If you've been waiting eagerly for Horizon: Zero Dawn, good news: we've been playing the game for the better part of a week. Without spoilers, here's everything you need to know about Aloy's open-world adventure.
Loading and saving times are pretty minimal, even on a regular PS4. You create quick and manual saves at bonfires, with the former taking only a couple of seconds at most. When you fire up a save from scratch, or hop from one campfire to another, it'll take around 30 on a standard PS4. It's a little quicker on a PS4 Pro, taking around 22-23 seconds.
The menus are very slick. Transitions are smooth and quick, and the interface is easy to navigate. Guerilla didn't think everything completely through though: while you can sell multiple items at once, you can't buy more than one item at a time. Hopefully, a patch can fix that up.
Collect everything, straight away. There's no shortage of resources to uncover in Aloy's world, and you can start building up your collection the second Horizon lets you run around the open world. Basic resources like ridgewood are in plentiful supply and are necessary for improving your satchels, the first levels of which you can do in the first couple of hours.
The game takes about six to seven hours to open up. Your abilities and capacity to run around aren't limited in the first couple of hours, but it's not until you complete the opening story arc that Horizon really begins to open up. You get a general idea of how the game flows before you finish the Proving - which I won't spoil - but there aren't many side quests, enemy variations or things to do until you really journey out into the world. It's an effective starting area for learning how the game works, though.
The game is very forgiving on normal. If you're not someone who enjoys stealth and crafting-heavy games, normal is forgiving enough that you can progress without much challenge. You won't really be forced into intense situations unless you pop the difficulty up further, and those who want a more authentic survival experience should consider playing on the hardest difficulty off the bat.
Horizon's camera has some of the same issues Final Fantasy 15's did. Whenever you crouch, or use Aloy's focus (which is basically Eagle Vision), the camera zooms in to just over her shoulder. It's a right pain in the arse, and even when running along the field of view could stand to be a little further out. It's at its worst whenever Aloy runs into an enclosed area, like outdoor ruins.
The AI, human and robot alike, is pretty ordinary. One of the first things Aloy is taught is how to bait robots with rocks, and how to track their movement. But robot corpses work pretty well as bait, too. One example saw me take out several Watchers by sitting in tall grass, stealth killing one as it crept near, waiting for the next to see the body, wander over, and repeat. The main challenge comes from isolating enemies from the pack, which is more a test of patience.
Disable quest and waypoint pathfinding. Both settings, when enabled, will give you "dynamic" waypoints on your HUD leading you to your destination, rather than simply giving you the general direction. Sometimes that's fine, but more often than not it'll have you backtracking for a windy road or another path that's far less efficient than taking a quick shortcut. Save yourself the time and stick to regular waypoints instead.
Grind the Trials. Soon after leaving the first area you'll encounter a bloke atop a mountain overlooking some robot cattle. It's basically an area for timed challenges, whereby you get rewards and XP for killing Watchers and the like within a certain time. It's a good chance to use the environment to your advantage, but it's also a super fast way to level up. Not only do you get XP for completing the quests, you get XP for every kill, plus bonuses for the way you do it. And the herd respawns in the same spot every time you restart a trial, which is great if you like to get a good headstart in your RPGs.
Keep rolling, rolling, rolling. There's no stamina bar, so you can run as long as you like. But there's also very little delay in the dodging animation, so you can cover a fraction more ground by repeatedly spamming circle. Aloy looks a bit dorky doing it - there's almost a cat-like quality to the way she launches forward - but it's efficient.
Get every free supply crate you can. Merchants will often sell you a free supply crate the first time you meet them, and in the starting area you can sometimes get multiple freebies. It's a good way to start stockpiling resources and every now and you'll get a few metal shards occasionally. They're the key, since you need those for key purchases, like new weapons, armour, or key upgrades. You'll often find multiple supply crates around enemy camps and ruins too, so make sure you take the time to look around.
Make sure you look around everywhere. Even in the tribal village you'll find supply crates and little bonuses hidden behind seemingly innocuous huts once you poke around. The same applies to the dungeons and caves you'll come across - and you can smash your way into areas that you couldn't before with your spear. That's true of one of the very first sequences in the game, which you're able to return to after a couple of hours.
The open world has a good sense of life to it. You'll come across areas on the map, for instance, marked as areas where various robots might graze. But it's not necessarily fixed: they'll roam around the world, doing their own thing, and if you piss them off the whole herd will come after you. Human NPCs wander around, going about their business; they will even jump into the fray, should a scuffle break out nearby.
