A new hero quests through a breath-taking world.
Guerilla Games have some big balls. The Dutch game developer, best known for its sci-fi first person shooter ‘Killzone’ just made a totally new Action RPG IP in 3rd person and set it in an open world with a female character as its lead. Who’s a ginger. For a company to just decide to dip its toes into the open world pool – nay, dive straight into the deep end – that is just not done these days. Why would they take such a risk? And at such huge undertaking and expense? Because battling robot dinosaurs should be fun and cool, that’s why, and we all damn well know it.
A NEW HERO
Set in a ‘post – post – apocalyptic world’ where the Earth has been reclaimed by the natural world and overrun by wandering beasts in machine form, you play Aloy: a female outcast seeking the answer to where she truly came from. The origin of where the machines came from, and how humans got bumped from being the dominant species on the planet are questions that Aloy (and cunningly the player) must discover during the story. The script comes from the mind of John Gonzalez (writer of the Fallout games and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor). Though the humans are primitive cultures, there’s more sci-fi than fantasy here and that’s a good thing. There’s clearly an incredible amount of work that has gone into the lore of the world, the politics of its people and the visual culture of the tribes, and the art direction for the game is a nice mesh of Mad Max and Native American influences.
Aloy herself is an inquisitive and dedicated young woman. Being shunned by her own people since birth has also afforded her a sense of wariness about her world – not to mention a dry sense of humour. When faced with certain circumstances, she will make off-handed remarks, even giving the player hints about what her next move is. In this way, it feels like a well-synced partnership between player and character, and it works well. There are already hundreds of amazing cosplayers out there that have taken up the challenge to become this new Sony flagship icon. Even my partner (who’s not a gamer) casually remarked “she would make an awesome cosplay.”
THE BEST OF ALL OPEN WORLDS
Horizon is the sum of many parts from other games, so gameplay-wise it should feel very familiar to anyone who’s played an RPG, or a more quest-driven action game like Shadow of Mordor. Like all good RPGS, Quests are broken down for you in the menu for convenience, with the main quest, sub quest and side quests all tracked by the game. You can fast travel between any campsite you discover (or hunt a strider, broadhead, or charger and override it to become your trusty steed). Experience is gained and spent on 1 of 3 skill trees: Prowler (stealth) Brave (combat) and Forager (resources) and weapons and potions can be bought and upgraded. Like Arkham Knight, Shadow of Mordor or Tomb Raider, the system is basic but robust, and offers a number of in-game abilities that help Aloy develop a useful set of skills along the way.
Stealth has been handled well and for the most part works as it should. Tapping square slips Aloy into a silent crouch. Walking into the conveniently red-coloured patches of foliage hides her instantly. You can throw rocks to draw your enemy’s attention away from you to set up a better flanking attack, or you can learn how to whistle to draw them into the bushes for the kill. The AI is good enough to react to your actions, but not so smart to make stealth a chore. It’s a good balance overall, and though hardcore stealthers will find the mechanics simple, this is a game that is meant to be fun, not a stealth simulator. Additionally, R3 is a ‘focus’ mode (explained via a headset that Aloy finds early in the game) and functions similarly to Arkham’s detective mode, displaying crucial weaknesses and strengths of specific machines – but with an added touch of tracking the patrol path of a machine to better take advantage of your situation. Very cool.
Combat is the biggest focus of the game, and Guerilla have done a great job of making your arsenal as easy and fun to use as possible. Holding down L1 brings up a weapon wheel and slows down time you so you swap out weapons on-the-fly (and even craft ammo in real-time). Your potions, bombs and a few stealth options are assigned to the cross pad. Running and hitting square will send Aloy into a controllable slide, which acts as a nice evasive dodge (but also a really classy way of moving into cover). Each machine needs to be dealt with in its own way, each encounter will rarely be the same, and the wealth of options at your disposal (especially once you start unlocking more useful abilities) gives the action a freshness that never gets old. Clearly, keeping the game fast-paced and fun was the priority here and it pays off, because it’s a satisfying experience across the board. Armed with a spear and bow at the beginning of the game, they will become like extensions of you in combat, and you’ll effortlessly swap out weapons mid battle to often devastating effect. There’s something about going up against a bio-mechanical behemoth, armed only with primitive weapons with simple tweaks, that makes it all the more satisfying to win.
