Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4) Review
THE SHORT VERSION
Gorgeous post-apocalyptic vistas, unique creature designs and an engrossing, personal plot combine to forge one of the best games of the last decade, and certainly the best exclusive offering for the PS4.
It's pretty, it's got a good story, and you fight robot dinosaurs with a spear.
THE SLIGHTLY LONGER VERSION
Horizon Zero Dawn's concept ultimately boils down to a strong, intelligently-written female protagonist killing bandits whilst battling mechanical beasts in a tribal, "Mad Max by way of that post-apocalypse story in Cloud Atlas" setting. I've certainly heard worse elevator pitches.
Humanity has slowly grown in the shadow of an apocalypse, now living in segregated pre-medieval tribes across the world. These tribes are threatened by deadly robot creatures, which infest the wild and spawn from an unknown source. Aloy, a motherless, martially-proficient young warrior born as an outcast to the Nora tribe, sets out into the world to unravel the mystery of her existence and, if she can, the whereabouts of her mother. Simultaneously, she seeks to uncover the truth behind an ancient conspiracy who are moving to crush the tribes of man for an unknown purpose, as well as where, why and how the machine creatures came to be.
I'm going to skip to the end here and say that there's a very good chance Horizon will end up as my game of the year. I've seen a lot of the upcoming slate for 2017, and it'll be tough for any other narrative-driven, exploration-heavy, visually gorgeous and sonically sleek game to top the kinds of achievements Horizon does. The story is engrossing. The world-building is top notch and visually spectacular. The mechanics and sidequests are smartly designed and articulated. It was so good that I even wrote an analysis of how the game excels in its depiction of gender equality (yay for shameless self-promotion!). It is, in my semi-professional opinion, a bloody good game.
The chief reason for this is that Horizon takes existing video game ideas and builds upon them, honing them to a razor-edge and deploying them strategically. There's little to it which is innovative per se. The sprawling map and prolific collectibles have the explorative quality of the Assassin's Creed games, the ability to use Focus vision to see important items and objectives calls up the Batman: Arkham series' Detective Vision, combat mechanics favour a hybrid of Far Cry, Tomb Raider and Uncharted influences, and the story fuses elements of Mass Effect, Bioshock and the Fallout games, with a healthy dose of The Witcher 3 mixed in. On paper, it's a hodgepodge of fingers taken from many pies, combined in a tin and baked until warm. But those familiar flavours, each distinctly its own thing while simultaneously merging into the whole experience, are what give the game so much magnetism.
Aloy's story, which is at first blush a fairly standard post-apocalypse yarn, unfolds in some truly surprising ways, thanks in large part to its delivery method. Walking the post-apocalyptic landscape, battling robot dinosaurs (or occasionally hacking them into your service), and uncovering the secrets of the world before are aspects which are all simply delivered yet superbly done. The visual design of the robots is exceptional and unique, a gorgeous fusion of the cleanliness of Mass Effect with the dirty, used future feel of the Matrix films; my personal favourite is the Sawtooth, a massive cat with a telltale footfall which invariably signals impending doom to those who hear it. The land they walk upon crosses a variety of biomes; Aloy begins in a snowy, forest area, before her journey takes her to places like Meridian - an Aztec-themed city of the sun - and Pitchcliff - a rugged vista of rolling highland hills.
The battles against the robots use streamlined controls, with Aloy employing a trusty spear alongside a variety of bows, rope-throwers, trap-layers, salvaged miniguns and - no joke - a bloody fireworks cannon. If that last one doesn't get you hyped for combat, I have no idea what will. The game does have a slight problem in its overloading of your pack with so many useless upgrade materials - called "weaves" - leaving you to pick and choose what stays and what needs to go to make room for better stuff. I'm also not convinced that any of the elemental damage types beyond fire are of much use, since the robots seem to shake off frost and tear attacks quite easily. When it comes to human enemies, it's also much simpler to go for normal arrow headshots. This also makes superfluous a lot of the elemental-based plants you collect; really, anything aside from healing herbs and the wood used to craft arrows just fill space in your inventory. Besides, you need to make room for all the robot eyes and machine cores you'll require for getting the best loot from local traders.
The sidequests and collectibles are too numerous to categorically list. Notable ventures include a hunt for ancient vessels (which are actually ancient coffee mugs), combat trials, and infiltration and puzzle-solving in manufacturing plants in order to hack bigger machines. The best, though, is probably the quests involving Tallnecks, giant giraffe-style machines with USS Enterprise saucer sections instead of heads. The Tallnecks represent the usual "climb a tower to unlock parts of the map" sidequests of other sandbox games, like Far Cry and Assassin's Creed. The big difference here, of course, is that the towers move, making a mechanic which is usually repetitive and dull feel like a more action-packed update of Shadow of the Colossus. Per its Witcher 3 influence, the game also takes time to flesh out the narrative sidequests as more than just pit stops which detract from the overarching narrative; most of them have their own mini-plots which help flesh out the larger world of Horizon, making them almost feel as vital to the story as the main plot itself.
On a technical level, Horizon is the first game I've played where I feel the graphical capacity of the PS4 has been fully utilised. The map unfolds without much issue, frame rates are consistent and only drop when there are a ton of creatures on-screen, and loading times upon death are blessedly brief (keep in mind I'm playing on a vanilla PS4, so I can only imagine how much fun PS4 Pro players get to have with this). The facial animation does reside in the middle of the uncanny valley - a criticism others have passed off as having narrative purpose, but I personally don't buy it - but the motion-captured expressions and movements make the characters feel much more realistic. But above all of this is the highly-detailed landscape, which I really cannot praise enough for the way it immerses the player in the prettiest post-apocalypse I've ever seen. If you had to weather the aftermath of a robot dinosaur Ragnarok, you could certainly end up in far less picturesque locales.
I've always preferred to see my game review scores as less a mark of perfection and more an indication of the level of quality the game demonstrates. My review score doesn't mean Horizon Zero Dawn is a perfect game (since it's not Crash Bandicoot 2 or Baldur's Gate), but that it is one worth the praise it gets because it does almost everything it does to the highest quality. It's a fantastic story in a gorgeously-realised future realm, with some of the most imaginative creature designs I've ever seen. As I noted above, the game lacks strong innovation, but it excels in taking existing action and RPG tropes, polishing them to a mirror shine and using them to build a tightly-designed machine. It's the rare kind of game I think about playing for long stretches when I should be doing other things.
In fact, why aren't I doing that now? Excuse me.
Horizon Zero Dawn is available now for Playstation 4.