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‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ Review: A Triumph for Guerrilla Games

I’ve been a fan of Guerrilla Games since I received that fateful PS2 demo disk with a small chunk of “Killzone” in the mail. The AI was stupid, even for 2004, but the graphics and the gameplay were incredible. I’ve played every single one of Guerrilla Games’ releases since then, and they’ve all had a tried and true feeling of great graphics and gameplay with a mediocre-at-best story. I know a lot of other people have picked up on this too, so I’ll just get it out of the way – “Horizon Zero Dawn” breaks Guerrilla’s mold in the best way imaginable.

Horizon begins with a cutscene that establishes Alloy and her caretaker Rost as outcasts of the Nora tribe. Rost by choice, Alloy for unknown reasons. Rost trains her from birth to be a first rate hunter so that she can re-join the Nora tribe as a Brave (warrior). It’s a great opening, but to be truthful it has just a little too much exposition. I understand that setting the table for a completely new IP that takes place after the fall of humanity in an Earth ruled by robot dinosaurs is extremely tough, but the first hour or so of the game is mostly (beautiful) cutscenes. It’s almost as if Guerrilla was nervous people would give up without a highly detailed story, so they front loaded as much as they could without giving anything away.

Horizon’s tale of revenge is far and away better than anything they’ve done before, but It definitely has some weird beats that make it hard to suspend your disbelief at some points. Alloy is aware that the world of the past isn’t as divine as the people who surround her think it is, but she rarely questions them or tries to convince them that they’re seeing the world through the wrong lens.

Alloy is a strong main character, and she’s really hard not to empathize with. She knows there’s more to the world around her than the rest of the people in her life are seeing and she’s always ready to question if. While you can choose to answer some dialog moments in different tones ranging from compassionate to vindictive, at the end of the day she’s kind and caring, and she’s always there to stand up and help people who can’t help themselves. She doesn’t let other people take advantage of her, and she doesn’t take any hits lying down. It’s tough not to be on her side throughout the entire story, even if you’re not sure you want to be.

Voice acting is largely pretty good, and the amount of NPC variations are surprisingly diverse. The dialog system is ripped almost directly from Fallout 4, and questioning NPC’s further usually rewards you with some good info like a secret way into a bandit holdout or a person to talk to before going into a fight. The different customs of the various tribes are a little tough to wrap your head around at points, though which made some of the story missions a little confusing for me.

It might be a waste of words to say this, but “Horizon” is one of the best looking games I’ve ever played. The amount of stuff packed into the different environments adds a sense of realism that rivals Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, even though it’s an open world game. The different regions of the map are heavily diversified, and since the game takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, many of them call back to real world locations. My favorite places are built around giant, dilapidated skyscrapers overgrown by lush green foliage. Some of the later environments haven’t been shown in trailers yet, so I won’t spoil them, but the game changes things up enough to keep things fresh.

I played it on a PS4 Pro, but unfortunately I can’t comment on any visual differences because the PS4 Pro benefits are coming in a day one patch. It still looked incredible in 1080p, though and it ran without a hitch for the entire time I played.

At the beginning I was casually completing quests and hunting challenges in a smaller area, and I never thought to zoom out the map. Once I started to traverse North, I gained a side quest that drew a line directly West across the map. I panned over, zoomed out, and I was blown away. The world in “Horizon Zero Dawn” is absolutely massive. This is when I realized that “Horizon Zero Dawn” wasn’t a third-person version of “Far Cry,” but a great page taken out of “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s” book.

This made me nervous. So many modern open world action games fall victim to focusing on quantity over quality. They have this giant, sprawling sandbox but they fall short on actually filling it with things to do. This isn’t the case in “Horizon.” Every inch of “Horizon’s” map is built to give you something to do. Whether it’s a main quest, side quest, hunting challenge or collectible search, you’re almost never going to hit a long stretch without something to do other than hold the sprint button and run. I have a feeling Guerrilla made it this way on purpose. What tipped me off was the way fast traveling is handled.

There are countless bonfires placed all over Horizon’s map, and when you come across them you can quick save which places them as green markers on your map. You’re able to fast travel between them, but only with a cartable item. At the beginning of the game, it’s really hard to find all the necessary resources to craft a fast travel pack, which forced me to run all around the map and realize that it wasn’t just an empty barren wasteland. Even better is the fact that just as things started getting a little monotonous, I gained the ability to tame weird robot horses called Striders which can get you anywhere you need to go.

Speaking of the robot creatures in the game – they’re awesome. At first I thought I’d only be fighting robot dinosaurs, but “Horizon” actually has a great variety of enemy types. As you travel West across the map, you’ll start to find different types of creatures. You’ll fight giant robot crocodiles, T-Rexes, eagles, ostriches and deer just to name a few. A lot of them are actually pretty terrifying at some points because they never give you a second to breathe and take advantage of them.Things get especially hairy when you have to fight multiple “boss” creatures at once. It’s a double-edged sword, though because some of the fights have really bad checkpoint systems that had me banging my head against the wall and forced me to exploit enemies for the sake of advancing.

Seeing these robot creatures for the first time almost always instills a since of awe. Killing them gives me a sense of triumph that I haven’t felt in many other games. Alloy relies almost entirely on a bow and arrow to fight, but she also has a slingshot and a different kind of bow called a Tripcaster that lets you create tripwires that shock and/or blow up when enemies trip them. Weirdly, the different classes of weapons aren’t really explained by the game. “Horizon” leaves it up to you to discover how each of them work and which of them to take into fights with specific creatures. It’s really confusing and even frustrating at first, but it forced me to try different types of bows and other weapons out on enemies instead of relying on one bow for the entire game like I might have otherwise.

One way that “Horizon” DOES pull from Ubisoft’s latest “Far Cry” games is in the way that it lets you tackle combat situations any way you see fit. Once you unlock enough different outfits and weapons, you’ll get a feel for different loadouts that you can use to go in quiet, loud or a little of both. It’s a smart system and it stops the limited weapon-set available from getting boring to use over the 30+ hour game. Additionally, like pretty much every Ubisoft game these days, revealing the map requires climbing a tower and hacking into it – but there’s a twist. In each region of the map there are saucer-headed brontosauruses roaming around crumbing old world buildings. You’re tasked with finding a platform to jump onto their backs and climb to their heads like in Shadow of The Colossus. It’s not that much different than what we’ve seen before, but you only have to do it a few times throughout the game and it’s usually pretty easy so the system doesn’t outstay its welcome.

While both the main and side quests in “Horizon” are mostly pretty great, my favorite part of the game is the collection of Cauldrons littering the map. As I mentioned earlier, you’re able to take over the robotic creatures in “Horizon,” but to increase the number of creatures you can hack you have to traverse challenging dungeons culminating in a boss fight. Once you beat the boss, you’re rewarded with a hefty sum of experience and the list of robotic creatures you can hack into increases. It’s not necessary to seek out the Cauldrons, but it’s usually worth it as you progress through the game because there’s nothing cooler than having a robot Ox ready to kick any creature’s ass that chooses to mess with you.

After pouring dozens of hours into “Horizon Zero Dawn,” I’m relieved and excited hat Guerrilla Games has evolved as much as it has over the past 13 years. I’ve always been a fan, but “Horizon” is the shot of adrenaline I really think they needed to solidify themselves as one of Sony’s best first party studios. Alloy is an incredible character, and I hope to see her again in the future. “Horizon Zero Dawn” is yet another must play exclusive in the PlayStation 4’s library.

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