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Horizon: Zero Dawn, a review.

Oddly enough, I ended up buying this game, quite by accident on the first weekend of its release. It’s been a while since I’ve had any real fire in my belly about an upcoming game, and, in fact, there is at least one game I picked up more than two years ago at a midnight release that has never made it out of the shrink wrap. I guess any gamer cred I may have gained from that one went away just as quickly. Anyway, in the last few years, there have been very few games that have really grabbed me based solely on the pre-release hype. As it turns out, Horizon: Zero Dawn was no exception. I had seen Sony’s trailers on YouTube, and they definitely looked impressive, but I figured I’d wait until Amazonhad it on sale for twenty bucks, or there was some irresistible deal on the Playstation store, or something similar, at which time I figured I’d pick it up.

It turns out that circumstances can indeed be strange things. I happened to be canceling a pre-order for the Nintendo Switch (another story), and by the time I was looking at the credit from the return, I was a measly five bucks away from getting Zero Dawn. What the hell, right? So I brought it home, as it turns out, just in time to catch one of those nasty bugs that confines one to the couch. I mean the kind of bug where you don’t bother with boxes of tissue anymore, you just grab a roll of toilet paper and a grocery bag, and start working your way through a case of chicken soup. So there I was, with no energy to stand for more than a couple of minutes, and a brand new triple-A title. Hmm, what to do?

From the beginning, I could tell that Horizon: Zero Dawn was going to be one of those games I pretty much consumed whole.

The basics of the game have been pretty well covered, but just in case you missed it, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open-world third person action/RPG set, as so may are, in a post-apocalyptic world.  The universe is a bit different than what you might expect, though. It departs from the irradiated, Mad Max inspired, or post-plague The Last of Us style environment, in favor of a more pre-industrial world. There’s never any doubt that the player is in fact on Earth, but you get the sense that human society is well along the road of rebuilding, but long after any coherent memory of the “Old ones” (us) has long faded.  I was reminded a bit of Canticle for Leibowitz in that sense.

Oh, but there are robots.

Called simply “Machines”, the majority of the enemies in the game are robots, most of which appear to be built following the design of animals that lived on Earth at one time or another. From dinosaurs to dogs, there is a great variation among the machines on the world, the only real common denominator being that they don’t like people. Of course, there are also other humans who don’t like you either.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The main character is Aloy (pronounced “AY-loy”), who starts out as an infant at the beginning of the game (don’t worry, the very beginning is all cut-scene, you don’t have to play as a baby).  The game actually begins when Aloy is a young girl, but the action really starts when she is old enough to engage in a rite of passage (the story is actually quite engaging, so I’m going to stay vague about it).  Yeah, the set up is pretty much all of Young Adult fiction over the last 10 years or so, so the structure so far is going to be familiar if you’ve read or seen any of the Hunger Games or Divergent series.  Don’t let this fool you though, you’re about to experience some truly stellar game design and play.

Like most open world games, Zero Dawn provides a main story line, a number of side quests, and also a few quests helpfully called “Errands”. I have to say, I appreciate the developers’ choice to readily identify how much a player can expect out of any given quest.  I often play under time constraints, and it’s nice to know at the outset if I should be settling in for an evening of uncovering part of the plot, or if I just need to go fetch something for someone, and only need 15 minutes to make it happen.

Like most open world games, what really sucked me in was the nature of the game’s universe, as well as the way the story unfolded. The Horizon universe is both familiar in some of its tropes, and also refreshingly interesting in others. I long ago realized that it has been centuries since the last truly original story has been written, at least for a human audience, so I don’t really expect complete novelty, but I also find great artistry in a storyteller’s ability to arrange a finite number of elements in a way that feels fresh. That’s what I get from this game’s world: In the same way that a delicatessen can offer up a novel signature sandwich from the same list of ingredients that every other deli uses, Horizon takes some of the greatest themes of post-apocalyptia and serves them up in a way you haven’t necessarily been conditioned to expect. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go on this without wandering into spoiler territory, so I’ll just leave it here.

Of course, Horizon: Zero Dawn is not a movie, it’s a video game. As such, it’s not a completely passive experience, and if there isn’t some interesting game play involved, then there’s very little point. This is where I really found the game to shine. The balance between combat, platforming and narrative is really something I’ve rarely seen. the Assassin’s Creed series is about the closest example I can think of as far as this balance goes, but without the steep larning curve and complicated control scheme. Combat in Zero Dawn is wonderfully intuitive, with a really interesting and entertaining array of ranged weapons, traps and snares, with what I found to be a very well-designed and effortless control system. The weapon wheel system works very smoothly and effortlessly, and the various weapons and ammunition types are well-balanced and offer a number of options for different play styles. By the time I had finished the first couple of tutorial missions, I felt right at home, and spent very little time thinking about the control scheme, and concentrating instead on how to best approach each encounter. If there is one shortcoming, though, it would be the lack of options for melee attacks. Given Aloy’s background and general nature, it’s not terribly surprising that the combat system would focus on range (also considering the sheer size and ferocity of many of the enemies).  Even so, the stealth mechanics on offer are also quite interesting, and go a long way toward satisfying the need for close-quarters combat without relying on repeated Hulk-style smashing and bashing.

I tend to be a completionist when it comes to open-world games, and I also admit that I am a complete sucker for trophies. With that in mind, I knew within the first hour of gameplay that I would be getting the Platinum on this one.  Just over a hundred hours later, I had pretty well explored every nook and cranny of Zero Dawn, and heard that final, sweet trill when the final trophy popped.  There is certainly no requirement to spend that much time finishing the game, and I admit to doing a bit of grinding to farm supplies that I may have been able to just buy, but I enjoyed every minute of it.  If you like poking around open-world environments, and solving the mystery of a long-past armageddon, then I highly recommend giving Horizon: Zero Dawn a try.

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