The Video Gamer’s Experience – Horizon Zero Dawn Review

The motto for Playstation 4 was “Greatness awaits” – eventually becoming a running joke amongst gamers who felt the system’s early exclusives left a lot to be desired. Guerrilla Games’ latest “Killzone” – a series once promoted as Sony’s answer to “Halo” – failed to deliver on grandiose hopes & claims across three gaming generations including the PS4’s early days. So it came as a surprise when it was announced Guerrilla would not only leave its most famous series behind temporarily, but also embrace the action-adventure sandbox style that has become something of the norm in gaming today featuring a post-apocalyptic twist where animals walk the earth alongside mechanical monstrosities that too have beast-like qualities including grazing and, most importantly, violently defending territories against the player controlling a lone girl who proves to be as fiery as her red locks. My hopes weren’t necessarily high; coming into this new series with few expectations other than having a mostly enjoyable time. To my surprise, the feeling of “been there, done that” faded away as the hours started racking up and the world now terrorized by hulking machines was mine for the taking.


Did I Complete “Horizon Zero Dawn”


Set over a thousand years in the future, the planet has changed greatly thanks to obvious mechanized beasts roaming the land while taking the appearance of various animals and creatures that have lived on the same land thousands of years before their existences. In the middle of it all is Aloy – an orphaned outcast from the tribe of “Nora”. Thanks to a rise of the machines, mankind is forced to rebuild a society based more on mythological lore and primitive hunting & gathering while trying to survive the rigors of battling metal monstrosities. As Aloy, the player witnesses her grow from an innocent, naïve child (mostly thanks to a smartly-placed prologue and montage) into one of the toughest slayers the world has even known while meeting a variety of characters and townspeople in need of help along her journey.



My initial plans were to simply play through for the story, but thanks to a majority of side quests and missions benefiting Aloy’s growth & abilities to handle herself against the various machines and even hostile humans, I took part in the copious amount of non-story activities; be it raiding bandit camps to infiltrating hidden, underground sites featuring small puzzles & patrolling enemies. Slowly but surely I began checking off the trophy list and realized the platinum trophy was very doable – leading to me completing the game after nearly seventy hours of gameplay time (a good amount of time just having fun testing out new weapons and finding weak points on new discoveries trying to kill this red-haired machine murderer) with a new platinum trophy to my name.


Did “Horizon Zero Dawn” Live Up to the Hype?


When it comes to new IPs and potential franchises, the grandiose amount of hype thanks to advertising and previews can skew anyone from believing in a hopeful system seller such as “Horizon Zero Dawn”. Thankfully, the ideas that make “Horizon” mostly what it is come together fantastically, though not perfectly. Case in point – the combat proves to be a mixed bag due to its various offerings against both machine and human enemies. The player is slowly introduced to the nuances of the machines that now threaten the lives of humans trying to live alongside them including various weak points that differ from beast to beast. For example, one of the earliest adversaries Aloy encounters is the “Watcher” – a two-legged, walking snake-like creature that can not only use its long tail to knock Aloy down, but also can call out for reinforcements if it spots danger. By focusing on the Watcher’s eye, Aloy can land a one-hit kill that’ll prevent any damage or problems in regards to the arrival of some new foes.

The way Aloy can accomplish her kills are three-fold in nature – ranged attacks via arrows; melee attacks thanks to Aloy’s staff; traps including electrified tripwires that’ll stun enemies if they make the wrong step – but the variety available makes fighting the machines so much fun. Aloy’s ability to hide in tall grass can allow her to complete stealth attacks courtesy of her staff (or she can pick off enemies from a distance, though firing arrows from the same spot over & over again when there are more than a couple of enemies will alert them of Aloy’s positioning). A majority of Aloy’s physical abilities including slowing down time to land that perfect headshot and being able to grab more resources from downed machines are bound to a rather impressive skill tree that will take some time & completion of the many activities available. The bow & arrow combinations are essentially Aloy’s best friends in the wild. The simplistic original pairing featuring regular metal arrows and eventual heads burning with fire are complemented by other bows that can shot arrows that’ll freeze enemies with enough hits, send them into a frenzied state, or even knock off the armored plates & heavy machinery some of the more beefy enemies sport including tyrannosaurs-like creatures (the heavy weapons dropped by the beasts can be picked up & used by Aloy until its ammo runs out) that would be a boss in any other game.



Thanks to the various weak points on every enemy being different (canisters that can explode after taking a couple of arrow hits or power supplies becoming dislodged thanks to a perfectly placed tripwire for example), mixing & matching arrow attacks is key to winning the battles Aloy will eventually find herself in the middle of simply going from point to point. Weapons can be modified with patches to add a little more kick to each shot, be it extra damage or elemental effects. Aloy also has the ability to wear armor that usually feature base status effects including greater stealth efficiency depending on the equipment that too can be modified. Other weapons (or more powerful versions of the ones Aloy is given) are available that make the journey a little easier including a mechanism that can temporarily tie beasts down, but will take a little extra work to attain (such as completing the fifteen timed hunting side quests) or the game’s currency to purchase –which is somewhat hard to come by early on, but becomes overbearing by the game’s last few hours as its practically thrown at Aloy in vast numbers. There’s definitely a required learning curve when it comes to playing “Horizon” thanks to the amount of options in handling machines, but it can prove frustrating in the early goings as Aloy won’t be able to fend off various onslaughts as the player tries to get used to the mechanics that aren’t fully explained and are left to the gamer to learn while in the thick of things.

