From the second I laid eyes on the reveal trailer at E3 2015, I knew this game was one to watch. What I didn’t realise is how much it would draw me in, how fleshed out and expansive it would be, or how well Guerrilla would pull off such a stunning first entry in what is sure to become a staple of Sony’s first party lineup.
The idea of a post apocalyptic open world game featuring bows, tribes, future tech and robot dinosaurs sounds very much like a nerd wet dream, but what the creators of the Killzone franchise have lovingly crafted in HZD is a surprisingly cohesive world with well thought out explanations and reasoning for every aspect of it. Outcast and player character Aloy is after answers about her parentage, but the mystery she uncovers and the secrets she reveals are surprising and satisfying in ways games don’t often tend to be.
Aloy is a wonderful protagonist to play as, with believable thoughts and emotions for a budding young hero. She is surrounded by a wonderfully flawed yet endearing cast, from the blinded-by-faith matriarchs to a good-hearted guard captain. There are several standouts, in particular mass-murderer Nil, with the strongest sense of honour you’ll ever find in a seasoned serial killer.
This might be just a personal thing, but I bloody love that Aloy does not give a shit about the men around her in a romantic sense. Any time that type of question comes up, whether it be a bumbling tribesman or royalty, she shuts them down. This story is about her as a person, not her in regards to some other person’s affections - I’m so impressed Guerrilla steered away from falling into that particular trope.
The voice work and art is, quite obviously, stellar. The breathtaking vista’s, the thick foliage, the sweeping deserts, the water, the machines, the character models - Guerrilla have always been a low key king of graphical prowess, but HZD is some next level jaw-dropping beauty. The voice performance by Ashley Birch is fantastic, bringing Aloy into the upper echelon of believable people as video game protagonists. Oh, and Aloy wins best hair of the year 2017.
Ultimately HZD feels like a mashup of a ton of games you already know - there’s base infiltration and tower climbing ala Far Cry, a huge open map with tons of activities and collectibles pulled from Assassins Creed, a main/side/errand quest system lifted from The Witcher, tons of text-heavy lore and audio diaries mirroring Mass Effect & Bioshock. What’s important though is that every single one of these things is super strong in it’s own right, without going overboard on #content.
The towers are 5 massive walking machines. There’s bandit camps, hunting lodges, corruption zones and cauldrons, but only roughly half a dozen of each so as to not wear out their welcome. The map is huge with icons everywhere, but it is importantly customisable and scalable. The HUD options are fantastically thought out, customisable down to each module and dynamically appearing on screen only when necessary. All of this is brought together by some of the best combat of the year, bringing a wide arsenal of weaponry (from various arrows, bomb slings, tripwire traps, a rope caster and more) to have the fights across all manor of creatures be super satisfying even 80 hours in.
The game isn't some "beginning of a trilogy" - it's actually a well told story with a beginning, middle and end, with satisfying explanations to the questions that get raised. HZD ties everything up in a meaningful and satisfying way - another uncommon trait for a video game. A quick end game cutscene does give clear indication of where a sequel can go, however.
Early on, I felt Horizon was a a truly great game - I was going so far as to say it is excellent, but not amazing. I was enjoying my time with it thoroughly, but it just wasn’t quite hitting as high as I expected it to. In retrospect, I think it might have been just the fantastic year we’ve had for games that pushed me this way. To my surprise however, the final third of Horizon pushed it from something I liked, to something I love. The final quest in particular is expertly done, bringing everything together in an excellent way. Games are at their best when they reward you for playing the game thoroughly in a meaningful way, and Horizon pulls it off expertly. The more you put into the world, the more it will give back to you.
I did have one gripe with the game overall - the weird camera. I know it probably does it for some technical reason, but it lazily moves around the screen behind Aloy constantly, shifting her from left to right several times in mere minutes. It honestly was nearly a deal breaker for me, and is the reason I only came to the game now - having played it for a few hours months ago, I put it down hoping for a patch to come through later - though I never fully got used to it, the game was good enough to look past it. that being said, an option to have the camera fixed left, centered, right or dynamic would have been appreciated.
Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like it had a strong, dedicated vision shared across all aspects of the development team, which is well reflected in the final product. This feels like a game from a team with a collective passion and love for the thing they were making, from the highest exec down to the janitor. Everything in this game comes together as a cohesive whole, one that creates a well thought-out, deeply satisfying, fun to be in and above all interesting world. Horizon sits as one of the best experiences of the PS4 library, a game that will no doubt go down as one of, if not the best new IP for the generation.