Horizon: Zero Dawn Review – The thrill of the hunt

Horizon: Zero Dawn sees Killzone developers Guerrilla Games move onto fresh hunting grounds with a completely fresh genre and setting. This new world shows humanity going back to basics, but with a neat futuristic sci-fi twist. Humans may be running around in tribes with spears and arrows again, but instead of mutants, zombies or aliens, they’re fending off legions of robotic wildlife.

There’s a whole metal ecosystem to take on, everything from grazing cattle-like creatures, giant stampeding bulls, limo-sized alligators (or Snapmaws as the locals call them), all the way up to laser/missile-firing T-Rex (the dreaded Thunderjaws). As setups go, it’s one of the most original I’ve seen in years.

That doesn’t mean that everything feels brand new. Actually, if you played through Far Cry: Primal last year then many of the systems may feel overly familiar. Aloy (that’s you) uses a bow and arrow for ranged combat, a spear for close-up melee moves and must constantly forage for items to create ammo.

Crafting new upgrades for ammo pouches and gear uses similar wildlife hunting mechanics to the likes of recent Far Cry games and Red Dead: Redemption. That said, Horizon’s hunting is needlessly drawn out thanks to most animals you kill not having the ‘skin’ or ‘bone’ you need, which is offensive padding of the worst kind. As the game goes on though, this needless busywork eventually fades into the background with other parts of the game playing an absolute stormer.

The world takes a few hours to open up, but there’s a fantastic variety of areas to explore once Aloy is given her purpose by her rather arsey tribe. The recognisable remains of our civilisation are few and far between. So much time and destruction has passed, that nature has largely reclaimed everything. It’s a world considerably more forgotten than other future-based games like Fallout 3 or The Last of Us.

That’s not a bad thing though, as spotting the occasional remnant of a building feels important and purposeful. They often prompt thoughts from Aloy, giving us a take on what a future civilisation might make of our world. Throughout the game, both the player and Aloy are trying to work out where the robots came from in the first place and these architectural remains help to emphasise what was destroyed so many years ago.

The geographical terrain is wonderfully diverse with forests, mountains, snowscapes, swamps, jungles, Wild West-style canyons, grassy meadows and more included. It’s no surprise that Guerrilla Games know how to unleash the PS4’s graphical grunt (launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall is still gorgeous), but they’ve stepped things up here. In addition to eye-catching details like a robot’s intricate moving parts, flowers and long grass flowing in the wind, or trees that are obliterated by stampeding robots, the lighting makes the world stand out in a dynamic way that even The Witcher III can’t touch.

While reigning graphical champ Uncharted 4 only has to look gorgeous at a set time of day, Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world works on a day/night cycle and changes character throughout. The show-stopping sunsets paint the world in warming glows, the mid-day sun highlights the clarity of views for miles (no masking fog here). Damn, even the night looks great thanks to the way moonlight provides a bluish hue while the robots’ neon parts wink at you in dark, just begging to be hunted. You’ve never seen stars like this in a game either once you tilt that right analogue stick up. The in-game photo mode will have you carefully framing images to upload via the Share button throughout. And that’s just running on a PS4. PS4 Pro owners with a 4K HDR TV can expect things to look even better. Well, apparently, I daren’t see it in case I have to buy a whole new gaming setup.

The audio deserves a mention too and I’d urge you to plug a set of beefy over-ear headphones into your DualShock 4 to truly immerse yourself in Aloy’s world. Nearby robots are almost always grunting, moaning, screeching, bellowing and such, allowing you to identify them by sound alone. The deep guttural moans of the large Tramplers can be heard at great distances and sound so much more layered than through a TV. A personal favourite though has to be the Deathbringer gun you can fire after removing it from a Thunderjaw – man is that thing loud!

The thrill of the hunt

Horizon is at its best when taking on the larger, boss-like creatures, preferably when you’re a little under-levelled, just to make the killing blow all the more satisfying. Don’t skimp on upgrade points or wait to unlock each weapon type. Once you have one of everything, even the cheap ones, you can really start to have fun exploiting weaknesses.

