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Horizon Zero Dawn
Game Reviews

Horizon Zero Dawn

Though familiar, this PS4 exclusive polishes the open-world adventure formula to a robotic gleam.

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We’re only a few months into 2017 and it already feels better than most of 2016 combined. Sure, we haven’t had an Overwatch-scale nuclear funbomb dropped on us yet…well, we kind of have, but we’ll talk about the Nintendo Switch and its headlining game later…but we’ve seen solid release after solid release in these first few months.

We could talk about Tales of Berseria, Yakuza 0, Nioh and plenty of other games, but for now it’s definitely worth taking a few minutes to talk about the latest big-name PlayStation 4 exclusive, Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Horizon follows Aloy, a girl living in the post-apocalyptic ruins of future Earth. A mysterious calamity befell the world, leaving only scattered tribes of humans picking through metallic ruins and defending themselves from robotic menaces. There’s more to Aloy’s tale than just survival, though, as she’s tied into the world and its ancient history in more ways than you’d think.

This is basically Far Cry Primal or perhaps The Witcher 3 with some twists thanks to the post-apocalyptic motif. You’ve got animals (robotic and otherwise) to hunt, herbs to collect, sidequests to complete, towers to climb…the works. If you’re a fan of the modern take on open-world exploration then you’re bound to have a good time with Horizon. Horizon does a lot of things right, but innovation in gameplay isn’t really one of those; it’s even got a rudimentary crafting system like pretty much every game released since 2011!

This might sound underwhelming, but don’t underestimate how much can be said for Horizon’s setting, as it’s what elevates this game from being a third-person Far Cry clone and makes it something special. The aforementioned robotic menaces take the form of mechanical animals, “mechanimals” if you will, which you should, because I just made that term up and it’s amazing. They have their own ecosystem that you’ll learn to engage with, including chicken-like Watchers that warn other robots if you get close, docile Striders that can be mounted if you can avoid upsetting the herd and more dangerous predatory creatures like Scrappers or Sawtooths that serve as tests of your combat skill.

That also plays a role in the game’s combat system, one of the areas of gameplay where Horizon really does excel. That’s not so much due to innovation, as what we’ve got here is essentially Monster Hunter Lite or a gentler take on Dark Souls’ dodge-focused rhythm, as it’s due to polish and solid fundamentals. Taking on speedy or large monsters is an undertaking that can involve setting up traps, discovering and targeting weak points and wearing the appropriate gear. Naturally, sheer gaming skill can substitute for a lot of this, especially as Aloy’s skill tree provides some powerful boosts…but it’s still a more in-depth combat system than we’ve seen in this kind of game in quite some time.

Naturally, given Horizon’s AAA budget and marketing, it should come as little surprise that the production values are through the roof and the game is gorgeous. Exploring the wilderness is a treat, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Likewise, the game’s voice acting is generally on point. As a game that begs for politicization given its main character and aspects of the setting, it’s also incredibly restrained, staying firmly on the not-so-condescending side of that particular scale despite having every chance to do otherwise.

One mention needs to be made of the game’s controls, which are largely perfect aside from one quirk: Aloy isn’t as “sticky” as other protagonists in similar games, so some manual dexterity is required around cliffs, logs and other precious situations or she’s liable to plummet to her doom.

As a AAA exclusive with Sony’s backing behind the gleaming veneer, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Horizon: Zero Dawn is well-made and worth trying. There’s plenty to do, it’s all worth doing, and you’ll have a great time doing most of it. I’d almost call it a must-buy for PS4 owners…assuming those PS4 owners didn’t just go in on a Nintendo Switch and the strikingly similar The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.