Article written by a guest writer, J.Hill
There are moments in gaming we all remember in childhood, that have stuck with us through the passage of time. Psycho Mantis, with his mind-boggling fourth wall tricks. Learning that the cake was a lie, that Samus a woman, that the Reapers do not come in peace.
As I played through Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerilla Games first foray into the action rpg genre, I found myself struck with that same slack-jawed wonder that transpired in my youth when I explored the likes of Hyrule, Reach, the Mass Effect universe. A series of unrelenting moments so perfectly crafted, I soon realized I had not discovered an amazing game, I had discovered an amazing world. A world whose heart beats around the premise of a lone tribeswoman hunting robot dinosaurs. A premise it takes 100%seriously, and against all expectations; manages to pull off.
It is no easy task for a studio known for first person shooters to pivot, not only into an entirely new genre, but to do so with the expectation that they would be building a franchise upon which Sony could use to promote their systems for years to come. There are many things that can go wrong in this scenario. They didn't.
They could have hired the wrong voice actress to play Aloy, their main character. They didn't. They could have confused her character development with muddled writing and poor character arcs. They9 didn't. Instead, her thirst for truth paired with a seismic compassion for people who are in every sense of the word undeserving, guides her on a personal, spiritual, and physical journey so grand in scope, it instantly places her in the annuls of strongest written video game characters ever.
And that's just the main character.
While Guerilla Games does not do anything groundbreaking or revolutionary to the genre, they do everything so well that the pieces fit together like a well-orchestrated symphony. You feel the tension of the bow every time you let an arrow sing. Revel in the anticipation of the hunt as you scope your surroundings from the bushes, trying to find places to duck or hide. You know, should things go wrong. Which they often do. Finally, whether you choose to engage head on, or lay traps to surprise your unsuspecting foe, you experience the kick of adrenaline as all sorts of machines find your location, and attack.
The beauty of Horizon Zero Dawn's combat system is its fluidity. You are given a variety of weapons at your disposal, from bows to tripwires to a last resort spear, and no two fights unfold the same. Some, you may accomplish entirely from stealth. Arrows unleashed from cover take down the Watchers; small machines whose sole purpose is to alert other, more deadly machines of your presence. Sneak close enough, and you can take down a number of machines with a quick spear thrust into the bowels of their mechanical hearts. Or, override them to fight for you.
Other fights unfold very differently; it is impossible at times to be completely aware of your surroundings, and once one machine knows your location; they all do. What happens afterwards can range from a fast and furious exchange of lethal blows, to an all out one woman warzone. Machine parts scatter to the far reaches of canyon, valley, and field, as machine after machine emerges, sometimes as many as a dozen at a time. Their otherworldly shrieks ring out, accompanied by explosion, fire, ice and weaponized claws..
As these sights and sounds erupt from all directions, Aloy's own all too human cries are interwoven as hunter becomes hunted. You feel her desperation, her sweat, and, if you have the skill, her triumph.
Then, save for Aloy's own breathless gasps, silence.
You could say this is where the game truly hits its stride. While the combat is crisp, fluid, and riveting, it is the moments in between that make Horizon such a special title. The environments Aloy finds herself in aren't just background fodder; they are living, breathing works of art begging to be explored. Light splays across the land in such a wealth of colors, you'll find yourself stopping repeatedly to admire the way a sunset glistens off the surface of a lake, or the way the moon bathes the grass and trees in an ethereal glow.
One quick Google search at the many, many screenshots posted by fans, and you'll see why literal hours can be spent in the game's robust photography mode; perhaps the best I've ever experienced in a game. The painstaking and loving details the creators put into this world push the graphics to among the best the PlayStation has ever produced, and would give even the most staunch PC advocate reason to pause.
The world itself feels lived in. Dynamic interactions with various npcs are woven throughout; both scripted and random. Some of my favorite moments were these random patrols. Based on what tribe they hailed from, they treat their environment and Aloy quite differently. With Nora, proud hunters, you can expect to see them lurking in the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. The Carja, brash and bold, strut around like they are top predator in the land. They are often reminded they are not.
As I learned more and more about these tribes dotting the land, I found that my reactions were completely different accordingly. With Nora, I would rush in to aid them without a moment's hesitation. With Carja, I would fire a few shots from afar, but not invest myself if things got ugly. It was their own stupid fault for throwing caution to the wind. The level of investment into its lore and world the game canelicit from you, the player, is astounding.
Finally, we have the story. I mentioned before at its heart it entails a woman fighting robot dinosaurs. In truth, it is so much for. It covers the wide spectrum from human arrogance and greed, fear of the unknown, the morality of science, the depravity of man, the hope and courage of those who seek to improve and protect the world, and of course; survival. What does it mean? What does it entail? How far would you go? The truths Aloy uncovers will at times astound you, enrage you, and inspire you. Sometimes, all at the same time. It is science fiction at its best; it draws parallels between Aloy's world, and the world of the Old Ones upon which they build their society in ways that are both believable and relevant to our own lives. While you can finish the main story in 20-25 hours, I was so encouraged to explore the world in it's entirety that I easily clocked over 100 hours on my first play.
And I do mean first. This is a world that deserves to be explored again and again.
– Highly explorable world with lush environments, engaging characters and quests, and beautiful graphics.
– A main character that is fully realized and brought to life. With outstanding writing, voice acting, and animations and reactions to her environment and the people she shares it with, Aloy puts herself atop a pinnacle of main character design
– Excellent sound design. The soundtrack, voice acting, and the sound effects of the machines are exceptional across the board.
– Engaging, though provoking story that keeps you wanting more.
– Difficulty settings that rely on improved strategy, as opposed to just “more health/more armor.”
– Some minor animation issues in cutscenes. Things like facial tics and rough movement. These were, however, largely fixed and improved upon in the dlc.
– Climbing sections were often confusing to navigate and overall uninspired. The vistas they uncovered when you got to them were worth it, but the climbing mechanic itself could be improved.
– NPC characters were well voice acted, but sometimes thinly written or underutilized. Again, this is fixed in the dlc.
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