Review: Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4)

Formats:

  • PlayStation 4

Format/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 / PS4 Pro
  • HDTV / 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
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Title: Horizon Zero Dawn
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (40.54 GB)
Release Date: February 28, 2017
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Guerrilla
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: T
PEGI: 16
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

When this first appeared on that huge screen at Sony’s E3 press conference in 2015, I was shocked that Guerrilla was making something other than a Killzone game.

Even back then the game looked epic in scope, which concerned me since it was obviously a huge departure from the formula that had served this developer so well since the PlayStation 2.

I’ve had an interest in Horizon Zero Dawn since then, but the fact that it was labeled an “Action-RPG” always made me worry that I wouldn’t be able to play it through to its conclusion. The problem doesn’t lie with the game, it’s due to the fact that I’m in my 40’s and have a full-time job.

I normally can’t commit the kind of time that games like this demand, so up until Sony sent us an email about the review for it, I figured that someone else on our staff would handle it. But I’ve played the game at events, and what I played I had really enjoyed, so I made the decision that I’d be the one to take Aloy through this world, and I’m extremely happy that I did.

Gameplay:
I’m going to keep from mentioning any story elements at all, because it’s too damned good to even risk spoiling it. Furthermore, almost every screen that I include is from the included Photo Mode, which represents how the game looks in gameplay but removes all of the HUD information.

I seriously can’t risk even indirect spoilers with this one, and I’m taking every precaution that I can think of. I’m including a couple screens that show how the HUD looks, but the info will be very vague.

The story itself is incredibly compelling, with some great character development and fantastic twists and turns. The sci-fi angle in an otherwise primitive setting grabbed me immediately, with almost perfect pacing and dialogue.

Also, I’m very pleased that Guerrilla didn’t go the Lost route by not answering a ton of questions. They instead give us a fantastic story arc with a beginning, middle, and denouement. For those wondering about how long it’ll take to get through this game, that really depends on a couple of things, so let me explain.

A few key areas such as mission structure, gathering resources, traversal, and crafting remind me quite a bit of Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4, and for me that’s a really good thing. I love them and the familiarity with those core components helped me acclimate to the gameplay quite a bit.

As in those games, there’s a main story but also a multitude of side missions and errands to optionally complete. How thorough you want to be is completely your choice, but completing at least some of these tasks will definitely benefit you by upgrading your override skills and your visibility for sections of the map. You’ll also obtain specific items needed for purchasing better weapons and of course it’ll help you increase your levels by gaining XP and Skill Points.

… scan objects and your surroundings …
Thankfully, these optional tasks are more varied than what you would end up doing in the Far Cry games, and it never felt stale to me, even after roughly twenty-five to thirty hours. It was so easy for me to get sucked into working through these missions instead of working through the main quest, and at a certain point I had to consciously avoid them so that I could get through the entire story for this review.

So how much time could you spend on this? In my estimation, it’s more than forty-five hours to get through everything. That could change depending on the difficulty you choose at the beginning and if you’re the type to use Fast Travel or if you prefer to walk/run everywhere.

One of the more unique mechanics available to you is the Focus, which Aloy finds as a child and wears all the time. It’s a small earpiece that among other functions, allows you to scan objects and your surroundings. These scans can help you track people and can also identify machines and their weak points.

While using the Focus though, you’ll move extremely slowly and you won’t be able to engage in any combat related activities, so use it wisely. You’ll encounter many machines as you traverse the open-world around you. The world is limited at first, but once open, is pretty immense.

The weapons at your disposal are pretty rudimentary, with items like a sling and a bow & arrow. As you progress you’ll be able to acquire a Ropecaster which is used to tie enemies down temporarily and Tripcaster which is used to set traps.

… there are machines over just about every ridge …
You’ll also be able to grab weapons that you tear off of some of the larger enemies. These usually have limited ammo, but their effect can be devastating against the machines. Your main weapons can be modified when you earn some, and you can also purchase better versions from merchants strewn across the land.

Modifications are usually found when searching downed enemies or in supply boxes that you sometimes encounter. Once a mod is applied to an outfit or weapon, it can’t be removed or reused, so think your strategy through. That will change a bit however once you learn the Tinker skill.

This is actually one spot where I had a bit of trouble too. I always saw the mods available and initially I thought that I’d just be able to go to the weapon/outfit to apply them, but I couldn’t find the option. Then I finally figured out that you apply mods in the Crafting tab instead.

Getting to all of your options is done by a quick click of the touch pad, offering tabs for Skills, Inventory, Crafting, Map, Quests, and the Notebook. Everything is easy to use and understand, which is a good thing since you’ll be using it a lot.

Combat can be handled a couple of different ways and you’ll have ample opportunity to ascertain what works for you, because there are machines over just about every ridge. I’m definitely one to try to hit from a distance, which is how I figured out something about how many of the machines operate.

