The latest PS4 exclusive may have some of the most high-tech visuals ever seen but does it have the gameplay to match?
So there we were, crouching down in the long grass, considering how best to take on a group of bandits. There were some mechanical horses a little way over, that we could hack into, but we knew they were better used for transport than attack. We lined up a headshot on a bandit with our bow and arrow, but before we had a chance to fire the sound of explosions and gunfire boomed from across the mesa.
A giant metal, rocket-launching, Tyrannosaurs Rex had wandered onto the scene, apparently irritated by the bandits’ presence. Remembering a previous encounter, where we’d forced two robot tigers to fight each other, we hacked the horse anyway and sent it off into the melee. A few minutes later a badly injured Tyrannosaurs Rex was all that was left, and after a few armour-piercing arrows to his exposed weak spots we set about looting the corpses of all concerned. Welcome to Horizon Zero Dawn.
As you’d expect from the makers of Killzone, this is a stunning-looking game. Perhaps the most graphically accomplished of the generation. Not only that but the state-of-the-art visuals are paired with equally impressive art design, that we’ve been impressed with ever since the first concept art leaked out years ago. What we were less certain of though, was that the gameplay would be anywhere close to the same standards. But thankfully it more than holds its own.
Horizon Zero Dawn is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth where mankind has been reduced to a medieval, or lower, state of technology and mechanical animals roam the Earth. But although the backstory for what is going on is quite clever, and not as straightforward as you first assume, for the majority of the game you’re just dealing with uninteresting tribal politics, typically workmanlike video game dialogue, and equally generic video game characters.
That includes heroine Aloy, who is essentially just a bog-standard chosen who exhibits no real personality except during the occasional BioWare style moral decision. Some of the details of the plot, such as the matriarchal society of Aloy’s tribe, are nicely unusual but overall the storytelling is one of Horizon’s weaker elements. But that’s fine, because as an open world game you make your own stories and the one in our opening paragraph is just one of an infinite array of unique encounters.
The structure of the game though is less extraordinary, and follows the Ubisoft formula almost to the letter. The radio towers you climb to fill your map with icons are giant robotic giraffes (actually one of our favourite sub-quests) and the collectables are audio logs from before the apocalypse, but the parallels with games like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry are obvious.
The gameplay mechanics are more interesting than either game has ever been though, with enjoyably straightforward platforming and stealth-based combat. Although later in the game you can use guns dropped by robots, Aloy’s weapons are a spear for close-up combat, a variety of bows, and specialist equipment such as a slingshot, tripwires, and a rope gun that can tether enemies to the ground.
A bow and arrow is fine against the smaller robots – as long as you get them in the eye or one of the other weak points revealed by the detective vision style accessory that kick-starts the game’s plot. Others have to be dealt with much more cautiously, as you lay traps for them, lure them away with whistles or thrown rocks, or set other robots against them (you can only ‘override’ the simpler ones, unless you complete one of a number of particularly hard sub-quests into underground lairs).
Things get more complicated the bigger and more powerful the robots get, as elemental weaknesses are introduced and you have to acquire weapons which can take advantage of them. Despite this, many will argue that the stealth and combat is fundamentally too simplistic, and they do have a point. Eventually you begin to realise that it’s often best to just avoid the robots rather than getting into a fight, encouraging you to circumvent most of the gameplay.
The artificial intelligence is quite simplistic, with everyone (and thing) suffering from the usual goldfish-like memory spans of most stealth games. Horizon is certainly not the deepest action role-player around, and it also pales next to more dedicated stealth game such as Metal Gear Solid V – which in some ways it quite closely resembles. The movement and aiming system is great though, and the way the robots interact with you and the rest of the world is unlike any other modern game.
Whether it’s swimming just under the water to avoid the gaze of giant mechanical birds or laying freeze traps for dinosaur-like creatures that spit fire like the bugs from Starship Troopers, the game constantly generates memorable set pieces without even trying. In fact, the more scripted scenarios often pale in comparison to the ones you just stumble upon and create yourselves.
The role-playing aspects are as straightforward as the rest of the game, with a limited, very linear, set of skill trees and a trading system primarily based around the components you loot from robots. If you want to be boring about things you can farm these, and experience points, to become very powerful, very quickly. Although this is mitigated to a degree by some side-quests having quite a high experience level requirement.
What’s meant to further lessen the impact of the game’s faults is the (robotic) elephant in the room: the fact that Horizon may well be the most graphically impressive game of the entire generation. Played on a PS4 Pro and 4K television it’s absolutely staggering, with the lighting and level of detail at times seeming almost impossibly good. The game’s still gorgeous on a normal PlayStation 4 though, aided by the wonderful Zoid-like creature designs.
It has taken a long time for Sony, and the other publishers, to get into gear this generation, but with releases like this we finally begin to see games that do real justice to the current hardware. The gameplay design is still rooted firmly in the previous generation, but the best parts of Horizon seem as if they’d be impossible on the PlayStation 3. The end result is a game that can astound you in terms of both graphics and gameplay, in what will hopefully be a new dawn for current gen gaming in general.
Horizon Zero Dawn
In Short: State-of-the-art visuals help create one of gaming’s most entertaining open worlds, even if the gameplay doesn’t quite reach the same standards.
Pros: Superb graphics and art design, and a huge, impressively interactive, open world environment. Highly enjoyable combat and stealth, with an interesting array of weapons.
Cons: Repetition is an issue, and resource farming can be abused. The backstory is interesting but the storytelling is workmanlike.
Formats: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: 1st March 2017
Age Rating: 16