Earlier this year, I eagerly watched videos of walkthroughs about a new release from Guerrilla Games, called Horizon Zero Dawn. In the trailers, the staged showings looked promising, more than promising; offering a game environment which encompassed a badass warrior – Aloy – and a set of terrifying machine and human antagonists. I was enthralled but also concerned.
This is not a studio known for making games like this. Indeed, they have stuck to one franchise over their entire history, Killzone. I was also seeing other new experimental games come out from studios entering sphere’s in which they’d never developed before, going after ambitious projects – like the now infamous No Man’s Sky. I was worried, but I stayed optimistic.
The game came out in February of this year, and the reason I’m only now writing a review of it is because I didn’t buy it immediately. I’d almost pre-ordered No Man’s Sky and had escaped being burnt by pulling out at the last minute. I was worried I’d make the same mistake again. But a few weeks ago, I took the plunge and ordered it.
And what a mistake it was to not to order it upon launch. This game is a mastery of design, writing and creativity. It beautifully and seamlessly blends the harsh reality of living in a post-apocalyptic event with stunning vistas of Northern American landscapes. It seems to be a descendant of open-world classics such as the Elder Scrolls series in terms of the landscape, map, travelling and discovery, whilst simultaneously bringing a movement system which feels natural and enjoyable, everything Assassins Creed should be.
Aloy’s personality is partially what makes this game so engaging. She really is incredibly naïve when we first meet her as a small child, and even growing through to adulthood, her entire life is dominated by small town politics – revolving around her participation in a tribal ceremony. The journey this game takes her on, as she grows and comes to terms with the bigger picture, her realisation of her position in a larger world mirrors feelings we all experience. It makes her relatable, and her views are challenged in a way we’ve all felt. The character of Sylens shows her what compromise means, and we get a dark glimpse of where that compromise may have taken him as the finale of the game. Which of us hasn’t realised that the values we were taught as a child don’t always apply to the grey world in which we live?
In terms of the actual gameplay, I believe that Guerilla Games have done a good job of balancing out Aloy. She is no Mary-Sue, and they aren’t trying to give her superhuman powers to explain her provenance. However, for a person of her stature, she can withstand impacts which would crush a real person – being charged by a Behemoth for example. The power she has is not granted on the spot, which adds a good challenge to combat within the game. She is skilled with her weapons, but the Focus device, a technologically-advanced ear-piece from before the apocalyptic times, which allows her to read the landscape, and more importantly, the machines themselves. This is what gives her the edge in a world ruled by metal. She knows and acknowledges her own fragility without the Focus device in combating the machines, and I think that relates a lot to the overriding moral plot of the story – humankind relying too much on technology and machinery to do things for them. It makes a series of pixels into a human being you can not only understand and like, but also imagine yourself as. The fantastic voice acting by Ashly Burch serves only to reinforce the journey of pain, anger, epiphany and resolution.
It seems as if this same push towards a higher level of realism carries through every aspect of the game. The mechanics of both movement and combat are clear and well-thought out. Granted, there are several facets which have a feel of Assassin’s Creed to them, but there is a key difference. The AC franchise games require very little player skill or development to win combat; you can quite happily take on 40 enemies at once and as long as you keep spamming that button to counter, you’ll be fine. In Horizon Zero Dawn, you will be punished for such behaviour. Hard. Instead, you are required to think differently for each machine or enemy you come across. Pick a weapon you like the look of? You’ll likely die, especially when you come up against a Thunderjaw. Instead you must use the best tools available to you. And that’s where the Focus itself comes in.
Ridiculous Assassins Creed Combat (Credit: Gameserver)
It’s a unique way of giving the player an advantage – much like the Eagle Vision in Assassins Creed – but without a made-up reason. It does however fulfil the same purpose and is a justiciable and world-relevant method of assistance – identifying and tracking targets, finding clues and routes etc. But the best part about this plot device is that it breaks down the mechanical workings of each machine for you. And that is why you can take on a Thunderjaw, one of the deadliest machines, at level 15 and win – if you’re smart. It would tell you that the disc-launchers on the machine’s back are its weakness. Use arrows to dislodge them quickly, then turn the great beast’s strength against it. That’s why this game I believe offer’s a new way to deal with combat – the machines have different weaknesses, and they often appear in different combinations and groups, requiring you to have different equipment and approaches for every situation. The intelligence of the game demands situational awareness, too often was I killed by hiding in bushes only to realise that the Ravager I was hiding from has now walked behind me and has spotted my hiding place.
