it, I would say definitely. I originally bought a PS4 to play Uncharted 4 and given that I was not overly impressed with what was another addition to the franchise, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a very good reason to go out and buy a PS4.