Game review: Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4

You might think from some of my less favorable reviews that I love to complain about everything. And that…is probably true, but what I really want is something to gush at y’all about. I want something I love so much that in writing my review, I have to go back and edit it to reduce the length or cut out spoilers. After waiting so very long to play Horizon: Zero Dawn, I can happily report that this is something I love, and I must curb my enthusiasm or risk spoiling the story for you.

Before I cover anything else, let me just say, the story is easily the best part of this game. In most games, the story seems to be built around the game’s mechanics. Stories in those games feel like they came somewhere late to the development, like, “Okay, we’ve got all these other parts working…so, what’s the plot?” But Horizon: Zero Dawn feels more like the story was developed alongside the rest of the game. It also helps that most characters (with one glaring exception that I’ll talk about later) you interact with could be real people. They’re charming and funny, and I mean really funny, not Easter egg/pop culture reference funny. There were often times that I would laugh at a line, pause the game and relay it to hubby because the dialogue is so, so good. I would love to give you examples, but that’s spoiler territory, and I want you to play this game and experience all its charms for yourself.

I will at least have to do minor spoilers for the beginning of the game. The main character is Aloy, an orphan branded an outcast at birth and raised by Rost, another outcast. The start of the lengthy tutorial has you controlling Aloy as a young child of seven or maybe eight. During this sequence, she falls into a vault-like structure where ancient humans used to live and finds a Focus, essentially a personal computer with a holographic interface. Or in other words, this game’s version of Detective Mode/Enhanced senses.

And I’ll be honest here. Most of the game’s mechanics have all been staples of other games for a long time. Some reviews and gamers have complained about that. “Oh meh, we’ve seen and done all this before.” Well, with all due respect to those opinions, I don’t feel the same way. Yes, these mechanics are familiar, but that also means I don’t have to struggle to learn a new way to play. I’m almost instantly “at home” with these controls and mechanics, so I can get right into the two things that make this game so much fun, fighting stuff and watching the story unfold.

I think it also helps that despite being a post apocalypse game, the world is so pretty, and there are so many different environments to explore. This is the kind of game world you want to take your time with. Just stop to climb up something and do a slow pan around to take in all these lovely little details. The fantastic graphics are bolstered by a great dynamic soundtrack that moseys along in slower moments before shifting to a faster and more epic sounding fight music. The sound effects, too, help keep me immersed in this world. Everything just feels so right to me.

When it comes to fighting stuff, the “stuff” falls into two categories. There are human bandits, and there are robots. The robots come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and before you’ve even completed the tutorial, you’ll be pitted against one of the nastier robots, the sawtooth. (Think saber-tooth tiger but with armor and military weapons.) As you get farther into the game, you run into robots that get bigger and meaner until you’re up at the top tier robots, giant T-Rex monsters and walking tanks. It’s glorious, really. Every time I managed to bring down one of those brutes, it felt like a major accomplishment. By comparison, the bandits are kind of meh in comparison. Head-shot them and they drop, and you’re done and moving on to some other more interesting mission. Clearing out bandit camps does give you access to another merchant and bonfire to save at, so it’s worth doing. But of all the activities in the game, the bandit hunting is the lower end of fun. Yeah, it’s still fun, but it’s not slaying a giant mecha-alligator fun.

To fight these beasties, you have quite a few options available to you. There are bows from each tribe or faction in the game, each with increasing numbers of module spaces. The slots are filled with damage coils or elemental coils, all of which are harvested from robots. Coils have levels of rarity, and obviously the bigger robots will drop the better coils. So obviously this creates an incentive to hunt down the bigger threats instead of sneaking around them. (Something I wish I’d realized earlier in the game.) In my opinion, it’s really best to hunt down the Carja and Shadow Carja bows as soon as you can because with the extra mod slots, you can add additional pierce and tear damage. Tear damage is particularly important because that represents how effectively you can tear off the armor plates of the robots to get at their more sensitive inner hardware. There’s a huge difference in damaging an armor plate and their inner hardware, so yeah, you’ll want to use a high tear damage bow to make some holes in their armor and exploit that weakness like a boss.

In addition to bows, there are trip casters, which can launch metal cables and anchor the two ends into most surfaces to create element infused trip lines. There are rope casters that work sort of like the trip caster, but are used to tie enemies down. I admit, I never used these because attacking enemies tied down by rope casters decreases the time the cables will hold the robots. If you like using them, you do you, but I preferred taking a different approach that I’ll get to in just a moment. Moving along, though, there are slingshots that lob elemental grenades, and these can be useful once you know what each beast is weak to. (You can learn this by scanning the robots with your Focus, but many of the larger robots have multiple weaknesses depending on what body part or subsystem you target. It sounds complex on paper, but in practice, it quickly becomes second nature to do a two second scan to decide which elements and weapons to use in the fight.) Finally, there are elemental traps, and of all my arsenal, I ended up using these the most. It turns lots of fights into a more tactical encounter, with me surveying the area for places to sneak to and lay traps before plinking a few of my weakest arrows at some giant robot. I get it to chase me, and then lead it from one minefield to the next until that robot has had every armor plate blasted off of its hide. THEN I break out the bow and the good arrows to finish the fight. That’s my way of doing it, but the beauty of the game and its arsenal is that you can choose how you want to fight, and if it leads to victory, you go with what you like.