Sure, fire bombs from the slingshot don’t seem to have a high damage rating, but use them on a robot component weak to fire and you can eventually break it down and have the beast bursting into flames for prolonged and draining damage. Even regular arrows can take advantage of elemental attacks, such as breaking the chest armour off the evasive winged Glinthawks. One more careful shot at the canister underneath and they come tumbling back down to earth in a frozen clatter ready to take some severe damage from Aloy’s spear.

Spear attacks come in basic strong or weak strikes and are bolstered by spending skillpoints on silent strikes and critical hits. Spend more later in the game and a heavy strike can tumble most enemies, making room for another critical strike. It’s easy to get a rhythm going, but this can make melee combat feel stagnant and a bit on the boring side compared to setting traps and using the bow.

Ah the bow, what a weapon. There has been some seriously strong competition in gaming archery in recent years (hello Tomb Raider and Far Cry 3) but Guerrilla comes out on top here. Despite the ridiculousness of taking down a robo T-Rex with arrows (I decided to let that logic slide a long time ago) Aloy’s varied ammo bag and stylish shooting hits the sweet spot.

In addition to regular slow-motion aiming, Aloy is able to slow down time aiming while sliding or jumping, making for some of the coolest takedowns around. Sliding underneath a charging beast and nailing a heart-shot as it pounces overhead is action gaming at its finest. It should get old, but it never does. And because it can be quite difficult aiming at close range, at speed, while moving, the telltale component strike audio cue is just divine.

Strategic elements to the action are optional, but they will make life easier. I had little time for the proximity or trigger traps, but the tripcaster (fire a wire across two points to create a tripping hazard), or the ropecaster (use to pin larger enemies down with multiple ropes) are easy to use in a pinch and make the absurdity of Aloy’s task seem more believable and rewarding compared to just spamming arrows at it forever. Oh and Tremors’ movie fans, you’re going to love one fight in particular.

Story struggles

While end of the world scenarios are commonplace in gaming to say the least, the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is one you’ll want to know more about. It would seem robot dinosaurs are the boost the old, clichéd setting needed! So it’s a shame to see the main core of the story, where did Aloy come from and how did the world end up in this state, handled so clumsily.

Instead of slowly giving you easily digestible chunks throughout the narrative, all the important parts take place in the last few missions. That in itself isn’t so bad, but the fact that so much of it is found in large stashes of audio/holo diaries or hidden documents lying around in the final areas ruins the pacing. You often have to listen rooted to the spot while the audio diary plays out before moving in-case some other in-game dialogue starts talking over it. There must have been at least ten diaries in a row at one point. It’s clunky, outdated and completely at odds with the achievements in combat mechanics, visual flair and audio design found elsewhere in the game.

What’s arguably worse is that the finale of the game feels held back. With such an immense encounter teased throughout, it was hard to not feel short-changed after the game’s ending didn’t reach its full potential. That’s the world we live in though; no new IP is created without room for sequels. Guerrilla could have really nailed this with one game; it doesn’t feel like there’s much more to do with Horizon’s world after spending nearly 50 hours there. Make no mistake though, Horizon has already sold well and the scores have been high – we’ll surely be seeing another game. I just hope Guerrilla Games has enough left in the tank to take Aloy to new lands with unseen mecha-wildlife to hunt. Bringing something this fresh to the fore again will be a difficult task.

Pros

  • Breathtaking visuals
  • Combat feels fresh and exciting
  • Audio sounds incredible through headphones

Cons

  • Watered down finale
  • Story is clunky and rushed
  • Crafting is needlessly drawn out

The Short Version: While the lacklustre ending is a shame, there’s no doubt that Horizon: Zero Dawn has turned out to be one of the best games yet on PS4. The aesthetic flair applied to the outdoor environments make exploring a joy and the hunting gameplay is consistently rewarding as you take on the mighty robotic beasts of the future with the odds stacked against you. If you’re looking for your next big PlayStation adventure, Horizon: Zero Dawn is waiting.

8.5/10

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