Developer(s): Guerrilla Games Publisher: SIE Platform(s): PS4
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I could talk for quite a lengthy stretch about how much I love Horizon Zero Dawn. It took two articles’ worth of text to review, and the 50 hours I spent with it during that time have nearly doubled in the ensuing months between the great DLC and New Game+ content.
I remember watching the initial footage shown off at E3 2015 for the game’s announcement. More than anything else being teased or hyped at the time, I wanted this game. Everything from the robotic animals to the unique, mysterious setting, the gameplay and the protagonist had me hooked, all in a six-minute little package. A package that ended up being incredibly indicative of the final product – aside from UI changes and some obvious scripted moments (running into a group of stampeding Grazers isn’t exactly a great idea in the real game), that trailer showed what the game that came out nearly two years later would be like.
That level of “hype” payoff is practically unheard of nowadays, but I stand by the assertion that Horizon Zero Dawn is everything I wanted from the very beginning, and more.
Despite being a card-carrying member of the “open world action-adventure RPG” genre, Horizon Zero Dawn makes a concerted effort to make itself stand out from the pack, both in small and large gestures. Collectibles are surprisingly sparse, and exist as sets that give significant rewards once completed. Side missions often have great stories attached to them, instead of just busy work or errands. Everything you find in the world has a purpose, with a focus on granting tangible new advantages or abilities to the player rather than simple stat boosts or pointless vendor trash.
Best of all, though, combat sees you juggling many varied tools and versions of each tool, all with their own ammo types, stats and other quirks to get used to. Rather than relying on a pure numbers game, however, Horizon puts most of the onus on the player to use the right tool and strategy for the job; using the right weapon or elemental effect and shooting accurately is often what really matters, not a stat. The numbers that are a factor are easily and simply manipulated through a useful but uncomplicated crafting and modification system – having the best or right weapon for the job is never a hassle, once you learn what’s what.
And learning “what’s what” is half of the fun of the game. Each time you get a new tool or an upgraded version of a previous one, you’re given an optional but very helpful side errand to use the weapon in a certain way on a certain enemy type. This results not only in an XP reward, but also an organic, natural and immersive understanding of how that weapon plays into the game, without intrusive tutorials or exposition dumps by characters. Short diary entries and stat boxes also tell you about the various machines and their weaknesses and strengths as you encounter them, but it is still up to you to engage with them, observe their patterns and experiment until you find the best way to face each threat.
This approach to combat, the focus on player involvement and learning through trial and error, results in better immersion in the world and the story being presented. The player is in the same position as Aloy at the start of the game – ignorant about the outside world, who and what is out there and how it all fits together, where we fit in. Much like in the story as we meet and learn about the customs, conflicts and aspirations of the various factions and influence them through our actions as Aloy, so too do we become a more fitting part of the game world through our learning experience of fighting giant robots with bows and spears.
Horizon Zero Dawn is, without question, my favorite game of 2017. It is a bold new IP with a refreshing world, a fun protagonist and a story that is at times both chilling and uplifting. Best of all, though, it treats the player with respect, allowing for fun and experimentation while you figure things out for yourself, free from any grinding or dopamine-loop loot bullshit where you keep picking up bows that are +5 better than the one you found five minutes ago.
I’ve had so many amazing moments in this game, from tense battles with giant mechanical monsters to simple, quiet moments of beauty as the snowy peak I’m standing on while picking crafting plants is bathed in the orange glow of the sunrise as Aloy catches snowflakes in an idle animation with a grin on her face. I implore you to give Horizon Zero Dawn a go, if you haven’t already, so that you too can experience one of the best games of the year.
If nothing else, remember this is the game with the robot dinosaurs with laser guns and explosive launchers strapped to them.