Horizon: Zero Dawn may have appeared to show off its full deck of cards early on. It may have even appeared to do so late on as well. Expectant gamers may have concluded they had a full understanding of what to expect from Guerrilla’s first attempt at open world RPGs. What Guerrilla Studios managed to keep from us right up until release day however, was exactly how in-depth a world we were to expect from them.
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Avg Game Length: 19.5 hrs campaign, many more dependant on completionists
Indeed, everything on offer in this game is, strictly speaking, nothing we haven’t seen before. Except, of course, great lumbering robo-dinos. Yet, the Guerrilla twist on things continues to prove how Europe is fast becoming the new mecca of of video game development.
Guerrilla Has Come Leaps & Bounds Since The 7th Generation
Not only has Guerrilla been able to flaunt just how far they’ve come since Killzone, they’ve also proven themselves firmly as a new top developer to look out for among the likes of CD Projekt Red and Naughty Dog. They’ve succeeded in this by making intelligent, player focused design choices consistently from one aspect of the game to the next. The most obvious of which, can be found in the graphics.
The Guerrilla designed Decima Engine, found in Shadow Fall, Until Dawn and the upcoming Death Stranding, is a masterful conglomeration of tools, apparently best suited to open world games. Like it or not, open world titles have always had to make a compromise. A sacrifice of quality for the sake of quantity. This world building rule of thumb is most apparent in Bethesda’s open world games. It is, therefore, the developer’s prerogative to hide that trade off as best they can, fooling the eyes in the process. In other words – make the game look better visually than it really is. Horizon Zero Dawn is now one of the finest examples of developers fooling the eye in the name of visual splendour. As you can see – Horizon is absolutely gorgeous.
Glossing Over The Finer Details Means Less Is More
Character models’ skin textures are soft and un-detailed but brilliantly find life in their human expressions. Even lesser NPCs surprised me with a movement set for lip sync that rarely gets caught out. Faces are complemented yet further with wonderfully designed strands of hair that continue to impress me.
Distant rock faces are softly and sparsely rendered (which is fine as they’re so far away) but still look great in twilight hours as the sinking sun casts arrays of shadow effects across them, giving them a photo-realistic gloss. Light shafts and god rays go on to dazzle throughout the day.
During the night, the landscape is dotted with the blue lights of machines and the occasional lens flare. J.J Abrams would be proud. Since we’re on the subject, lens flare has been around for a while and is fairly easy to make in videogames. But, like every other visual aspect of Horizon, it has been used with wonderful taste and poise. Expect flawless delivery of Aloy’s world.
Horizon: Zero Dawn Is One Delicious Smoothie
Let’s get back to the Guerrilla twist. Like a delicious fruit smoothie, Guerrilla have blended all the lumps and pieces of other successful open world RPGs together to form something completely new. And how delectable it is. For example, we have the “climb a tower to reveal parts of the map” mechanic Ubisoft are now so infamous for. Only this time around, these towers are found in the form of the majestic Tallnecks. First off, there’s very few of them on the map which makes each climb memorable and relevant.
Unlike other boring tower reveal mechanics, players will have to clear a patrol area of enemies. Once they’re done with that, then they’ll need to scope out the area for a decent vantage from which to jump onto the Tallneck, beginning their ascent. This mechanic alone is a perfect example of Horizon’s borrowed open world tropes made better, demanding more player investment for the final reward.
The Witcher 3: Zero Dawn
Another lump in this RPG smoothie is the fact that Aloy basically has Witcher senses. There’s no avoiding this comparison as it’s simply that stark. Like Geralt, Aloy will kneel down to comment on things it has highlighted to her. She’ll highlight and follow tracks as well as spot distant threats. Yet again, mimicking these kinds of narrative mechanics from CD Projekt Red doesn’t feel like a cheap rip off.
This gadget, the Focus, has context within the game world. It’s not like players start the game and – BOOM – they just have it because “the player”, as seen in Hitman. It has a reason to exist in Aloy’s world and even plays an important role in the overall story of the game. Again, Horizon: Zero Dawn has taken the best aspects of the last few years of open world RPGs and made them its own.
Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery
To be clear, none of this should be considered rip off tactics. Even after finding such success and acclaim, nobody out there should be saying “yeah, but they just copied(insert developer)”. When The Witcher 3 came out, it completely redefined how open world RPGs could be made. Frankly it was so fantastic that other developers have literally no choice but to copy some aspects otherwise suffer the wrath of reviewers like me. If they hadn’t, they’d be labelled as “behind the times”. Like any other developer, Guerrilla has to make money by currying favour first with reviewers, then their fans. If that means lending ideas from other successful titles to make their own masterpiece, then fine.
