One of Sony's most important first-party studios is venturing out into unfamiliar territory. Can Guerrilla rise to the challenge?
Can you recall the time when Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was originally released? Developer Naughty Dog had up until that point proven themselves time and time again with Crash Bandicoot and the Jak & Daxter series, but it was obvious to anyone from the onset that this was in a class of its own, a new level of ambition which shone through every single frame of every single trailer ahead of release. Already before the game had hit store shelves it was clear that the start of a major new series was underway.
To feed passionate players with fresh ideas, new universes and exciting new narratives is one of the fundamental necessities on which the industry is built. Ubisoft demonstrated this Assassin's Creed, From Software with Dark Souls, and Blizzard with Overwatch. It happens every now and again, that you can feel deep inside your bones, that a new permanent addition to the gaming landscape has been brought before you, and like with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, it's happening again. Horizon: Zero Dawn is upon us.
Because like Naughty Dog initially did, developer Guerrilla Games has already proven their worth, both as an important piece in the grand scheme of the PlayStation family, but also as a fundamentally talented development studio. The Killzone series has enjoyed great success, but like when Naughty Dog released various titles in the Jak & Daxter series, there was also the sense that the Killzone games felt like a step down a particular path, like a brief stop on the road before the studio was truly allowed to take its place front and centre on the stage. With Horizon: Zero Dawn, the developer is ready to show its hand.
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From the very ﬁrst trailer, from the very ﬁrst time the camera zoomed out and revealed the majestic landscape, the lush post-apocalyptic vision of our future world, it was clear that Guerrilla had indeed struck upon something quite special. There was a tone here, a vibe which felt truly unique. Now, somewhat six years after conceptual drawings of giant robot dinosaurs passionately changed hands within Guerrilla in Amsterdam, the game is ﬁnally ready, and we're happy to report that it is indeed as special as we had hoped. Horizon: Zero Dawn is quite plainly everything you want it to be and more.
Horizon: Zero Dawn starts with a beginning, but it's a beginning which happens after a tragic ending. Our world is gone, and has been for quite a while. All that is left of our civilisation, everything we've created, has been eroded and erased off the face of the earth, and only ruins of our once proud technology-crazed world remain. But again, we start with a beginning. The beginning of Aloy. We watch her as an infant being blessed with her name by her tribe's matriarchs, we see her as a child growing into womanhood, and ﬁnally as a brave warrior in a cruel world, where the human race have reverted to a tribal-like existence, and settled for a place much lower in the food chain. Robot dinosaurs now roam and control the wilds, a remnant and a reminder of a time when machines nearly destroyed the entire species. Aloy is being raised by Rost and they're both outcasts for reasons unknown. Aloy does not settle with this, and so she sets out to discover her past and solve the great mystery of what caused the collapse of our world.
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The collapse and the mystery of the events surrounding it is the greatest narrative force in Horizon: Zero Dawn, and that's both good and bad. The unique combination split between the post-apocalyptic, the naturalistic and the gigantic robot enemies is so incredibly captivating, that the player primarily wants to continue simply in order to discover why our civilisation was lost, how these tribal societies survived and how these robots took over our planet. This is, however, at the expense of the game's primary narrative, the story of Aloy, and the two don't always align. It's a shame because the intimate, personal story of Aloy and her quest to discover her past is interesting, and the emotionally engaging characters she meets are all credible and well written, if not a bit simplistic in their motivations. The problem is that the grand narrative strangles the smaller one, and as they progress side by side, it becomes difﬁcult for them to coexist. You want to discover the secrets of the world, the story wants you to learn more about Aloy's past. It is, however, quite obvious that Guerrilla thought about the two narratives and the way they interlink, so the story of Aloy herself is purposefully simplistic, so that you can easily go explore and learn, and then return to the linear path.
Exploration is something you constantly want to do in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Not only is the game ﬁlled to the brim with an exuberant amount of varied side-missions, like ﬁnding collectables, solving errands for strangers, and hunting speciﬁc animals and robots, but the world is in and of itself worth exploring, if only just to experience its beauty and hear its story. There are a great deal of varied environments as well; Sunfall is dry and hot, Meridian looks like a post-apocalyptic Canada, and Mother's Embrace is snowy and Nordic. In other words, the variation is spot on, and the world not only feels different, unique and well thought out, but also hand-crafted and not made by committees and algorithms.
