Horizon Zero Dawn was the PlayStation 4 exclusive that had gamers everywhere intrigued to see how this blend of primitive society and machine would be executed. This was an incredible win for both the studio and PlayStation as it quickly skyrocketed to break records left and right. Since then, other adventures have taken that crown but now, for the first time, PC players can see the wondrous journey that is Horizon Zero Dawn and this transition was the best move the company could have made.
The story itself centers around Aloy, an outcast from her tribe born "motherless", forced to survive on the outskirts of society with the help of her mentor, Rost. Through hard training, dedication, and a spirit that couldn't be killed, Aloy honed her skills as a hunter and a fighter to prove to the tribe once and for all that she had an earned place among them. After showcasing her worth in what is called a "proving", the mysteries surrounding her birth and the nature of the world begin to shift and reveal themselves. Not everything is as it appears, and the journey to discovering who she is and how their world works is a wild ride that any role-playing game fan will enjoy.
I knew I was hooked on this game within the first 15 minutes of the story's opening. The intricate telling of her beginnings and the revelation of this new world overrun by machines and the tribesman that strive to survive was done so perfectly that I couldn't help but to be enthralled. We follow Aloy during her birth where we meet Rost and learned what it means to be an "outcast". From there, we see the tribulations that plagued Aloy in her youth, just a child trying to understand why she is shunned and doesn't belong. The beautiful and heart-wrenching progression of her backstory was so naturally done that you can't help but to want to know more. There was no moment, for me, of "hm, I wonder if I will like this game?" That moment of dedication solidified the moment I met her, that's what an amazing job the team at Guerrilla Games did with the narrative of this title.
The balance of a perfect pace between story and action is a delicate one that many titles fall short on, and Horizon Zero Dawn made sure to deliver."
The way the premise is set up drags the player into this sense of immediate intrigue - what mysteries surround their world? Do the machines play a much bigger part than what appears on the surface? When the character finds what is called a "focus", the realities between the humans and machines blur and thus kick-starts the journey to digging beyond the obvious and finding out just what kind of world players are thrust into. An aspect of storytelling I found extremely compelling was that this game took its time unraveling the world's mysteries - it wasn't rushed, but it wasn't lagging in a steady pace either. The balance of a perfect pace between story and action is a delicate one that many titles fall short on, and Horizon Zero Dawn made sure to deliver.
A common theme throughout the game was duality and that consistency appealed to the realism despite the fantastical nature of the story. Man vs machine, courage vs bravery, societal norm vs individualism, truth vs. perception ... the continuation of these opposing themes propel the player into a drive for the title's completion, the will to overcome and see how far Aloy can go is apparent and gives Zero Dawn a solid playability factor that bears recognition. From infancy to the woman she is at the end of the game, the journey is one that never fails to enthrall the player.
Let's talk about combat because this game - though rich in the story - does not lack in action. The natural progression of learning new techniques made it easy for players to acclimate to the fighting styles found in-game. There are enemies everywhere, both human and machine alike. Being a primitive setting, the weapons of choice were what one would expect for this narrative but with a technologically advanced twist. Bows, trips, spears - all of these weapons are the norm for this setting but can be upgraded by machine parts found in the world, both through takedowns or just lying around in hidden piles. Aloy can take a more distant approach to combat with her tripcast and bow or, if you play as I do, get right up in the action with a spear that can be upgraded throughout the game.
There are enemies everywhere, there is never a dull moment in Horizon Zero Dawn but the way it is set up allows for players to be able to maneuver around enemies should they choose the tactics of stealth and strategic placement with the help of the focus that Aloy has equipped over immediate combat. The combat mechanics themselves are incredibly smooth and make Aloy an intricately versatile character when switching weapons and terrain. And speaking of enemies, there are enough different types to keep combat interesting. You can go after a Bellowback spewing fire in your direction as Aloy takes aim at the "cargo sac" for the perfect take-down, or you can go after the aerial Glinthawk with your bow to take on more of a challenge. Variety is key to holding interest and there are many types of foes to face through the entire storyline.
Another interesting part of the game is that it lets the player have full control over how much, or how little, they wish to take in this aspect is the ability to override machines. There many advantages to doing this: less hostile machines out in your journeys, a reliable and sturdy steed, and even a machine on your side to fight among a herd. With the many different types of foes found in-game, the ability to utilize stealth and precision to override these complicated beasts adds yet another layer of challenge to the game's playstyle, allowing gamers to pick how far they want to go within Horizon Zero Dawn. Personally, I loved this aspect. The challenge of taking on a machine to fight for my cause was a temptation I couldn't pass up and when I took down the especially big guys? The moment of that thrill and sense of accomplishment never dimmed throughout my entire playthrough. It's not necessary to beat the game but it is something that offers plenty of rewards as an incentive.
