Only about three weeks after every review is already been available, the hottest take on Guerilla Games’ newest adventure is comin’ at’cha!
DEVELOPER: Guerilla Games
PUBLISHER: Sony Interactive Entertainment
DIRECTOR: Mathijis de Jonge
PRODUCER: Lambert Wolterbeek Muller
WRITER: John Gonzalez
GENRE: Open-World Action RPG
INITIAL RELEASE: 28 February 2017
Open-world games have been rather “in vogue” these past few years in AAA land: it almost feels like every big new release now is either open-world or has open-world elements. Of course like with most trends, its inspired (ironically) a lot more bland worlds than genuinely fascinating ones. If nothing else, it makes the good ones stand out all that much more.
Good ones like Horizon: Zero Dawn, for example.
Given how much glowing press the game has received since its release, that’s probably not even a mildly surprising thing to hear, and indeed I’m not surprised that I love it as much as I do. What really surprised me, however, is just how impressive and fantastic Horizon’s world really is, on just about every conceivable level. Of course, its immediately stand-out on a visual level: Horizon is a positively gorgeous game loaded with some incredible scenery: wind-swept alpine plains, scorched deserts of red rock and sand, humid, lush jungles of vibrant greens: Horizon feels like the most delicious slice of every bit of the planet’s most varied and wonderful environs, and it makes it a real joy just to roam around in and explore, something that most open-world games tend to fail to do. The variety and attention to detail on offer in every corner of Horizon’s world means that you’ll rarely ever feel like you’re just seeing the same things over and over again. It’s hard to remember the last time I was immediately drawn into the world of a sandbox game, but Horizon managed it almost immediately.
I also have to give major props to Horizon’s character models, which are amazingly detailed and convincing given what we so often get. Now of course, they’re definitely not perfect: some facial models are weirdly janky and lifeless, others don’t sync up well with their audio, and there’s of course just the general kind of weirdness that always comes with trying to digitally replicate the many small complexities of a human face. But what we do get in Horizon is, by and large, detailed enough to feel very real and natural; and as far as the above problems go, most these are restricted to the more minor characters. All the major characters (especially Aloy) look absolutely fantastic.
Of course, that’s all just surface-level glamour: but underneath all the pretty visuals is some real depth and intrigue. The lore of Horizon is impressive in its scope, and the attention to detail immediately impressive: it feels like a lot of care went into meticulously crafting the elements of Horizon’s world to feel comfortably familiar while still highly fresh and unique. Even if Horizon’s story isn’t necessarily a world-ender in its scope and subject matter, or its plot not always particularly imaginative, the lore and culture its steeped in really does elevate it. Its also interesting that, in spite of its post-apocalyptic fantasy setting, Horizon doesn’t really shy away from ideas that are more politically charged and presents a refreshingly and pleasantly diverse world. Of course, the fact that some of Horizon’s elements that clearly take a lot of cues from real-world cultures (especially the Nora) can present some issues, but they’re not ones that come across as malicious or borne out of a belligerent ignorance.
Horizon’s narrative elements are also bolstered by a truly fantastic host of characters, which present a great deal of diversity in makeup, and personality. While there are plenty of characters that fall into traditional molds, there are plenty more that were unique and intriguing in their own right, and I was really impressed by how even the most minor characters were often imbued with personality that other open world games probably wouldn’t have bothered with. Of course, the star of the show is Aloy herself, the player character, who also proves to be a really outstanding character in her own right. Aloy comes across as a complex and varied character, helped along by a Bioware- style implementation of dialogue wheels that allow players to give Aloy subtle traits and character shifts that don’t come across as jarring or inorganic. And that in turn is elevated tremendously by Ashly Burch’s outstanding performance as well. That’s not to discount the rest of the cast, however, all of whom deliver strong performances in their own right, but it’s hard to put it past Burch as being the standout.
Of course, none of that touches on Horizon’s gameplay elements, which are just as impressive as Horizon’s dedication to world building. Horizon’s gameplay feels like it borrows a lot of the best elements of other third-person action games and pulls it together in way that results in an insanely satisfying gameplay experience: it’s a little bit Assassin’s Creed, a little bit Uncharted, and a lot a bit Monster Hunter. Controlling Aloy is wonderfully smooth and responsive, with movements being crisp and precise. Combat is a joy as well, with Horizon providing a great deal of options for how its players dispatch machines. Head-on assaults, smartly laid traps, stealthy executions: all are possible both separately and in tandem, and the game is always providing opportunities to test out your options.
Of course, much of your time spent fighting will be fighting against the machines that have taken hold of Horizon’s world, and they are almost all invariably awesome to fight and to behold. Horizon boasts a broad and diverse range of machine beasties, from weird-horse-and-ram-like machines that Aloy can hijack and ride, to big electro birds and massive T-Rex robots. There’s plenty of variety, and while some machines feel a bit too samey, most of them are strikingly different from one another and are generally very different to fight.
That said, things do feel like they become a little too simple over time: while there are plenty of options for how to proceed, I often found myself just continually falling back on approaches that were reliable in every situation, and the stealth mechanics at times feel far too easy to manipulate to your overwhelming favor. I guess you could just chalk it up to lack of imagination on my part, but there were times playing where I would kind of wonder why you would approach any situation a different way other that just for the sake of doing so.
On the subject of “doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff”, Horizon is loaded up to the eyeballs with stuff to do. But don’t take my segue to mean I think it’s the same variety of pointless filler that often populates a lot of open-world games, because its far better realised than most. This is especially true of the games side-quests, which are impressively detailed and in-depth when compared to so many others that seem perfectly contented to phone their side quests in. Outside of the side-quests, there are hunting grounds that serve as fun little time-trial sets to clear that wield their own special rewards, a raft of collectibles littered around the world to snaffle up and reap the benefits of, camps of bandits to clear, and big weird disc-head robot giraffes to climb a la Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoints, but more imaginative, and facilities to raid that allow Aloy to control more of the world’s machine beasties. Horizon’s side stuff impressed me with the level of care involved in integrating it into the world and actually making it feel meaningful to Horizon’s broader context instead of just being the typical open-world check-box filler.
In perfect world, I would like every big AAA open world game to be as impressive in scope, detail, and care as Horizon, but in a world with Ubisoft that’s unfortunately impossible. But, nevertheless, I would thoroughly and enthusiastically recommend Horizon: Zero Dawn. In a market that is being increasingly flooded with re-hashed properties, and endless continuations of long-stale tent-pole franchises, Horizon stands above the rest, doubtlessly majestically astride one of its weird robot-giraffe monsters as wonderful new IP well worth your time.