“Horizon Zero Dawn” marks the first entry of what is sure to be PlayStation’s next big thing. When examining Sony’s storied franchises, the first entry typically has its issues. “Uncharted” is one of the most beloved series in modern video games, but “Uncharted 1” isn’t remembered with great fondness. “Horizon Zero Dawn” manages to clear that low bar, but there is room for this eventual series to grow.
This title is developed by Guerrilla Games, the team that is almost exclusively known for the “Killzone” series. “Killzone” was once billed as Sony’s “Halo killer” before becoming a middling sci-fi shooter. Now that they’re away from the long-running series, they show what they are truly capable of: a story-driven open world game that takes historical aesthetics while creating a post-apocalyptic environment. This game is nothing like any “Killzone” game and that’s a good thing.
You play as Aloy, a character eager to prove herself in an unforgiving world of tribal survival. She’s is branded as an outcast after allegedly have no birth mother. Meanwhile, the living humans of the world have banded together to form various tribes. This game is set in the distant future, but people rely on bows, arrows and spears for survival. Machines that were originally built by humans became self aware and are now the alpha predators. The machines are designed in a way that mimics huge versions of real-life creatures. Dinosaurs walk the earth again. They’re just made of metal and high-grade weaponry. These enemy designs steal the spotlight and make the world of “Horizon Zero Dawn” a beautiful, but terrifying, one.
The quality of open world games are measured by a cocktail of essential ingredients. Travel has to be fast, but not too fast, and also enjoyable. Combat has to be either realistic or novel. In other words, if combat isn’t going for realism, it has to go for something we as players haven’t seen before. There also has to be a lot to do, but not so much to do that it becomes daunting. There should be side missions, but not ones that are so trivial that they become boring. A sense of progression is also a must-have. This isn’t an easy combination of things to nail, but “Horizon Zero Dawn” comes really close to sticking the landing on the first try. The game’s combat is its best feature.
Many of the machines Aloy encounters are enormous death machines that have likely amassed large body counts. Aloy is one of the most skilled hunters in the land, but these beasts still feel like enormous physical challenges. Every machine has to be approached with a different strategy. Fortunately, the game gives players a ton of flexibility when it comes to arsenal choices and what works to achieve victory. Toward the second half of the game, Aloy will have fire, freeze and shock arrows, special arrows that remove the machines’ metal plating, rope trap launchers, a slingshot for elemental bombs and a spear that can override enemies so that they fight by her side. It takes going toe to toe with one of these giants to see that they’re designed with what appears to be painstaking detail. They have different layers from their vulnerable inner skin to their hard metal exterior that can be penetrated if using the right strategies. These battles feel like a big game hunt. They feel dangerous because they are, and the outcome is satisfying.
The open world has areas called Cauldrons that can be explored in order to unlock the override feature. This feature allows Aloy to take control of the machines. Some of these machines can even be mounted and ridden around the wildlands. This is a wonderful feature, but only in theory. There are too few machines that can actually be mounted and the ones that can be mounted all have the similar attributes. They behave like horses. I was excited by the thought of riding the biggest machines in the game, or at least the ones that can fly. This will hopefully be rectified in the sequel.
Mounting machines doesn’t even really give that much of a benefit. You can’t farm and collect resources in the wild from the back of a beast, which essential to Aloy’s progression. It’s not even that much faster than Aloy on foot. I spent the vast majority of my time on foot for these reasons.
“Horizon Zero Dawn” doesn’t get better than the battles that take place out in the wild. Seeing these wild machines in the gorgeous environments that span from lush jungles to clay copper valleys to wide open deserts never gets old and always made me want to take a quick screengrab just because of its beauty.
The story of “Horizon Zero Dawn” can’t quite hit its emotional notes. Even worse, it overstays its welcome in the second half. Aloy is by far the most compelling character in the game. The people she is helping become the main force driving the story. Unfortunately, there isn’t one interesting character among them. Everyone other than Aloy inside this world of wonderment is just so bland. That takes the punch out of any quest outcome. What Aloy is doing to help the rest of the people in the game doesn’t matter if we can’t come to care about those people.
“Horizon Zero Dawn” hits the mark in almost everything it sets out to do, and it’s that much more impressive that it’s the team’s first attempt at an open world game such as this one. Unfortunately, the character experience gets stale toward the second half. But, story woes don’t ruin everything the game has to offer. It’s still absolutely gorgeous and the combat is varied enough to be satisfying. There’s room for improvement, but that just makes me more excited to see what’s possible in the eventual sequel.
Max Parker writes as The Game Guy at communityvoices.post-gazette.com. Twitter: @GameGuyPGH.
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