All your weapons will require crafting ammo from various robots, so you might find yourself running low on stuff from time to time. For me, that ended up being wire, one of the components needed for my good arrows. This can be bought from merchants, or it can be pulled from demolished robots. There were whole gaming sessions where I just wandered around whacking robots to gear up, and where this kind of farming might annoy me in other games, here I found the hunts so mesmerizing that I several times looked away from my TV to find the sun rising outside and only then realized I’d spent the entire night grinding for loot. It’s a damn fine game that can get me over my dislike of grinding.

But then there’s the spear. At times, this was my favorite weapon, and at many others, it left me groaning at how weak it is compared to the brutes I had to fight. Aside from one side quest early in the game, there’s no way to upgrade the damage for the spear, and no way to get a better spear until very late in the game. The spear does get one nifty ability early on, the override. With the right module attached, Aloy can sneak up on robots and override their programming to make them allies. This effect can wear off, but as you level up and unlock new skills, there is a skill to make the effect permanent.

There is a catch, though. To learn how to override all but the most simple machines, Aloy has to enter cauldrons. I won’t spoil what these do in the story, so I’ll just say these are more like classic dungeon crawls with a sci-fi twist. You go in and decide whether to sneak past the security or clear the place out for XP, reach a final boss, and then override a computer to gain access to overrides for more robots. The first couple of cauldrons are a piece of cake, but that will surely lead to false confidence, and the later cauldrons can easily wreck you before you even get past the security at the front door. The cauldrons are just one more part of the game that have been done before by others, but this game does them so well that I’m happy that they chose to add them in. The puzzles aren’t real hard, but they’re just challenging enough that I can feel pleased with myself for solving them.

Another mechanic we’ve seen over and over in open world games is the tower that unlocks part of the map. You might think there’s no way to make this interesting or new, right? Wrong, the twist here is that the tower is a giant robot, and before you can access its internal map, you have to figure out how to climb it. Each of the tall neck tower robots has a different spine configuration, so once you find a way to jump on, you also have to sort out how to reach the head. I found out the hard way that a mistimed jump can lead to a fatal fall even from the lower portion of the neck. It makes these tower climbs tense, interesting, and yes, fun.

Is there anything I didn’t like about this game? Yes, Sylens. Ugh, Sylens. In a game where almost every character, even a certain raider slaying psychopath, can be charming and interesting, Sylens is a bland asshole who can’t be bothered to have a personality. He’s so much more grating because he takes up so much of the game, acting as the director to Aloy through most of the middle and late stages of the game. I was glad to finally be rid of him, but also annoyed once I realized he didn’t leave until the story had less than a half an hour left to it. (I say the story because had I wanted, I could have stretched out the end game indefinitely by hunting robots.) All the best characters in this game are memorable even if they only have fifteen minutes of fame. Sylens is the crap actor who won’t go away and makes so much of the story less enjoyable with his overbearing presence.

But, as much as I hate that guy, it still doesn’t bring down my overall positive impression of this story. I wasn’t able to predict where the story would go, something rare in games for me. (To be fair, I am a fiction writer, so I study the craft and have learned most of the cliches that game writers still think are surprise plot twists even though they’ve been overused going on two decades now.) When a certain plot revelation didn’t make sense, even risking ruining the start of the story, another later revelation had me going “Oooooh, I see. That’s very clever.” And it is very clever writing. Competent, even. I cannot stress enough that this is a game you go into for the story as much as for the game play. It is the full package, and I haven’t enjoyed a game story this much since The Last of Us. And there’s a huge reveal about what Zero Dawn really is that…it’s just fucking brilliant. I want to gush and tear apart the concept, but really, it’s best to let you discover the truth for yourself.

Something else that I want to touch on briefly is the graceful way the game handles the issue of prejudice. When walking around a town or village, you’ll often hear random parts of conversations among the NPCs where they are bad mouthing another tribe or culture. If you believed these points of view, everyone else is sneaky, back stabbing, and worthy of scorn. But then you go to this other culture, and you find out most of those opinions aren’t even remotely true. They’re all just people trying to make their way in this world, and you get to see that firsthand. And yet, even as you get a better impression of that culture, they also have their NPCs lamenting “oh, those other people are just deviant savages.” Everyone holds some kind of prejudice, and it’s a realistic representation of our flawed human nature to always need a Them to act as a foil to the goodness of Us.

In conclusion, I want to say that there is so much more I want to gush about. I can’t because it’s all spoilers. I want you to go into this blind, so that every discovery is yours to enjoy. I want everyone to play this game, and so it is a small regret that this is a PS4 exclusive. I mean, it’s a really small regret, because good for Sony for having a console exclusive game that actually makes the case for buying a PS4. But yeah, I’m also sorry that the Xbox and Nintendo people are going to miss out on this, because it’s so fantastic.

I give Horizon: Zero Dawn 5 stars, my highest possible score, and yet I kind of want to tack on one more star just because it’s just that good. I recommend it to everyone with a PS4.