Horizon Zero Dawn: The Kotaku Review

For years now, the latest console generation has been coasting on the idea that more raw power means better games. The PS4's newest exclusive, Horizon: Zero Dawn, is the rare game that delivers on that promise.

To play Guerilla Games' Horizon: Zero Dawn is to feel awe.

Awe over sheer technical wizardry and its ability to transport you into a new world. Awe over discovering gargantuan mechanical dinosaurs and gradually uncovering the mysteries of a lost civilisation. Awe over the fact I have never seen so many kickass women in a first party big-budget game, much less this many people of colour in key roles. I often found myself pausing the game just to marvel at it all.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a third-person action game that tells the story of a relentless young woman named Aloy, who, for reasons unknown, was cast out of the Nora tribe at birth. Instead of accepting her fate as an outsider, Aloy dedicates her life to combat and survival training. Her goal is to participate in a Nora ceremony known as The Proving, as custom dictates that anybody who wins the trial can ask for whatever they want. Aloy intends to find out the truth of her parentage and why she was never given a chance to be a real part of society.

From there, the game sprawls out into a post-post-apocalyptic wonderland of mechanised beasts, ancient ruins, and societies that have lost their knowledge of the old world. The intrigue is immediate in Horizon: Zero Dawn, expertly woven by former lead Fallout: New Vegas writer John Gonzalez. At first, that story was my lifeline, giving me a thread to follow in an open world with an overwhelming number of things to do:

This is what the map looks like near the end of the game. It's way more intense near the start of the game.

As I explored the terrain before me, I saw a different seduction take hold, eventually compelling me to explore each and every icon on the map. Horizon: Zero Dawn is actually a game about hunting, and your marks are a kingdom of vicious metal dinosaurs:

Each monster has a preferred territory and comes equipped with its own strengths, weaknesses, and attack repertoire. Initially armed with nothing more than a bow, arrow, and spear, you must take on each Goliath before it tears you apart. Horizon: Zero Dawn usually gives you a few options for any given encounter.

Perhaps you are the roguish type who prefers sticking to the shadows, killing your enemies one-by-one without arousing suspicion. Maybe you like to override your foes, making them fight against each other. I preferred running headfirst into my encounters, unloading my ammo however I could -- if it hit my target, great! This quickly invited disaster.

Horizon: Zero Dawn requires precision and planning, asking you to consider your mark before taking it on. Using a technology called a "Focus," you can scan your enemies to learn about vulnerabilities, allowing you to direct your attacks with purpose. There is some trial and error involved in learning what makes each creature tick, a quality reminiscent of Monster Hunter.

Horizon's interlocking combat systems shine once you learn how to prepare for encounters. Before setting off on a quest, I would hunt small game to craft health potions and collect materials for traps. Scoping out the land, I would set up a proximity mine here, or an electronic tripwire there, all in anticipation of my target's movements. Once I gained enough currency to afford it, I also considered the most appropriate weaponry.

It's much easier to hit flying enemies by tying them down with a "Ropecaster," for example, whereas close-combat guns help thwart rushing T-Rexes. Each weapon has its own feel, and while they are all enjoyable to use, I preferred the simplicity of the bow and arrow. Taking aim, pulling the bowstring back, and releasing each individual shot is tried, true, and classic.

Having the ability to infuse weapons with elemental affinities adds another dimension, allowing you to detonate metal canisters with fire shots or freeze your target with ice. Horizon might be an action game, but it requires the mind of a tactician.

Each kill grants Aloy XP, and each level gained grants you skill points. Skill points can be used to unlock new abilities for combat, such as increased damage or the ability to fire multiple arrows at once. I'm fond of the "concentration" ability that slows down time, allowing you to pinpoint specific parts of enemy armour for added advantage. Admittedly there are so many options for approaching combat that I sometimes forgot make use of them until I hit a new wall in difficulty.

Horizon's story insists that Aloy is an extraordinary woman who does whatever it takes to save the day, but the writing characterising her does not convey that as effectively as the heat of combat. Sometimes, I could feel my heart racing as I made Aloy duck and wave against seemingly impossible odds. In a particularly memorable encounter that took hours for me to grok, I took down an enormous rock worm that had been terrorizing a nearby town. At the end, Aloy stood above its smoking carcass. It was dead through the sheer force of her -- and my -- will. I found myself catching my breath.

The first time you take down any of the game's creatures is usually remarkable. That novelty fades after repeated encounters with those same types of monsters later in the game. The main Horizon storyline ramps up by throwing more of the same at you, a strategy that technically heightens the difficulty while robbing the mechs of their distinct flavour.

Still, the dinosaurs are by far Horizon: Zero Dawn's crowning achievement, and I found myself exploring new areas of map in the hopes of encountering something I had not seen before. By comparison, fighting humans, which is something players will do a lot, is boring and unwelcome. Unfortunately, Horizon's main quest relies on those human encounters too heavily. I found myself taking refuge in the sidequests just to avoid other people.

