Publishers will try their hardest to time releases right, something that’s become inexorably harder due to the sheer volume of games that are released these days. It’s not uncommon now to hear of several titles, all ostensibly vying for the same market, releasing within a short period of each other. Last year’s hat trick of Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is the perfect example of this, something which you would assume was to the detriment to them all. However it seems that timing might not be everything as all of the games did respectably well. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s launch, coming in just before Zelda: Breath of the Wild, would have similarly seen foolish but it’s success says differently, its sales even eclipsing that of Zelda in its opening weeks. The reasoning for that is simple: it is an absolutely spectacular game, one that many will point to as a reason to own a PlayStation 4.
In the far future humanity has regressed back to its tribal roots. The ruins of the Old Ones are all around them, a reminder of the time when the world was dominated by metal rather than by nature. You play as Aloy, an orphan who was put in the care of Rost, a tribal outcast. He teaches you how to survive in this world but will not speak of your past, his banishment from the tribe or why you were entrusted to his care. However he does tell you of a way to learn all these things: you must win The Proving to become a brave of a tribe and win a boon from the matriarchs. This begins your journey of self discovery, one that will take you deep into this world’s past and will put you in control of its future.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an absolutely stunning game, setting the bar for what’s possible on the PlayStation 4. This is saying something considering that I’m still playing on an original PS4, which doesn’t have all the added goodness that’s available to pro owners. As the screenshots in this review will attest to you can see just how big, expansive and detailed the environments are. They are then lavished with all the modern effects you’d care to name, making them some of the most immersive graphics I’ve seen to date. Surprisingly none of this comes with inherent performance problems either, the main game able to maintain a stable 30fps for the majority of the game. Interestingly the UI does render out at 60fps but the game itself is locked at 30fps, even on the Pro. This is all thanks to the Decima engine which has powered similar spectactular titles such as Killzone Shadow Fall and Until Dawn (it will also be bringing us Death Stranding, which is rather exciting). Suffice to say after the low-fi experience I had with Zelda it was great to have a graphical marvel like Horizon: Zero Dawn to go back to.
From a core game perspective Horizon: Zero Dawn is a traditional open-world RPG, taking inspiration from other similar AAA titles. There’s the campaign missions which will be the main source of story progression coupled with dozens of side missions, errands and various other quests to help you progress Aloy. Completing quests and killing monsters earns you XP which will level you up and grant you skill points to spend in one of 3 different trees (ostensibly combat, stealth and crafting). The crafting takes a leaf out of the Far Cry book, requiring you to hunt down certain animals for rare components to upgrade your inventory. Additionally, whilst you can purchase weapons and armour from vendors, you’ll need to hunt down certain beasts in order to be able to buy them. There’s also the usual open world trappings like climbing towers to reveal areas, hidden collectables hidden around various areas and random encounters that appear to change slightly as the game progresses. In terms of scale it might not be quite as big as Zelda was but it’s still definitely big enough to satisfy even the most hardcore open world completionist.
Combat sits inbetween Zelda and Dark Souls, being somewhat approachable but still requiring a base level of skill to get things done efficiently. Unlike some games where you can just blast your way through Horizon: Zero Dawn is much more focused on finding an enemy’s weak points and exploiting them. This can be as simple as figuring out which points to hit to give extra damage all the way through to complex mini-games that involve figuring out which component you can blow off, removing it without damaging it, then using said component against the enemy that you’re fighting. This can be somewhat frustrating at times as you might not get the opportunity to scan an enemy for its weaknesses before it engages you, leading to a drawn out engagement where you try to figure out what you need to do. Other times however the fights can be incredibly satisfying as the biggest of enemies can be felled easily should you know the right sequence of events to do in order to take them down.
One part where the combat does fall down a bit is with the camera. There’s no lock-on in Horizon: Zero Dawn, meaning that you are always going to be hunting around to ensure your enemies are within your vision. Sure, you can tag enemies to make this a bit easier, but that doesn’t save you from problems like the camera doing an about face if you dive head first into a boulder. The reasoning behind the lack of lock on is due to the focus on targeting weak points at range, rather than trying to beat your quarry into submission. A good fix would be a “snap to tagged target” button which would still require you to aim properly but would alleviate rather irritating camera wrangling that you have to do. Still it’s far from a game breaking issue and it can often be overcome by taking a more stealthy approach.
