Horizon: Zero Dawn review
Robot dinosaurs FTW!
I have a confession: when I first saw Horizon Zero Dawn back in 2015 I let out a big ostentatious yawn to signal that I was unimpressed.
I can't explain why, but everything left me cold -- the neo-tribal far future setting, the robot dinosaurs, the ridiculous name, the colour palette, the robot dinosaurs, the stone weapons, the robot dinosaurs. I guess mostly the robot dinosaurs.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed in ways I haven't felt since I wasted nearly 40 minutes on The Last Guardian.
So, let me say this to PlayStation, to the dev team at Guerrilla Games and to anyone who's had to put up with me droning on about Horizon Zero Dawn: I was wrong, so very, very wrong, and I cannot apologise enough.
Horizon Zero Dawn is well-crafted, sprawling, compelling and just damn beautiful. Set in the far future, you play as Aloy a young woman living outcast from her tribe and looking for a way to belong. The world has returned to nature - it's a lush and verdant landscape - and the only blot on the horizon in the bucolic paradise is the sporadic wars between the tribal people. Oh, and the robot dinosaurs everywhere.
I don't want to go into the story of the world too extensively. One of the joys of the game, for me at least, was having it slowly unfold around me. So we'll talk about the scope of the game - but before that, let's talk about how it looks.
In terms of world and character design, Horizon Zero Dawn is just stunning. The attention to detail is immediately obvious in small graphic touches from the way a robot enemy will move its head, through the outfits and weapons. Dynamic weather and day-night cycles make for an ever-changing environment and I often found myself stopping just to check out the scenery. Horizon Zero Dawn will output at 4K with HDR if you're using a PS4 Pro and compatible TV, and a zero-day patch will add more visual options in the menu for Pro users.
Horizon Zero Dawn offers up an open world to explore and fills it with reasons to do so. Ignoring the main story quest, you'll find yourself able to track down strange ancient artefacts, or climb to vantage points and learn more of how the world once was. There are hunting ground challenges and robot filled bunkers to raid. And crafting - so much crafting. In fact, so much crafting that at times to constant collection of resources felt a little Far Cry franchise, although that's not a comparison I'm trying to be offensive with.
Nor am I trying to offend if I say the game reminded me a lot of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the 2010 game from Ninja Theory, which also had you exploring a robot-filled green world. Enslaved was a vastly enjoyable game, if not the solid hit that I think Horizon will be.
Even on the lowest difficulty settings, you'll need to think about combat rather than just wading in and hoping for the best. The game supplies you with a remarkable arsenal of arrows and traps and bombs and more. Analysing your enemies and matching your combat options to their weaknesses was surprisingly fun - and the game rewards you for your forethought.
That said, you can modulated your play style from stealthy hunter to death-dealing heavy hitter and the skill trees let you customise Aloy's abilities to best match this (and again, it's a little Far Cryish.)
Surprises abound (not all good)
Some of my favourite parts of the game were the surprising side quests that would turn up as you explore the world and the places they'd take you. The people you encounter are well realised, for the most part, and you actually enjoy engaging with them.
But Horizon Zero Dawn had a couple of bum notes here and there. Some of the world elements were a little opaque and not clearly explained, like the Vantage Points where you can climb structures and learn a little history.
I also had one particularly nasty battle at the end of a side quest underground where I managed to hit an end-quest action, so instead of being able to collect all of the high-quality loot littered around, I was congratulated for completing the quest and returned to surface. I did what any reasonable person would do and restarted from an earlier stage.
But the big one for me was the voice of Aloy, Ashly Burch. She's an excellent voice actor who I've enjoyed in many games, but many of her lines felt flat at times as did her delivery. Whether that could have been fixed by the script needing another pass or maybe just an extra take in the recording studio I don't know.
You want more
But these are issues that barely rated compared to my enjoyment of the game. Engaging and oh so enjoyable, I can only offer this as my final bit of praise: while writing this review, all I wanted to do was go back and play the game. Horizon Zero Dawn a modern classic for the PlayStation 4.
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