Traversing the world is treacherous, but fortunately Aloy is very nimble. You might draw a comparison to Tomb Raider or Uncharted as you climb structures of dubious structural integrity, or spelunk ruins and "Cauldrons" with hidden treasures. Actually, Horizon seems to borrow mechanics liberally from many other games. The dialogue system feels a little Mass Effect, for example, in that your choices are accompanied with intention icons, and sometimes, there are even future consequences for your decisions.

Then there's the Focus vision, which you can use to investigate scenes more closely, Batman-style. Guerilla Games implements these systems solidly, but none reach the heights of the combat mechanics. They get the job done.

Horizon does shake up one familiar design trope. Many open world games include towers that you must climb to expose the surrounding area, and while those are present in Horizon, a tower in this game is an actual wandering dinosaur.

The game builds an interesting sci-fi world. Even though I anticipated a few of the game's plot developments, Horizon kept me hooked through believable, flawed characters who live in a world they do not fully understand. It's curious to hear people theorise about the way the old world used to work: you have tall tales woven around objects like coffee mugs, and religious beliefs formed around technology that seems indistinguishable from magic. It also helps that Horizon's mix of high-tech and low-tech makes for a killer aesthetic that is further accentuated through the game's distinct tribes.

The aesthetic richness of the world is undermined by a lack of interactive diversity. I was always thrilled to find new settlements, especially given the painstaking detail of each individual building block, but I wanted to do more in them. Towns and cities felt more like static dollhouses where I only stopped to save and stock up on supplies. I couldn't really interact with anybody outside of a few key characters in a meaningful way, nor did Horizon provide locale-defining activities to enjoy.

Individual cities feel distinct from each other only in an abstract way, when characters describe the politics going on in the background. You might learn, for example, that one city is currently at war or on the verge of collapse, but you don't really see or feel any of that while walking through its roads or talking to its citizens. Everything is just a springboard for you to get back into the world to kill dinosaurs, and thankfully, that's where the game shines brightest.

Instead, where Horizon blew me away was in the majestic and untamed beauty of its canyons, mountains, and open fields. I often found myself booting up Horizon's robust photo mode just to take stock of it all. This generation has seen its fair share of gorgeous games, sure, but the artistry at work here is staggering.

The mere act of walking through this lavish world is enough to make me fall in love with individual rocks and clouds. Horizon provides a compelling case for how, in the right hands, computing power can be leveraged to bring a setting to life. Each area feels distinct and lively through a combination of art direction, and the unique dinosaurs roaming the biomes.

Unscripted moments where different entities would clash with one another in unexpected ways added to the sense of wilderness. Sometimes, I'd stumble upon humans fighting against errant dinosaurs, or watch as robots turned on each other. I observed robotic vultures pick apart the body of another robot. During another segment, I racked my brain trying to figure out how to sneak by some human enemies, only to have a titan unexpectedly swoop from the sky and wreck everyone's shit. Problem solved! Horizon is at its best when it upends my expectations like that.


At the start of Horizon, most people underestimate Aloy, considering her to be a despicable outcast or nothing more than a pretty face. Aloy's consequent adventure, then, is a fight against the societal rules and expectations that kept her cloistered for so long. At its heart, Horizon: Zero Dawn is more than just a game about killing giant robot dinosaurs: it the story of a determined woman who works twice as hard as anybody else just to be accepted. Horizon is the story of a lot of women, really, and the ways in which they reclaim, rebuild and become worthy of an unruly world.

Horizon is not what you may have expected from Guerilla Games. For years, the studio has been Sony's Killzone factory, churning out first-person shooters set in a grim world. With Horizon, the studio is finally let loose to show us how much more they're capable of, and what they're capable of is jaw-dropping.


Comments

    Beat the game at..........

    60 hours...

    Holy crap. Ok you convinced me now, picking up a PSPro and this next week. *sigh*

    Anyone know any places with deals on the pspro?

    (Edit: EB: 559 for the 1tb Pspro and For Honour seems the best I can find so far?)

    Last edited 21/02/17 11:30 am

      For honor, Despite current server issues, is an awesome game for anyone that enjoys a good bit of PVP. well worth the extra $60.

        Was actually thinking of grabbing it on PC, we have an XB0S at the moment, sticking to console exclusives which I'm happy with doing. PSPro will be the exact same situation, multiplatforms go with the pc.

          I can definitely recommend picking it up on PC. It's actually incredibly well optimised for a Ubi PC game. I can run all max settings, 1440p, 70-80fps constant and my PC is good but nothing crazy.

          The server issues are a right PITA, but when it works the gameplay is fantastic.

          let me know if you grab for honour on PC, need someone to play with!

            Just got my pspro and For Honour today :D also picked up FFXV (already had it on the XBO but wanted it on Pro)

              Sweet! add me to Uplay!

                I'm considering buying the For Honor package too – for such twitch/parry based combat, do we get screwed on US latency or are there Aussie servers?