If the notion that so many varying beasts reside within the game is a little daunting at first, don't be worried. Near the beginning of the narrative, there is a "Hunting Grounds" quest line that allows Aloy to see exactly what her arsenal of traps, bows, and spears can do. This lets the player feel comfortable with the combat while finding which style of fighting fits you the most. Unlike many "tutorial" style side quests found in most games, this one was included organically, letting it feel like just another part of the bigger story. It blended seamlessly within the overall storyline so it's not as tedious as many tutorials in games can be.
The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is massive. Not on the scale of similar titles such as Witcher III but that does not take away from the fact that the areas to explore are immersive, engaging, and each new area houses something special to find. That being said - there are definitely more than just mechanical beasts to take down. Cultists, bandits, and more are littered throughout the world. This aspect of the game felt very reminiscent of Far Cry, especially Far Cry Primal. Taking down human NPCs was fun, though a little repetitive at times.
There are also entire bandit camps that Aloy can clear out while freeing Nora prisoners and becoming a champion to her outcast counterparts by giving them a recently made safe haven to reside in. The first bandit camp that I cleared out was exhilarating. I'm very much a run and gun type of player, so stealth missions usually annoy the crap out of me, but the way it was laid out in this title made it enjoyable. The reward was worth the patience and I had several different means to flesh out my strategy. Plus, I was super proud of myself - first bandit camp and I didn't get detected once. Huzzah!
It was so surreal to be exploring these machine "ruins" and finding aspects within this post-apocalyptic world that we see every day: destroyed cars, decayed traffic lights, torn-down skyscrapers ... it was an interesting blend of the two realities without clashing unnaturally. This dualism that was mentioned earlier in the review absolutely remained present throughout the entirety of the game. There were moments exploring these entire sub-worlds of the machines, these forbidden ruins, that had a surreal suspension to it - it was unnerving and propelling at the same time. The game's setting keeps a strange balance between the two ends of the spectrum and it makes the relation between the player and real-life slightly jarring.
Because the map is so vast, there are campfires that act as save points littered throughout the plains conquered in exploration. They are sporadic and there is usually quite a bit of a jaunt in between them, so if you die - there's a possibility you're going to lose some progress including anything crafted, quest items picked up, and more in between saves. I didn't have any drastic progress lost, but playing on higher difficulty settings definitely made me wish for an immediate save feature more than once through my fights for survival.
If you like titles like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Dragon Age Inquisition, and Far Cry - then the mechanics of this game will be right up your alley. Aloy is a very versatile character that can slide down a mountain edge and land a perfect roll into a bush for cover, halt from a brisk run, and duck to maneuver away from a heavy hit from a machine. The mechanics of the protagonist are extremely fluid and smooth, which for me - is a make or break moment for a lot of games. There were the occasional hiccups where the animation seemed to blur a bit, but nothing too notable and it definitely did not take away from the overall intricate nature of Horizon's mechanical features.
It was surprisingly easy to level up throughout the narrative. Scattered throughout the open world, Aloy will stumble upon settlements, camps, and random stragglers throughout her journey. Each group of people discovered come with a new wave of quests and main story missions for the player to take on. Each NPC was intricate in their dialogue and beautiful in their individualism graphically. There were many races represented with the people that you meet along the way, and each character has a story to tell. From Grata, to which you cannot have a direct conversation with - she will only speak in prayer to the "All-Mother", to Nil - the "not-quite-right-in-the-head" bandit hunter that has a thirst for blood. Each person reveals a part of this world's history and perception - each person has something to offer to the 'Bigger Picture'. The developing team behind this title did a stunning job at remaining inclusive to their player base while making sure ever encounter had meaning and purpose.
Bottom Line →
The world created by Guerrilla Games is a seductive blend of primal human nature and the intricacy of machines - something mirrored in our own daily life. The mysteries of the entire narrative unravel at a natural pace that never seems to lag, nor feel forced. Between the quest-lines, the incredibly fluid mechanics, ample combat, and the wide plethora of characters you can't help but to feel something for ... Horizon Zero Dawn is a must-have for any PC player. From start to finish, the story surrounding Aloy and those she meets during her journey is one that leaves a memorable mark with an ending that was executed flawlessly.