LAND BEFORE TIME
It would be remiss of me to talk about Horizon and not mention its stunningly realised world. Like The Last of Us, this derelict landscape has been left to mother nature, and her work here is simply astonishing. Lush, verdant fields populate the game, with crowded forests and leafy jungles. There are harsh and rocky valleys straight out of a Western. Snow-capped mountains and trees are blanketed with snow. Every inch of the game is full of new splendours and eye-popping sights to behold. Everything is rendered in amazing detail and rich colour palettes, the visuals rivalling the very best of the PS4 catalogue. Maybe it was because of the 4K HDR-ness, but this is the kind of game that was made for a photo mode.
Thankfully then, Guerilla have our backs, because if you’re a fan of the trending ‘photomode’ you are in for a treat, kids. The usual insta-like filters are present and accounted for, as are focal length and aperture settings. Not content with the usual gamut of options, G have seen fit to really bake your noodle by including a “Time of Day” scale, that literally changes the time – and therefore lighting – before your very eyes in-photo, just like your very own time-lapse. Now that’s just showing off.
A LEAP OF FAITH
ON A STEEL HORSE I RIDE
For the most part, the game lives and dies by its machines. Had they not been give the care and attention to detail that they do, the game would not be half as compelling to play as it is. Each machine is its own creature, it has a difficulty level, strengths and weaknesses, behaviour and weapons. Then there are the weak-points and plates that you can smash and break away from the machine (I almost felt sorry for one chicken-like machine I wounded, as I watched it limp pathetically on one foot). Some are susceptible to specific kinds of attacks or damage, or dish out a type of damage that you need to be wary of (certain potions and armour can help you sustain these kinds of elemental damage). There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being the human underdog who gets the upper hand on a terrifying killing machine that can melt your skin off its bones with a single look, or crush you in its massive metal jaws. Hunting AI beasts has rarely been this fun. And the beauty is, the game offers you so much variety in your approach to defeating the machines, when you die – and you will die – you can regroup and try another tactic. Maybe this time you’ll use your tripcaster to lay tripwires in its path. Or you’ll lure it to your hidden position in the grass and perform a devastating stealth kill (or better yet override its programming and let it fight for you). The choices are yours and they are many. I played the game on Hard mode, and that felt about right. I suspect Normal will lean towards the easier side.
TO 4K OR NOT TO 4K
I’ve played the game on both a regular 1080p LCD TV and a 4K display and I can tell you that whichever camp you’re in, Guerrilla has you covered. Horizon is a stunning game either way you slice it – possibly even the best looking game on PS4 right now. And yes, even though graphics aren’t everything, there are certain games that always beg to differ when you see them running, because they make your eyes bulge in their sockets every 10 minutes. Horizon is one of those titles. Not only that, but there is so much thought that’s gone into the history of this world, the graphics are actually tell a big part of the story.
If you are in the 4K camp (or are considering the upgrade to PS4 Pro) I can tell you HDR mode enriches the optical experience in very, very nice ways. Colours are much deeper and richer, contrast is more dynamic, and overall the graphics are just that much clearer and crisper. Make no mistake, if you’re making the move to PS4 Pro, Horizon Zero Dawn is the reference quality demo you’ve been looking for. Put this baby on and watch your Xbox buddies shift uncontrollably in their chairs.
A word of warning for those – literally – buying into 4K though, it may not be as easy as just plugging in your gear. TVs often have their own HDR settings, and they’re all called something different. Make sure to check your setting on your TV and PS4 Pro first – and try to plug your console directly into your TV using the cable it came with.
A NEW DAWN FOR SONY
Horizon Zero Dawn is finally here, and it was worth the wait. Though it may not revolutionise any particular one thing, it borrows all of the right things and carves out its own unique identity with grace and style. The combat is easy to use and fun to play, and the stealth mechanics offer up nice change of pace. Sure, it may not be quite as polished in the cinematics department, and there are still some quirks and failings here and there. But it is never at the expense of the fast-paced thrills or the fun. For a company’s open world 3rd person debut this is one hell of a great time. Guerilla could have made a simple robot combat game, but instead, they plunged head-first into the open world market, and by doing so have not only outdone themselves but have launched a new IP that is as beautiful to wander through as it is fun to play. Sony now have a brand new iconic franchise on their hands, and I’m sure both camps are incredibly proud of this new, gorgeous world and its plucky, likeable hero. They bloody should be. Gingers of the world unite!
Horizon Zero Dawn – the review