Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)

 

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Time Mage 8-bit right “The following is a guest review by The Timely Mage.

 

 

Intriguing narratives. Artfully crafted worlds. Clever gameplay. This is what I game for. This is what Horizon delivers.

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Before we go into Horizon’s execution, let’s first of all set the stage by nailing down exactly what the game sets out to be. To be honest, I didn’t have a very clear understanding until I played it for the first time. Guerrilla Games’ latest AAA title is very different than what they have produced in the past, namely their gritty sci-fi shooter series, Killzone. Yes, in fact Horizon is a full-fledged open world action RPG, set in a colorful post-post-apocalyptic land populated with tribal clans and robotic beasts.

Being an open world action RPG, there are certain expectations which have become very refined over the years. When I delve into such a game I expect a large map filled with collectibles, side quests, and a living ecosystem. I expect accessible, versatile combat. And if it leans more heavily on its RPG influences I expect satisfying character development, inspiring world-building, and a colorful cast.

 

It’s from my experience, along with the way the game was marketed, that I believe these are the expectations they attempted to meet and truly exceed in. It’s also through this lens that I will try to fairly measure its success and shortcomings.

But before I get into the nitty-gritty can I just say…this game is AMAZING! It’s been quite a while since a game has managed to feel so adventurous to me like playing a really good RPG when I was a kid. Often times the most I can hope for in a game is for it to merely meet my reserved, realistic expectations but Horizon managed to transcend these pre-determined boundaries by terraforming the foundation according to its own unique vision rather than borrowing a used canvas from its contemporaries and touching it up.

A Honed Predator

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Horizon’s success doesn’t come from doing one thing exceptionally well. Nor does it succeed because it does everything at or above average. It comes from all aspects of the game being handcrafted for one purpose, like every part of a predator that has been specialized to take down its prey in a single attack. Each interaction reveals more about Aloy or her world. Each ruin and remnant of the old world is designed to stir your thirst for discovery. Each skill and weapon gives you a meaningful way to survive and thrive in the world.

There is no wasted effort put into this game. In fact one of the most astounding things to me is how everything actually works as intended. For example a lot of third-person games try to have a stealth mechanic for the sake of being able to say there are multiple ways to play the game when in reality it’s a painfully slow task that usually ends with guns a-blazing or a pitiful bonus rarely worth the effort. Horizon actually manages to make stealth not only doable but even desirable while giving you a tangible upper hand needed in battle.

Another example is in how it handles an area in RPGs that can be quite delicate, that area being its side quests. Each quest revolves around the people and their various human struggles, often surprisingly poignant. It’s through these interactions that you learn not only about the people and politics of the world but also about the protagonist, Aloy. It’s often not communicated through on the nose dialog but rather her tone, her reservations, and catching things that peak her interest.

Zero Dawn

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As impressed as I was with the attention to the small (but significant!) details, personally one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game is its story. Sci-fi stories and settings are my favorite by far and Horizon once again blew me away with how well developed it was when compared to other games in the genre.

Like just about every other aspect of the game, I had no idea what to expect from the game’s story. All I knew about the setting came from the trailers which hinted that the earth was overtaken by robots and now the remaining humans live in tribal communities. The heroine Aloy also appears as a confident and curious woman who seems to play a key role in discovering what happened to the previous civilization and the events that are actively unfolding.

I won’t go into any of the details because it’s best when you know very little going into it. What really sucked me in was uncovering the mystery of what happened in the past and learning why things are the way things are in the game.

Most games (or any media for that matter) that are driven by mystery often start off with an intriguing premise but then as more is revealed the less interested I become. Horizon, however, managed to intensify my interest throughout the game and the final payoff was very satisfying. I can’t promise this will be everyone’s experience but I was thoroughly impressed.

Woman vs. Machine

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Going back to the trailers, what stuck out to me was that the earliest footage we got to see was Aloy taking down a Thunderjaw which tells me the gameplay is something Guerrilla is very proud of and for good reason. From the story to the battles, your brain is constantly engaged and rewarded for it.

