Horizon Zero Dawn Review – Post-Apocalypse Phenomenon (PS4)

Paulmichael Contreras

It has been a long time since Guerrilla Games has done anything outside of their revered franchise, Killzone. Horizon Zero Dawn surprised almost everyone with its announcement at E3 2014, and is finally almost in gamers’ hands worldwide. So, does Guerrilla Games still know how to make a third-person console game, almost 13 years after Shellshock: Nam ’67?

An Intriguing Setting

Earth, 3XXX. The exact date and time is not known, because the world ended several centuries ago. In this land, humanity exists as a loose collection of tribes. Each have their own set of customs, beliefs, enemies, and allies. All live as we imagine our own ancestors did, perhaps a millennium or more ago. Yet machines also live among the rest of life, intriguing and incredibly powerful creations whose very reason for existing is not known by any human currently alive.

You play as Aloy, a girl who is born in mysterious circumstances to the Nora tribe, a forest-dwelling people ruled by matriarchs. While one elder sees you as a blessing from the All-Mother, the God of her people, the other elders see you as an omen, and thus, you are shunned. Only by winning a contest called The Proving can you be allowed back into the Nora society, if that is something you want.

Horizon Zero Dawn’s story is surprisingly very compelling. A strong start sees you thrust into the wide world, with a whole host of side quests to complete, characters to meet, and things to collect and unlock. The main campaign has a bit of a lull in its second quarter or so, but the numerous side quests are more than entertaining enough to see you through to when Aloy’s story takes off. When I say it takes off, I mean it really takes off. There’s a certain revelation in the game that gives purpose, and a reason for existing, to all the robots in the world. It’s an inventive idea, created with flaws inherent in anything created by humans. In other words, the plot device tying together the robots and high technology of the past is not a simple deus ex machina, and genuinely makes sense in this world. The timescales of what is created is a little unbelievable, but humans are capable of incredible things when placed in intense situations. There are a couple of over-the-top deaths in the game, but these rather cheesy moments are quickly forgotten when the grander plot begins to reveal itself.

Decisions, Decisions

Interactions with certain NPCs also involve branching dialog, though there is only one ending to the game. Some of your choices do involve life-or-death decisions, however, so they naturally have some weight on at least a few individuals. The final battle does include certain characters depending on how helpful you were to them, which is a nice extra for those who choose to venture off the beaten path and help those in need on their way to greatness.

Guerrilla Games gave Horizon Zero Dawn the open-world treatment, but for those of you looking for a more linear experience, you can find it here. Using the fast travel ability enables you to jump from checkpoint to checkpoint, staying on the path to your next objective, leveling up by killing enemies (human and robot alike) along the way to level up. This might not be recommended on the Normal or higher difficulty setting, however.

This developer tends to make challenging games. Horizon Zero Dawn serves to continue in that tradition. On Normal, no robot encounter is a gimme. Tall, loud, menacing, and tough, even the lowly Watcher, a scout-type robot, can put up a good fight against an under-equipped hunter. The game also doesn’t hold your hand – while a basic tutorial tells you the controls, you’re on your own when it comes to figuring out the best way to take down enemies. This can be done through stealth, brute force, or a mixture of the two.

Upgrade Everything

You have at your disposal a nice arsenal of weapons with which to bring death down upon your enemies. Since humanity is still recovering from the apocalypse, technology is still primitive compared to today’s weaponry. But armed with a bow that can fire elemental arrows, a sling full of explosives, and a Tripcaster to lay down trip wires, Aloy doesn’t mess around. Strategy can involve throwing rocks or whistling to get an enemy’s attention, and then luring them into some tall grass to kill them quietly. However, tougher enemies may require a trap or two, to whittle their health down to more manageable levels. There is a lot of variety in the ways in which you can take down enemies, which will no doubt be to the delight of gamers of all types.

Aloy can also upgrade her abilities in three different areas, to cater to your individual play style. Every time you level up, you earn a skill point, and can spend these to unlock new abilities. There’s something here for everyone, including stealth, combat, and defensive capabilities. You’ll have almost everything unlocked by the end of the game’s main campaign, freeing you to complete your missions however you see fit. Yet you’re never so overpowered that the game ever really becomes easy, unless, of course, you are actually playing on Easy.