Besides being interesting and exciting, one of the primary aspects we immediately recognise about Horizon: Zero Dawn is its visual design. This is mainly because of its unique blend of different visual aspects - the large robot dinosaurs, the stone age looking environments, the tribalism of humans, but it's also because that Horizon: Zero Dawn represents a new technical milestone for an open-world. It's obvious from the onset that Guerrilla has created one of the most beautiful worlds ever. The visuals, which without a shadow of doubt are among the prettiest on the console, are also one of the major selling points of the PlayStation 4 Pro, as the game truly shines brighter with the use of 4K and HDR. It's actually quite astonishing that the frame-rate is this solid, when there's so much going on.
Unfortunately it must be said, that the facial animations themselves aren't a shining beacon of emotional variation, and when you get to meet so many different people and converse with a wide variety of them face to face, it quickly becomes apparent that a large portion of them looks like Jib Jab videos. You know, the ones where you can insert your own face onto a Chippendale picture.. no? Anyway...
However, the primary aspect in a game such as Horizon: Zero Dawn is how the game feels to play, how the mechanics and the structure work together to create a dynamic framework for that play, which in turn facilitates fun, challenge and mystery at the same time. Whereas Horizon: Zero Dawn innovates with its story, its looks and its world, then the game appears to be cherry-picking on the mechanical side of things. There are elements drawn from similar open-world games here, and seasoned players will be able to spot a bit of Rise of the Tomb Raider here and a dash of Far Cry Primal there. This is not a criticism in any way, though, because one of the main attractions of Horizon: Zero Dawn is both how it resembles the games of its genre, and how it truly doesn't.
As Aloy you are in constant danger, and that is one of the ﬁrst and harshest lessons you'll learn. The world is stronger than you, and unless you think on your feet and use every tool and resource in your arsenal, you'll bite the dust time and time again. You have a bow with various types of arrows, a Ropecaster which can be used to tie down unwieldy robots, different traps, a slingshot with various types of bombs, and much more. In other words, you never feel like you don't have enough tools/weapons to handle a certain enemy, and that creates the sense that the game is tough but fair. Every duel with every single robot both looks and feels like a polished, orchestrated and choreographed boss ﬁght in a linear action game. It's so balanced, so demanding, so cinematic, and should be a new benchmark for open-world enemy encounters going forward.
Whereas the last couple of gameplay trailers and presentations seemed to present the game as an action sandbox title, you shouldn't read too much into that, because beneath the surface beats the heart of a true open world RPG. There's levelling, XP, interchangeable outﬁts with statistics and values, crafting systems and much more, and the game constantly surprises with its thoughtful depth and player choice.
In addition there's tons of different activities to pursue, which all manage to challenge the player in different ways. There's regular fetch quests which you obtain by visiting towns and talking to strangers, special hunting challenges which task you with putting down a certain robot, gigantic enemy camps ﬁlled with evil humans, special dungeons called Cauldrons where there's tons of robots and less cover, magniﬁcent Tallnecks which you're required to climb and scan to reveal sections of the map, and obviously a deluge of collectables. You never run out of errands to run, but most importantly, the content is varied enough, and the content has been designed to create a wildly different experience depending on what you want to do.
Also, we must express our deepest affection for the music, a soundtrack which both enhances the game's grand nature with bellowing jungle drums and percussion, which rises in tempo as the battles unfold, but also intimate strings which are always ready to strengthen an already emotionally resonant moment. However, the same cannot be said for the game's voice acting. Yes, Ashly Burch is quite frankly sublime as Aloy, and yes, many of the various main characters all present a valiant effort in making their respective characters come to life. However, it's the side characters, the miscellaneous city dwellers and hunters that really mess things up here, and at times it evens reaches comical proportions, when an otherwise emotional moment is made to sound like a bad Monty Python sketch.
However, the voice acting and the other small foibles here and there end up being so obscure, so insigniﬁcant in the grand scheme of things. Guerrilla has truly stepped out of the shadow of the Killzone series, and has put themselves and their talent forward into the light of the international AAA development community with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It's a bold move, an attempt at something truly unique, different and innovative, and we're happy to ﬁnally report that this is a game that not only honours the promise of its trailers and delivers on our lofty expectations, but actually surpasses them. It's beautiful, well written, well designed, and not to mention ﬁlled with heart and a fundamental respect for the player. Aloy is a new PlayStation icon, Horizon: Zero Dawn should be the foundation on which to build an iconic PlayStation series, and Guerrilla should be envied for the way they've switched things up. What Horizon truly is is a masterclass in its ﬁeld. Watch and learn.
9 / 10
Looks stunning (especially on PS4 Pro), fantastic enemy encounters, incredible soundtrack, great design, compelling setting and overarching story.
NPC facial animations aren't great (but a patch promises to address this), overall narrative sometimes overshadows Aloy's story.