Each robot behaves differently and so you must study them to find every weakness that can be exploited if you want to survive. As your skills and arsenal expand they provide you with new and creative ways to exploit these weaknesses rather than encouraging brute force through increased power. The balance is genius and satisfyingly fun.

 

 

The 8-bit Review
visual1 Visuals: 10/10

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A visual masterpiece. I constantly found myself awestruck by beautiful vistas and atmospheric scenery, taking screenshots in photo mode (which is great by the way) every two seconds.  The art direction is consistently impressive across the world and its inhabitants.

Character design specifically stuck out to me as each individual you run into seems naturally unique and diverse without feeling like a caricature or a statement.

The mechanical wildlife is particularly inspiring and certainly the most iconic aspect of the game, for good reason. Seeing such natural qualities from a synthetic frame gave Horizon’s world a sympathetic soul.

audio Audio: 10/10

Horizon boasts a unique and robust soundtrack filled with tribal percussion and wind instruments which fits the world perfectly. The soothing sounds of the natural environment and exotic noises of its artificial inhabitants give a sense of both familiarity and mystery.

I was particularly impressed with the voice acting and found it to breathe a uniqueness and history into each character. Some of the side characters were less consistent than others but overall (especially when measured against the expectations of the genre) it struck a fine balance between being distinctive and convincing that other games struggle to find.

gameplay Gameplay: 10/10

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Horizon’s gameplay is one of the core strengths that makes it unique and better than its peers. Taking down machines is challenging but not necessarily in the controller smashing Bloodborne kind of way. There are plenty of dodge-rolls to be had but it’s the challenge of figuring out how to progressively dismantle these mechanical beasts where you’ll find the sense of accomplishment comes from.

narrative Narrative: 10/10

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The setting and story kept me interested from beginning to end. It managed to build up mystery and still deliver a satisfying ending. Aloy’s story was layered and convincingly human. A few familiar plot elements are certainly utilized but when you’re having so much fun who really cares?

challenge Challenge: 10/10
This game displays, at least to me, the perfect balance of challenge and accessibility. You can’t just fling a bunch of arrows at a machine and call it a day, in order to take down even some of the simpler machines you have to understand its physical weak spots and elemental vulnerabilities, otherwise your attacks will barely put a dent in their armor. It reminded me of the RPGs of old where strategy mixed with simple to understand mechanics were the basis for a satisfying battle.

Simple and smart implementations such as slowed time during weapon changes and enemy offscreen indicators mitigate frustration so your fight is with the AI rather than the UI. You can also change the difficulty at any time without it affecting the basic mechanics or earning trophies.

replay Replayability: 9/10
Since Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world action RPG, I rated its replayability with this in mind. It may not have multiplayer or procedurally generated levels but that’s not the type of game this is. Rather I find it to be one of the most replayable games in its genre primarily because of the hunt.

Most RPGs lose their appeal once the story is over, all items have been acquired, and all challenges have been conquered. When you’re completely maxed out you’re typically way overpowered, especially against normal enemies that wander the landscape. Since Horizon’s progression largely expands utility rather than raw power, the thrill of the hunt only increases the longer you play.

uniqueness Uniqueness: 10/10

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Horizon is such a rare gem. Every aspect of the game is unique from the story to the characters to the gameplay. I found the character designs and story to be particularly special. Outside of the game, Guerrilla’s amazing achievement of creating a new IP in such a different genre than they’ve worked on in the past was very inspiring.

personalgrade My Personal Grade: 10/10
Definitely a contender for game of the year and arguably one of the top games on the PS4. One of the most enjoyable, beautiful, inspirational games I’ve played in a long time that renewed the wonder and joy of gaming for me.

