I wasn’t impressed with Horizon Zero Dawn when I watched its first official trailer back at E3 2015. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think it was visually stunning, but nothing else about it piqued my interest. Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of fighting against robots or androids in games, so you can only imagine my apathy towards battling giant, beast-like machines.
However, what I didn’t realize at the time is that Horizon Zero Dawn is much more than that, and that fighting those giant metal creatures is an absolute blast. Because I was able to score it at a super low price of $10, I went into it doubting that I’d see it through to the end. To my surprise, I wound up sinking over 40 hours (and still counting) into it, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
Honestly, if Red Dead Redemption II wasn’t coming out tomorrow, I’d purchase The Frozen Wilds DLC and devote more hours of my life to Horizon Zero Dawn. It surprised me in the best way possible, surpassing all expectations and becoming one of my favorite games on PS4.
The Most Beautiful Game Ever?
I won’t spend too much time fawning over the visuals because if you know anything about Horizon Zero Dawn, then you know it’s probably the best looking game on PS4. Hell, I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most visually stunning game of all time. Never has a post-apocalyptic wasteland looked so damn good. Character models and animations are more realistic than any I’ve ever seen, and the landscapes are picturesque to say the least.
A clear, vast depth of field allows you to gaze and marvel at hills, mountains, and valleys from afar, which inspired me to frequently stop and admire the gorgeous and masterful world design. From sandy deserts to lush, green forests, you can find nearly any type of biome in Horizon Zero Dawn’s giant map, and it all looks remarkable. The breathtaking beauty of the environment made it slightly less annoying when I was forced to travel to a faraway objective because I was out of Fast Travel Packs. I guess taking the ability to fast travel at will away is Guerilla Games’ way of encouraging you to explore the incredible world it built. A questionable design decision, but I did traverse most of the map because of it.
A Vast and Dynamic Environment
Not only is the world beautiful and vibrant, it’s also living and breathing. Packs of machines graze together in the wilds, while bands of bandits terrorize travelers whom cross their paths. Tall grass sways in the wind, rivers flow with rushing water, and NPCs interact with one another and the environment. Best of all, there are interesting characters littered throughout the map, and many have work for you to do. If you ever find yourself running short of activities, just take a quick stroll. You’ll surely find someone with some problem you can solve with your investigative skills and badassery.
A strong side mission variety ensures you never feel like you’re constantly doing the same thing. You may find yourself investigating a murder in one mission, only to find yourself saving a group of soldiers from a pack of corrupted machines in the next. I never felt like the mission structure was redundant, keeping me engaged and eager to take on more jobs.
My only complaint about the environment is lack of interactivity with the settlements within it. The major cities, while intricately designed, are small and not very fun to explore. Each has its own personality and atmosphere, which is reflected in its architecture and the attire of its citizens, but there isn’t much to do within them. You may find a fun side activity here and there, but there aren’t many structures you can enter or mini games you can partake in. Simply put, there’s no point in spending more than a few minutes in each.
A Very Human Narrative
Unlike the cold, artificial fauna you spend most of the game battling, the main story of Horizon Zero Dawn is emotion-evoking. It takes place in 31st century America; a time where humans have regressed to primitive, tribal societies as a result of a technological apocalypse. Revolving around Aloy, a young outcast who is uncertain about her past or where she came from, it explores discovering one’s true self and fulfilling one’s destiny.
It’s a coming-of-age tale where Aloy learns a lot about her purpose and who she is, helping you more deeply connect with her character and care about what becomes of her. Throughout the course of the narrative, you meet other well-developed characters that you grow to love more and more with each interaction. My personal favorite is Erend Vanguardsman, an Oseram who is bold and charming on the surface, but insecure underneath. I found him to be particularly interesting, and enjoyed my interactions with him more than other characters.
When an extremist cult called the Eclipse attempts to reawaken a powerful enemy, Aloy learns that her destiny is to stop them from doing so, learning much about the Old World, Project Zero Dawn, and the people behind it along the way. It’s an exciting, well-written narrative that eventually builds up to an explosive climax where the remnants of humanity must band together to defend against a tyrannical evil. The last fight finds the perfect balance of difficulty, giving you a challenge that’s difficult, but not frustrating, which is an effective formula for a fun final battle that you’ll want to replay.
