“My whole life I lived as an outcast…”Aloy
Set in the 31st century, 1000 years after our civilization has ended. Horizon Zero Dawn has a strong reputation as one of the best games on PS4. To my shame, it has taken me this long to finally play it, and I can confirm that its reputation is well deserved.
In this world, humanity has returned to tribal societies, and animalistic machines are found across the continents, hostile to humans, and hunted for their parts. You play as Aloy, a tribal outcast and expert huntress, who sets out into the world to find her place in it. The game is a third-person action game, with a wonderfully realised world to explore, that is large enough to feel fun to explore, without being so big that it becomes intimidating or boring.
The gameplay revolves around traversing this beautiful world and avoiding/hunting the dangerous machines that can be found throughout it, with story missions playing out on variations of machine hunts, which have a passing similarity to the hunts of Monster Hunter World, and human raider camp attacks, which have a similar feel to the predator sections of the aforementioned Batman Arkham series of games.
Despite the familiarity of these gameplay elements, Horizon Zero Dawn ties these sections together creatively and cohesively, creating a game that is polished and fun to play, without getting monotonous. With such a well realised world and gameplay structure, it is only fitting to have an excellent story and set of characters to compliment the finely tuned framework that has been built in Zero Dawn. And boy does this game deliver.
Starting with the protagonist, Aloy, she is one of my favorite protagonists of all time in video games. Throughout the game, she is an outsider and looked down upon by others. But for all of the cultural opposition she faces, her competence always challenges the pre-conceptions that others have about her. She works hard to be an elite huntress, and her confidence in her abilities shines through in her dialogue. She is not overly cocky, but has a dry and witty sense of humour that carries Aloy through the social situations that she has not learned the ‘appropriate’ etiquette for, by virtue of her outcast upbringing. We need more female protagonists like Aloy in video games.
This well-written protagonist and dialogue carry the story comfortably, as you will naturally care for the issues that Aloy cares about, but it is hard to tell exactly what outcome she will root for when the chips are down. She wants to protect people but is intrinsically drawn to oppose certain cultural power structures that those people support. It is an interesting story to follow.
Aloy is equipped with a range of weapons that carry a variety of ammunition types that are suited to different kinds of encounters, from humans to the wide variety of machines you can encounter. Each machine has its weaknesses and strengths, and as the game progresses you will learn how to defeat each machine, as well as turn machines against each other and even ride them. The combat in these scenarios is crisp and you feel powerful and accomplished with every machine you kill. Even the lowest level machines leave you feeling a sense of satisfaction when you fell them in the middle of a hectic fight, as you thin the herd to deal with the more challenging machines.
Each fight is an exciting, edge of your seat experience, and I have frequently found myself spamming dodge-rolls to get enough space to evaluate a combat encounter that has gone sidewise because I have not properly assessed what machines are in play in the field. I always just about manage to find the space needed and clutch those victories from the jaws of defeat. It feels awesome.
The raider-camp segments are not particularly challenging, particularly if you have played the Batman Arkham games, but they are well constructed, and add a welcome level of variety to the gameplay you experience in Zero Dawn.
The game also contains a handful of collectibles, which are manageable in number, and you get access to their location maps immediately, so you will not be stuck trying to find 200 feathers in every nook and cranny of the environment. This is nice, and these are tied to data points that give you insight into the world 1000 years prior that led to the current post-apocalyptia. It is not exposition that is necessary for the plot to be understood, but rather a nice cherry of details on top of a well made and well-iced cake, avoiding some of the pitfalls of the overly lengthy encyclopedia that needs to be read in games like Mass Effect to understand why certain things are happening.
This is a beautiful, fun, and exciting game. There is a reason why Horizon Zero Dawn is so well regarded, and I couldn’t recommend a game more. If you, like me until recently, have not played this game, I would recommend finding a copy and playing it before you consider leaving this generation of consoles behind.