 

Aggregated Score: 9.9

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20 thoughts on “Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)

  1. It’s a fantastic game indeed. I’ve only played it for about 7 hours so far but Aloy’s running commentary and the ever-so-slightly clumsy combat controls bar it from perfection or anything like that. Still, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve played of it.
    Reuben

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just finished it last night. I did enjoy the mystery of the story, but it just didn’t scratch my gaming itch that I thought it would. Did you take some of those shots above in photo mode?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, they’re all screenshots I took in photo mode. It’s a really photogenic game. So was it the gameplay that didn’t quite do it for you or perhaps the characters?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I loved that shot on top of the tower! I dabbled for a few moments in photo mode myself and grabbed a couple shots I’m a little proud of.

        Anyway, yeah about the game, I’m going to sound pretty pretentious and create a false dichotomy to explain myself. When it comes to open-world action RPG’s, you are either an Elder Scrolls person or a Souls series person. I played Oblivion, then Skyrim and then Dark Souls in this order. Dark Souls completely changed my taste in this genre and so I’m a Souls person. It was so qualitatively better than Skyrim that I knew I would no longer enjoy action RPG’s in the same way again and HZD was chock full of Elder Scrolls. Fun fact, Sony actually wanted From Software to create a Japanese reply to the Elder Scrolls series, but it was such a flop in early development that they just gave Hidetaka Miyazaki the freedom to pretty much do whatever he wanted with it, resulting in Demon’s Souls… and it’s dark progeny.

        Although HZD did a lot of interesting things, it seemed to be doing a lot of looking at Skyrim. In fact, I played HZD by default just like I played Skyrim by choice, as an archer. Also, HZD’s close-quarters combat was, honestly, shoddy at best. Being that its main fighting mechanics verbs were ‘shooting arrows’ and ‘rolling’, that’s slightly understandable. But it’s a AAA game, and that the bulk of your time is spent fighting dino-bots, so you’d think there’d be more polish in the hand-to-hand aspect. Like you, I just found my main strategy and stuck with it (two ~40%dmg mods and a high% tear mod on my ‘regular’ bow, with tear arrows).

        What at first felt like a great deal of fun things to do on a large map near the end became an enormous and cumbersome amount of work to do that ultimately distracted me from finishing the actually compelling story. The side-quests felt flat and most were needlessly drawn-out and time-consuming. Many were clearly designed to make you explore areas of the game that would otherwise have been left unexlored. This is an old RPG design trope mastered by WoW. Those areas didn’t have anything gameplay-wise that brought anything new for me. I did enjoy the idea of exploring the old underground facilities, but they were far and few between. I could just walk around in Fallout 3 looking for a cool, for lack of a better word, dungeon, to explore that had some mysterious depth with who knows what unique item in it. This game didn’t really offer that. Fallout 4 botched this too, with all its exploratory places almost all being connected to some such quest that originated in who knows which settlement, from who knows which NPC.

        For me, as an open world game, it sorta aimed towards the bar that Skyrim set, but it knew it’s story was it’s bread and butter its arrow veered in that direction. The players are torn between a beautifully crafted world with no cool items to get or dungeons to explore, and a compelling and thoughtfully designed narrative. It lacked the kind of exploration that Skyrim did so well, as it had a good deal of interesting (and uninteresting) dungeons. Dark Souls itself was a giant sprawling nesting doll of dungeons within dungeons. HZD is big, but much of its bigness felt a bit flat. It’s beautiful, but somewhat generic. What stood out was it’s story… and the story made me rush through the game, missing all those zillions of things to do on my map, all those metal flowers, baduk artifacts, exclamation points, and whathaveyou. They weren’t really fun to get anyway (unless you just love collecting following trails, I guess).