As fun as it is taking on the machine adversaries, trying to conquer man isn’t rewarding in the least thanks to the sheer idiocy of these enemies. Human foes are easily alerted by fallen adversaries, yet rarely put two & two together and easily fall to an arrow to the head when they turn around to return to their usual route. There are a few “heavy”/“leader” enemies sporting helmets and are harder to take down, but aren’t any smarter than their weaker counterparts. Melee combat, while available against both man & machine, usually isn’t the way to go if the player wants Aloy to live. Using her staff, Aloy can switch between light, quick attacks and heavy, slower strikes that have the potential of knocking an enemy over. For some reason, melee combat feels rigid as Aloy’s movements become locked in and, at times, uncontrollable no matter how the player tries to adjust her swing – thus leaving her open to counterattacks that can not only take away half of her health, but also stun her for a subsequent, potentially game-ending strike after she swatted at nothing but air. A lot of the times the best strategy is to roll (something the player will do a lot of to avoid charging, striking, and fire-breathing enemies alike) until Aloy finds a hiding spot to regroup and start a ranged barrage focused on arrow usage. Melee combat is truly disappointing and something that never feels like the player gets the hang of like its ranged counterpart.



Beyond the combat are the various systems and story elements presented to the player to help Aloy along her journey including her “Focus” – a device from “The Old World” that allows her to scan enemies, figure out their paths and even tag adversaries (though the latter would have a nasty habit of the tags disappearing if something unexpected happened like Aloy alerting untagged enemies). Aloy’s Focus also plays a minor role in completing missions and finding collectables. The thirty-plus hour campaign (though shorter if a lot of the dialogue is skipped) definitely features some big revelations and explanations as to why the world became what it is, but the path to get there is unnecessarily long without much standing out from main story mission to main story mission leading into the narrative’s final third where Aloy must contend with more human adversaries than robotic. The human interactions between Aloy and the various tribespeople including the aforementioned Nora is what leaves the longest lasting impression thanks to the superb facial animations and extensive dialogue sequences (with some having responsive choices for Aloy that don’t necessarily affect relationships or the world outside of an obvious few, but can provide some entertaining discussion pieces). The voice acting can be hit or miss during these scenes, presenting some unintentionally hilarious NPC dying moments.



The lack of memorable story missions are made up by a variety of side missions that can range from the simple “follow this trail & examine this item” scenario to exploring dungeons known as “Cauldrons” that usually feature a variety of high powered enemies and grant Aloy the ability to override susceptible machines to do Aloy’s bidding; be it fight by her side or provide a ride – both concluding if the newfound friend loses enough health or becomes angered when caught in the crossfire. As per the open world norm, there are a plethora of collectables; though only a small amount are connected to any trophies. Attempting to attain all of the game’s collectibles will give the player a chance to see just how diverse and expertly crafted the game’s map is; be it the dusty plains westward to the snow-covered fields when heading north. There are five giant, giraffe-like beasts that need to be scaled to fully reveal an area’s map that’ll have players comparing this implementation to the bell towers in the “Far Cry” series, but it’s searching for banuk collectables that will have Aloy climbing mountains while leaving the player in awe of the world that can be reached in the distance (though there are invisible walls). In the middle of it all is resource management as traversing the land will provide Aloy the opportunity to hunt actual animals, scavenge downed enemies for parts & loot, and find resources to craft ammo and even healing items. Unfortunately, even fully upgraded resources pouches to hold all of the stuff the player collects fills up quickly. Having to drop items that could be sold in the middle of a mission because Aloy can’t fast travel to a merchant is something the player will have to get used to as the initial feeling of “collect everything” must be ignored when the inventory shows five or six stacks of the same item (even if those items can help create arrows and potions).

From a technical aspect, “Horizon” is a perfect example of quality optimization. Playing on an original Playstation 4, “Zero Dawn” felt smooth mostly throughout; rarely suffering frame rate drops. There were a few graphical glitches here & there (usually an enemy stuck rag dolling or forced through a wall thanks to the power of a head shot), and I suffered only one major crash that occurred, thankfully, during a hunting session between missions where I didn’t lose any major progress.

While “Horizon” is definitely a fun experience mostly unlike any other currently seen on the Playstation 4 (though obviously similar to other games in the genre due to the implementation of mechanics such as the Focus being this game’s version of “Detective Mode”/“Witcher Sense” from the “Batman: Arkham” series and “Witcher 3” respectively), it couldn’t wholly live up to the massive amount of hype thanks to the poorly designed melee combat, dumb human AI (both adversaries and accomplices – who, though rare in their appearances to help Aloy, usually just stand around and let Aloy do all the work), and a story that, while well told, is extremely longwinded without many interesting moments piecing together the middle to its exceptional beginning & end. But a majority of the negatives attached to “Zero Dawn” are outweighed by the positives such as battles with hulking metal beasts, fleshed out side quest stories, and some of the best graphics seen thus far during this console generation.


Should You Play “Horizon Zero Dawn”?


After much praise from game developers, journalists, & gamers alike, “Zero Dawn” feels worthy of being played because of how well it utilizes a lot of the mechanics seen in other recent open world releases made more impressive by the main group of enemies the player must confront (and even control) with a small variety of upgradeable weapons. There’s a very well-told story that, while not groundbreaking, is intelligent and doesn’t give too much away too fast while laying the foundation to a universe that can be expanded upon without leaving a bunch of plot debilitating questions on the table during the inaugural release. “Horizon” feels as stereotypical as it is fresh – walking a fine line between innovation and familiarity. It is for that reason “Horizon Zero Dawn” is so hard to whole heartedly recommended as a full price purchase. Depending on how many open world games you’ve experienced over the last couple of years or so will affect how much you enjoy “Horizon” – feeling less impressive to those who have grown tired of the same formula. But no matter where you are on the spectrum, “Horizon Zero Dawn” is definitely an experience worth playing via a purchase rather than a rental, but not at full price if you are someone who is suffering from open world gaming fatigue.


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