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Review: ‘Horizon: Zero Dawn’

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At a glance, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” bears a striking resemblance to any number of open-world action games on the market.

The influences are hard to miss, whether it’s the post-apocalyptic world reclaimed by nature (“Fallout”), the protagonist’s ability to see things in the world undetectable to the naked eye thanks to the aid of technology (Rocksteady’s “Batman” series), or how large sections of the game map are revealed by platforming to the top of a tall structure (“Far Cry”).

But look closer and you’ll find a game that, while familiar, succeeds in forging its own path. “Horizon: Zero Dawn” isn’t just another open-world game, it’s one of the best games of any genre I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

Developed by Guerilla Games, the studio behind Sony’s “Killzone” franchise, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” lays the foundation for the epic adventure to come in the opening minutes. You’re quickly introduced your character, Aloy, and the mysteries surrounding both her and the world at large. Why was Aloy cast aside by her tribe? What are these mechanical creatures roaming about and where did they come from? What caused the ultimate collapse of society and the modern world that exists now only in ruins?

Indeed, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” greets the player with far more questions than answers in the early going, but that only served to draw me deeper into this new world. I immediately found myself invested in Aloy and eager to unravel those mysteries. The story is ambitious and many of the themes touched upon are far more profound than I ever expected to find in a game of this sort. As I pieced together the bigger picture over the course of several dozen hours, the emotional impact was undeniable. Even if you’re not necessarily a fan of open-world games, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” is worth checking out for the story alone.

Of course, there’s more to “Horizon: Zero Dawn” than just a compelling narrative. Equally as impressive is the combat which, thanks in large part to the sheer variety of creatures you’ll encounter, never became mundane. Each of these animal-esque machines has its own strengths and weaknesses. You can use Aloy’s Focus (think Batman’s detective vision in the “Arkham” series) to highlight vulnerabilities that can be exploited during battle. Some creatures may carry an exposed fuel tank that can be punctured to cause a massive explosion. Others can be stripped of their offensive weaponry.

There’s definitely a certain amount of strategy that goes into each battle, especially when you’re facing multiple machines at once (as is often the case, considering many of the creatures travel in packs like their flesh-and-blood counterparts). The machines are tough, ferocious and quick to attack, making each encounter a true test of your skills as you use Aloy’s roll dodge to avoid incoming attacks while looking for the opportunity to land a kill shot of your own. I tried to avoid head-on confrontation whenever possible, instead opting to sneak through the bushes and ambush unsuspecting foes for a quick stealth kill.

Thankfully Aloy has a small arsenal of tools at her disposal to help shift the tide of any fight. Beyond her trusty bow and a staff for more intimate encounters, she can fire elemental bombs with a slingshot and set traps to ensnare or incapacitate enemies for a short time. Learning to mix-and-match these tools and the different ammo types available is key to success; of course, if you can’t beat them you can simply use Aloy’s override ability and alter a machine’s programming to force it to join you, which is cool to watch but not really a viable strategy in the long-term.

While much of your time will be spent fighting giant machines, there are human threats lurking in the wilds, too. Unfortunately the humans aren’t nearly as exciting or challenging — their AI left much to be desired as they rushed headlong into my sights rather than trying to flank my position. Still it was nonetheless rewarding to clear an entire bandit camp without being detected. I considered it good practice for the real dangers that awaited me on my journey.

Clearing the aforementioned bandit camps is but one of many side missions and activities you can partake in outside of the main story. The world is ripe with interesting NPCs who are all too willing to ask for your aid in finding lost comrades, recovering missing property, etc. While the tasks may be tedious, the stories and characters behind them are rarely boring. In fact, many pack the same kind of emotional weight as the main story, which in itself is quite an accomplishment.

Regardless of whether you’re playing on a standard PlayStation 4 or the PlayStation 4 Pro, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” is easily among the best-looking games on Sony’s console. I played on a regular PS4 and was constantly amazed by the subtle details in both the environment and its inhabitants — both man and machine. The weather effects and lighting are simply gorgeous and game is equally impressive in motion, as the animations of Aloy and the machines are incredibly smooth and realistic. From the breathtaking visuals to the outstanding audio (including a top-notch performance by Ashly Burch as Aloy), “Horizon: Zero Dawn” is as polished as they come.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting “Horizon: Zero Dawn” since it was first announced at E3 in 2015. And I’m happy to report the wait was worth it. With an emotionally charged story, unforgettable characters and a huge world that begs to be explored, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” has raised the bar for open-world gaming.

“Horizon: Zero Dawn”
Developer: Guerilla Games
Publisher: SCEA
Available for: PlayStation 4
Rating: T for teen
Score: 9.6/10