        I’m the first to admit that my tastes are rather particular though. I also know that any video game is representative of an incredible amount of hard work and dedication by, in the case of a AAA game, quite a lot of people, and I don’t want to understate this fact. I can’t do what they do either and I’m always amazed by the sheer man hours put into these kinds of games by talented people. I played it and feel that I got my money’s worth. Yet, there is a place for criticism and just because hard work was put into it doesn’t mean its gonna be everbody’s shotglass of soju. It wasn’t outstanding like what was done with the Souls series, or more recently, what ‘Inside’ felt like for me, but it didn’t have the same goals or ambitions either.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Very interesting perspective! Thanks for taking the time to share. I can see coming from that perspective how it would not quite match the strong points of both Elder Scrolls and Souls (however I suppose you could also argue that it overcame both of their weaknesses to create a more balanced experience). Personally I found it more in parody with the likes of Far Cry (especially Primal) which also takes a more balanced and accessible approach. I agree, it certainly doesn’t have the breadth of an Elder Scrolls nor the tight melee combat of Souls but when it comes to accessibility and fluidity I felt it hit the nail on the head and that those sacrifices were necessary to further that goal.

        That’s an interesting fact about the origin of Souls, I wasn’t aware of that. I agree that the quests were designed to get you out in the world and that the dungeon diving was perhaps not as frequently or purposely implemented as they could have been. Personally those didn’t really have much impact on me since I’m not a huge fan of dungeons (especially long ones) and I like exploring the map so having an incentive makes it more rewarding.

        Once again, thanks so much for your perspective. It really helped me understand how it might not meet everyone’s expectations, even those with exposure to similar games in the broader genre.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome review! I’m loving every minute in this glorious game. I really liked your “Woman vs Machine” line by the way. 🙂 As a female gamer, I can’t express how happy I am to see another strong female protagonist! Aloy quickly became my 2nd all-time favourite video game character (and I’m only 30% through the game so far). She almost dethroned Lightning as my favourite, and trust me, that says a lot! Near the beginning of the game, she muttered an amusing sarcastic comment to herself while approaching a village: “Good thing I’m shunned or I’d have to talk to these idiots.” After that, I knew she was definitely a woman after my own heart, haha.

    I’m also a side quest-oholic in most games, but I truly want to do all the optional quests in HZD. I want to see the interactions and learn more about this intriguing world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, judging by your alias, dethroning Lightning would be quite a feat! You might have to change it to AloyEllen 😉.

      Seriously though, Aloy is easily one of my favorite female characters. She’s strong and confident but without it coming off as forced or unnatural and its all very grounded in her backstory. I really enjoyed her sarcasm and how it was tempered with kindness in her actions so she came off as genuine rather than jaded.

      Side quests can often feel like a chore in most RPGs but, like you alluded to, I actually wanted to do the side quests because I was so thirsty to know more about Aloy, the world, and the characters you meet.

      Anyways, thanks for the comment. I enjoyed your perspective.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Absolutely agree. That seems to genuinely be the reaction from most people who have played Horizon which is a testament to how well made and marketed the game is.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for writing this up, TM! This was the single game I wanted to play the most when we got together that one time to watch the PlayStation conference (thanks for that invite btw). I’m a tremendous fan of science fiction as well and this looked like a more engaging take on the open world concept. After reading your review and finishing Breath of the Wild, I have renewed hope for these kind of games again. If it doesn’t bear too many of the earmarks of AAA gaming that I dislike, I may actually enjoy it! Imagine that lol

    Are there any minor, non-detracting complaints however small you may have about the game? Anything that is the smallest inconvenience or flaw of any kind in HZD?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great question. There are some minor things that came up like some inconsistent acting in its side characters that may have even come off as a little…cartoony I guess you can say.

      Also, while the diversity of weapons was impressive I felt somewhat limited to only using 4 because that’s how many you can equip on your weapon wheel. Technically you can swap them at any time and I would periodically but the process is more of a hindrance than it is enabling. Plus I’m lazy.

      At times I found myself taking more time adjusting the camera than I would have liked but it’s not really much of an issue. The only way to counter that is to have a lock on system but that would’ve created more issues than it solved and the combat is very opportunistic so when you’re fighting multiple enemies you need to be aware of all enemies and ready to attack when an opening presents itself.

