Being an Xbox owner it is not often that I get to play PlayStation exclusives. Often I find myself thinking “ah that looks quite good” and that would be the end of it, or I would not even read much about the game at all, as I know full well that there is a very small chance that I will actually get to play it. However, whenever there is something that looks amazing, or I have heard great things about, I will somehow manage to find a way to play it. I did this a few years ago with the PS3 and managed to borrow one off of a friend in order to play The Last of Us (simply because the game looked and sounded amazing, and I was not disappointed). Funny enough I had to borrow the console off of one person and the game off of another. I then utilised that time to completed Uncharted 3 and a couple of other titles that I did fancy playing.
Now a few years later and I have managed to acquire a PS4 off of a friend in order to play Horizon: Zero Dawn. I have also borrowed Uncharted 4, which I intend to play next, as well as The Last of Us Remastered. I might even purchase a copy of The Last Guardian and play that before I give it back to him (giving him the copy of the game as a thank you present for lending me the console for so long. Thankfully he has an Xbox as well so he has got other things to keep him preoccupied in the meantime).
So, over the last few weeks I have been sessioning Horizon: ZD, and frankly, I have been loving it.
Created by Guerrilla Games (of Killzone fame and Shellshock: Nam ’67 on the PS2 – how good was that game!), Horizon: ZD is a third person open-world action adventure set hundreds of years into the future where “something” has happened (at this point we have no idea what) to the world which has ultimately lead to a post apocalyptic state where the humans now live in tribe like communities all over… also there are strange robots that look and act like certain animals (such as a tiger, or an antelope, but have freeze cannons, or shoot fire, or have rotating saws for mouths), which now roam freely across the Earth and cause chaos to the remaining humans.
The story follows the life of a young girl called Aloy, who is cast out from a tribe and forced to live as an outcast, raised by another outcast. After a tutorial sequence where we play as her as a little girl, falling into an old world ruin, she discovers a piece of “ancient” technology which (called a focus) which allows her to scan enemies and environments, as well as read ancient writing and see holographic records, and later on in the game, communicate with other characters. The reason I said “ancient” in quotation marks is because the Earth was clearly years more advanced than we are today, so it is the classic story of civilisation becoming too focused on technology and it eventually leading to its own demise, but Horizon does this storyline in a completely unique way that I found incredibly engaging and enjoyable. Personally for me, the story is why I loved this game and will give it a favourable review, but we will come back to this a little later.
So we fast forward a few years later and Aloy, under the training of the other Outcast, has become a brilliant scavenger and hunter of machines in the tribe’s sacred land. The idea is that she wants to learn more about her parents and where she came from, only knowing that the tribe cast her out when she was a baby. The Outcast has said that she must complete a proving in order to be accepted into the tribe, as they hold all the answers which she seeks, so we begin the game preparing for this moment.
When the proving comes, a rival tribe attacks, leaving destruction and corrupted machines in their wake. The corrupted machines do not attack the rival group and seem to be under their control. Aloy learns that the tribe leaders know fuck all about her past other than showing her a large metal door inside the mountain where she appeared before it as a baby, and using her focus, Aloy discovers the image of a woman who looks like her and so embarks on a quest of vengeance, trying to find those who attacked the tribe, as well as answers as to who is this woman and what is beyond the large metal door.
These are the two stories that run parallel to one another throughout the course of the game. The story of redemption against the rival tribe evolves and becomes a story of learning the current world, the cities and other civilisations that live beyond the original tribe’s sacred land (which she has never ventured beyond), but these are still very much in the same sort of tribal post apocalyptic fashion, whilst trying to stop a war between to the largest communities, and, at the same time, the other story of Aloy’s mysterious past eventually evolves into how the world came to be the way it is, what caused the end of man, and why there are animal like machines everywhere. This is an absolutely brilliant story that gave me so much information gradually, that I was really eager to learn more. I found myself wanting to head more towards a mission that hints towards discovering more information about the past, rather than dealing with issues that the Aloy might face in the present.
The two stories do an excellent job of intertwining together, such as having the buried ruins Aloy needs to access hidden beneath one of the rival tribe’s cities, or how that tribe relates to the main antagonist, when they are eventually revealed to us.
The only issue that I had with the story, is other than cut scenes or in game holograms (which you the game forces you to watch by locking you in the room with it and not opening it until the hologram is over), is through documentation and audio-logs. Now the documentation collectables are not a massive deal because as with most games that have this (such as Prey or Resident Evil), you can read as little or as much as you want of it. I personally found myself reading not much of it at all, as I found it really broke up the game and caused it to come to a halt. So in order to keep the flow going, I just overlooked them (to be fair the documents were pretty beefy).