Again, this pushes us more towards realism in an unrealistic (I hope!) scenario. You would not hope to take down a B-2 Stealth Bomber the same way you would a tank, and that is reflected (albeit on a less extreme scale) in the game.
It comes across in the AI as well. Many games, some of which I won’t mention the name of *cough* Elder Scrolls, have a laughably stupid AI at times, which did not develop in line with your character’s development – a classic example is becoming a Thane in Skyrim and having the guards talk to you as if you were a beggar. None of the same in Horizon. At the start, she is an outcast, a child without a mother, a flawless conception, to be shunned by the village. This is reflected in dialogue and your available interactions with your fellow villagers.
However, skip forward to when you save several villager lives, and she is made a Seeker of the Nora, a position only assigned to a trusted member of the tribe and a renowned warrior. Immediately, the AI’s interactions change to reflect that. That level of depth and immersion gives you a deep sense of satisfaction for completing certain mission paths.
We’ve not even touched the graphics and the environment much, and there is a lot to say. Obviously one of the major draws of this game for players was the beauty of the environments in which you play – inspired by present day Colorado and Wyoming. However, one thing which needs noting is the weather. It’s so diverse and believable. No more streaking of small lines on the screen – in Horizon Zero Dawn when it rains, you check outside your window in real life. Aloy’s clothes get visibly drenched, the rivers run faster and louder, plants ooze water droplets from their leaves. With fog or sandstorms, the visibility is drastically reduced, the AI takes shelter, and your senses are dulled, making you more vulnerable to surprise attacks.
As you can see, absolutely fabulous so far. But sadly, I do have to include some imperfections. I really did think I would be able to go on without writing a single bad thing about this game. And then I played the final mission and watched the final cutscene. And I felt cheated. Let me explain more – but SPOILERS!
The plot advances much as you would expect – slowly at first, then picks up pace as Aloy realises the clock is running out on her to shut down the HADES situation. We see her and Sylens put their lives on the line, and you fear that Aloy won’t be able to contain the viral AI programme before time for the planet is doomed. You fight in an epic final battle, using cannons and deathbringer guns (essentially 50.cal Machine Guns). You think, yes this is how a game of this calibre should end.
You continue to fight the final battle against HADES protector minions before he can send out a worldwide signal to start the reset of Earth. By this point, you’ve learnt Aloy’s background, you know that she was created by GAIA as a clone of Dr. Sobeck to save the world from HADES. You’ve had your heart broken over and over, believing that this story might have a happy ending, to find out that for the most part, it does not. And yet through it all, you see one glimmer of hope amongst the doom and gloom and mass death: defeating HADES will save Earth. And you achieve it, and your final act in the game is to plunge your spear through HADES heart, overriding him forever.
NOT. The final cut scene for the game reveals Sylens trapping his old “friend” HADES again, reviving him to explore the depths of his knowledge once more. Now some of you may argue that this exemplifies human weakness. We know the fruit is forbidden but we can’t help ourselves but have a bite. This is true, but in this case, I believe it was Guerilla ensuring that they could build on the commercial success of this game by leaving the gate wide open for another Aloy adventure. That also makes sense, they need to pay their overheads and make enough money to develop a new game. But as a player, I felt my entire experience was for nought. The emotions (and there were emotions) that you go through rooting for this character, for this final outcome, only to be told that literally nothing you just did mattered. You saved villages sure, but on the planetary scale Aloy has come to embrace, your journey was for nought. I haven’t played it since; not even when they released the new DLC.
A part of me just feels that they would have been much better off leaving the story as it was: a self-contained unit. Many games in this sphere are set up to lead on into sequels. With many, we hope for it. However, I cannot help that feel that this game’s status as something different and brilliant would have been stronger had it been as a stand-alone game. Instead, commercial decisions took precedence over experience, and I believe the only one who lost out was the player.
That being said; we all know I’ll buy that sequel in a heartbeat. The mechanics, overall story and character are too tempting for me to resist. Damn you Guerilla Games.