While I loved the story, there is one thing I can do without; the meaningless dialogue prompts. There are a few scenes in the campaign where you are prompted to choose how Aloy responds to another character’s words or actions. However, they don’t affect the outcome of the story in any way. It would have been nice to see a more dynamic choice system that actually affected the progression of the story. There really isn’t a point of including a system like this if there aren’t rewards or repercussions for your decisions.
Rage Against the Machines
Combat is where Horizon Zero Dawn shines the brightest. The gargantuan map is home to a variety of hostile machines and humans, and, to my surprise, I had much more fun battling the mechanical beasts. Each of these metal creatures is comprised of various components, some of which armor weak areas on their bodies while others are used as weapons. It’s up to you to identify these components and strip them from your enemies to give yourself an advantage in battle.
This adds a layer of strategy to combat that I haven’t seen in many other games. Instead of blindly going into battles and firing arrows with reckless abandon, I was more inclined to analyze beasts with my focus, learn about their components and where on their bodies they were located, and target them. If a machine had a ranged weapon, like a cannon or launcher, I would target it first so it couldn’t hurt me from distance. Many times, I was able to sever a weapon from a machine, pick it up, and use it against its previous owner. As for machines with flammable tanks, I would pepper them with fire arrows until they erupted into a fiery blaze. It’s all about learning your enemies’ weaknesses and exploiting them with the right weapons.
To successfully and efficiently take down machines, you need a suitable arsenal of weaponry. Horizon Zero Dawn offers a wealth of options – from fire arrows to electric tripwires. You can set traps to lure machines into, or you can stun them with shock arrows and beat the crap out of them with your melee weapon. The Tearblast Arrow, my personal favorite, releases a powerful pulse that almost instantly knocks components off machines. This comes in handy as it helps your preserve other types of arrows that are more useful for other purposes.
An Unexpected Level of Depth
I’m astonished by the depth of Horizon Zero Dawn. I didn’t expect it to be so expansive, but, man, there is a lot of content to dive into. Throughout the course of the campaign, you’ll uncover data logs, in both audio and text formats, that unveil information about how the world ended up the way it is. You can spend hours upon end listening to and reading these logs. I spent a great deal of time going through the ones I discovered, and I still feel like I hardly scratched the surface.
Additionally, a simple, yet effective, crafting system allows you to modify your weapons and armor. There is a plethora of upgrades and buffs you can apply to your gear, and what you choose to do depends on your playstyle and the types of enemies you are going to fight. Plan to tango with a herd of Grazers? Boost the fire damage of your bow so you can explode their blaze canisters faster. Prefer to take the stealth route and silently dispose of your enemies? Increase the stealth rating of your armor.
Lastly, the economy of the world is intriguing to say the least. Metal shards are the main source of currency, but sometimes they aren’t enough to purchase what you need. Many traders require you to bundle specific machine parts with metal shards to purchase an item, weapon, or piece of armor. This puts more importance on the hunting aspect of the game. I frequently found myself looking for specific machine habitats, stalking my prey, vanquishing it, and looting it for parts. I actually liked this because I probably wouldn’t have spent much time hunting otherwise. It made me appreciate the process of learning about my prey and strategically taking it out using as little resources as possible.
I Was Wrong
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was wrong about Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s not the first time I loved a game I initially wrote off, and I guarantee it won’t be the last. With the high cost of games and the little time I have to play them these days, I need to be selective with what I buy and play. Fortunately for me, I was able to get Horizon Zero Dawn on the cheap during a time where I didn’t have many games to play. I’m glad it worked out that way because I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone whom owns a PS4. If you haven’t done so already, make time to play this game. You’ll be glad you did.
Did you play Horizon Zero Dawn? Did you enjoy it as much as I did, or did it leave you with much to be desired? Has there ever been a game that you wrote off, but ended up loving when you played it? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!