                  For Honor uses P2P so should be all Local. Before you freak out, it is the best implementation of P2P multiplayer network infrastructure i have seen to date. I was initially thrown off from past experience with COD, but I have never had a single server dropout, or experienced lag to date. Even if the player hosting leaves, the game brings up a reconnecting dialogue box and changes hosts in 3 seconds. the game is unbelievably well optimized too.

                  Thanks for the info!

        Can confirm. For Honor seems to be one of the few original games in terms of mechanics / risks taken this generation. I actually really enjoyed playing through the campaign, and there were some real nice exploration elements in it that I could easily see Ubisoft expanding on and fleshing out if there's a sequel made.

        its funny i keep hearing about server issue. must be just console versions, as i have it on PC and join games within 20-30 seconds, and never had a game drop out on me. even when the host leaves, it reattaches to a new host in under 3 seconds, and NEVER drops out. prob the best implementation of P2P servers ive seen yet.

        Other games like COD/Destiny, cause dropouts almost guaranteed when switching hosts.

        Yep my thoughts too. Fantastic game that is held back by terrible online.

        If online worked well it would honestly be a super fantastic game.

      IGN review states; ...even after I’d finished its main campaign some 40 odd hours later
      Still - that's a lengthy campaign and many hours of sidequests to complete

      Last edited 21/02/17 11:46 am

        Hell yeah, I'm so happy single player game campaigns seem to be dramatically on the rise again :)

          PS4 is the land of milk and honey right now for great single player gaming. Grab Nioh as well. You won't regret it.

            Yeah I had a normal ps4, but ended up selling it last year out of necessity (damn being a student), now I'm in a better position and can get a ps4 pro (yay!). So I'll definitely get that too.

    I'm hoping for a PC version...

      That would lovely - unfortunately Guerrilla Games is first party Sony, wholly owned, so it will never ever happen :(

        Should be well optimised though, if it only has to run on one system

          Apparently it's amazingly well optimised, rock solid performance and impressive graphics even on a standard PS4, which for an open world game is no small feat.

    I'm not sure what it is but nothing can make me get excited for this game. It looks bland. Am I crazy?

      I'm getting the same feeling to be honest. Like, it doesnt look bad, but I'm not really psyched to get it either. It might be a wait til it's on sale purchase.

      No, not if you're getting the same feeling that this looks like an amalgam of the Monster Hunter series and any/every Ubisoft open world game.

        I wish it was like Monster Hunter.

        Kill smaller mecha dinosaurs, take body parts, build your own piece of junk mech, go fight bigger mecha dinosaurs for parts, repeat.

        Yeah precisely. The good reviews aren't even making me reconsider.

          It's... great :)

          Good feel, and mechanics. Challenging. Beautiful. Well worth the price of admission.

    Consider my interest re-piqued.

    At first I was definitely concerned this was going to be another very typical Guerrilla Games, er, game. But this sound rather good.

      They've outdone themselves in every area of game design I can think of, compared to their previous games. Some aspects even surpass the best in the industry.

    Cant wait for this, 88 on meta so far so well done to GG and glad you got the recognition you deserve

    Glad I skipped the last two Far Cry's. Not even remotely burnt out on openworld hunt and collect-a-thons. AND it's released on my birthday. Bring it :)

    It looks and sounds like another generic life waster in the vein of Ubisoft, only a bit prettier. I was kean for this one based on very early news, but now seeing the game in action I'm definately gonna pass.

    Should I get this if I hate most Ubishit style games?

      It seems pretty clear that if you hate them games, you're more than likely gonna hate this too.

        Yeah... :(

        I am tempted because of how well its reviewed and I do love me some post-apocalyptic setting, but aside from the graphics it just seems so bland. Witcher 3 completely and utterly destroyed any other open world games for me. Maybe I'll grab it from EB and do the 7 day refund if I dont like it.

          I feel the exact same, after The Witcher 3 all other open world games just feel bland and tedious rather than fun and engaging.

      Yes. I absolutely hate the Ubisoft Open World sandboxes. This is NOT that. It's streamlined, but it feels more like the Witcher 3 than anything else.

      The story is also much better than what I expected. (I'm only about 5-6hours in).

        Good to hear. I read Carl's comment below and decided to skip it and get Zelda for the Wii U instead. Might check it out later though. Cheers!

    If you've played Assassins Creed, Rise of the tomb raider, Shadow of Mordor etc you have seen all this game has to offer. The story & characters are as deep as teaspoon.

    This game is really good so far. Im about 10 hours in and story has gripped me already. There is a deep sense of mystery about the ancient technology.The hunting is awesome.I actually like the face animations, they have an uncanny valley about them but they are pretty realistic with the subtle emotions they can evoke. I think it is well worth the purchase.

      Same here. Best thing about it is how smooth the exploration is. I can't believe I've not gotten lost or confused yet. It just keeps going smoothly.

      I really thought the story would be a big let down (I mean c'mon, robots and dinosaurs), and I couldn't have been more wrong.

    Thanks for an awesome review. I just finished the game this morning and I agree with everything you've said.

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