Your dialogue choices can matter. It doesn't always seem that way, and you're not given any Telltale-style notifications letting you know the potential gravity of the choice you've just made. But your dialogue options will occasionally carry over, whether it's your response to an entitled brat in the first hour of the game, or whether you choose to let someone live or die. NPCs might join you later in your quest if they're still around, so choose carefully.
The dialogue options are pretty honest, too. If you've ever been frustrated by inaccurate dialogue summaries, good news. Horizon lays out the choices in short sentences, but they're not as truncated as Fallout 4's two or three-word offerings. They're fairly faithful to the lines Aloy delivers, which is nice.
The photo mode is pretty good. Available from the beginning of the game and usable in just about every situation bar some cut-scenes, people are going to have plenty of fun making new wallpapers of Aloy. It's especially good if you've got a PS4 Pro, as all screenshots are captured in 4K - even if you're playing the game on a 1080p screen.
See the difference changing the time of day makes.
But as for the photo mode itself, the options include field of view, the ability to stop time, tilt the camera, disable the HUD, apply various filters, time of day, vignetting, saturation, intensity, depth of field (with the ability to set the focus distance and aperture), brightness, exposure, and various photo frames. It's good, and people are going to have loads of fun. Great example: everything in this article, including the sick shot of Aloy swinging in the header, was taken in photo mode.
It's not all perfect. The camera's movement at times can be quite jerky, and sometimes you're completely restricted. Guerilla probably didn't want people clipping through walls, which is probably for the best: while it means the camera sometimes feels like it hits an invisible barrier, it does stop people from using photo mode to uncover secrets Aloy hasn't found herself.
There weren't any advanced graphics settings, but they'll be added in a zero-day patch on release. The build of Horizon we played was set to play at 4K/30fps (using the checkerboard technique) on a PS4 Pro if connected to a compatible screen, and 1080/30fps if on something a little more ancient. According to Guerilla, the zero-day patch will include options for resolution and SDR/HDR as part of "several" PS4 Pro-specific settings.
But the game is visually stunning regardless. Even on a base PS4 Horizon is vibrant as all hell, filled to the brim with vegetation, landforms and wildlife. It's reminiscent of Far Cry 4, although Horizon has a lot more charm. There's a soothing instrumental score that plays as you wander throughout the world, coupling nicely as you hear the grass, leaves and trees blow in the wind. You do get the odd bit of jank occasionally, like bits of long grass that blow to one side and remain stuck until Aloe wanders through.
For reference, here's a bunch of screenshots taken from the game on a standard PS4. Outside of the five below, all other screenshots in this article were captured on a PS4 Pro. Again, there is a zero-day patch for the PS4 Pro that will add additional visual enhancements for those playing at 1080p screens.
The main story will take you about 30 hours to complete, start to finish. Most people will get more out of Horizon than that, since it's all too easy to run into side quests (and like the Trials, a lot of them are worth doing). There's also lots of dungeons and bunkers to explore, separate to the story and side quests.
It's perfectly timed for 2017. Survival and open-world games are one of the biggest trends over the last couple of years, and Horizon straddles the two genres well. But even though you'll constantly be collecting bits of wire, twigs, components and other discarded items, it's not a prohibitive survival game. Horizon feels friendly, warm, even comforting. That's partially because of the difficulty - you get less items for crafting at higher levels - but also because you're presented with all of the information off the bat, and you're rarely starved for resources. The majority of what you need is available in your immediate vicinity, save for specialist items (read: rare drops) that you'll have to grind for.
As soon as she gets her focus - which is within the first 15 minutes, give or take - Aloy can see the patrol route of any enemy in the game. She tracks enemies through solid rock. She dodges at will, and later in the game you can gain a skill that lets you dodge even further for gargantuan robots.
Horizon, by default, wants you to survive. You're not taxed with stamina or resource management, and if you ever run out of ammo there's always some extra lying around. Even then, a stealth kill or two on some robot cattle will get you the shards you need to buy resources from any merchant. You'll often need a bit of meat from a nearby boar or bunny, but they're plentiful enough too.
Horizon doesn't dive too deeply into the RPG elements either. While Aloy's armour and weapons have stats of their own, as well as various modifications that can be equipped, there isn't a great amount of need attached to them. With the ability to stop time, one or two well-aimed arrows will always do the job. The modifications and armour help, especially on the highest difficulty if you want to maintain a stealthy approach.
But most people will play on easy or normal, and for them Horizon will be more like The Witcher crossed with Far Cry - while being more accessible than both.