The open-endedness of Horizon Zero Dawn’s world means that outside of the game’s first hour or two, you are free to do whatever you want. I would estimate that a 100% completion of the game could take around 30-40 hours, possibly more, with the main campaign taking up at least half of your time spent. The game plays a little bit like an MMO, with the ability to switch between active quests at any time, and a good selection of merchants to trade with. You can mount various robots, and unlock the ability to mount and override more as you explore the game’s Cauldrons, which are where robots are created.

A Beautiful Creation

As you adventure around the world, you will no doubt pick up all kinds of resources, which vary from berries and herbs which can be placed into a satchel to heal you later, to parts off of fallen robots (some of whom you didn’t even kill), with which you can craft new upgrades for your inventory or trade with merchants back in town. Crafting options include larger carrying capacity for your various weapons, and modification of your outfits and weapons with one to three upgrades each, depending on the rarity of the outfit or weapon you have acquired. It’s a fairly robust system that lets you tinker with creating the weapon of your dreams, such as a Shadow Carja Hunter Bow that shoots flaming arrows that also inflict freeze damage. Carrying more than one outfit can also be a boon, since some outfits offer better protection against certain types of damage. So if you know you are going to head into the mountains, you’ll likely want to switch to an outfit that protects against freeze damage, as but one example.

As of this writing, Horizon Zero Dawn can safely be called the best-looking game, period. Whether you’re traversing the forest home of the Nora tribe, gritting your teeth in the desert of the Carja, shivering in the peaks of Pitchcliff, or treading lightly in the swampland, every environment you encounter is meticulously crafted. Playing on a PS4 Pro hooked up to a 4K HDR television, Horizon Zero Dawn’s beauty can leave you wordless. I often loathed using the game’s fast travel option, since I so often wanted to just take the scenic route and really take all the lush scenery in. To top things off, the game maintains a high framerate throughout the game, stuttering only marginally at the busier town sections of the world, and never during battle. The world is also massive – think The Witcher 3 – and full of secrets to explore, such as herds of robots to track, Tallneck robots to climb (serving as information hubs similar to viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed, but far, far more badass), old ruins to go spelunking in, and much, much more.

Audio design is also masterful in Horizon Zero Dawn. Every area has separate ambient audio constantly running, such as birds chirping in the forest, rabbits rustling in the leaves, Longlegs scrounging around for metal and resources…Yes, since robots are ever-present, they, too, become a part of the environment’s ambient noise, though their grinding of gears is not something you ever really get used to. Every interaction with other people is fully voiced, lending to the believability of the world. To top things off, there is also a soundtrack, which plays rather lightly in the background but can add emotion to the world.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Everything You Need to Know

February 28 is looming large, so let's crack open Horizon Zero Dawn and see what Guerrilla's new IP has to offer!

What is Horizon Zero Dawn?

It's a third-person action-adventure title from Guerrilla Games and the studio's first new IP since the launch of Killzone in 2004. 

Swapping the confines of a corridor shooter for a vast open world, Horizon Zero Dawn represents a marked change of pace for the dev team, though all involved - Sony included - are confident that Horizon has a bright future under the PlayStation umbrella. Development began in 2011, at which point John Gonzalez (Fallout: New Vegas) was drafted in to write the game's story. 

What's the Story?

Set long after humanity was knocked off the top of the food chain, Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in a world overrun by giant - and ruddy dangerous! - machines. Their existence plays a crucial part in the game's story, it seems, though Guerrilla has so far remained tight-lipped about any specifics. 

As mentioned before, it's a story that will be told through the eyes of Aloy. The Wire actor Lance Reddick is one of the many voice actors featured throughout the game. 

How Does it Play?

If it's an elevator pitch you're after, Horizon blends elements of Far Cry, The Witcher 3, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and any other open-world RPG that incorporates the genres recurring tropes: dialogue tress, side quests, skill trees...you name it. 

What truly sets Horizon apart, though, is its post-post-apocalyptic world and "incredibly rich" story, which brings us too...

Introducing Aloy, the New PlayStation Icon

Voiced by Ashly Burch with Dutch actress Hannah Hoekstra lending her likeness to the role, Aloy is the fierce, flame-haired protagonist and anchor of Horizon Zero Dawn. Loosely inspired by Ygritte from Game of Thrones, Lead Narrative Designer John Gonzales is confident Aloy will resonate with players near and far. 

