Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that would be easy to compare to a few others, most notably Far Cry and Shadow of the Colossus. The end result, however, is something completely unique. The story is much deeper and impressive than I would have anticipated from a game that was sold under the guise of "shoot robot dinosaurs" and the mechanics are much better than the classic "kill animals for materials to make better weapons to kill animals" loop.
+True next generation graphics and artist design to showcase it.
+Deep gameplay with an appropriate learning curve to make it an obsession long-term.
+A story far better than it ever had the rights to be, considering the platform it was sold on.
+Playstation's best reason to own a console to date, and specifically to own a Playstation Pro.
-PR's sales pitch of the game is a double-edged sword. The mystery might have intrigued a majority of gamers out there, but much more would have been interested to know how deep the well actually goes and what it's all about.
At first glance (or play-through) Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that draws immediate comparison to other “hunter/gather” style games, most notably the Far Cry series in its more recent incarnations. Once you’ve progressed past the initial moments of the game, though, other’s will come to mind like Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus. By the time you get to the third act in the story it’s easy to compare the story to something like Bioshock in its scope and twisting turns.
However, the game is much, much more than the sum of its parts. In concept, it is a bunch of components from well established Triple-A titles, like those already mentioned and a few others. In practice, however, the game takes on a life of its own to become something completely unique. It’s like saying that you know what a BLT is going to taste like because you’ve had a tomato before. There are something unique in the way the game-play and story elements that come together than making this title nothing short of an addiction.
Little has been revealed about the story of Horizon Zero Dawn, a fact that I’ve been complaining about since it’s initial reveal at E3 2015. Now that I’ve played through the game, though, I understand that was an entirely calculated move on the part of the PR team. Not only was it a bold strategy, it’s one that pays off.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes place on Earth long after it’s been reset back to a time like the early days of man, where tribes are the communities of the day and hunting/gathering is how we survive. As you begin to explore the world in ruin and what’s replaced the society we know you’ll learn what happened, how, and who was behind it all.
Considering all the PR for the game has done so well to hide the answers to these questions, it’s something I’m going to avoid in our review as well. I will say however it develops slowly over the course of many hours of game-play and explodes in the third act to become one of my favorite video game stories since the reveal at the end of Bioshock.
I personally am not someone that spends a whole lot of time on collecting data files and written logs to expand on the universe of a game, other than for the point of trophies/achievements, but Horizon Zero Dawn’s story was enough of an intriguing mystery that I found myself compelled to collect every piece of the story via the collection of data files, audio logs, and holographic memories to round out the already expansive story of humanity and its downfall. That’s something I haven’t really experienced since the initial launch of Mass Effect.
In the first few hours of the game I was worried that it would be as simple as the Far Cry series in terms of the hunter/gather game-play mechanic: kill animals to collect materials to build gear to kill animals more quickly, rinse and repeat.
After you expand past the first barricade in the over world though you’ll find it’s less about upgrading your weaponry and armor to do more damage and sustain yourself longer in a fight then it is about having the tools and knowledge to pick apart the robotic enemies in the world like a skilled surgeon.
Instead of just building up your damage it’s important to know what each elemental type of weapon does to each animal, in the early game. When you get to some of the large animals it becomes a game of knowing what piece of which animal will react in which way to what kind of weapon/ammo. We’ve seen games in the past that use similar mechanics, where a rock-paper-scissors mechanic of different elemental weapons is included, but where Horizon Zero Dawn really sticks out is how many types of ammo and weapon there are to get that job done, how specific you must be with your usage of said weapon/ammo, and the fact that most of those “weak points” will not be exposed at the start of battle.
In an example, there are multiple robots in the game that have more than 5 “weak points” some as high as 10. Some of those may be on the surface of the animal, others may require shooting off pieces of armor with specific ammo sets that are intended for removing armor plating. From there, once a weak point is exposed, you’ll need to know if the piece reacts to fire, electricity, or freezing (alternative if the piece has any immunities). Then you need to know how that piece reacts. A fire-weakened spot might just do extra damage, or cause the animal to go into a frenzy (distracting it from attacking you for a period), but in some cases, that might be an explosive tank that erupts when hit with the right type of ammo and explodes in a radial effect doing massive damage to the beast and anything in its immediate surrounding.