With regards to the audio-logs, these things were getting right on my tits, especially when they are in-game. You can access them from the pause menu, but that breaks the flow of the game similar to sitting there reading a bloody text book. If you listen to the audio-logs when you first find them in game, then you are still free to control Aloy as the person on the other end rabbits away. Now as I said before the story was really engaging and I desperately wanted to learn more, so I was always interested in listening to them, but I wanted to continue playing at the same time. Most of the time this resulted in Aloy and whoever she was on the phone with to start up a conversation whilst the audio-log was going on, which meant everyone talking over each other and not being able to hear anyone! So it would mean that your best bet was to stand completely still and listen to it, but then it way as well have been only accessed under the pause menu, or gave us an in-game cut scene of her listening to it, since there is little or no point to us standing still whilst in-game, players are more likely going to start walking around or continue on with the game, missing the content.
There were also multiple audio-logs in one area, so if you wanted to listen to them all, or even collect them all, then you’d need to wait around for them to stop talking in order to proceed, but don’t go too far as someone else might just call Aloy up and start rabbiting over the top of it.
I just found that this really did break the gameplay up, like being on a roller coaster and stopping every five metres to listen to someone tell a story about a bridge. I think game developers today need to figure out another way to deliver this kind of information, and I think that simple in-game cut scenes are the way forward. Nothing like a proper CGI cut scene (where the graphics are better than the actual game) but a normal in-game one.
This was the only issue that I had with the actual story of the game. As I have said, the story was the main focus for me in Horizon: ZD, so it is probably why I have spent a lot of time discussing it. As for the actual gameplay, it was pretty solid… for the most part.
It plays similar to Far Cry, despite the fact that it is a third person game and not a first. In fact one of the side things you can do are Bandit camps which have the same features that they have in the Far Cry games (such as allies in cages, or one radio tower/horn used to call reinforcements), the only issue with Horizon: ZD is that the stealth is very basic. Most of the time I found myself starting to go stealth, getting past a few guards and killing a couple of others, only to be spotted and suddenly everyone nearby knowing exactly where I was, including the people I had just snuck past so now there are people behind me!
There were times when you hide in some long grass, out of the view of an enemy, only to step slightly out and getting spotted. It is difficult to tell where the grass section ends in order to avoid getting spotted. The game does give you a Skyrim-esc eye at the top of the screen which helps you see if you are visable or not, but unlike Skyrim, it is not in the middle of the screen, so sometimes you are not paying attention to it as you need to watch how close the enemy is getting to you.
Most of the time I found myself sacking off the stealth and engaging the enemy head on, using the sneaking mechanics to get myself into a good position, load up multiple arrows into my bow (which is a wicked set of skills to unlock) and setting up traps and mines to prepare for when shit kicks off. I found that this was actually easier than desperately trying to sneak past enemies. There are other skills to help with stealth, such as quiet running and obtaining armour which makes it harder to detect, but I found that there were much better skills to purchase (such as dealing more damage to downed enemies, and slowing down time for longer whist aiming).
Aloy’s main weapon is a bow and arrow, which you will use more than anything else, as you have a few other weapons available to you, but these are more for setting up ambushes, or sound good in theory, but most of the battles are chaotic and so you will rarely remember to switch to them, or use them effectively during said battle.
You can gather resources to help you craft different types of arrows and ammo types for the other weapons, as scanning enemies allows you see their weaknesses, to help you take down some of the bigger kinds, but really I found myself just using the heavy duty Hollow Point arrows, as travelling to and from missions, I picked up everything I came across (twigs and leaves for arrows, and flowers for medicine and other ammo types), so I was never short of anything. You can use Far Cry-esc crafting to create better inventory packs, ammo packs, bomb pouches, etc, so you can carry more, but thankfully during a battle, on the change weapon-wheel, you are able to easily and quickly craft more arrows or bombs on the fly, so long as you have the materials. You can this whilst falling, climb, swimming, dodge rolling, so the game doesn’t stop you from crafting because Aloy is technically using her hands for something else and couldn’t possibly craft anything at that moment in time.
The only other weapon that I used was a rope launcher type thing that you fire between two points to create a trip-wire of specific elements (depending what you want to use against what enemy type), and while this works for one on one battles, fights against multiple enemies just require you to doge roll and shoot with a normal bow and arrow, so other than setting up ambushes, you really don’t get the chance to use these weapons without going out of your way to do so.
Aloy also has a melee attack, using R1 for a light attack and R2 for a heavy one. This really only becomes useful when you manage to knock an enemy down, other wise you find yourself being hit mid-swing, especially with the heavy attack.
The robot animals themselves are what make this game unique compare to anything else. While they are in fact robots, they do act just like normal animals. The herbivorous they are masquerading as eat the grass and stop occasionally to look about like a deer (why a robot would eat grass is actually explained later on in the reveal of the story). There are around twenty different types and each one requires a different approach to killing them, as well as some being weaker to certain elements or ammo types compared to others. I think this might apply more for the harder difficulties, but I really found myself just dodging and using the Hollow Point Arrows whenever I could.
If you use your focus to scan an enemy, then for a specific amount of time, weak points will light up. It then becomes a game of trying to aim for these, whilst avoiding any other enemy that might be knocking about, and trying to destroy each of the weak points. Some of the enemies are harder to bring down than others, and might require a little more tactics to them, or waiting for the moments that their weak points are revealed, but most of the time my tactic was sound.