"We focused really hard on creating the best possible character we could. We never thought that it would be a selling point that we’re having a female protagonist, we thought it would be more a selling point that you’re being the best possible person and character to play as in this world. People who have played the game so far seem to really enjoy being Aloy."

A Lush Open World

The sprawling open world of Horizon has attracted praise across the board. 

In building the environments, Guerrilla also tapped into tech that opens up the ability to dynamically create and render full environments — wildlife, effects, sounds, and various gameplay elements included.

"Jaap van Muijden from Guerrilla Games will describe the GPU based procedural placement system that dynamically creates the world of ‘Horizon: Zero Dawn’ around the player. Not limited to just rocks and trees, the procedural system assembles fully-fledged environments while the player walks through them, complete with sounds, effects, wildlife and game-play elements. He will show the entire pipeline, from the graph editor where artists can define the procedural placement rules to the GPU algorithms that create a dense world around the player on the fly. He will demonstrate the power of this procedural approach by showing how painting in a tree line and redirecting roads can be just as easy as moving mountains and changing a desert into a tropical swamp.
Attendees will be introduced to our new GPU-based run-time procedural technology. Learn how the team at Guerrilla Games used compute shaders to dynamically populate the world around the player. Find out how artists define and edit their diverse environments and how this procedural workflow allows global and independent content iterations for both artists and designers."

Delayed Out of 2016

Once scheduled for release in 2016, Horizon Zero Dawn was ultimately pushed into the following year "because it's such a big game."

"It’s all polish. We have this open world. It’s very big. We have a lot of quests; we have a lot of different regions as well. We have a lot of different Machines. Just playtesting this, it’s very, very time-consuming. We have so many components. We just want to raise the quality on the different areas."

One of 2017’s Heavy Hitters

From the moment Horizon was revealed, Guerrilla's bold new IP has consistently garnered praise for its originality and scope. 

In fact, it collected the gong for Best Original Game at the Game Critics Awards in both 2015 and 2016, and has turned heads among the PSLS staff

Meet the Robo-Dinos

From the Thunderjaw to the Snapmaw, Horizon Zero Dawn is simply teeming with all kinds of fascinating, robotic creatures. You'll be able to find a handful of gameplay videos through here

Franchise Potential

Horizon has the potential to become PlayStation's next great franchise, according to SIE UK Product Manager Jon Edwards.

Said he:

"Nothing has been announced to date but I think there’s a lot of potential for this to be an exciting new franchise for us – we’ll just have to wait and see.

"We’re really optimistic about how this title’s likely to perform. It’s got a great studio behind it and what we’ve revealed so far has been really well received. It was also on many ‘Most Anticipated Games of 2017’ lists which added to our confidence."

Running on Decima

The Decima game engine will act as the digital life blood for Horizon. It's a remodelled version of the same engine seen in Killzone: Shadow Fall which, incidentally, will also be used in the development of Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding

Story Trailer

Learn more about Horizon's human adversaries through the game's official story trailer

The description reads: “To learn about a new threat to her tribe, Aloy will embark on a dangerous journey that will reveal a dark plot that stands to change her world forever."

Go Behind the Scenes

It's the "single most ambitious" project in the studio's history, and you can go behind the scenes on Guerrilla's new IP right here.

Guerrilla Managing Director Hermen Hulst stated:  

"Horizon is clearly the single most ambitious project that Guerrilla Games has ever taken on. Our background tends to be that of the first-person shooter development, so the intense combat is in our DNA. So, logically, when we start making this open-world action-RPG game, it’s filled with what we’re good at, and that is intense combat."

Custom HUD and Photo Mode

Horizon Zero Dawn will not only feature a full-blown Photo Mode, but also a custom HUD. Find out details on both within. 

No Multiplayer, and Here's Why

Much like The Witcher 3 before it, Guerrilla is committed to delivering an engrossing single-player experience.

Here's why the decision to shoehorn multiplayer into Horizon Zero Dawn wouldn't have worked.  