      Beyond that I can’t really think of anything else. To me, a score of 10 certainly doesn’t mean in any way that the game is flawless but rather in spite of any minor flaws it does everything exceptionally well to create a final product that is by far greater than the sum of its parts to become a masterpiece and I felt this game definitely fit the bill.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wouldn’t consider either of those to be majorly detracting, but as far as I can’t judge anyway, it seems like your grade is pretty fair. Sounds like it’s pretty seamless still. Lol did you feel guilty at all giving that score? A high 9 sounds like the kind of game it ended up being. I didn’t mean to ask about negative elements to lay it on ya, brotha 😉 I remain quite curious about this game. If I can find it cheap I’ll probably pick it up. Just found Aliens: Colonial Marines at a thrift store for 2 dollars. Woohoo PS3! Haha!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lol, nah, not guilty really. I give high scores a lot of consideration so I’m always ready for honest conversation.

        I know I mentioned it to you earlier but I thought it would be worth noting here, this review is in no way as thorough as it could have been but hopefully in the end it still conveys a useful perspective for others to know a little of what to expect.

        That said, I really appreciate your questions as I like continuing the conversation beyond the initial review and there’s a lot more to be said.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I know you’re an honest guy who gives a lot of consideration to things. That’s why I enjoy your thoughts, and also I think I tend to over-analyze sometimes into unintelligibility so I think that your approach of providing enough information to whet the appetite is a significant approach to review writing. I forgot to check in on the comments section on this review lately and I’m glad to see some cool comments. I love that conversation can really get going. I especially was interested in the talk of Aloy as a substantial female character that you had with LightningEllen (who’s a cool FF fan I had a LONG talk with on the FFXIII review lol!), what is it that you think makes Aloy stand out among other female protagonists. By 2017, there are more than a few of them out there. But what makes Aloy memorable?

          Liked by 1 person

      • To me she stands out for several reason, all of which revolve around her being well grounded.

        First off she gets the strong female protagonist right. I’ve seen many other games fail to make a convincingly strong female lead by having her obscene strength juxtaposed with her “sexy” character design and usually touting an awkwardly gruff personality with a constant need to one-up her male counterparts. Aloy is certainly strong and at very specific circumstances does take pleasure in putting losers in their place but it’s tempered with a complex compassion and ingrained humility so she feels much more grounded and comfortable than your average protagonist.

        Secondly I love her naiveté. Okay she’s not actually naive especially when compared to the other inhabitants with her more rational approach to understanding the world but her curiosity and overall drive throughout the game is very much childlike and it genuinely made me smile which is surprisingly rare for a game to do.

        Next up is her character design. I love how she doesn’t fall into any tropey design or feel like a “trophy” character created to make some kind of statement. I personally have not seen many characters that look like her nor feel as genuinely designed and the same can be said about almost all of the other characters you meet which I must applaud the artists for.

        Lastly, she’s just a really fun character to hang around. She always speaks her mind which can be surprising at times when she she says the honest answer rather the “right answer”. I enjoy it because rather her mirroring the cookie cutter responses we’ve been trained to have with other RPGs she feels like her own person. Not being able to always relate to a character and practically finish their sentences is something I appreciate and helps me to see through another person’s point of view which makes her all the more interesting for it.

        I’m not saying she’s perfect and I’m sure I’m overselling her a bit but i hope in the end it gives a constructive and positive perspective to a character that I feel is a step in the right direction for character development in video games.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think we can both agree that more character development in video games is better. It sounds like I’d enjoy Aloy as well. She seems more like a strong Miyazaki protagonist rather than the American feminazi image. I could definitely get into a character who’s not there to make a statement but one who exists for the thrill of the story. Women have had the short end of the stick for character development in games for a while so I’m glad to hear this is a good example of the opposite, where she’s well-rounded and not just out to be anti-male for reasons.

          Liked by 1 person

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