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The epic open-world game is a fickle beast. A few companies have mastered them, Rockstar and Bethesda come to mind, but for every Grand Theft Auto V there’s a half dozen Watchdogs that water down the genre. So naturally when it was announced at the 2015 e3 conference that developer Guerrilla Games, most known for their work on the Killzone first-person shooters, was working on the next big open-world franchise for Sony I was skeptical. I enjoyed the Killzone games, but like all military shooters they were very linear experiences that rarely strayed from a set path. And while the gameplay was great the stories never grabbed me which was my biggest concern. When your game offers so many side activities like all open-world games do it’s important to have a strong story to tie everything together.
Guerrilla Games final product has arrived and is titled Horizon Zero Dawn, and it didn’t take long for my fears to be put to rest. This is an outstanding title for PlayStation 4 owners, it's the kind of game that you buy a console just to play. They manages to deliver an experience that feels fresh yet at the same time familiar, finding creative ways to incorporate combat that's unlike anything we’ve seen before in ways that are recognizable to anyone that’s played a third-person shooter. There are elements of Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to be found in the fighting, and the Fallout and Mass Effect series’ influence is certainly felt in the conversation and inventory mechanics. But it never feels like Horizon Zero Dawn is copying these games, rather it comes across as a loving homage that enhances rather than simply emulates.
Combat is offered in both ranged and melee forms, and both feel tight and satisfying. You control Aloy, a young woman growing up in a future that has seen the Earth stripped of the conventional forms of technology that we have become so comfortable with. She uses her trusty spear and bow to survive in this harsh world, no easy task given that it’s been overrun with mechanical monsters that look straight out of a Michael Bay Transformers film. The technology available to fight these monstrosities is a cool combination of high-tech do-dads and sticks and rocks, the weapons and armor look like a cave man found a Radio Shack and decided to enhance his gear.
And enhancing your equipment is a huge part of surviving in Horizon Zero Dawn. As you work your way through the game you’ll gain access to better weapons and armor, both of which can be upgraded by scavenging for parts that fall off of the mechanical creatures you defeat in combat. The system is a bit confusing and cumbersome but it does the job, if anything the game suffers from an overabundance of resources that will leave you all too often dropping less-importance stuff on the ground to make room for new goodies. You'll find yourself needing to harvest raw materials from the environment, from medicinal plants that you'll need to survive the harsh difficulty spikes the boss battles offer to the sticks needed to constructed arrows.
The game’s RPG system borrows heavily from the last two Tomb Raider games, you’ll spend your time gaining experience points and once you gain enough to level up you’ll get a Skill Point to spend however you choose. The upgrade system is split into three categories: Prowler for players that prefer stealth, Brave for those that think combat-first, and Forager which makes scavenging a more rewarding experience. The flexibility offered here really allows players to enhance their gameplay style as they see fit, if you prefer sneaking around in the tall grass like I do you can focus your upgrades on the Prowler category first.
And that’s where Horizon Zero Dawn really shines, it’s such a flexible game. The main campaign is fascinating enough that it was hard for me to take a break to do the many side quests the game has to offer. In addition to the basic fetch quests that inevitably pop-up in open world games there’s hunting missions to complete, collectibles to gather, enemy zones to clear, and bandit camps to eliminate. Given the sheer number of things to do I was surprised that so little of it felt repetitive, although I’ll admit that a ridiculous amount of people get lost in this world.
The game’s story has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing right up until the end, taking full advantage of the unique setting. There’s enough examples of our world in the game to make everything feel grounded and real, you’ll pass by rusted out cars and see the remains of buildings and stoplights. And there’s some fantastic underground sequences that might’ve been pulled straight from LOST. The result is a surreal environment that is simultaneously foreign and familiar, strongly anchored an outstanding protagonist. Aloy looks to be the next PlayStation mascot, she’s strong yet sensitive, fearless yet cautious.
Horizon Zero Dawn boasts gorgeous visuals supported by outstanding sound design. Even though fast travel is available in the game I found myself never wanting to use it, preferring to casual stroll through the beautifully-rendered world to soak in the visuals. The world looks and sounds so real, the forests are full of wildlife and rivers burble as you cross over them on rope bridges that creak under your weight. Your mechanical enemies have uniquely electronic sounds to them, and will even whimper in despair when you strike a satisfying critical hit on them. An effective day/night cycle and smooth weather transitions deliver fresh perspectives on territory you’ve already covered, the game is constantly reinventing itself making everything feel new. This is so important considering how many times you’ll trek across the gigantic map in the forty hours it’ll take to complete the main campaign.
The PlayStation 4 has enjoyed a very successful run up to this point, but the one thing that’s been lacking is a new exclusive franchise that takes the brand to a new level. Horizon Zero Dawn is that game, it’s washed away the stink of The Order: 1886 and should be a PlayStation cornerstone for the next decade. It does for the PS4 what the original Uncharted did for the PS3 back in 2007, it puts the console on a new trajectory, breathing fresh life into it three and a half years after it debuted. Guerrilla Games first open-world effort is a resounding success, and I can’t wait for the next entry in the franchise.
• Great Combat
• Interesting Story
• Excellent Visuals and Sound
• Next Big PlayStation Franchise
• Cumbersome Inventory System
• Difficulty Spikes
• A Couple of Audio Hiccups