Horizon Zero Dawn

By Dave Hill

There is a growing theme in modern society that explores the relationship between human and machine; between what it means to be human and what it means to be machine. Certainly, as technology grows, our relationship with computers, machinery and how they are incorporated into our lives becomes more complex. It’s been a theme explored in books, movies and video games. Enter Horizon Zero Dawn. Which comes at the relationship from a completely different and refreshing angle.

If you haven’t seen what Horizon Zero Dawn is – it’s a post-apocalyptic game. But unlike the grittiness we have seen in many of these games sharing that setting, HZD is colorful, lively, bright and beautiful. Taking place centuries after the collapse of a technologically advanced culture, we are transported to a setting where nature has thrived, humans live in tribal societies, and live alongside animals and machines – and that’s where it gets awesome.

As I ran through a field with Aloy, I might see a turkey or a boar trapes away from noise of my pounding feet against the ground. But then I would stop. Up ahead a hear of raptor-like machines are just ahead of me. Unlike animals who are mostly flight over fight, machines are just the opposite. Get to close and they attack. Taking a machine down takes precision, caution and most of all patience. This is the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. It is incredible.

The ecosystem of the world is made more immersive by its visuals and sound. Rich vegetation covers the ground of the forests and valleys. Animals calls, and the sounds of machines resonate in the air. Deserts see shifting sands in the wind. Climbing up to a high vantage point always has the special treat of being an awesome view of the land around you. Coming across the remnants of the last civilization creates a unique sense of discovery. Barely recognizable pieces of old infrastructure are scattered throughout the map. The crumbling husk of a building, held together by the vines and plants that have asserted themselves, truly feel ancient and ruined. The lighting in the game is probably the best I have seen in an open world setting too. The day/night cycles are subtle with beautiful sunsets. But what really blew me away was the haunting glow of a full moon through the canopy of trees as I traipsed along the forest floor, searching for game and recourses. It was truly mesmerizing to experience that kind of lighting in a video game.

The visual awesomeness does not end with vegetation or landscape. The opening of the game inserts a fair amount of dialogue between characters in the game. Facial animation is so nuanced that it makes Mass Effect faces seem wooden and stiff. Character’s eyebrows rise and lower as their expressions change, matching their dialogue. Subtle smiles give away play humor that doesn’t strictly rely on vocal queues for the players to understand. Each character has unique facial features including blemishes, face paint and even scars. No, not comically large scars that serve as a major feature on their face, but subtle scars which I still found myself drawn to as I marveled at the detail in the faces.  A great example is a character named Balahn who has the tiniest scar under his right eye that becomes more pronounced when he squints. That in itself should speak to the amazing visual technology that has gone into this game. But it is not the game’s only strength by far.

HZD also sports solid mechanics. There is a perfect balance of rogue-like mechanics and fast-paced dodging and striking with a spear. Not sure you can take that hold herd of Thunderjaws head on? No problem. You can usually find a place to hide and either way for your prey to draw closer on its own, or whistle at it to pique its curiosity. Once it is close enough, you have options, stab it with your spear where it counts or – use a device you found that allows you to reprogram it to work for you. That way you have help when taking down the rest of the herd. If you a more of a camp and snipe type, you can hunt for a vantage point – use your Focus to expose their weaknesses and then snipe them with a bow.

In all these cases, be warned; the creatures adapt to your strategy and may either try to flush you out of your safe spot or reveal ways of attacking you from range. This adaptive response to your strategy gives the machines a most living feel to them. It forces the player to get creative and respond quickly to situations. The best strategy is to get comfortable with the various ways of combat in the game so that you can use them interchangeably as the situations you get into will inevitably evolve.

To help improve your prowess in all the hunting and gathering you will do – three skill trees exist for you to tweak to your personal play style or just to get them all and become even more awesome. One skill tree focuses on stealth maneuvers, another of visceral combat and the last on recourse management. I found that all these skill trees had valuable buffs that I could use so I spread my points across them evenly.

Weapons play a major part in how well or not so well you can execute a plan. While the spear and bow are staples of a wandering tribe member, Aloy can acquire other interesting weapons. A Tripcaster is simply a device that lets you set up a tripwire to explode for electrocute your prey. A Ropercaster allows you to tie down an enemy, leaving them vulnerable to a spear attack. Lastly, the sling, which I primarily used to scare herds of animals off into one of my traps. Making use of all these weapons will give an edge over the dangerous wilderness of the game.

That said, there are few things Horizon Zero Dawn could be improved on. Highlighting items to pick it sometimes very finicky in Horizon Zero Dawn and I am often readjusting Aloy’s position just so I can pick a plant. There other issue I took was with mounted navigation. Now granted, no other game in the world seems to be able to figure out how to make mounts not suck and while Horizon Zero Dawn certainly isn’t the worst, it does stand out given the precision that everything else works within.

Story wise – you won’t be disappointed as long as you aren’t looking for something groundbreaking. There were a few elements to the story that I really enjoyed, and the writing for it was some of the best I have seen in video games. Voice actors delivered great lines although the modernity of some of the language clashed harshly with the tribal setting at times.

Horizon Zero Dawn hit the new-franchise-ground running. The game takes on some interesting notes about machines and our relationships with them. But to call it just an exploration into that relationship alone is to sell it short. Despite all the shiny weapons and graphics, Horizon Zero Dawn tells an awesome human story.  With impressive visuals on the PS4, a great story, and solid gameplay, Guerilla Games really nailed it on this game. I would not be surprised if there was another entry in this game in a few years. Games this good are rare, especially when working with a new IP. Buy it, play it, enjoy it.

What game do you want to see reviewed next?

– Dave Hill (GamingU Team)

Can’t find a new video game to play? Our app GamingU can help solve that problem, check it out here!