"There are questions as to why a multiplayer will not do. The reality is that we are putting together a new IP. We are making a new franchise for the first time in 10 years and what we really want to do is improve the experience for the player. When you get to face these machines as Aloy, with this great character, who is the real star of the story and everything that happens, have this connection with her, what happens when you add the elements of multiplayer? You play as a supporting character? How does that work?"

PS4 Pro Support & 4K Features Detailed

Horizon Zero Dawn will look beautiful on PS4, make no mistake about it, but it “will look even better on PS4 Pro — particularly if you own an HDR-compatible 4K TV.”

In detailing how PS4 Pro enhances the experience, Guerrilla notes that with a standard 1080p TV: 

"For starters, for players who still possess standard 1080p HDTVs, we’re able to offer far better image quality. We’ve got a number of techniques at our disposal. The most logical one is supersampling. This is a very high-quality anti-aliasing technique, which basically means we internally render at a higher resolution (close to 4K) before shrinking it down to the final 1080p resolution. As our internal calculations are done at a resolution much higher than 1080p, more detail survives before we shrink it down to 1080p, resulting in smoother edges — virtually no jaggies — and a more stable image."

For those who go the full nine yards and play Horizon on a PS4 Pro, with a 4K TV, Guerrilla's advice is as follows: 

"Horizon Zero Dawn on PS4 Pro will fully support users with 4K TVs, outputting at a much higher resolution. We’re rendering 2160p checkerboard, which is a special technique that looks incredible on a 4K TV. You’re going to notice a ton of subtle details, from stitching on Aloy’s outfit, individual leaves and branches swaying in the wind, kilometers away in the distance, and more detail in all the machines and NPCs in the world."

No Microtransactions

Short and sweet, Horizon won't feature microtransactions of any kind. Guerrilla confirmed as much via Twitter, noting: "There will be no micro-transactions in #HorizonZeroDawn."

Official Soundtrack

Joris de Man, The Flight, and Niels van der Leest pitched in to compose the official soundtrack for Horizon Zero Dawn. You can have a listen to the rousing soundtrack right here

A Vast Open World

The world of Horizon is huge and simply begging to be explored. It's also an important entry into the sub-genre of single-player open world games

Here's a rundown of what Aloy can explore: 

"Clifftops and outcrops can be used to spot prey, while the long grasses provide cover when she moves in to stalk the machines. Traps can be set amongst narrow mountain passes, then machines can be lured into them; it’s a strategy that has countless iterations in each part of the map, and something that promises great depth of gameplay when more of the tools, traps and areas are revealed."

Can it Live Up to the Hype?

It's fair to say there's a lot riding on Horizon Zero Dawn. Can it deliver? That's a question we here at PSLS debated in a recent episode of Now Loading, while an additional video of 60 Seconds recapped why we're feeling cautiously optimistic for Guerrilla's new adventure. 

Last-Minute Preview

With a February 28 launch date fast approaching, Martin Patiño went hands on with the retail build of Horizon Zero Dawn, and walked away overly impressed. 

"Getting to play the first three chapters of Horizon Zero Dawn was definitely enough to get me hooked and excited to play the rest of it. The opening experience was enough for me to get invested into not only Aloy’s story but the story of the game’s world as well. And, this can’t be stressed enough, not only has Guerrilla crafted a fantastic looking game, but the mixture of familiar open-world gameplay elements as well as the game’s new and unique world and story make it feel both exciting and refreshing."

Day One Update

Horizon has a day one patch because of course it does. Further details will be shared once the game goes live on February 28, but you can expect the update to weigh in at around 250MB in size. 

What About a Season Pass or DLC?

Up until now, Guerrilla has so far been cagey about the possibility of add-on DLC for Horizon. The latest update from Game Director Mathijs de Jonge revealed that the team is firmly focused on release, so stay tuned for more. 

TV Commercial & a Message From Guerrilla

Earth is ours no more and in the official TV commercial for Horizon, you'll get a taste of the adventure that awaits. 

Included in press kits was a heartfelt message from Guerrilla Games Managing Director Hermen Hulst, who wrote:

"It is my distinct pleasure to present you with Guerrilla’s new title, Horizon Zero Dawn. The product of five years of hard work, Horizon Zero Dawn is easily the most ambitious project our studio has ever taken on, and its development process has been incredibly exciting and demanding for us.
When development on Horizon Zero Dawn began, we sought to build on the core strengths of our studio and create something that would allow us to showcase the tremendous artistic and technical talents available at Guerrilla. At the same time, we wanted to have the creative freedom to imagine something fresh and extraordinary.

