Horizon: Zero Dawn is set in the distant future. Humanity has fallen and been reduced to hunter-gatherer tribes picking through the wreckage of modern civilization. The world has been reclaimed by animal-like machines who hunt and kill humans. The plot follows Aloy, who's been banished from the Nora tribe for being "motherless." When she comes of age, she challenges the Nora and demands answers about her parentage. An attack by a rival tribe leaves the Nora in shambles. Aloy must hunt down the responsible party and discover the truth about her heritage and the machine-beasts.
Horizon's story is potentially interesting but isn't told very well. There's a ton of world-building and neat little touches, but it is buried under thin and badly acted characters. Aloy does a reasonable job, but most of the supporting cast is weak, and the plot isn't very engaging. The game includes tone-based dialogue options (angry, intelligent or heartfelt) like Mass Effect, but they come across flat. I never connected with many of the characters, and while the world setting is interesting, the writing is too awkward for its own good.
On the surface, Horizon has many similarities to Far Cry Primal, though from a third-person perspective instead. It's an open-world game with an emphasis on crafting, hunting, and collecting items to improve your vaguely prehistoric characters. There are tons of collectibles, hidden areas to explore, tall places to climb to reveal the map, resources to craft better equipment, and so on. Horizon is a fairly polished and well-done variation of open-world games, but it doesn't redefine them, so if you've played any open-world game in the past five years, you have a good idea of what to expect.
Fortunately, Horizon shines in the details, not in the broad strokes. Aloy is a hunter, but regular beasts aren't her deadliest prey. The world of Horizon is populated by robot animals that range from robot horses to weapon-covered mecha T-Rexes. The robot animals are part of a complex ecosystem and are way more deadly than their fleshy counterparts. A jaguar might be dangerous, but a double-sized robot jaguar with a laser cannon mounted on its back and armor plates on every limb takes it to a different level.
Each robot animal has strengths and weaknesses. They tend to be heavily armored and incredibly tough, so trying to win in a straight fight is possible but takes lots of resources. Instead, you need to analyze them and figure out the best way to take them down. It's vital to identify the weakest points of each robot animal and exploit them.
Fights against the robots are by far the high point of the game. Most of the individual monsters are relatively easy to take down, but you have to be cautious when dealing with a pack. Early on, it's very possible to go from zero to dead before you realize what is going on. The smarter move is to use available tools before it becomes a straight fight. Tear off an enemy's weapons, freeze them, and pound their weak points before they can respond, or duck in and out of cover while tearing the foe to pieces.
Elemental effects play a big part in combat. Hitting an enemy repeatedly with a special elemental weapon can cause different effects. Fire eventually sets the robot on fire to do damage over time and sends some into a panic. Freeze slows them down and means further attacks do more damage. Shock can stun an enemy and leave them vulnerable to a spear thrust. Corruption can turn enemies against one another. Aloy can also gain the ability to turn machines to her side, which can be a boon when you take the biggest bad guy on the battlefield and make him fight for you.
One very cool element about Horizon is that your weapon upgrades are not pure stat increases. Weapons have rarities, and finding a higher tier of a weapon doesn't change the core stats much, but upgrading it provides new abilities. Your core bow can only shoot arrows, the second-tier upgrade also shoots fire arrows, and the third tier can shoot regular, fire and armor-breaking arrows. Not every weapon is a full upgrade, but generally, rather than just getting bigger numbers, each upgrade feels more meaningful.
Pure strength upgrades come from modifications that you can equip on your armor and weapons. For example, I got a mod that increased damage by 50% and improved the power of fire. If you learn how to stack the mods, you can create some powerful weapons. Super-boost an ice arrow, and you can freeze enemies in one attack instead of several. The upgrades can't be moved once they're placed, unless you get a high-end skill called Tinkerer, but you find so many upgrades that you'll never feel that you lack customization. However, if you specialize in one element, the end game can perhaps become too easy, and terrifying foes become cannon fodder.
If there's a low point to Horizon's combat, it is battles against human foes. The human enemies are far less interesting, and combat involves shooting them in the head from a distance while their lackluster AI struggles to compensate. The combat mechanics are at their worst since you're not blowing off parts or taking advantage of cool gameplay mechanisms. It does well enough (though headshot hitboxes seem occasionally rather off), but it's hard to care about a guy with a spear when there's a mechanical mammoth waiting over the next ridge.
It's disappointing that the human-focused combat is lackluster because there is a lot of it. It gets better when you throw machines into the mix, both in terms of complexity and options. There are corrupted machines that can't be turned to your side but have all the strengths and weaknesses of the real thing, which makes some group battles fun. However, any time you fight humans, it becomes dull. They're neither intelligent nor challenging enough to be worth the time. For a lot of fights, you can stand in a doorway and kill them as they rush in.
There's a ton to do in Horizon. There are dozens of side-quests, and most provide extra experience points and loot drops. There are also more complex side activities, such as cauldrons, which are effectively mini-dungeons to explore. They're a fun break from the wilderness because they offer a good mix of platforming and combat, and finishing them unlocks the ability to control various machines.
If there's one big drawback, the game goes overboard on resources to collect. There are loads of different items you'll need to craft weapons, armor and ammo. Most machines drop two or three unique drops in addition to generic items, so it can require a bit of grinding. If you don't upgrade your resource satchel to the maximum ASAP, you'll find yourself juggling resources, some of which are far too plentiful and others annoyingly rare.
Horizon is a great-looking game. The characters and environments really pop, and the postapocalyptic-slash-stone-age setting feels cool and distinctive. Each of the robot animals looks memorable. There were a few annoying frame rate drops and a couple of moments when I accidentally glitched out of the world, but it's not enough to ruin the experience. The only thing that really dragged down Horizon is the voice acting. It's rare that I've encountered a big-budget game with such a tremendous gulf in voice acting quality. Some actors are great, but some sound like they walked in off the street. It's most noticeable in the awkward side-quests, where some characters sound utterly ridiculous, and Aloy's actress is running circles around them. It's not enough to sour the game, but it feels shockingly out of place.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a perfect example of strong, competent and enjoyable gameplay. It doesn't reinvent the genre, but it's a lot of fun to play. The mecha-dino combat is the highlight and represents some of the most enjoyable open-world combat on the market. Burning through powerful foes and looting their corpses for rare treasures captures an excitement rarely felt in open-world games. The rest of the gameplay is somewhat dulled in comparison. A somewhat weak plot drags down the experience but isn't enough to detract from the enjoyment. All in all, Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of the better exclusives on the PS4 and a great addition to any PS4 owner's lineup.
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