With Horizon Zero Dawn, Killzone developer Guerrilla Games swaps interplanetary war for a stark future were robotic creatures roam a lush post-apocalyptic Earth.
Well, make that post-post-apocalyptic. Whatever it was that lead to the demise of the world around us happened over a thousand years ago.
Nature has reclaimed the world, decaying ruins covered with lush vegetation. Without technology, our descendants are now akin to stone-aged tribes-folk, surviving amongst the fading relics of our civilization.
You are Aloy a young flame-haired woman with a mysterious history. Exiled from the Nora tribe’s village as a baby, Aloy was raised by a tribal outcast called Rost.
The game starts with a pre-teen Aloy being taught how to survive in the wild, by Rost, the pair of them living as shunned outcasts. Rost’s relationship with Aloy, however, is one of duty rather than that of a nurturing father.
There’s a heart-wrenching scene early on, where the young Aloy is observing some children from the village collecting berries for their mother. The mother praises them for their work, a stark contrast to the gruff acknowledgements that she receives from Rost.
When Aloy offers the mother some berries that she has collected instead of the praised that she dearly wants, the woman hastily rounds up her children and scurries away.
This meeting prompts Aloy to ask Rost about her mother. He tells her that the only way to get those answers is to succeed in The Proving, a competition that if she wins will remove here outcast status and earn her a favour from the tribal matriarchs.
Flashing forwards courtesy of a training montage, the now grown up Aloy is ready to enter The Proving. What follows is a journey of epic proportions across a future Earth unlike anything that we have seen before.
The old world, our world, referred to as the metal world, has almost rotted away. The ruins of the old world look sufficiently weathered, with metal almost rushed away and concrete crumbling. Seeing nature taking back our world is both beautiful and slightly unnerving. Whilst the odd structure pokes up out of 1,000 years of vegetation, this world is no longer ours.
It belongs to the machines.
Mechanical beasts roam the plains and forests of Aloy’s world. Some of them are skittish and easily frightened, others are aggressive and attack on sight.
The mechanical creatures are amazing and look so real, their behavior mimicking the flesh and blood wildlife that they are designed to mimic. Watching robotic Grazers all look up at the same time exactly like startled deer is fantastic.
In order to survive in this harsh environment, you need to learn to hunt. The game promotes stealth as the most effective way of taking down the mechanical beasts, which are full of valuable and useful components to loot.
Aloy’s skill with a bow also comes in handy for taking down wild boar and other more orthodox game. Animal parts as well as items harvested from plants can be used to make ammo, satchels and healing compounds. Hunting is both fun and rewarding, easily distracting you from the task at hand.
Horizon Zero Dawn is packed with distractions. As well as the main quest line, there are loads of side missions, which include liberating enemy camps and journeying deep into the domain of the machines. Special areas called caldrons are the factories where the machines are build. Reaching the core and defeating the boss nets you the ability to override some of the machines.
Early on in the game you gain the ability to override Striders and mount them like a horse. Controlling the metal beasts is a valuable tool, countering the corrupted beasts used as weapons by enemy tribes.
There’s so much to do with collectables, side missions and unlockables, that Horizon developer, Guerrilla Games, even gives Ubisoft a run for their money.
Ignoring the atrocious title, Horizon Zero Dawn could well be the game of the year. It’s an open-world role-playing game that draws heavily from some revered triple-A games. It’s pretty clear where the developers have drawn inspiration. And they’ve done little to cover it up.
The caveman-like society in the game’s post-post-apocalyptic setting draws from the excellent Far Cry Primal. The beautiful open-world and the hunting owns some inspiration from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, another excellent game.
The game’s agile protagonist, Aloy, reminded me of one Lara Croft as she climbs and jumps across the more rugged terrain and enters the subterranean caldrons. The high-tech caldron areas reminded me of the first civilization relics from Assassin’s Creed crossed with the tombs from the recent Tomb Raider games.
Climbing the towering Tallneck machines to unlock the map is also straight from the Assassin’s Creed/Far Cry/Ubisoft Game X playbook. Even Aloy’s Focus, a triangular device worn on here ear, works very similarly to Batman’s detective mode in the Arkham games.
Horizon Zero Dawn is not perfect, but 99% of it is so much fun you can forgive any indiscretions. I did, however, have an issue with Aloy’s apparent difficulty traversing ruined buildings. Our heroine simply refused to slip though gaps that would easily accommodate her athletic build. This “invisible wall” really whipped me out of the game. With a game of otherwise such high quality, you’d really have though an animation allowing Aloy to slip though small spaces would have been considered.
The visuals are stunning but, whilst I did wait for the PS4 Pro performance-enhancing day one patch to be released before giving you my final verdict on the game, I needn’t have bothered. On my 1080p TV any performance advantage offered by the Pro was wasted on me. 4K owners, on the other hand, are likely to see a huge both with the hi- fidelity visuals.
Horizon Zero Dawn has taken me completely off-guard. I’ll admit that the title put me off, so I’ve not really been following the games development. Having spent the last couple of weeks with the game, though, I wholeheartedly recommend it.