Horizon Zero Dawn is easily one of the most graphically impressive games I have ever seen. It is hard to talk about Horizon Zero Dawn and not to start with the graphics. Coming from Guerrilla Games the looks should come as no surprise but they don’t always back up their games with gameplay to match. Thankfully this time they have a fine game to go along with those fine visuals.
Set in the distant future, Horizon Zero Dawn sees the human race on the brink of extinction. Humans are no longer the dominant species on the planet and they have gone back to medieval like times.
In stark contrast to the state of the human race are the machines that dominate the planet. The machines are animal based and they rule the planet now. Think National Geographic’s wildlife department does Terminator – robotic animals take over the world.
These machines are the star of the show in Horizon Zero Dawn. There is a wide variety of species from small to large and for the most part they are based on a real animals or prehistoric creatures. They are incredibly detailed and behave like their animal counter-part would. You will find cattle grazing, crocodiles swimming in the rivers and birds perched up high. They all share one common characteristic though – they are all more than happy to terminate any human that crosses their path. And they are all more than capable of doing so with ease.
The player controls Aloy, a Lara Croft for the future. Things start with Aloy as a baby and we see her being cast out from the tribe. She has an adoptive father who teaches her and the player, the skills needed to survive out in the wild. Aloy is a quick learner and after stumbling across a nifty bit of tech, she is able to teach her teacher a thing or two. Fast forward to adulthood and Aloy is ready to go it alone. She has a burning desire to know who her mother is and why she is an outcast. As the story progresses, dealing with the threat to the human race and learning how humans ended up in such a position become equally as important to her.
The game follows the classic open world formula and a lot of it will be overly familiar but done with the Horizon Zero Dawn twist. For instance, the concept of radio towers or viewpoints to expose other areas of the map and item locations is present but this time you’ll need to climb a giant robotic giraffe like creature. There are only a few of these creatures but you cannot help by be impressed by each one. The sheer size is jaw dropping and then you remember you have to get up to the top. Somehoe. Climbing up their legs is not an option so you’ll need to survey the area to work out how best to do so. Aloy is a nimble girl and can climb and jump with ease. The view from the top is impressive and it is impossible not to take a moment to just take in your surroundings.
Aloy will have a story quest or two at any point to be getting on with. Exploring and coming across settlements will lead to many side quests. Thankfully these do mostly have a little more substance than fetch and retrieve style quests. Nothing ground breaking but you don’t often get the feeling you are just an errand girl. There will be people outside of settlements that you will stumble across that need your help and you can spend a lot of time not actually progressing the story.
There are many treasures to track down and a lot of them will be diaries from just before or just after machines arrived with their devastation. The best ones are the visual items that overlay an image of what the area looked like back in our time. This is well done and helps appreciate the attention that has gone into the environment. A lot of the time you will be out in grassy plain or a desert area or climbing a snow covered peak but every now and then you get a glimpse of past civilisation. A rusted car frame or a bus. Look closer and you can see a road sign and bits of the road itself. That rusted frame behind you that you barely looked at was actually a sports stadium. It is impressive and the sparseness of these items helps enforce just how far away things are from civilisation as we know it now.
In trekking about, Aloy will encounter all of the machines inhabiting the planet. It is hard not to refer to them as animals as they are that convincing. Aloy is initially armed with a bow and arrow and spear. The lack of a machine gun or rocket launcher should tell you instantly that a head on battle is not always advisable. Stealth is crucial to survival and victory. There is one species of animal who would prefer to graze and is easily spooked but the rest will attack as soon as they spot you. Catch a glimpse and they will look for you. If you hide long enough they will lose interest but if you are spotted then the battles starts. The machines are never on their own and their friends come to see what is going on. And sometimes another species nearby can come to join the party too. I like the attention to detail in the machines. Little touches like a limp when the machine is injured and not moving so well are things I always appreciate.
As a child, Aloy found a device known as focus. This allows her to scan the area and the machines to learn about their weak spots. This knowledge is crucial to dealing with the threat effectively. Hiding in the long grass you find yourself planning you attack. I certainly felt like I was a hunter stalking my prey and essentially that is what you are doing. Knowing what you are up against allows you to plan your attack but sometimes it is better to just slip through unnoticed.
There are a variety of weapons on hand and a variety of ammo. Trading machine parts and general odds and ends you find with vendors opens up more weapons to play with. There are different classes of weapons and ammo which will be suited to different machines and for the bigger machines, chances are you’ll need everything you can get your hands on.
The bow and arrow can come with normal arrows, precision arrows, fire arrows and explosive arrows. The explosive types are a good starting point. The machines tend to be armoured and a nice little explosion can be all that is needed to weaken those defences. When it comes to tackling the big beasts, then weaponry is also a concern. Some of these creatures are like tanks and have the fire power to match. But you can remove these weapons to lessen the threat and also turn the tables in your favour. The sling can launch electric shock ammo or freeze bombs. These stun the beasts giving you a moment to catch your breath. The rope weapon allows you to pin a beast down leaving them at your mercy but you’re going to need a lot of rope. My favourite is the trip wire. Blast or electric, I don’t mind but I do like to set these up to catch a beast unaware or even to just protect myself. Aloy can whistle to attract attention or even throw a stone to divert attention. The battles can be very varied and tactical. It is rather satisfying to take down the beasts with a well-executed plan but things can so easily go pear shaped and you find yourself running for cover. You can lay traps to slow down a pursuer but if all else fails then whip out your spear to dish out a good lashing.
There is a skills tree for spending points when you level up. This will increase your abilities and you can even ride one of the steed type machines. The best power to find though comes from exploring the areas where these machines are being made. Conquer one of these areas and you obtain the ability to override the machines and make them friendly. This means you can sit back and watch the carnage unfold as your friendly machine takes on the hostile machines.
Machines are not your only enemy. Even on the brink of extinction, the human race can still be a threat to each other. There are a few bandit camps scattered about and you can eradicate the threat and convert the camp to be a friendly place. These get tougher as the game goes on but the same weapons are as effective against a human as they are a machine. Stealth is just as crucial here though, if the bandits raise the alarm then their numbers increase somewhat so best taking them out one by one on the quiet.
As with all open world games, repetition can creep in but I never found this to be an issue until closer to the end when I was just fighting huge beasts a bit too often for my liking. The final quests are rather spectacular though which is fitting for a game as impressive looking. I enjoyed this game a lot more than I expected and enough to go and obtain that shiny platinum trophy. The machines are so well done and the battles with them are more tactical and varied than I expected. Even by the end, the bigger machines held the same fear as the moment I first laid eyes on them. Shame you have to kill them all but it is them or us. It’s open season on planet earth, time to go hunting.