Some of the machines are quite daunting and do put up a good fight, while others are just annoying and get in the way.
You can override them and have them fight for you, but only if you sneak up to it, as well as others you are able to ride. I really only used this to traverse the map, rather than in combat, but you are able to ride them in battle since the game allows you to use your melee attack, as well as your bow and arrow whilst you ride on the back of a machine.
In order to override the bigger ones, you will need to venture into the underground automatic machine marking facilities; Cauldrens, and destroy a big bad one in there (which is actually nothing more than a standard enemy you meet later in the game which are often hanging around in packs, but at the time it felt like a proper boss) and then you are able to override more types of machines. There are around five of these in the game in each of the areas of the map.
Along with these the game also has its own take on the classic Ubisoft style tower climbing to unlock the information in an area, gameplay mechanics for open-worlded games. These are called Tall Necks. They look like enormous giraffes that have large UFO-like heads, which walk around certain areas of the map. These are very much big puzzles as you need to figure out where you need to go in order to get onto the beast. Thankfully they do not attack you, but there are plenty of enemies hanging around who do. Once you are on there, you need to climb up it and reach the disc at the top, override it and that section of the map becomes unlocked, revealing all camp fires (save points) and key locations in that area. This is quite a nice take on an already overused mechanic.
There are about five of these as well, so the game gives you the illusion that it is bigger than it is.
This is a key point in this game that I found; the game doesn’t actually have too much to it. For an open-world game, you can easily complete 80% of the game in about 30 hours. Think of Skyrim Final Fantasy, you would need at least 30 hours just to complete the main storyline (or in Skyrim’s case the four main questlines, plus all the side quests that really do need to be played).
When you enter a new place in Horizon: ZD, you are given maybe three quest, and one of them will always be some boring fetch quest (called an Errand in this game), while the other two might be a bit meatier and enjoyable. If this was Skyrim, I would have been flooded with quests from every angle. Even the main city in Horizon: ZD feels a little desolate. There are plenty of NPCs walking around and going about their lives, and you can even interact with them by clicking on them and them saying a little line, but you never really need to do this ever unless the game has advised you to talk to someone, making the place feel a little hollow.
The merchants in this game all have the same equipment available, so there is no need to favour one in a certain location over another. It does make the world feel a little uninteresting at times.
With regards to the world, I did find it amusing how there is a lush thick jungle sitting beside a barren desert wasteland, right next to snowy mountains, all within a mile radius of one another. But it does a good job of making the environments unique from one another, rather than letting the barren desert wasteland become stagnant.
While it is not the biggest open-world map I have seen, it is also not the smallest. I think it is a perfect balance given how much content the game actually has. As Goldie Locks once said “this one is just right”.
What I am getting at is that compared to other massive open-world games, Horizon: ZD feels as if it falls a little bit short. Some of the side quests are quite long with enough content to sink your teeth into, but nine times out of ten you will just be following a trail of footprints brought up by using your focus, to a certain location.
Other than the side quests, the Cauldrons (the secret facilities where you learn to override more machines), Tall Necks, and bandit camps, you are also given a load of hunting challenges (as is tradition with this type of game) as well as corruption zones where you must fight against a horde of dangerous machines, so the game does offer a lot for players to do, and you can choose to do as little or as much of it as you like. Some of these side things are “classic” for this type of game, and so you have found that you have already done these may times before in previous games. There is even a side mission you get early on to get the best armour in the game if you collect all the tokens scattered around the map, a similar mission to ones we have done in Fallout and Assassins Creed.
Any issues I had with the game, such as the absence of a decent resolution with the character Aloy is trying to take vengeance upon, and the lack of a proper final boss, I was happy to overlook all of this because the story was so engaging and had be completely gripped throughout. There are weak characters in this (other than maybe two) who were not interesting and even the main character had that silly awkward American style comedy that I do not know a single person who enjoys it and doesn’t find it annoying. It makes me wonder if the tribes found copies of ancient American sitcoms and learned to speak from them.
The gameplay is solid and, other than a few annoying things (such as not having amazing climbing mechanics as you never really know what ledges you can climb up or not), there isn’t really much to fault.
The fights against the machines are what make it, and some of the side missions lead to enormous bosses, who are then milked once more later on in the game, but at the time they are great fun to fight and defeat.
Character building is good and you feel as if the skills you pick do actually come in handy, which is all you can ask for from this type of game (which I call a Semi-RPG, similar to Assassins Creed and Dying Light).
Overall Horizon: Zero Dawn is a good game made great by a deep and interesting story. I know this will not appeal to everyone, but I really did enjoy learning about how the world came to be and what happened to the ancient civilisation that we today are destined for. It is a front runner so far for my own personal game of the year (which we will discuss on Bearded Robot another time) and so if nothing else manages to win me over, this game will take the gold. If you have a PlayStation then I really recommend it, and if not, then if like me you manage to acquire one from a friend, grab yourself a copy of this and enjoy this PlayStation exclusive.