Horizon Zero Dawn review
The fact that Guerrilla has never made a role-playing game before is really the source of Horizon Zero Dawn’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. The Dutch studio has been able to shed decades of accumulated baggage from the genre, striking out in interesting and engaging new directions, but it has also shown its lack of experience and full depth of understanding. The result is a game that is gorgeous and superbly made in many areas, but which lacks a few of the finer details that would make it truly groundbreaking.
The eye-catching element of Horizon’s design is thankfully also one of its best; the machines are a delight to test yourself against. The escalation of the threat through the game is very nicely done as you work your way from the small Watchers and their agile leaping attacks to the Thunderjaws and their lumbering, multi-faceted attack patterns. The game is always keeping you on your toes as each new machine is introduced. At first we did everything we could to avoid the Watchers and Striders, relying on patches of long grasses and tracking their patrol patterns for our chance to dash to another piece of cover, but through levelling up, stronger weapons and new skills like overriding the machine AI, the Watchers and Striders create less concern. And as soon as one older machine feels dealt with, another is introduced with a completely different degree of threat, attack strength, weakness and in different numbers and combinations.
Then you actually have to fight them, because sneaking around might get you from place to place, but facing the machines is your fastest route to progress. Their intricate design allows components, even their weapon systems, to be detached (sometimes even picked up and used against them), which offers so many different tactical approaches. Do you take out the weapons of the biggest, meanest machine and then pick off the smaller enemies or stealth attack everyone on the periphery before going all-out on the giant? The tactical depth of your combat approach speaks to a developer not bogged down in the lineage of RPG design, but rather has been forged in the kiln of action games. Some of the combat areas of the game, from bandit camps to natural rock formations that contain the battle, would be as good in a FPS game as they are here. You’ll find you have multiple options for entering areas, different vantage points and lots of chances to sneak or face your opponent head-on.
We played through the game in a largely stealth-focused manner, which the game compliments beautifully. If you lean towards sniper rifles and stealth kills in Fallout or like playing rogue characters in other RPGs, Horizon was made for you. If fast-paced, hectic action is your thing, Horizon can sometimes feel like a sci-fi version of Dark Souls as you roll, duck and dodge away from machines before catching their one weak spot, but it doesn’t offer quite the same depth in that area. As you get further into the game, weapons and upgrades become available to you that allow for a more head-on approach, but they take some getting to.
Ultimately, we can’t think of another RPG in which we actually felt compelled to use all of the tools at our disposal to complete the game. The bow and spear will get you through most scenarios, but with bigger bandit camps and larger machines, setting traps and luring enemies is not only very satisfying, but also pretty much essential. We didn’t touch the traps for a third of the game and then they became a massive part of our combat strategy right to the end. Similarly the options that protected against elemental effects, applying the right upgrades to armour and weapons, all became an important element of our strategy.
We probably all expected that Guerrilla would provide a more action-orientated approach to the RPG game structure than the likes of The Witcher III or Fallout and that’s exactly how things have played out. Horizon straddles the divide between action game and RPG, perhaps more so than even The Legend Of Zelda. In the opening parts of the game, so focused and directed is the experience that it can feel a lot more like an open-world actioner in the vein of the Arkham series. Missions come slowly and you’ll notice that whole sections of your log remain greyed out as you gradually play through the opening hours. However, once you leave the Embrace (the game’s opening area) and side quests begin to populate your mission log, all that falls away. What that heavily directed opening actually gives you is a narrative and emotional launch pad from which to propel Aloy through the rest of the game.
And we have to say, we love Aloy a lot. Her tone manages to play nicely between scepticism and wonder. Having grown up as an outcast from her tribe she carries none of their superstitions, none of their prejudices, but also none of their experience. The world you enter then is as new to her as it is to you. And her personality, while you can nudge it in certain directions from time to time, feels very defined as one of compassion, empathy and determination. Aloy won’t stand for condescension, she won’t suffer fools and she has no time for mysticism covering self-interest. However, she seems to respect the cultures and traditions of the people she meets even if she doesn’t hold to them. It’s a tough balancing act, but one that voice actress Ashly Burch (who also voiced Chloe Price in Life Is Strange) does superbly.
In fact, the voice acting and performances on the whole in this game are pretty good. There are some standout characters who manage to come across as very genuine people in an extraordinary world and others that perhaps fall into the hammier camp of post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s only really the lower-level NPCs that break the immersion with over enunciation.
When it’s not great though, its failings aren’t helped by some mixed sound design implementation. Again, on the whole the game is very good in the sound department, with a lot of good performances, as mentioned, and some fantastic music. However, the sound levels can be off when Errand quest NPCs shout across the map to you for help and you can’t even see them. Their voices travel across the plains, lacking atmosphere or depth and they repeat the same lines over and over. Some similar repetition can be found in villages and towns with merchants and citizens offering little variety. This isn’t uncommon for a game of this type, but it stood out against such
By comparison, the machine and animal sound effects in the game and the way they are introduced as background noise to make you aware of their presence, even when you can’t immediately get a line of sight on them, is excellent. Half of the Horizon experience is about being aware at all times where machines might be lurking or patrolling and the audio design is a massive part of that. So, having an element of the sound design stand out like a sore thumb breaks that immersion, and frankly it’s a compliment to everything else in Horizon that it’s only at this level that things feel like more time and experience might have helped to get more from the game.
The higher-level gameplay then, for the most part, is excellent, so it is in the smaller details that we find Horizon’s inconsistency. It has moments and areas where it does superbly well at capturing the little details just right and others where it fails completely. Some of the animation, for instance Aloy’s jumping, isn’t as fluid or naturalistic as other elements of the game. Some of the facial animation of lesser NPCs isn’t great and the character models have a tendency to flail around a little without really being tied down to the words being spoken. And while much of the combat design is excellent, mapping traps, potions and health to the d-pad is a fiddly choice that can be aggravating in the heat of battle. A tough compromise for mapping so much to the DualShock 4 controller.
That said, it gets a lot of other lesser-appreciated elements right. The music is excellent, marrying sweeping orchestral pieces and drums with electronic stings that punctuate the peace much as the machines do the landscape reclaimed by nature. The escalation of combat and its increasing complexity are excellent: on-the-fly crafting brings added tension and immediacy to battles. We’d like to compliment the fast travel too, which starts off as a limited feature based on how many packs you can carry and becomes limitless when you upgrade. As missions send you from one side of the map to the other, it saves a lot of headaches.
The story is so wrapped up in mystery and discovery that we don’t want to get into any details in this review. Suffice to say that while it can feel a little derivative in places (a shortcoming that could be levelled at several areas of the game, but is somewhat expected), it is driven by a compelling world that gradually reveals itself. Discovering how civilisation was lost and how the machines rose are weaved nicely into Aloy’s search for her own hidden origin and journey. What’s more, the main story campaign is supplemented by some meaty side quests that can often be as involved and varied as the main narrative.
This generation has been blessed by some excellent RPG and action-adventure offerings so far and while Horizon Zero Dawn sometimes shows its team’s relative inexperience in places, the overall construction, the combat and the characters elevate it into the upper echelons of the genre. It might not be Witcher III level of excellence, but for a first attempt from Guerrilla, it’s impressively close.