Video Games

Under Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon-zero-dawn-box-artI’m way late to the party on this February 2017 release from Guerrilla Games but the party is still hot, hot, hot.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a brand new take on action role-playing games developed to take advantage of the processing power of Sony’s Playstation 4 platform, and particularly the Pro model if you are fortunate enough to have a 4K entertainment system at home.   Beyond really astounding graphics and what may be one of the best uses of HDR I’ve seen yet, let’s take a minute to talk about what makes Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD) a must own.

You play the role of Aloy starting as a six year old girl being guided by her caretaker through a world of diverse nature and advanced machines.  I don’t want to give you too much plot as it has been an absolute joy to experience and a very slow burn that I’m still discovering myself, but you’ll learn little bits and pieces about where you are and how it came to be over the course of the play.

The story quickly jumps to the future where you’re honing your skills to explore the world around you as a woman in your early twenties.  There are clans of people that fear the technology, those that embrace, and those that shun.  You’ll have to navigate all of them and more.

HZD has done a masterful job of picking through some of the best gaming elements you can think of to blend into a fresh and meaningful journey.  Twenty hours in, I’m reminded of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Elder Scrolls, Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, the Arkham Knight series, and even Metal Gear.  That may sound impossibly boastful, but I stand by it.

Guerrilla Games has taken this recipe and cooked up an experience that doesn’t feel repetitive at all, which is one of my biggest complaints with even the strongest games of its kind like the Assassin’s Creed series.  Instead of skipping through scenes to continue on with hunting and gathering from point A to point B, I find myself vested in the story and eager to interact with one of the multiple options you have to tilt the story with.  HZD is almost like a fully interactive Choose Your Own Adventure book in that there may be different paths to get the same outcome, but the experience will be unique to your play style.

Beyond that, this is a very inclusive world.  You’re going to see every ethnicity, a variety of belief systems, and strong female characters that may look strong and beautiful but stop decisively short of being a sex object.  Aloy makes a point of cutting anyone off that tries to comment on her looks or figure.  It may seem like a small thing, but as a life long gamer it was refreshing to immerse myself into characters that felt authentic to a real world experience.  No kidding – my wife actually loves watching me play this and seeing a heroine’s journey unfold.

As for game play, I set the difficulty on hard and HZD feels extremely difficult.  I die often and you have to scavenge for medicinal plants to keep going.    You know how a lot of these style games refill your health after a major battle sequence or save?  You’re going to miss that.  I’ve actually killed every enemy in a sequence and then fallen down a cliff missing a zip line and had to do the whole process over again.  That said, I’d call it a refreshing challenge versus a tedious frustration.  You get a real sense of accomplishment from doing a quest well and it makes the interactive cut scenes that much more appreciated when they come.

The combat system feels really good too.  As you scan and learn enemies, you’ll see each has their own weaknesses and strengths that you’ll have to take advantage of to be successful; even if the enemy is 10 levels lower than you are.  You are primarily armed with a variety of bows and arrows as well as a lance, but there are plenty of elemental options to throw in with traps and slingshots to boot.  The system of scrolling through weapon and ammo types is really well done, allowing you to change mid battle without it feeling like an interruption.

Another beautiful touch is time slows slightly but flipping through your gear only blurs the action a bit and slows time.  Essentially, you don’t pause the action even if you’re begging for a second to regroup like I often have.

Character leveling is done through a familiar tiered point system as well as tiered gear you can customize.  Uniquely, the purchase system in the game is done with Traders.  You might have amassed a hefty amount of metal shards, the games primary currency, but you might need something like 1200 shards and a specific robot processor or animal bone to get the gear you want.  You’re going to end up hunting everything you see with purpose.

The upgrading process is one of my only true frustrations with HZD.  You absolutely have the ability to make outfits and weapons your own, but there’s very little guidance other than your own experience.  You’ll end up spending a good amount of resources to develop an outfit or weapon without knowing if you’re doing something that’s helpful to your game play.  Additionally, you can add modifications to many of your items, generally more to the rarest gear, but the ability to remove one you’ve added is a very high tiered skill to obtain.  That’s only made more daunting by the fact that even if you wanted to focus all of your leveling points to a specific element, you’re going to learn quickly that most of the diverse upgrades are nearly necessity versus just a bonus to make your experience a bit easier.

The enemies in HZD, besides difficult, are varied and keep your head on a swivel.  Stealth is as important as combat, but even when you start to get comfortable with things, a new kind of enemy will approach and throw you for a loop.  Wait until the first time you take down a new, very large and difficult robot only to be (in my case extremely) surprised by the mechanical vultures that swoop in to steel the best loot and fight anything in their way.  This means you.  You’re never truly safe in the game.

Guerrilla Games set the bar extremely high with HZD.  I’d give this entry a solid 8.5 of 10 and I don’t know how much of an argument you’d get from me if you said it was as good as a 9.5.  I don’t know how or why this game flew under my radar for ten months, but I’d recommend dropping what you’re playing now to get into this title today.