Monday, 3 July 2017

There are zero horizons at dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn

Platform tested: PlayStation 4

Moving away from their Killzone franchise, Horizon Zero Dawn is Sony's dutch, first party developer Guerilla Games, first take on an open world game with perhaps one of the worst and non-descriptive game titles in years. Set in an overgrown post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape blended with high-tech remnants of buildings and robotic animals. You play as red headed Aloy, all the way from her childhood where she is taught by an outcast of a large tribe that rules the lands you roam. She finds a hologram remnant device which allows her to learn special abilities and connects her to the past technology of the ancients. Continuing in her adulthood, you learn to explore the world and the secrets it contains, not only about the present tribe conflicts, but the how significant the story and decisions of the ancient modern technology was.

It plays as a typical third person game with a foot in many genres; blending action, stealth and adventure combined with many role playing elements. It's a bold change of landscape for the developer, coupled with a lot of daring ideas put into the mix; being an almost stone age setting, with stealth action gameplay featuring bows against robots. It's different alright. Does it succeed though, especially at it's ambitious scale and incredible visuals shown in it's preview trailers prior to release?

The short answer yes, a technical quality game through and through, but the longer, playthrough answer perhaps dampens the experience somewhat from becoming a perfect masterpiece. HZD delivers what it promised; breathtaking visuals and scope, plus strong gameplay, but it falls into the dangerous pit that plagues a lot of open world games: outstaying it's welcome with repetitiveness in a empty shell of a vast landscape. Don't get me wrong from the start here though; it's one of the finest games this year, and a real PS4 system pusher. Let's take a closer look though.

NZD's gameplay is based on a melee and a bow shooting mechanic. Stealth is heavily emphasised by the game, taking down the pace one would think this game was about in it's open world. You are forced to scout the environments, lure enemies into one on one fights and take them down without bringing too much attention to yourself. There's a lot of extra skills to unlock with XP points and varied selection of bows for close, fast combat, sniping and bomb throwing to aid the player. There's human enemies too, however they seem more of an after-thought and work as stupid cannon fodder. The animal robots bring the much needed variation and are the stars of the show here. Each animal attacks in different ways, some are even peaceful until you engage them. Others are so huge you need to climb them to scale them, a breathtaking experience the first time you try!

There's no doubt that HZD is a visual treat for the eye; the engine beautifully renders extremely detailed characters and close up details of nature and metallic animals. Wind blowing in the trees and the dense foliage makes for the most impressive parts, epsically when the sun bounces it's reflections off various surfaces. It's an impressive scale to the world too, with lots of detail far into the distance. Clearly, most of the detail is best shown up close, but the game successfully balances the landscape depicted into the horizon too. It's one of the prettiest games on the system, especially considering the 1080p resolution, double that for PS4 Pro owners, and the sheer size of the play area. Another example that exclusives for both the PS4 and Xbox One end up looking a step above the multiplats.

I really appreciate how detailed they have made small features like Aloy 's hair and face too, it looks mind blowing detailed up close, as do all the characters that appear in cutscenes. The only visual gripe I have though, which kind of ties in with the actual enjoyment of the game, is that the world looks a little barren at times. There's a lot of repetition going on; that red sneaking grass repeats itself everywhere and there's basically desert, snow and woodland as scenery settings. The latter two blend so much into each other they basically feel like the same are at times.

Often areas just feel like barren and empty shells with a few robot dinosaurs thrown in. I guess this isn't unusual in these type of games, Far Cry 4 had some of the same issues, but it sticks out at times. Especially when there's little actual interaction with the world, you sort of just walk through it to reach places. I wouldn't have minded some more climbing and exploration like in a Tomb Raider game to ground Aloy into a more believable and interactive world, but I guess this isn't that kind of game.

NZD is quite challenging, at times it can get quite frustratingly so. If you for instance plan on simply brute forcing your way through and only sticking to main missions, you will most likely hit a wall at some point. The enemies will be at a far to high level, it's positive to see a game that at least tries to reward the player to do some grinding and side missions to level up. It luckily never feels like you need hours on end with XP grinding though.

A hard game, yes and that's fair, but the forced stealth gameplay, which although brings the pace of the game down, becomes unforgiving and repetitive when enemies become alert of your presence. It goes from a sneaky, bow shooting precision to a repetitive melee mashing chaos as you desperately try to dodge roll over and over to avoid attacks and smash the enemies with your fighting stick. I wish the enemies could've been less arrow sponges too; some require tedious amounts of shooting to take down. Amidst a chaotic dodge rolling fight, I found the traps and trip wires difficult to use. As such I had to take them down one standard arrow at a time, a painfully slow process. As I progressed the ability tree eased at least some of the frustration as I became powerful enough to survive even the chaotic brawls. The boss fights though, man I hated them, they just throw everything you learned about stealth out the window and feel incredibly unfair.

Overall I really enjoyed NZD, it's a game that pushes a lot of new ideas into a truly ambitious setting. A likeable, strong female protagonist and a blend of high tech futuristic elements set into a sort of stone age era makes for a very unique fantasy world. The storyline takes you across icy mountains, dense woodlands and rocky deserts with enough variation within the main missions to keep you interested for it's roughly 25-30 hour ride. While I did enjoy playing through the story for the most part, I found the world elsewhere to slowly become repetitive and lacking depth. As mentioned there's no real exploring or climbing around the environments to actually give the world a more engaging experience to make me stay for the long run.

The complaints however, don't outweigh the fact that Guerilla Games have truly developed a great new series here which I really enjoyed playing for hours. It's unique artstyle, setting and enemy design really intrigued me; I really couldn't tell how the game would span out. If comparisons should be made, I would still recommend Rise Of The Tomb Raider over this, ROTTR being a little more linear and tightly structured with better variation. For this year though, I doubt any exclusive for PS4 will surpass Horizon: Zero Dawn!



    + Plus points

    • Beautiful visuals, lighting and setting. The game handles close and distant detail in a remarkable fashion.
    • Gameplay is solid, feels exciting to sneak up and kill the robotic animals.
    • Unique setting and story, with excellent quality in cutscenes.

    - Minus points

    • The open world feels barren and empty at times.
    • The huge focus on stealth makes the pace tedious for an open world game.
    • Repetitive in the long run when the campaign ends.

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