It seemed like a really dumb idea when I saw it at E3 2016. So, it’s cavemen fighting autonomous robot dinosaurs in an open world action/RPG? Sounds amazing. Not that its potential stupidity put me off at all; after seeing so many bland, generic, boring titles being shown off all week, Horizon: Zero Dawn was the only game that I vividly remember seeing and being intrigued by. I appreciated it; it was interesting. Furthermore, there have been a few films I had dismissed as being ‘probably stupid’ from the trailers and ended up loving, like Pacific Rim and Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve become more open to stupid ideas of late. I failed to have a go at Zero Dawn at EGX 2016, due to it being tucked away in a corner of the Sony area, so I didn’t see it until it was too late to have a go. Maybe this was a good thing; it meant I went into the game with absolutely zero expectations for its quality (other than the countless reviews calling it amazing).
Right from the start of the game, it acknowledges the fact that the whole tribal, primate humans living alongside robot dinosaurs is a little bit odd. That’s fairly unavoidable. At the start, I wasn’t, to be honest, that interested in how this had come to be, but through some very clever storytelling, the game got me interested. Very interested. The game keeps giving you little pieces of the puzzle one at a time but never one big enough to give you a real idea of what the whole picture is. Until it does. When it does, suddenly, it all makes sense. Let me tell you, the back story behind this game is really cool. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for ages after I completed the game. It’s the kind of story that I just wanted to tell people about. I won’t do that here because you may wish to play the game, but I’d really like to tell you. When you get each piece of the puzzle, it changes the way you see the world. It adds perspective and context which makes the world more interesting the further in you get.
The main character, Aloy (get it? Aloy, like alloy?), is an interesting person. At first, I thought she was a bit boring, but as I got to know her a bit more I started to like her. She starts the game as an outcast from the tribe, living with her father-figure, Rost (get that one as well? Rust!). The reason she is an outcast is shrouded in mystery from the get-go and all that is mentioned is that she is ‘motherless’. It’s not clear what this means, but that’s part of the fun – finding out. Aloy is very strong-willed and clear headed. The tribe she is an outcast of worship some of the machines like gods, she doesn’t. The tribe forbids people from going into ancient ruins, Aloy doesn’t care about this rule. All she wants to know is who her mother was and where she came from. That’s not to say she doesn’t care about anyone or anything else, she’s actually fairly compassionate, but her main driving force behind what she is doing is in pursuit of discovering her past.
It wouldn’t be a game without gameplay, and in this game, the gameplay is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s an RPG at heart, but it’s more of a Witcher 3 RPG than a Skyrim RPG. You don’t ultimately make decisions about anything that would change the outcome of the story (which is not like The Witcher 3) and you can’t change what Aloy is as a character (which is like the Witcher 3), but you choose how you treat people and what missions you want to do for people. The main RPG elements are in the levelling system and the equipment you pick up. It’s completely open world, so once you get past the start of the game, you can go wherever you want in the world and do any mission. Like in The Witcher 3, you get missions from people, but you won’t be able to do all of them at first. You’ll open the mission screen and it’ll tell you that the next main mission is for level 19 characters, but there are some side missions for level 16 and under you can do.
I like this system a lot. It forces you not to rush the main mission too much and actually do some side quests so by the time you’ve done those side quests, you’ll have levelled up a few times and be ready for the next main mission. It avoids problems like that seen in Arkham Knight, where you’ll have side quests but there is no real incentive to actually do them, so one might end up just doing the main missions and rushing through it all. This is not an issue in Zero Dawn. It also helps that the side quests are actually quite interesting and have a little variety, Rocksteady, meaning I didn’t dread having to do some side quests out of a resignation they would be terribly boring and the same thing over and over again.
Combat in this game actually quite reminds me of the new Tomb Raider games, but somehow mixed with The Witcher 3 and then tweaked quite a lot. I think it’s the reliance of the bow in the game. It’s not a system that is simply about you pelting arrows into a damage sponge until it falls (not that it wouldn’t work as a strategy). It requires you to quickly assess each new enemy and decide what the best way of tackling it is. Some machines are vulnerable to things like fire or freeze damage. In these cases, one should bombard the enemy with fire arrows or freeze bombs until a meter is filled. In the case that it is vulnerable to freeze damage, the meter will fill and the enemy will slow down and become more susceptible to regular damage. This isn’t something I concerned myself with until later in the game where it got a lot tougher requiring me to try harder. You can also get ‘tear’ arrows which removes parts of your mechanical enemy. This is useful for enemies with big guns strapped on them; you can tear them off and pick them up to give them a good old taste of their own medicine. This is a great way to add some variety into a combat system. If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m a stickler for diversity in game mechanics.
There is also quite a lot of fun to be had in stealth. Dotted around the world you’ll find bandit camps. Surprisingly enough you need to kill all the bandits to liberate the area and the prisoners of the bandits. This is where I think the designers borrowed a little from games like Far Cry because it feels rather similar. You have the same camp alarm system which you’ll need to destroy to avoid backup coming should you be sighted by anyone, and you have the tagging system which allows you to track enemies down. I did all of these with stealth. I would simply hide in a bush and snipe with my sniper’s bow. It was actually a lot of fun and gives you some good rewards for doing it.
In most scenarios, you have the ability to stealth it, and I would recommend that course of action considering that otherwise, it gets very difficult when you have to fight a million enemies at once. I’ve never succeeded by doing that.
I’m not sure how much further I can go with this without mentioning the graphics. They’re pretty good. As is a common theme in this review, I wasn’t convinced at first. Probably because this was just after I’d finished Uncharted 4, which I don’t think is a fair comparison. Zero Dawn also has a slightly cartoony art-style which threw me off at first. The game looks good. Really good. I think it’s one of the best looking games on PS4. Considering the hardware it’s running on, it’s very impressive. One of my lectures at my University has been constanly mentioning the graphics in this game and talking about how good it looks on a PS4.
Zero Dawn features a ‘photo mode’ which I have spent a very long time playing with. It works in the same way many other photo modes have worked – you can adjust pretty much any setting of the camera and move it around and what not. It’s a testament to the very attractive visuals that very often while I was doing something, I would pause the game and go into photo mode to take a quick few screenshots. What lets this system down is the limitations of the PS4 itself. By default, pressing the ‘share’ button opens a sharing interface which allows you to record a video, take a screenshot and upload stuff to YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. I changed this so that pressing the share button once just takes a screenshot. Unfortunately, the PS4 takes around two seconds to think about it before it actually does it. This can be very annoying especially at times when I wanted to take a screenshot during a cutscene where timing is critical. I would have to press the button two seconds before I see the image I want to screenshot using mystical foresight powers.
A slightly weird thing about this game is the world design. The world is diverse with some areas being snowy like the Arctic and some areas being Death Vally conditions. This wouldn’t be so strange if it weren’t so sudden in transition. You start off the game in a forest area where it gets a bit snowy in places, and then you are allowed through a big gate. Beyond the gate is a pure hot sandy desert. This was, of course, completely outrageous and ruined all hope of emersion as I was crushed by the unrealistic nature of this.
It’s a good sign then, that this is the only slightly reasonable criticism I can come up with this game. The world feels deep and real, the characters have personality and feel fresh. We know there will be sequels, and all I can say about that is I am very interested in what the story is going to be. The end of the game left no real openings apart from an after-credits cutscene which teased at what direction it might go in. Guerrilla Games, please don’t go in this direction, because it would be a very annoying way to continue the series onwards.
So, yeah, this game is good. If you have a PS4, I would highly recommend it. I look forward to the sequels whenever they happen, and I will probably be playing it a few more times before they do.