… gain the ability to override machines …
Normally, I’d get into range so that my focus could successfully scan the enemies and I could mark them. I’d look for a good choke point and set some traps depending on whether the enemy weakness was against explosives, fire, shock etc. I’d hide behind the traps and start firing on the smaller enemies in the group to at least reduce their overall numbers.

As I encountered larger and smarter enemies, I started to realize that many of the machines only operate in a specific radius of their location which resulted in me wasting traps occasionally. This isn’t the case with every machine, but it could generally be applied as a good rule of thumb out in the wild. Also, if an enemy didn’t blindly rush at me, they’d sometimes even notice and avoid the traps that I’d set. The first time that happened resulted in a nice string of expletives.

PS4 Pro Enhancements
A launch-day patch will be adding a Performance Mode which will “favor smooth framerates while delivering higher visual fidelity than the current 1080p mode”. This mode is available for both 4K displays, as well as 1080p output.

I played quite a bit on both platforms and the only difference that I could discern was with some slight framerate drops on the base PS4 in heavily populated sections. The main test that I ran was to look over at the walls of a city from a bridge and wildly move the camera around.

On the base PS4 a few instances of stuttering would occur, but on the Pro it remained smooth. I played for two days on the base PS4 though and I never felt like I was missing out on anything.

One tool at your disposal though, is stealth, and it can be essential in many instances. Stay out of scanning range as you scan with your Focus, or crouch in the tall grass to sneak closer. With some smaller enemies you can perform a silent takedown, and as you progress, you’ll even gain the ability to override machines.

When you do that, they’ll fight for you when in the vicinity of enemies, and you’ll even be able to use a couple of machine types as a mount to speed your travels across the landscape.

If the machines get too close for your ranged weapons, you also have an effective melee attack. As you add skills, these can become even more powerful, including the ability to perform a critical hit for heavy damage to stunned enemies.

When hitting the various machines with any type of weapon, you’ll want to target specific components or armor covering a weak point. The more you play, the more you’ll learn how take take enemies down in the most efficient way, and once you get to be more effective, the more metal ass you can kick at a time.

… Crafting ammo, like arrows and tripwires, is an incredibly streamlined process …
As in the aforementioned Far Cry games, Horizon Zero Dawn possesses a crafting system which initially worried me a bit. I’ve played some of the Atelier titles and since I’m not much of an RPG player, that’s usually what comes to mind when I hear that crafting is a part of a game. I know that’s a bit extreme in the grand scheme of things, but hey, it’s my reality.

Gathering resources is easy to do. Simply put, you grab plants and other items that are strewn throughout the landscape or search downed enemies. Most of the time, components for things like ammunition are easily attained, but some specialty items needed for some of the higher-end things like upgrading how much ammo you can carry, or that special part you need along with currency to get the best bow available will require you to venture out with that specific goal in mind.

For instance, I needed the “heart” from a specific type of machine to trade for an upgraded bow. The game has a specific mechanic allowing you to set a quest on your map for that item which really took a lot of my anxiety away. It never holds your hand, but the game gives you the tools to not have to walk around with a blindfold on.

Crafting ammo, like arrows and tripwires, is an incredibly streamlined process. At any time, even in the middle of combat, simply hold L1 to bring the weapon-wheel up, select the specific weapon, and hold Cross. If you have the correct ingredients they’ll simply get built. The game is still happening while you do so, but everything slows quite a bit.

One final aspect of the prevalent gameplay mechanics is your adeptness at climbing. Unlike an Uncharted or Tomb Raider mechanic, the system here is much smoother with much less button pressing. At times you’ll merely need to point the stick toward the next hand-hold to keep moving. But, this part of the game brings probably my biggest criticism, which is is pretty mild actually.

At times, I found it really difficult to figure out where I was going. There were even a few times that I lunged at what looked like a grabbable ledge on the other side of a crevice, to only fall well short and fall to my death. It didn’t happen often, but a couple of times it took me more than a few minutes to figure out my next move.

The story is deep, and you’ll encounter entire locations where your only function will be to search around and find clues. The story is told in many different forms and thankfully there aren’t any “golden light in the suitcase” moments like in Pulp Fiction. Quite frankly, I became almost obsessed with furthering the story to its conclusion, and for me, it completely paid off. *Note: keep watching after the seemingly endless credits.

… the map seems to go on forever …
Visuals:
Guerrilla’s in-house Decima engine shines in this game. Environments are filled to the brim with detail at every turn. Grass and other various foliage sways in the wind, day turns to night and back to day, and clouds move across the sky.

Both sunlight and moonlight react to every single surface correctly, down to individual leaves and blades of grass. Even more, weather changes in real time, with fog rolling into a valley or a rain shower moving across the plains with wind attempting to blow trees over.