"The result is Horizon Zero Dawn – a game set in the natural splendour of a distant post-post-apocalyptic future, in which mankind is no longer the dominant species and mysterious machines roam the land. It is a game of exploration, not just of a dangerous new world and its inhabitants, but also of its history and, ultimately, the identity of its lead character.

"On behalf of the entire team at Guerrilla, I wish you well on the exciting journey ahead of you. I hope you’ll enjoy playing Horizon Zero Dawn as much as we enjoyed creating it for you."

Rated T for Teen

It's official: Horizon Zero Dawn has been rated T for Teen. You can find the full description from the ESRB, below:

"This is an action/role-playing game in which players assume the role of a hunter (Aloy) surviving through a post-apocalyptic world. Players guide Aloy as she learns to hunt robotic creatures and animals in the wild. Aloy uses arrows, spears, and explosive traps to injure and kill machines, boar, and occasional human enemies. Animals and humans emit small puffs of red blood when struck; one sequence depicts an abandoned camp with large blood stains on rocks and trees.

The game contains a brief reference to sexual material (e.g., “Eighteen months hard labor in exchange for thirty years lounging around Elysium watching porn?”).

During the course of the game, characters sometimes reference controlled substances: “I went to the beer fount too many times to count”; “I’m just a brewer”; “I know I’m a useless drunk”; “A tobacco cigarette?”; “Speaking of which, mind if I smoke?” The words “a*s,” “bastard,” and “b*tch” appear in dialogue.|

Merchandise Line

Horizon Zero Dawn's merchandise line is real and it's beautiful. Featuring the usual smorgasbord of products like an art book, a strategy guide, prints, various shirts, and even coffee mugs, you can find further details right here

Collector's Edition

As previously announced, the Horizon Zero Dawn Collector’s Edition ($119.99) includes a specially-designed steel book case that houses the game itself as well as a few vouchers for a few in-game items including outfits, weapons, and resource packs. It also comes with a 48-page Horizon Zero Dawn art book called “The Art of Horizon Zero Dawn,” which was crafted by Dark Horse Comics.

Our Final Verdict

Paulmichael Contreras is handling the Horizon review for PSLS, and we'll add his final verdict in the moment its live. 

Expect the review embargo to lift on Monday, February 20 at 12am PT/3am ET.

Unexpectedly Awesome

Emotion is something best reserved for the story of games, but occasionally, something strikes me unexpectedly while playing something as wonderful as this. I was well into the game at this point, when I stumbled upon a trio of Scrappers, these large cat-like robots that were pretty fierce at my then-current level. Rather than take on all three of them at once, I huddled into some nearby tall grass, and lured one over to me by firing specialized ammo which removed some of the robot’s components. I was merciless in my assault, and had its health down to below half before it even ran over to me. With less than one-tenth of its health left, I fired what should have been the kill shot, but missed by a few meters. The robot was then able to stand up, but it was then that I noticed something. It was limping. Its front right “paw” no longer functioned correctly, and sparks were flying left and right out of its appendages. I drew my bow, but hesitated. The machine turned to look at me, and let out what I perceived as a hurt whimper. I then put it out of its misery. Now, I may have been anthropomorphizing that last bit, but the animations of these robots is so convincing, I actually felt empathy towards a simulated form of life, within the confines of a video game.

Horizon Zero Dawn is an early contender for game of the year. Guerrilla Games has outdone themselves, in astounding fashion. This is a glorious game, the result of a team of masterful artisans who not only had a story that they wished to tell, but a world that was living inside of them which they wanted to share with us all. Now, we get to play inside their creation, and it is a breathtaking experience to behold. A massive, open world filled with equally massive, terrifying robots, juxtaposed against the beauty of the Earth, nature fighting back the darkness as it tends to do. Horizon Zero Dawn is the kind of game you play to get lost in, and can be enjoyed by players of all types. This could be the beginning of a stellar franchise, and there is something for everyone here. If you own a PS4, you owe it to yourself to give Horizon Zero Dawn a go.

Review code for Horizon Zero Dawn provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.

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