Horizon: Zero Dawn

Review: Horizon: Zero Dawn

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There is an old adage in entertainment media that products with female leads will simply not sell well enough to be worth the effort to develop them. This seems to go double for games, were only a select few have done anything close to ‘ok’ in terms of sales, and fewer still have gone on to spawn an entire franchise, with Tomb Raider and Metroid being the only real contenders and Metroid being a stretch as for almost all the games you are barely identifiable encased in Samus’ powered armour.

Looking up the list of female characters in games, distressingly few of them are women and even fewer not portrayed as either sidekicks or over sexualized. While I will freely admit that those characters who are a bit scantily clad tickle my hetero white male sensibilities (yes I am part of the problem), I also find the ability to play as a women enticing, especially if the character is written well.

Enter Aloy, star of Guerrilla Games Horizon: Zero Dawn. She is a arrow shooting, spear wielding bad ass who can tear through packs of robotic animals with ease, genuinely develops over the course of the game's story, and is never once portrayed as a damsel in distress. Aloy is, frankly, a next generation hero, someone who is already gaining popularity as cosplay and a game character Guerilla should be proud of.

Aloy’s world is a strange one. Set hundreds of years in the future, nature has reclaimed much of the planet and only ruins of our once great civilization remain. Humanity leaves in various tribes, but are united in a common enemy: the machines.

These robotic beasts have been shown in all of Horizon’s promo material and range from relatively small, to towering monsters bristling with advanced weaponry. They represent things like horses, rhino’s, birds of prey and crocodiles and each one is deadly in its own way. Aloy is dropped into this world with a...bow, not exactly the most advanced weapon ever made, but it is amazingly effective. Her mission is to figure out where she comes from, and what is going on with these machines.

The story is actually pretty great, it twists in some interesting ways and features some memorable characters, but all of them pale in comparison to Aloy herself. The voice acting is top notch throughout with each character a believable person in the context of the world, everyone tinged with mistakes or character flaws and some outright assholes.

After a start as a small, rebellious child, outcast from her tribe to live with her adoptive father, Aloy is eventually allowed to travel the wider world.The open world is huge, with draw distances to match, a play space that is truly stunning and a place that just existing in, not even completing missions or side quests, is worth doing. Climbing up to the top of a ridge or mountain and staring out over the landscape is something made for the photo sharing features of the PS4, and made my jaw drop on several occasions, even without the grunt of the PS4 Pro and a 4K TV.

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There is plenty to do and see, but, and this is crucial to an open world game, nothing ever gets overwhelming. The map does contain hundreds of icons once you discover enough or earn the shards to buy the maps to reveal things, but most of those are simply the locations of various types of machines. The collectibles aren’t into the hundreds and I was able to collect them all pretty easily. The last game I did that on was Assassin's Creed II, so Horizon is in good company.

Improving Aloy’s skills and weapons rarely feels like a chore, with most of the materials required gained through the excellent battles against machines. The combat system is expertly crafted, and never gets old even when fighting human enemies, though admittedly these battles are never as interesting as battling even the smallest robots.

Each fight can be approached in different ways, but I found sneaking around and picking my shots the most effective. For example, I came upon a pack of Striders (robot horses essentially), so I snuck up through long grass to conceal my movements. These machines have ‘blaze’ canisters on their backs, so I shot one with a fire arrow. This caused the canister to ignite, resulting in an explosion that killed the target and severely damaged nearby Striders allowing me to pick them off one by one.

That tactic is so satisfying to pull off, though it comes with a downside. Because I destroyed the canister, I couldn’t loot that corpse for it, and this risk/reward mechanic comes into play often. With many machines I can do a similar thing, but I get less back than if I attacked them in a more conventional way. This extends to making ammo for the various weapons, as this takes resources such as those blaze canisters and wood, but also metal shards.

Shards are also the game's currency, so until you get to a point where you have the weapons and armour you are comfortable with, making ammo depletes your ability to purchase items. Killing enemies and machines will net you more and selling things to ample merchants dotted around solves this, but it is an interesting way to get people to think about the combat.

Each weapon also comes with tutorial missions, such as ‘trip three medium sized enemies’ for the trip caster, a weapon that fires wires that might explode or be charged with electricity. These are great experience earners but more than that get you to experiment with other weapons, even if it is just to complete them for the experience. Personally I found a good load out that allowed me to take on even the biggest machines with relative ease, but I also played on default difficulty.

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Everything about playing the game is absolutely spot on, combat, missions, side quests. The biggest problem, and Horizon’s only major weakness is animation. I am not talking about animation out the world either, every human, every machine or animal moves perfectly even during combat. I am talking about during cut scenes, and it is absolutely atrocious at times.

Aloy just won’t stay still during scenes, her head is always moving, whether she is talking or not. This goes for the character she is talking to too, but she is the worst culprit. It would be better if this movement was in anyway smooth or natural but it’s not, it is a twitchy bouncy mess, giving Aloy a look of perpetual confusion and the disposition of someone suffering from Parkinson's disease than the naive outcast girl they paint her as in the writing.

It’s frustrating because every other part of the game is of such high quality that this one problem brings the package down, and does so unfairly. Playing the game is so much fun it never gets old, but these broken animations wear out very quickly and pull you out of the experience almost instantly after a while. It can be overlooked, but that then means losing out on an interesting story if you were to skip them or look at your phone.

After 50+ hours with it, I can tell you that Horizon: Zero Dawn is a fantastic game, well worth your time. The problems around the animation are not so bad that they spoil the act of playing, and you can certainly have plenty of fun running about the world without even doing the missions or side quests. The combat is stellar and the designs of the machines are awesome in some cases, providing genuinely intimidating foes to conquer.

The missions are generally great, providing a cool story with some twists and turns and take Aloy on a journey to discover her place in the world. It’s just those damn cut scenes, the game deserves better and while it is a small thing, it ultimately brings the whole thing down from ‘classic’ to ‘great’.Still, shooting robotic dinosaurs in the eyes with arrows is so much fun you would be silly not to give it a go.