Aloy Takes Centre Stage In A Wonderfully Constructed Set Of RPG Norms
Many a time I have mentioned how this is an RPG. On first impressions, even way back on that initial E3 release, Horizon: Zero Dawn looked like a cheap imitation of an RPG. Admittedly, I was sceptical. After all, all Guerrilla had done before this was first person space nazi slaughter. Aside from seeing the character models for the first time, uttering “holy shi*t” over and over, the depth of RPG elements in this game surprised me. Game on!
Everything anybody would expect from a decent RPG is here. Which feeds fantastically into incentivising the player to explore the brilliantly designed game world thoroughly. You name it, it’s in here. A decent level up and perks tree to grow into. Weapon modifiers for different types of damage, plenty of resources and crafting, different armour sets, varying tiers of weapon types, merchants for trading, the list goes on. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, there is tons to do in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Very similar to its RPG open world counterparts, Horizon’s world will likely suck you in with quest after quest.
Even Selecting Quests Is Kept Fresh
Yet, even this aspect is kept fresh by Guerrilla. Everything that needs doing is not split between a list of quests and icons on a map. Sure, the icons are there. However, the quests page of the pause menu is segmented. For example, players can choose what to do next by selecting Quests, Side Quests, Errands or Tallnecks. This list grows longer as more becomes available. What is especially welcome is the fact that the worryingly named “Errands” will never ever subject the player to a fetch quest. No matter how mundane a task may seem on first impressions, Horizon: Zero Dawn may surprise you. Players may head out to pick up an artifact after being misinformed about the ease of the job. Only to end up sneaking through a bandit camp to get to it.
Horizon’s Stealth Mechanics Are Bang On
Which brings us nicely onto stealth. Other RPG titles have attempted it in the past. Yet there’s never quite been enough wiggle room for truly functional mechanics. Horizon: Zero Dawn absolutely nails stealth. Successful stealth actions reward the player with more XP points than going loud. Further incentivising a stealth approach is the fact that most things will kill Aloy fairly quickly is she doesn’t plan things out properly. Her plethora of traps can used to good effect in the right hands.
If the player is not so confident about going completely un-spotted, a few blast traps will thin the approaching hoard before the crunch. If going load is the only option, Horizon’s spectacular UI will see Aloy through the day. Switching items on a weapon wheel while sliding in slow motion; or timing a slo-mo bow shot to get that critical hit. All of this adds up to a cocktail of snap decisions that prove every battle to be a thrill.
And The Story Will Get Its Mechanical Claws Into You
Yet an RPG experience is only as good as the story it inhabits. Again, this was another area of scepticism for me. After playing Killzone: Shadow Fall, I could see that Guerrilla studios were itching to tell an epic story but couldn’t quite squeeze the juice from the lemon. As a result we had a fun game with an underexposed story. Perhaps with open world titles being their new true calling, Guerrilla have far more space to play around in with Horizon: Zero Dawn. More importantly, a lot more play time to flesh out a story in a believable world, rich with lore.
Suffice it to say, make use of as many dialogue options as possible and you’ll soon learn the tense politics of this new tribal world. While it’s a given that different tribes don’t generally get along, a new threat is in the mix that demands they all learn how to unify and fast. Aloy is at the centre of this mess as she struggles from one tribe to the next in a desperate attempt to spread the word about a new danger poised to engulf them all. It’s genuinely gripping stuff. While open world games will never have a decent sense of pacing, Horizon’s world, its story and lore are guaranteed to hold your attention more fervently than any other game has for a long time.
Remnants From The Past Maintain An Air Of Mystery Throughout
As Aloy wanders the ruins of the world that came before, she finds recordings from the previous civilisation. As well as newspaper reports detailing politics and hinting at the fall of our civilisation. She also picks up trinkets from the past. A watch is now known as “mysterious black bracelet” or a mug, “a ritual vessel”. A particularly nice touch.
These post apocalyptic tribes don’t know the first thing about their history! One tribe woman believed a computer automated voice was her Godess calling out to her. While another fellow is insistent that our mugs were used for rituals. It all adds believability to Aloy’s world. While we have a spectacularly beautiful game world that lives and breathes, we also have wonderfully humanised characters no matter how brief our interactions with them may be.
Horizon: Zero Dawn Is A Must Buy For PS4 Owners
The whole package of Horizon: Zero Dawn offers a perfect blend of tried and true open world tropes. To top it all off, Guerrilla has crafted an astoundingly gorgeous world to explore. The characters within it, their plights and the story that surrounds them is guaranteed to engage any gamer. Guerrilla is to be truly commended for their efforts in creating a convincing game world, packed with optional pursuits. Not only that but it is unquestionably a game that you must buy if you own a PS4. If you enjoy smooth controls, great stories and addicting RPGs, you owe it to yourself to buy this game. It is absolutely worth the full retail price.
Lastly, this being a review piece, it should go without saying that criticism is par for the course. Yet, within the mechanically diamond solid experience that is Horizon: Zero Dawn, next to none could extracted. Perhaps day turns to night a little too quickly. Occasionally, NPC A.I gets a little confused… Nothing to knock this game off its 10/10 perch.