Horizon: Zero Dawn Review: Robo Dinos Make for Good Huntin’

Developer: Guerrilla Games

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platform: PS4

Release date: February 28, 2017

It’s a nice sunny day as I make my way through the tall grass. Birds are chirping, and a fox scampers off across the field into the woods. I hear them before I see them, the sound all too familiar. Then one comes into view, stalking on two legs with its tail straight out, its conical head sweeping back and forth, seeking out what shouldn’t be there. Two more follow, along with a herd of compact, four legged beasts that bury their head in the grass. They haven’t seen me yet, so all is calm. I raise my bow, aiming for the round, glowing blue orb in the center of a Watcher’s head. Hopefully, I won’t miss. Then those blue lights will turn yellow in alarm, and then red as they launch an attack…

Such is the world created by Guerrilla Games (the Killzone series) in their new open world action-adventure game Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s inhabited by Aloy, a young girl with mysterious origins along with her tribe the Nora. This is Earth far into the future, long after some unnamed calamity rocked civilization and nature has reclaimed the planet. Ruins of old cities dot the landscape, and roaming across the fields and through the woods are robotic beasts, mechanical representations of prehistoric flesh and bone counterparts that have long gone extinct. Humans have separate into different tribes, and old technological wonders have taken on a divine sheen.

Aloy has been raised by Rost, an outcast from the tribe. Rost teaches young Aloy early in the game how to hunt, and how to avoid the robotic dinosaurs roaming the land. An incident has her rescue a young boy, even though Rost warns that since they are outcasts they are not to speak to members of the tribe. Aloy has a penchant for getting into trouble, and one day an exploring trip leads to her falling down a hole. Underground she finds the remnants of a sophisticated bunker, along with a triangular object that she learns is called a Focus. The Focus allows Aloy to see what others cannot. She can scan objects and highlight dangers, and as Aloy grows her Focus aids her in surviving. It’s after she takes part in a tribal ritual called the Proving, which ends in a violent attack by a group of killers, that she begins to learn just how important her Focus is, and launches her to seek out the answers to a mystery surrounding both her own origin and that of the robotic beasts.

The Focus forms an integral part of the gameplay in Horizon: Zero Dawn. Like Batman’s Detective Mode in the Arkham games or Geralt’s Witcher sense, Aloy’s Focus helps her spot enemies or track clues as she explores the mystery surrounding her world. Her Focus highlights things of importance, be they a blood stain on the ground where a warrior fell or an old device that proves to be a data link or an old journal from the world that came before. The Focus is activated by pressing on R3, and you can use it to tag enemies with R2, much like tagging enemies in the Far Cry games. For the robotic dinos, you can do one further. Pressing R1 will highlight the track that said dino is walking, which can come in handy for evasion or the laying of a trap. It’s a neat feature that gives Aloy a slight advantage, though using it doesn’t always translate into success in combat.

And combat will be something you engage in often. Thankfully, the game gives you plenty of weapons to aid you in this task. Your spear is your melee weapon, and as you progress and earn skill points you can choose to learn skills that enable you to do stealth strikes or even override the dinos, turning an enemy into a friend. For some beasts, like the Striders, you can end up using them as mounts (helpful when traveling over long distances). You can’t modify your spear like your other weapons, but with learning combat skills that never really becomes an issue. You’ll be using the other toys in your arsenal more often anyway, as for most enemies you’re better off using ranged attacks instead of getting up close and personal outside of being stealthy.

Your main weapon will be your bow, and you’ll have a variety to choose from. Bows can be modified (modifications can be fitted into slots in the crafting menu) with things that can cause greater amounts of damage or provide additional stability. Different bows utilize different types of arrows. Your initial bow will be capable of using regular arrows and fire arrows, while other bows provide a more precision shot from a greater distance or allow you to use arrows that can freeze, shock, or provide a pulse that shatters pieces off of a mechanized beast. Learning the Concentration skill slows down time and helps you to zoom in on your target, making those head shots a bit easier or hitting a weak spot on a robot. Your Focus can help highlight those weak spots, and on larger enemies later in the game this becomes more crucial. Your weapon wheel is brought up by holding R1, and you can craft arrows on the fly if you have the necessary ingredients. You can buy arrow packs from merchants, but materials can be plentiful, so it’s often easier to craft them.

Bows aren’t the only weapons you have at your disposal. You can also use slings to launch bombs at enemies. They’re slower, but can be effective against groups. You’ll also have a Tripcaster, a weapon that shoots two spikes into the ground that have a wire stretched between them. This wire can be electrified, light enemies on fire, or explode on contact. This works to lay traps for the more dangerous beasties, and it can be quite satisfying to lay out a deadly web and lure an enemy in. The Ropecaster attaches a rope to an enemy and a point on the ground, helping to restrict their movement and allowing you to escape or go in for an easy melee kill. Mixing up weapons during combat is done easily enough, by using R1 to bring up the weapon wheel and using the right stick to highlight which weapon and what ammo you wish to use. Weakening a large enemy with a trap and then finishing it off with a well placed bow shot is quite satisfying.

