I've always been fascinated with dinosaurs. It's not a phase I grew out of, it's not a trend I eventually grew tired of. Dinosaurs and lizards and frogs. I loved them all.
But what I didn't know I loved was all these creatures turned into Robots, placed in a verdant prehistoric paradise set a thousand years after catastrophic events that we slowly discover more about. Add in a robust workhors third-party combat system, an excellent story and well developed characters and you have a recipe for one of the most memorable, engaging and outstanding modern titles.
I hate to spoil my opinion so early into the piece, but I wholeheartedly recommend Horizon Zero Dawn. Controversially (or not so controversially, as it turns out) I also consider it to be a better title than Breath of the Wild - which explores similar themes, except with fewer robot dinosaurs.
Horizon: Zero Dawn (which I will soon abbreviate to H:ZD) places the player in the fur-skinned moccasins and tribal garb of Aloy. An outcast from her tribe for reasons we learn through the course of the game. Along the way we'll learn the fate of the 'ancestors' who left behind ruined cities, highly advanced technology and of course, robots of all different shapes, sizes and creeds - most of them want your head on a spike though.
The way H:ZD weaves its story kept me enthralled. The more you learn about the world and its surrounds, the higher the stakes get. It pushes you onward and makes you invested in the world - which is, just quietly, absolutely beautiful.
You will venture through lush jungles, windswept heaths, deserts, canyons, forests and arctic tundra. Along the way you will meet the peoples that inherit these lands. Each of them having their own plight - although it doesn't help that I almost entirely missed one faction after I didn't get any quests pointing me in their direction and so visited them when I was vastly overleveled and after the big climactic ending.
Getting into the meat and potatoes of the game, it's a combination of light RPG elements including crafting, ammunition and equipment management and skill point acquisiton. Though there are some weapons clearly better than others (looking at you, bomb sling), they're all useful in their own way. Often combat encounters involve finding the right set of tools for the job. Often your first few rounds with robot dinosaurs are punishing - as they should be. But as the world opens up and you grow your skills, as a real neanderthal would, you learn to organically evolve your style in order to better tackle nastier robot dinosaurs.
The combat and the RPG elements never let you get to the point where the combat is too easy. It might be the subject matter, but the combat encounters with the robots is always escalating as you find new makes and models - each one upping the ante. A criticism can be offered at this point that some breeds of robot look very similar - and it can be difficult to tell when you're dodge-rolling and sprinting, figuring out what you're going to be clawed and lasered with.
The weapons are well designed - and make combat complex and engaging. The game deliberately provides you with a set of weapons which combine primitive technology with ultra-modern components. A Bow and arrow that fires EMP arrowheads. A bomb sling that fires shock grenades. A sort of tesla death-stick that rips armor plates off of robots. Partly this is because it'd be terribly one-sided if you had slings and arrows and partly because it's an aid to immersion. It's a perfect microcosm of the juxtaposition of old and new. If Aloy and all the other neanderthal tribesmen just had M4 carbines it'd make the combat simpler, but also terribly boring.
Even fully geared, some of the bigger robot battles are challenging and exciting. Although only about half of them give you proper rewards for defeating them - the rest are just for the hell of it. Which isn't bad, provided you like robot combat. These larger and more difficult battles also encourage you to make full use of the diverse range of weapons at your disposal.
The story is excellent as well. It's nicely paced and the voice acting is spot on. Special mention of Lance Reddick's character - as I love the wire and so should you. It's an experience that makes you feel and has real lessons about the dangers of sentient AI, corporate greed and even human failings. All shown through the lens of people who barely understand their role in a strange and hostile world. You're compelled to learn more - HZD is one of the few games where side-questing added more than experience points. Learning about all the little threads in the old and new worlds, about the struggles of people long gone and the toughness demanded of those trying to survive in a world with murder-crazy robots.
My delay in this review did allow me to also experience the "Frozen Wilds" expansion pack - downloadable content in which Aloy heads into the north of the world. There's some continuity issues here which I'd rather not spoilt, but it is quite an awkward shift if you complete the main game before attempting the DLC. Which you are supposed to do. The DLC adds a further miniature story campaign involing another angle of the 'ancestors' - adding more challenges, more robots and more interesting characters.
As I mentioned at the start of the review, Horizon Zero Dawn is an excellent title. The three pillars of visuals, gameplay and story are tall and strong. In a world where two of those gets you a pass mark and good press, H:ZD is an outstanding title - and a major reason to own a PS4.
Catch you next time,
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This review was originally published on Facebook. It was lost (then re-written) when I moved to my new blog.