Tuesday, July 04, 2023

First Play Review - Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition [2020]

In 2020 Sony announced it was going to begin to publish its first party games on the PC platform in order to increase profitability. I have recently enjoyed three of Sony's first party ports Spider-Man Remastered, The Last of Us Part I and God of War and after the recent untimely passing of Lance Reddick who lent his voice and likeness to Sylens, one of Horizon Zero Dawn's NPCs it was time to try out the first game published under this new initiative, an open world action RPG that was favourably received on the PlayStation. 

Horizon Zero Dawn is set 1000 years after a 21st century apocalypse which sent Earth back to basics with a difference - humanity is no longer the dominant species and the land is now roamed by belligerent 'machine life' resembling creatures from throughout the past. You portray Aloy a young tribal huntress and tracker who discovers an extraordinary AR device from "the old world" allowing her tracking and investigation abilities which give her an edge in combat in the untamed lands. Your goal is both personal, to discover your own extraordinary origins, and world-changing as you seek to end a terrible corruption which has frenzied the machines and has perhaps a more deadly agenda.

Developers Guerilla Games built Horizon Zero Dawn on three pillars, Aloy, the machines and the land. Aloy is a skilled athletic huntress but has lived a relatively sheltered life even by current 31st century standards. She is intently curious about the world which allows the player to learn about it with her. Ashley Burch lends an award-winning performance as Aloy but her character is sometimes too condescending and sarcastic and missing qualities which would allow players to connect with her such as appearing happy or even laughing at appropriate times even if only during cutscenes. Aloy learns a very simple to understand skill tree with some obvious branches to focus on skills more in tune with your play style. She employs an array of customisable weapons to take down her foes either with alacrity or stealth and precision. The weapon load-out itself takes some getting used to, among different types of bows you have slingshots, trap launchers and heavier weapons with rapid-fire bolts most with some class of elemental ammunition as some enemies are weaker to certain effects.

The machines that you will become intimately familiar with during the course of the game are not anything like I've experienced before and are certainly one of the game's major draws. Their general shapes resemble anything from horses to big cats, antelopes, birds of prey and even some dinosaurs. They have pretty solid AI and each type has different behaviours depending on the tactics you employ be it sneak attacks, traps or direct assault. Their destruction is linked to your wealth as the game's economy is based on the parts you strip from defeated machines. Also while initially your only recourse may be to evade or kill, eventually you learn the ability to 'override' machine programming making them docile or even using some as mounts!

The third pillar that the developers focused on is perhaps the most important, the world. This is the second game I've played this year that had an extraordinary environment to play in. The previous one being The Last Of Us Part I had a modern environment with some 20 years of decay, while Horizon Zero Dawn is also a post-apocalyptic game, the fact that 1000 years has passed since late 21st century society fell means that the world is far older and less recognisable. You can cross the land mounted or on foot, climb to perilous rocky heights and explore hidden bunkers of the 'old ones' some which have working machinery and secrets to reveal. You learn out about the fate of the 'old world' as you progress through the game and each artefact, text-note and audio log you find through your AR interface flashes out the world in a way that promotes exploration and discovery. To be honest I'd have even been OK with less enemies to combat so I could explore more at my leisure. 

One of the strengths of the game I believe is that while it has its somewhat unique elements, a lot of it tugs on the familiar at times and while some of the game feels a bit like you're Lara Croft entering tombs to discover secrets and loot but the tombs are like the Remnant vaults from Mass Effect Andromeda. The area you traverse is loaded with as much peril as a Far Cry game. Much of what we learn about the world before is scattered throughout the environment like The Last of Us Part I which can be illuminating as well as e voking both curiosity and sorrow. It is a very effective form of storytelling at this pace. Finally, the AI apocalypse is very reminiscent of the Terminator franchise's Skynet only here you are not the resistance, and humanity was the clear loser in that conflict... or was it?

DLC: Horizon Zero Dawn on PC is the Complete Edition and includes the expansion The Frozen Wilds which extends Aloy's adventure into an new area outside the main game's plot and can be played at any time after Level 30. I waited until after the main campaign and was glad of it as the new armour and weapons you acquire there would make of the original campaign encounters trivial. The Frozen Wilds as the name suggests is filled with ice and snow to a greater degree than the snowy areas of the original map and it's enough to make the environment quite different but no less mesmerising with periods of light and heavy snowfall brightening your surroundings at night as well as by day.

Final Verdict: With unique and exciting combat, impressive and useful stealth mechanics, an interesting and emotional plot and an extraordinary and beautiful world it requires serious nitpicking to say anything negative about the game. Aloy is a great character even if not too likeable and I get serious Far Cry vibes from the fact that every couple of hundred meters something wants to kill you! Still, I've not enjoyed a vast open world game this much since Metal Gear Solid V, but unlike that which kept me playing for hundreds of hours after the campaign, Horizon Zero Dawn is done but not forgotten after you've finished and that's a good thing. I'd say overall the game is not actually greater than the sum of it's parts, it's nonetheless a great homage to the mash-up of ideas and concepts it emulates and explores and I will play the sequel when it's released.

Technicals: 95 hours through Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 / 175FPS HDR native

Bugs: One crash to desktop. 

Availability: Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition is available from Steam and GOG for €49.99. Review copy purchased in April 2021 for €26.69.

Horizon series releases:

  • Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4) [2017]
  • Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds (PS4) [2017]
  • Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition (PC)  [2020]
  • Horizon Forbidden West (PS4/5) [2022]
  • Horizon Call of the Mountain (PS5+VR2)  [2023]
  • Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores (PS5) [2023]
  • Horizon Forbidden West: Complete Edition (PC) [2025]?