Dan is a contributor to ComiConverse. His interests mainly lie in video games, but he has previously written articles on film, television and other aspects of popular culture. He can be found on Twitter @dangoad
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Coming off the back of two years worth of hype and anticipation, is Horizon Zero Dawn the game we’re all hoping it is? ComiConverse contributor Dan Goad has this review.
Game Review: Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn has been on the top of many people’s most anticipated list this year, including mine. After winning Best Original Game at E3 two years running, as well as a host of other pre-release accolades from various outlets, it’s got a lot of hype to live up to. So I’m happy to report upfront that HZD is a great game. In fact, it’s a brilliant one. It’s by no means perfect, but it certainly deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with The Last of Us as two of the best exclusives PlayStation has to offer.
HZD is set in a post-post-apocalyptic world many centuries in the future. This isn’t a Fallout-style world where humanity is only just recovering from disaster. Civilisation has begun anew and only a few remnants of the world that came before remain. Chief amongst these are the mysterious machines, robotic creatures that seem to be modelled on dinosaurs and other animals. The player character is Aloy, a young woman who is an outcast from her matriarchal society because she has no mother. She is initially driven by her search for an identity, all the while dealing with the non-acceptance of those around her. As the game progresses the player will explore the origins of Aloy, the machines, and the world as a whole.
These multiple mysteries had me hooked from the beginning and I found myself constantly wanting to return to the game to find answers. When the emotional pay-off does come it is well worth the 40+ hours you have been waiting for it. Little touches really help turn this into a believable world, such as audio recordings and misunderstood relics from the previous civilisation. While suffering occasionally from the odd poorly written line, the plot is helped along by a strong voice cast featuring video game veterans like Lance Reddick and JB Blanc, as well as Ashly Burch (Tiny Tina from Borderlands 2) as Aloy. Burch is great as Aloy, delivering complex emotions and just the right amount of sarcasm to make her a fun character to spend this long amount of time with.
There are dialogue choices within the game, but don’t expect branching narratives and massive ripples in the way you would with a Bioware game. Aloy generally has the decision to react aggressively, thoughtfully or emotionally. Sometimes there will be consequences to these decisions later, but there is no good/evil morality scale here. To some this will be a disappointment, but in many ways it is liberating. When you’re freed from the shackles of trying to play the game as a paragon or a renegade you are free to take each choice as it comes and do what makes sense in each situation.
The game has a fairly slow start as you learn the basic mechanics of the game, initially controlling Aloy as a child and later as a young woman. But once you get past those first 90 minutes and the world is open to you, you’re free to proceed however you want. You can continue the main quest, complete some side quests, or just admire the scenery as you traverse and climb it, Uncharted-style.
And make no mistake, that scenery is stunningly beautiful, even on a standard PS4. In fact I’d go as far as to say it has the best looking world of any game ever. The post-post-apocalyptic setting means we don’t have the grey and brown colour scheme from games like Fallout; instead it is all greens and blues. Each tree and rock is meticulously crafted and the range of locations only adds to the visual feast. If I have one criticism it is that sometimes the transitions between different areas, for example going from snowy mountains to desert, can seem sudden and unrealistic – but it is a small price to pay for some of the most disparate landscapes ever seen in a video game. What’s more is that the developers have included a dedicated photo mode, so you can pause the game and start snapping away, adding things like filters or changing angles. It’s a nice little touch that allows you to really preserve and share some of those breathtaking visuals.
The open world and detailed graphics might lead to some concerns over performance, but I don’t have any complaints. Frame-rate is kept consistent at 30 frames per second – a conservative limit, but it means there is no skipping or dropping. Load times are good. It takes a little while to load up, but once you are in there it’s only a few seconds of waiting for fast travel or after death. All of this is of course even better on PS4 Pro.
HZD has been criticised for taking the best elements of a number of other games – Far Cry, Witcher, Tomb Raider, Shadow of Mordor to name a few – and simply mashing them together. But for me the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It takes elements from each of those games and shapes them around its immensely fun combat systems.
Combating the machines requires patience and stealth, since Aloy can quickly become overwhelmed if she rushes into a fight. Even the docile “herbivore” machines are aggressive and dangerous if Aloy comes too close. Luckily there is plenty of long grass for Aloy to hide in and she has a number of weapons at her disposal. Her primary weapon is a bow and arrows, with various upgradeable skills – such as slowing time as she aims – helping immensely. She can also lay down trip wires and other traps, as well as more mundane items such as throwing rocks to distract the machines. A lot of these items are virtually useless in the heat of a fight, so careful planning is definitely a must. She has a useful roll skill as well as a melee spear for emergencies, but often the best course of action once discovered is to run, hide and start again.
The most useful weapon in her arsenal is her Focus power. Similar to Assassin’s Creed’s eagle vision or Batman: Arkham’s detective mode, this mode allows Aloy to see the machines through obstacles. She can tag them or their movement paths so they are visible in the normal view. The Focus will also highlight any weak points on the machines’ bodies, which are sometimes weapons which can be knocked off and used by the player. Later in the game Aloy gains the ability to hack the machines to use herself. The effect of hacking depends on the machine, but galloping around on a robot horse is great fun.
Much in the tradition of open worlds from Bethesda or the Witcher 3, the game has a huge map with an extraordinarily large number of things to do. Whilst each side quest has it’s own mini-narrative, often the objectives are very similar. Virtually every one has you tracking someone or something, then killing someone or something. I’m one of those with a compulsive need to complete every mission, but I think some players will start ignoring them before the end of the game.
One small issue with the open world and how it relates to missions is the waypoint system. The HUD includes a compass across the top, which shows the final location of quests. However, quest waypoints in the main field of view will take you step by step to your destination. You might have 5 or 6 waypoints on the way to a quest marker, depending on distance and how complicated the route. Whilst this is useful if you’re trying to navigate round a mountain or similar, because they always lead you along a road you might find yourself going in the opposite direction to your objective. Plus having one waypoint in the main view and a different one on the compass can be confusing. It’s a minor problem that takes some getting used to, or you can disable the waypoints entirely and just rely on the compass and the main map. The HUD is fully customisable, so if you find it too cluttered you can get rid of things you don’t need.
You’ll also find yourself excessively collecting and hoarding virtually everything in the game. You’ll be picking plants for healing, or hunting and killing both machines and real animals for loot. Virtually everything in the world is useful for crafting or trading to merchants, so you’ll quickly become overburdened and have to craft additional storage space.
HZD has one further huge positive that is really worth drawing attention to. Aloy is that rarity in video games, a strong female protagonist. Even more rarely, she is sensibly dressed, never appears on screen in order to titillate, and has no explicitly romantic relationships. And she isn’t the only progressive character. This game is filled with both significant female characters and people of colour. It touches on LGBT issues and mental illness. In an age where every other lead character is a muscled white guy and female characters still have swimsuits instead of armour, HZD feels like a massive step forward for representation in gaming.
Horizon Zero Dawn lives up to the hype and then some. It is a great game and will be winning awards all year long. Yes, it borrows from other games, but it meshes those elements with fun combat, a captivating narrative and a heroine who is both engaging and progressive. It’s a step forward for gaming and is destined to birth a new mega-franchise. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty close.