Horizon Zero Dawn
The PlayStation 4 has played host to some of Sony’s greatest creations of all-time. Bloodborne brought the Souls sub-genre to a new level of accessibility, while Uncharted 4 closed that series with one of its best entries ever and a re-release of The Last of Us gave a new generation of players a chance to experience the greatest gaming story ever told. Now, Guerrilla Games – the folks behind the long-running Killzone franchise are back with Horizon Zero Dawn and have crafted something on par with the best games that have ever graced a Sony platform.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a captivating story of love, fatherhood, loss, confusion, acceptance, and finding out who you are and what your place in the world is. Aloy is a young woman who has grown up with one person who truly loved her – Rost. He seemingly lost his own daughter, took her in after being shunned as an outcast by his tribe, and raised her as his own from the time she was a baby. We see their bond grow as time goes on and finally play as her when she’s a little kid. Her adventurous nature lands her in some trouble, but changes her life forever.
She tries to simply play with other kids and is not only mocked for it, but has a rock thrown at her. This brings up the game’s first dialogue tree, where you can tailor Aloy’s personality a bit. Being nice to the kid that scars your face with a rock shows compassion, while being crafty shows you won’t take any crap from him but aren’t out to actively hurt him – just defend yourself and then you can just chuck a rock at his head to retaliate and lower yourself to his level. It’s a subtle thing for character building, but does allow you to make her journey more personal and use her as an avatar of sorts regardless of the player’s gender.
This incident sends her into a fit where she then tumbles into a cavern and finds a slew of dead bodies with audio logs along with a little headpiece. This allows her to see the world with an interactive UI around her at all times and winds up shaping many important parts of the gameplay. At its core, this focus tool acts a bit like scanning the world in Metroid Prime. You can find out information about the people in the world and gain more insight into the lore, but as a gaming tool, it is incredibly useful. The game’s mix of action and stealth is some of the best yet, and this tool lets you see enemy paths and then map out your routes to avoid enemies. Tall grass combined with kneeling also allows you to avoid enemies – and it’s a skill you’ll never want to forget.
After maturing and gaining both wisdom and great skills, Aloy has her first real tests – fighting without Rost to save her and she does very well. Being able to craft arrows and use her bow for melee attacks works perfectly, but you can never forget the stealth base. Brute force works early on, but after a game-changing event against the tribe she seeks to join to find answers about her past, everything shifts. You’ll face huge enemies and deal with the ongoing man vs. machine war in new ways. Taking control of the machines give you the ability to feel even more powerful, but larger foes await and make use of that stealth skillset once again.
Aloy’s skills are impressive and the game’s pacing is some of the best in the industry. You’ll go from a story-driven set piece to an action sequence that blends seamlessly, and allows you to bond more with the characters. In that sense, this is the best game since The Last of Us when it comes to truly caring about the characters. Uncharted 4 was incredible for the standards of that series, but Horizon Zero Dawn tops it by building up a strong foundation between Aloy and many of the significant characters she meets. Part of the bond is the branching dialogue, which is in some parts optional. If you just choose to skim through conversations, you won’t care about many of the cast – but if you let every option play out, you’ll forge a bond and gain an understanding for how Aloy fits in with most of them.
Her story is wrought with sadness and a bit of betrayal at times. Enemies become fire-forged friends, even if only for a brief time – but you see that she is something special within the game world as she is relied upon to save the tribe and also find out about her own past in the process. Her bond with Rost will instantly evoke the relationship between Ellie and Joel. The use of a bow and arrow also evokes a bit of that game’s playable sections with Ellie, but the nature of the surrogate parent/child relationship is different. Here, Rost chooses to raise her as his own from birth and clearly loves her – but is willing to lose her if it means she’s better off in the long run. Joel’s bond with Ellie never allowed him to get to that point, but their journey was still a compelling one
Rost makes her a stronger fighter and that plays out in the game’s melee and shooting combat. When combined with stealth and using your surroundings to your advantage, you wind up with a game that puts you in many David vs. Goliath scenarios, but still feels fair. Every part of the combat feels well-crafted, and a logical control setup combined with responsive controls makes combat and platforming easy to do.
Graphically, Horizon Zero Dawn is the best showcase yet on the PS4. Its characters have far more emotional range than anything since The Last of Us, and it’s all expressed facially alongside voice work. The scar formed on Aloy’s head is visible and is just one of many impressive life-like touches. Lips look far more realistic here than in most games, and wrinkles and facial lines are visible for the cast and show you wisdom, anger, and the toll taken by the world on its citizens. The elaborate clothing is the best seen in gaming today, although there are a few clipping issues where the designers bit off a bit more than the console can chew. Animation is silky-smooth for both major actions and transitions, and everything has a great flow to it.
For those with a flair for photography, the game’s photo mode is a must-use. It allows you to nix the in-game HUD and use DSLR-esque features to pretty much every gameplay part of the game – although not every area allows you to move the camera around. Still, you can get some incredible depth of field shots with a blurred-out background, and use the rule of thirds to craft some gorgeous images combining the characters with the lush environments that surround them.
The cast’s chemistry is easily some of the best in the industry. The Last of Us may top it, but it also has a smaller cast of characters to work with. Given this game’s usage of far more characters, it stands up very nicely and you sense pretty much every relationship in some form or fashion – whether it be positive or negative – within a single conversation. The acting is top shelf and Ashly Burch does her best work to date as Aloy.
The soundtrack holds up as well as the voice acting too, with a diverse soundtrack full of drums, throat singing, and tribal music that fit the themes of the game. Giant battles are treated to booming drums and singing, while melodic moments are underscored with more reserved songs that let the moments play out – but still give you something other than dialogue to hear and enjoy. The sound effects are solid too, with each smack with the bow feeling violent while arrows shot each sound different and impactful depending on the type used.
Horizon Zero Dawn is Guerrilla Games’ best effort, one of the PS4’s greatest games, and the best game ever crafted from the ground up for the platform. It combines a gripping narrative with intense action that blends both fast-paced combat with slower-paced, tense stealth sections perfectly. Everything about their vision for this game clicks into place and is accentuated by a stellar presentation. The game features top-shelf graphical work, a unique and enjoyable soundtrack, alongside a fantastic cast to make an unforgettable experience.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
This review is based on a digital copy of Horizon Zero Dawn for the PlayStation 4 provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.