That’s drilling down one animal’s one weak point to one elemental type and one reaction. There is an assortment of different ammo and reactions through out the game with a host of ways to take down each beast. You can also craft all manner of a trap and lure the unsuspecting beast into things that will weaken, kill, or snare.
The point that I’m trying to get across is that there is no end to the way you can handle these robots and each battle is less of a straight up Monster Hunter fight or Dark Souls boss encounter as it is a puzzle game that you suss out with experience and log data to pick these monsters apart bit by bit. If you aren’t doing it right, you’ll soon find that your fights are impossibly difficult to complete, even on a normal level of difficulty. Especially when big bad-ass creatures start coming at you 3 and 5 at a time.
My personal experience with the game is that I didn’t really appreciate the combat system’s depth until about 10 hours in, which could have broken the experience for someone less dedicated to the concept/story of the game. In the beginning, the beasts you encounter are straight forward Zelda-types that simply have a weakness that you exploit, a.k.a “hit the red glowing eye.” It wasn’t until I’d started to encounter fights I was regularly losing that I had to readdress my strategy and say “there must be a better way, something I’m missing” and dug down into the info files on the beasts further then began reworking my weapon sets for something beyond “what does the most damage.”
By end game, I have four weapons (the max you can equip) each with three types of ammo, and all 12 are mandatory for the fights I encounter. It’s not something where you can just work out one strategy that works well and apply it ad-nauseum, you need to know what you’re dealing with each fight, and how to fell the beast via a series of well-placed shots or ingenious trap work.
Of course, the main reason a lot of people were initially interested in the title, and are likely looking forward to it still, is the fact that the game is stunningly gorgeous.
In the opening moments of the game, the introduction to the story walks the uncanny valley with its photo-realistic clothing and fur, facial expressions are the only give away that you’re not watching actual people (along with some game give-aways like textures and layering). By the time you set off into the open you’ll be rewarded to some of the most beautiful scenery in games to date, expansive vistas, thick lush forests, huge towering snow-covered mountainscapes, and massive expanding deserts that are tormented by the occasional dust storm.
Every inch of the world is crafted as a true art piece and stands a testament to the hard work of the art team to make something that is a show-piece of the recently released hardware of the Playstation Pro. It is, to date, the best (and only) reason to upgrade from the existing Playstation 4 hardware (in my book).
When the game started, it felt like a full generational leap over the games we’ve been playing for the last few years on the current generation of consoles, but eventually, you can start seeing the edges and you realize that we’re still a little while from the true next generation leap. It is, for better or worse, a v1.5 of what the Playstation 4 is capable of, which I do not mean in any slight what-so-ever, for me it would be worth the price of admission for this one game alone. I can’t wait to see what else they come up with for the hardware down the road.
Horizon Zero Dawn was not, at the time of their announcement, something I was immediately impressed with. The lack of information about the story was a concern and the fact that it was showing off hunting/gathering mechanics that have been in at least a dozen other games wasn’t the announcement that was going to set the world ablaze. However, plenty of people did get excited and thus it’s been a title we’ve been following with a sort of reserved curiosity.
Now that I’ve dumped damned near 60 hours into the game, completed the story, reaped the rewards of both the hardware and story achievements the game produces and have no intention of stopping my play through yet… I must admit that I am glad that the PR team handled things the way that they did.
You see the mystery of the robotic animals and post-apocalyptic landscape in the first videos released are an extension of the story and something that each player should come to realize on their first play-through. It’s unique in that and I appreciate everything that led us up to this moment.
Not only that, but it fires on all cylinders as a game that plays well, introduces new and unique combat mechanics, and expands on a host of game franchises that we are already familiar with/enjoy. There’s no weak point in this title as far as I’m concerned and it serves as an example of how Sony is really doing work to make the best of their exclusive content.
Review is based on a early version for Playstation 4 Pro, provided by the Publisher.
Release Date: Feburary 28th, 2017