(Full disclosure: Purchased for PS4)
Years ago, there used to be a cartoon series by Hannah-Barbera called Thundarr the Barbarian
. In that scenario, a runaway planet "hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destuction" ruined everyone's day. Earth was totally wrecked, but two thousand years later, a new world emerges featuring a mix between bizarre technology, magic, and good old fashioned barbarism. It was apocalyptic stuff to watch a series where the world you knew had literally been wiped out, especially if you were a kid (even though the series was actually aiming at a more mature audience). At the same time, it was hugely entertaining stuff.
Horizon Zero Dawn didn't have a runaway planet demolish the Earth, but clearly, something happened because a thousand years after whatever it was, humanity is living in enclaves ranging from primitive tribes to cities that had just discovered the secret to working iron and bronze. Via lore, players will recognize pieces of what used to be the world now held as a sort of mythic place in both religion and legend. And Aloy will unexpectedly unravel all of it in her quest to save not only herself but the people who once thought of her as an outcast.
The main narrative binds several stories inside a mystery that will take Aloy from her village life as a "barbarian" and across the land to discover the truth behind why two-story tall lazer raptors walk the land. Lavish attention was paid to fleshing out that truth enhanced by optional collectables scattered throughout the game lending insight into what the world was like before it 'changed' with nicely surprising twists ultimately revealing Horizon Zero Dawn's deepest secrets. Just when I thought I had things figured out, it threw one or two more cataclysmic curveballs to shake things up. At the same time, it also begs for a few leaps of faith.
In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a scientist reveals that to solve certain problems he had to use an illegal substance called protomatter as a deus ex machina to get his invention to work. As involving as the story is, aided largely by the incredible visuals, environments, and machine designs Guerilla's artists have created, it does have a few bizarre holes that its own version of protomatter has tried to fill running counter to the smarter turns the material takes elsewhere. It's not a huge distraction from everything else that it does well, but there are questions for which there aren't any convincing answers aside from calling for more protomatter.
Fortunately, the action works. Aloy's childhood becomes a storied tutorial covering the basics along with learning how to use her "Focus", a sort of high-tech augmented reality device she discovers in the 'Metal Ruins' that can sometimes turn her into a post-apoc Batman. Later, it can help her track clues in certain quests and unlock data captured on ancient devices revealing even more of the lore behind the apocalypse, bridging the limitations between her current situation and that of the past in her search for the truth.
Dialogue is largely straightforward, and well acted, and there are also moments where Aloy can choose how to respond to certain events that have some consequences for later. She can either be intellectual about her response, be an ass, or choose something closer to her core beliefs (the nice option). There are also plenty of side quests to digest most of which usually involve hunting down monsters many of them helping flesh out the different factions via the problems they face.
The machine critters and titans that roam the land aren't armored to the point where primitive bows and spears can't do damage to them. Thanks to a few well placed shots and harvested metal shards, Aloy can eventually tackle even the most fierce of these thanks to a lot of tricks up her sleeves. Hunts can often boil down to carefully stalking your prey and if you have a few stealthy skills, quietly dispatching them while hoping none of their friends suspect what might be happening in the distance before moving closer to the next target. When things go awry, fights can turn into frenzied battles for survival as flashy tech and Aloy's primitive weapons spectacularly clash. Dying is easy to come by early in the game.
Loot focuses mostly on enhancements that you can apply to your gear and lootaholics are going to get plenty of those. What you don't get a lot of, unfortunately, is a variety of gear drops. About halfway through my playthrough, I already had most of the best equipment thanks to just buying it from vendors.
The mechanics focus a lot on making the combat, and the stealth, fun. Ingredients found growing everywhere or harvested from fallen mechs can be used to make arrows of all kinds from fire arrows to special arrows that can tear components off of the monsters you're hunting. Sometimes those components can even be superweapons that Aloy can temporarily turn against their former owners which never gets old. Taking a future pew pew cannon from a cyber panther and then filling them with energy shot the next moment can be hugely refreshing. At least for as long as the ammo lasts, anyway.
Aloy also has a huge set of skills divided into three major categories, each covering a set related to their main function whether it's being better at gathering resources, fighting, or being sneaky. She earns experience with every kill and quest milestone from side jobs or the main campaign and with every level, earns a skil point. More skill points are awarded than are actually needed over the course of the campaign thanks to side quests, though at the same time, not all of the skills are as important to have as others depending on your playstyle. Some of the decisions also pressure the player into deciding what is more important. Enhancements applied to gear can't be removed unless you invest in the right skill tree, for example, prompting players to either wait on using those or urging them to try new options to make up the deficit those bonuses may have helped with.
For me, stealth was a much higher priority than gathering extra resources so the first several levels of my experience were spent focusing on the skills that emphasized with that approach. Aloy can hide in tall grass (even though her head is poking out of it, she's still stealthy), lure enemies over, and hope that they either don't startle anyone else when taking them down. Even after achieving max status in both levels and skills, learning how to play well instead of simply mashing your way through enemies continued to keep me on my toes -- I couldn't just wade into battle against a herd of Tramplers and expect to steamroll over them. At the same time, it's still incredibly satisfying to tactically demolish them using what you've learned to make it happen.
At the same time, that 'protomatter' effect also glosses over Aloy's uncanny ability to make batches of arrows and traps on the fly while in battle, something that might not sell well for those looking for a bit more realism to go with their survival instincts. It keeps the action going though not everyone will appreciate that kind of leniency.
Aloy will also eventually learn how to reprogram hostile cyber beasties to become buddies on the battlefield adding another tactical layer, making it possible to stealth your way through tall grass and lure unsuspecting critters close enough to make them yours and incite a civil war. You can't give them direct commands, but they can be extremely useful when it comes to distractions or providing a bit of needed firepower on the field as a temporary teammate. It's about as close to "magic" in Horizon Zero Dawn as one can probably get.
Reprogrammed beasties also need the right 'code' which are only found by completing Cauldrons, automated factories that spew these things out and which are some of the special 'dungeons' for the game. It's also a roundabout way to getting a mount -- horses are extinct (for reasons that become revealed later in thes story) leaving Aloy only able to use the cyber monsters that everyone is afraid of. Why others aren't either in total awe or chilled fear of someone riding in on something that generations of humans have regarded as things either to be ignored or feared can also be a bit bizarre. Some NPCs can also act completely oblivious to rampaging cyber monsters led into their camp if you happen to retreat in their direction.
Horizon Zero Dawn's cautionary dirge for our world deftly pulls together elements alien and familiar right up to the climactic, and rewarding, ending. Before closing that final chapter, I have to admit that I kept delaying my journey to 'finish things off' just to find that one last side quest, to keep stepping back into its mix of adventure, action, and stealth in the hopes of discovering new wrinkles to its world and where else this strange future and its menagerie would take me. Whether it was creeping closely through the night to sneak up on a sawtooth or exploring the guts of a massive machine womb, in the end, it's an incredible debut for Guerilla's first-time foray into the arena of open-world action RPGs.Pros:
- Huge, beautiful world; circuits spark, glow, and the environment can go from lush jungles to eerie, cyber caverns in moments
- Involving sci-fi story with great characters
- Fluid combat and upgrade mechanics
Final hunter's grade: Four Laser Raptors out of Five
- As beautiful as the cities and outposts are, it also feels like a lot of opportunities were lost to introduce more things to do
- Could've used a bit more weapon and armor variety inside the shops instead of a one-shop-fits-all approach
- Some odd AI behavior