Stealth is done superbly well with most missions able to be done completely via stealth. There’s no non-lethal option here and the game won’t reward you for avoiding taking out enemies. Most small to medium sized enemies can be taken out in a single blow, although the animation is relatively long and so requires a decent amount of precise to pull off properly. Larger enemies need some more diverse tactics in order to take them out stealthily but it’s certainly still doable for some enemies. Indeed I managed to take out a bunch of shell walkers by silent striking them then disappearing behind a rock, saving me the trouble of dealing with their shields. The biggest enemies unfortunately still require a head to head fight but those are probably the most fun fights and would be a waste if they could be done via stealth.
Progression comes thick and fast in Horizon: Zero Dawn, ensuring that you’re never too long without some kind of improvement coming your way. Levels and skill points are plentiful; so much so that about half way through the game I couldn’t find a single mission that I hadn’t already out levelled. Taking the typical “take all the things” approach works a treat, ensuring that you’ve always got enough supplies to upgrade everything and for trading with vendors to get awesome gear. The RNG can be a little unforgiving at times, leaving you to constantly hunt down certain animals or machines in order to get that one part you need. However if you’ve saved basically everything you can carry you’ll often be able to craft a bunch of upgrades all in a row. Unfortunately your main spear can’t be upgraded like your other weapons can be, save for a few talents and a single upgrade that comes late in the main campaign. It’s a bit annoying since everything else goes up significantly in power, leaving the spear a feeble option in late game.
Before I get into the story there’s one weird quirk that I think bears mentioning. For some reason the facial animations seem to be a bit hit and miss in some areas. Every so often characters will appear to completely lose control of their eyebrows, something which is both hilarious and disconcerting. Additionally some character’s upper lip animations seem to fail to apply which makes them appear to be talking through gritted teeth. Most of the time it’s not particularly noticeable but it can be an immersion breaking occurrence once you notice it.
The plot of Horizon: Zero Dawn is fantastic, starting out from simple roots and slowly building up to a crescendo that you’d be hard pressed to predict from the outset. All of the characters are given ample opportunity to develop through on-screen events with little additional flavour given by the numerous journal entries you can pick up everywhere. The pacing of some of these elements could use some work, like when you’re exploring the old metal ruins and there’s numerous audio logs around. Often in those areas I’d just end up standing still for ages whilst the audio played as otherwise it got too hard to listen to it and the normal in game dialogue. Putting that part to one side however you have a story that’s deep and rewarding, especially for those who take the time to uncover all the additional items scattered around the world.
This is only made better by the absolutely stellar cast of Horizon: Zero Dawn who do a great job of bringing the script to life coupled with the fantastic sound work. The cast consists of some big names, both from within the gaming community and from Hollywood. The soundtrack of Horizon: Zero Dawn ebbs and flows at just the right time, providing punctuation to the game’s pinnacle moments. There is one grievous fault however: it unabashedly screams sequel right after the game’s closing credits roll. Whilst I am excited at the prospect of revisiting this world there was no need to seemingly ruin the game’s ultimate climax with that post credit scene. It’s still worth experiencing but they could have done a better job at that point.
Horizon: Zero Dawn takes the mantle of queen of the PS4 exclusives now that the Uncharted series has come to a close. It’s visuals are second to none, making great use of all the power the PlayStation 4 has to offer and further amping that up for Pro owners. The game is deep and complex, it’s mechanics not offering anything particularly new but certainly showcasing an implementation that others should take note from. The story is likely to be one of the best for this year, setting up the IP for a good long time to come. There are a few small issues that bring the game down a peg or two but none of which are beyond being fixed in a future patch. Horizon: Zero Dawn is this year’s first must-play title on the PlayStation 4 and one I think many will come back to for years to come.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 20 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.