In addition to your weapons, you also have other balloon type traps to place in the path of your foes. These balloons can freeze, shock, or explode, and add to your bag of tricks in combat against large groups. Traps and potions are accessed by using the Down button on the D-pad, with the left and right buttons being used to scroll through. The Up button is used for natural healing items from your medicine pouch. Pouches and quivers can be upgraded to carry larger quantities if you find the necessary materials through scrounging, looting dead enemies, and hunting. There are plenty of natural animals about to provide resources, and they include rats, rabbits, turkeys, foxes, raccoons, boars, and fish. You can use your Focus to tag these enemies, making it easy to spot them when they move through tall grass or, in the case of fish, through the water in streams or lakes. most pouches can be upgraded three times. Extra resources can be sold to merchants. Each item listed in the crafting menu will tell you if it can be used for crafting, trading, or selling for metal shards (the game’s currency). It’s easy enough to fill up your resource pack while out and about in the world, so it’s good to know what you can unload on a merchant to make room for future finds.

Traveling about the world can be done on foot or, once you learn how to override a particular creature, on a mount. Lighting bonfires enable fast travel points (you’ll need to buy, loot, or craft fast travel packs to use them) to make getting to your next mission a bit easier. Bonfires also serve as save points, where you can use a quick save or manually save to a file. Load times can sometimes be a bit long using fast travel, but it’s still quicker than making a long trek across a map if you choose to do so. Aloy can climb up cliffs and other structures where things are marked with a yellow roped handhold or a white line on a rock face. Climbing is performed simply by just pressing the left stick in the direction you need Aloy to go, making platforming a simple affair. There are a couple of occasions when you need the jump button, and for the most part Aloy makes the jumps with ease. Still, there are a couple of instances where you need to line a jump up, and I had a couple of mistimed attempts that ended in my death. But these are far and few in between, and my deaths were always my fault and not a result of the game not performing up to snuff.

You’ll also come across Tallnecks in your travels. Looking like a Godzilla sized giraffe with a flying saucer for a head, Tallnecks basically serve as the game’s towers. Climbing them and hacking the saucer unlocks portions of the map. Climbing them can be interesting in itself, since they are in motion. Also, you need to find a point high enough to jump onto them, as you can’t just grab onto their legs and work your way up (getting in the path of the legs is a good way to get trampled). You also may need to deal with other enemies to reach that vantage point. It’s a neat twist on the towers we’ve come to get used to in other games, and the Tallnecks just look impressive as they move about on their path.

Mission types outside of the main story are a varied bunch, and all can be completed either before the final main mission or after the credits roll (the world is reset to right before your final mission). Side quests and errands can be somewhat similar, with errands being more on the shorter side. There is nothing on the level of the side missions in The Witcher 3, but they’re engaging enough and fun to do. Side missions and errands can be acquired by talking to people with a green exclamation point over their head. In addition to these tasks, there are bandit camps to clear, Cauldrons (underground bunkers left over from the world before) to explore, hunting trials to test your skill in, and corrupted zones to eliminate. Each task never feels routine, and all offer plenty to occupy yourself in the game. The main story took me around 40 hours, and completing everything could easily take you between 60-70 hours or more. This is a game where you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. While there is only one ending, there are multiple dialogue choices to make, so choosing the other options will prompt different conversations with characters, giving some incentive to replay the game. Plus there are plenty of collectibles to find, from data links to strange metallic flowers. Maps can be purchased from merchants to aid in finding these, but they won’t pinpoint their location, merely give you an area in which you can find them.

In all, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a stunning achievement, and a fantastic debut for a brand new series (a sequel has already been greenlit, though it may be a couple of years off). Aloy is a terrific character, instantly likeable and a joy to play as (she gives Lara Croft a run for her money). The main story is engaging, unfolding as a mystery, and it sucks you in as you try to find the answers. The ending is very satisfying, culminating in intense confrontations and containing some truly emotional moments. It’s a game filled with moments of quiet beauty as you explore the world, punctuated by bouts of suspenseful hunting and thrilling combat. The musical score offers a perfect backdrop, and the voice acting is for the most part very good (there are some missteps here and there). The game runs smoothly, and if you never die or use the fast travel you won’t encounter a loading screen for a majority of the game. Graphical glitches are few, and nothing that one wouldn’t expect from a large open world game. For the most part, this is one beautiful game to look at, and the well done photo mode allows you to capture all of your favorite moments, including giving you a nice selection of filters and options for borders. Only some faces appear to be more plastic than real, making some characters appear more doll like. But this never wholly distracted me from the game.

Horizon: Zero Dawn joins the growing roster of stunning Sony exclusive titles, and if you are a PS4 owner this is a must play, if not a must buy. It’s thrilling and fun to play, gorgeous to look at, and has a fully engaging story to uncover. Plus, you get to hunt robot dinosaurs. Which is always a plus in my book. Just make sure you catch the post credits scene. We can only hope that the sequel arrives sooner rather than later, because Aloy and her world are so much fun. Now, time to go practice my bow skills. There are some big critters out there who need to be dealt with…