Animation and character detail is just as good with an incredible amount of color and texture depth. Machines too, many made up of hundreds of individual parts, are simply stunning. Knocking small pieces of armor off of a Thunderjaw to gain access to its mushy nougat center (it’s nougat, right?) is quite the technical wonder, and it never gets old.

On a larger scale, the map seems to go on forever, and it’s rare to ever catch an instance of texture or architecture pop-in. Even more impressive are the shadows. I was walking in the moonlight, with a ridge at my right side. One of the larger beasts was on top of another ridge in the distance with the moon behind it. Some movement to my right caught my attention and I quickly noticed that it was the machine’s shadow moving back and forth.

I couldn’t believe that a real-time shadow was being cast by something that was so far away. But it’s that attention to detail that really blows me away with Horizon Zero Dawn, and it stays consistent throughout.

… Once you start learning these audio cues you can actually use them to your advantage …
Audio:
Let’s get to the voice acting first, which overall is fantastic. There are a couple of voices that don’t really fit what the character looks like, but that’s a rarity. Environmental sounds fill every nook and cranny of your ears, with a nice hint of music that reacts to what’s happening. It induces stress and anxiety when appropriate, and the primary soundtrack is extremely effective when representing which emotional response they’re attempting to evoke.

The stars of the show in the audio category though are the machines. The first time a Thunderjaw loads-up and fires its laser weapon will straight-up scare you. Once you start learning these audio cues you can actually use them to your advantage to dodge the attack and set your own up at the same time. It really is stunning, and using a good pair of headphones only adds to the effect.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

Conclusion:
Don’t get me wrong, I always expected this to be a great game. I just never thought I’d be able to commit the time to finishing the story. I’m really glad that I did though, and I’m also glad that I can still go back to work on the content that I skipped after the fact.

I’ve been writing this for a while now so I haven’t played the game for a couple of days, and all that I can think about is getting back to it so that I can libertate another cauldron or override another Longneck.

Guerrilla has built a world that almost feels alive at times, with a varied and vast landscape that never gets old as you travel around. You experience real anxiety when machines block your path through a narrow pass. You’ll travel halfway across the map to find that one item you’ll need to buy a better bow, and you’ll grow an attachment to the machine that you’ve overridden to use as a mount.

All-in-all, Horizon Zero Dawn is, to me at least, more of an Action-Adventure game than Action-RPG, but that may just be because they’ve hidden the RPG elements so well. At the same time though, it’s a rich experience with a great deal of variety. It requires you to think, to learn, to improvise, and to enjoy it at every turn.

I loved the experience so much that I rarely ever used a mount or fast travel, because exploring on foot was just so much fun. This is one of the finest gaming experiences that I’ve ever had.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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  • Haavve

    A great review as always Glenn! Keep up the good work.

  • Jbumi

    I’d like to give GG a thumbs up for allowing reviews to come out a week early when other “big” companies are withholding their games until after release. It seems to be paying off too – based on these early reviews, I’d say they’ve got a new franchise on their hands! Good for them (& by extension, us)!!

    • MJC

      They must have been confident about what they had to let the reviews out early.

  • Pingback: Horizon Zero Dawn Early Impressions And Reviews - DailyGamingTech()

  • Eric walthour

    Very well explained and better than most at providing details and conveying how fun the fan really is. I am glad you guys reviews are more timely than this m the pass. It use to be sometimes months before some reviews were done which defeated the purpose of a review whe n most rely on reviews for day one purpose so great job on that front.

  • Eric walthour

    Glenn I may give MLB 17 a try since I skipped last yr. I loved MLB 15 but as i went thru the franchise mode( where you move up as a rookie) I was having fun. Then I went to the big leagues I couldn’t get a hit to save my life. I changed sliders to reduce difficulty and no matter what I couldn’t hit 200 batting Avg. So I gave up and traded in. One reason I dislike most sports games these days is with the spike in difficulty and I can’t enjoy the game. I grew playing MLB the show, madden and NBA live and pro tournament tennis.

  • Note5

    Fascinating review. Enjoyed this review.

  • MJC

    Based on your review and others, I am sorry I ever doubted this game. Now I need to buy it.

  • Note5

    HZD is the only game that makes reading glowing reviews a real pleasure

  • John Montegudo

    After hearing your review on the podcast I Pre-ordered the Collectors Edition even though I’m usually to thrifty, but I am so glad I did. I cannot wait for this. Game. I loved Far Cry 3 and 4 and platinumed both. As this has no online player I assume it will be a good game to get the Platinum on. (Still can’t get a good enough raid group together to get the last 2 trohpies on Destiny for my Plat there). I keep hearing in this and other reviews that the story is amazing and I can’t wait to uncover it!

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