Sunday, April 2, 2017

Horizon Zero Dawn

Rating: 9.8
Happy Price: 59.99


At it's core HZD is a third person open world shooter, but it's also much more than that. The world is inhabited with hostile humans and powerful robot dinosaurs. As you play the robot dinosaurs, which are just referred to as machines, gradually increase in both strength and variety as you progress. The tension stays high all the way until the final game boss. It seems no matter high of a level you are, you can't take anything for granted. Precision and calculated risks your best friend, and sometimes avoiding combat is your best option. 


It's very odd to take down high tech robots that are outfitted with high grade metal and powerful guns wielding a bow and arrow, but it's a game, and the ends of the arrow are lined with metal as well. This is why the game stresses precision. Just shooting a robot, even the least powerful ones, will do about 3-4 points worth of damage. However, hitting the same robot in the canister which holds it's flamethrower fuel can do 200 points worth of damage. Enough hits to the canister, and it will blow up, dealing 400-500 points of damage. It's difficult to be precise against one enemy, but when dealing with 3-4 it's nearly impossible. That's why the game stresses stealth as well. When the moment comes to take down something powerful, you must be ready, and you need to gain the upper hand right off the get go. That can mean headshot or bust, because missing the headshot can mean multiple enemies are now aware of your location, and you've just pissed off the one you hit in the chest and not head.

There are multiple ways to prepare for battle. You will develop your own system, but mine went something like this. Use stealth attacks (1 hit kills against weak enemies) to take down the "watchers" which are low level scout enemies which alert the more powerful ones to your presence. They also can shoot pulse bombs and jump on you similar to a velociraptor. Once those are taken care of and I have something big to take down, I'll set up traps, a lot of traps to ensure I'm covered once I start running around. They can be lured into these traps. Once the traps are setup, I'm ready to fire my first shot. If the enemy has a mounted cannon, I go for that first so I can shoot it off and pick up due to the high and rapid damage it inflicts. Here is some early game footage to see what It's like to take down a Sawtooth.


The game starts and you're a banished child because you are born "without a mother" but the tribe pairs you with another outcast that trains you as a child to survive in the wilds. This is very confusing in the beginning, and it puts you into the same state of mind as the protagonist, Aloy. Since we are not aware of the customs of the tribe, we don't know of the mother passed during child birth or abandoned you when you were born. It is a constant tension for Aloy, and you, not knowing who your mother was but feeling like everyone else. does. The way it all unfolds near the end of the game is unexpected and extremely fulfilling. The story line regarding Aloy's origin was so imaginative and well executed, it's one of the best stories you'll find in any video game. 

The flaw with the story is your motivation to do everything in between when the game starts and when the game ends. The main (human) villain really only makes one appearance towards the end of the game, so his presence is lost while you're out doing things in the open world. It feels like at times you're doing things to assist in surviving the wilds, instead of gaining ground to your original reason of undertaking the daunting task of finding the guy you're looking for in the first place. There were times when I was helping people and I thought, "why am I doing this", how will this help me in the end?


I'm not sure if Guerilla Games got their hands on some new technology, but the facial animations in this game were superb, some of the best I've ever seen. I think the only competition it has is GTAV and The Witcher. This subconsciously enhanced the story because you're not distracted by funny eye twitches or mouth movements. This is coupled with fantastic voice acting and distinct character differences across the board creating a great clash of vibrant and strong personalities. Not only is this reflective in the main story, but all the side quests. The amount of effort to ensure the quality was consistent in every corner of the game must be appreciated, and it also motivated me to do side quests to see who I was going to meet and what their personality was. I think they covered almost every personality archetype, and also made sure to feature some new ones (like a female blacksmith).  


The environmental art was spectacular and was simply a joy to just walk and run through. Never have I played a game where I questioned if I wanted to fast travel or walk. Most of the time running through a forest lined with flowers and fauna was fun in its own right. The fluidity of Aloy's running animations and the way the environment responds to her presence is just amazing. I felt like I was in a Jurassic time period with futuristic weapons which was a great contrasting of styles to create a unique immersive environment. The variety of terrains ranging from a barren desert to the snowy caps of a mountain were all executed cleanly and each had their distinct style. There was an underlying consistency that was supported by the uniqueness of each area that really makes you want to explore every corner of the game just to see what you might find. I'm not even referring to items, but just the artistic quality of a mountain or plant is worth the trip and time. 

The animations of the dinosaurs was so good, I can't even compare it to anything. Each enemy had their own animations and were unique. They resembled animals we see today, and dinosaurs of the ancient past. For example there are alligators, vultures, and Tyrannosaurs Rex. They each respond differently to your arrows or spear hits, and have unique animations for when you hit weak points that cause explosions or massive damage. Nothing was re-used (or so it seemed) and it rarely felt like there were enemies that were reskinned with the same animations. The Bellowbacks had multiple types of fire and ice which had the same animations but shot different types of weapons. In no way did this feel like things were being re-used for the sake of it, but it actually enhanced battles so I had no problem with that at all. Here are screenshots below to demonstrate the quality of the artwork.

HZD does not have a linear progression system other than the skill tree which is upgraded via EXP points earned. Weapons, Armor, Traps, and additional items need to be upgraded via purchase from merchants or crafting. Upgrading weapons and armor is far more impact than EXP points, yet it can be frustrating to upgrade because rare parts are required to do so, for example "Sawtooth Heart" or a "racoon skin". The game does not make it clear how to obtain these items, other than having to kill whatever robot or animal you need to in order to harvest its part. It gets frustrating when you kill ten racoons, which are rare already, and keep on getting the raccoon bone or fatty meat, when you need the skin. Nothing can be done to influence what item you get from a dead animal or robot, so this turns into a time consuming process.

That being said, the skill tree feels balanced when upgrading. They are divided into distinct sections which will define your play style especially early game. You can go stealth, run and gun, or depend on resources as a harvester. Around mid to late game, I wouldn't really notice that I was hoarding my skill points because the next upgrade never really felt "needed" where I was craving to level up. The sense of needing things came much more with upgrading my bow or armor, and that depended on getting unique parts and acquiring "shards" which are in game currency.

Why a 9.8?

There was a part of this game that really bothered me, and that was climbing. There are certain areas that require climbing, and the terrain or holds on the mountainsides are blended very well and look realistic. The problem lies with the rest of the environment where the game does not think you're going to climb. In these areas, you just jump up against the wall and don't hold onto anything. They should have gone the direction of designating climbing parts of the world a distinct color, because it feels like the game is confused when I see something I should be able to climb in an open world, but then I can't do it. This even applied to ladders that were in old ruins, not being able to climb these is unacceptable. 


Horzion Zero Dawn is an absolute masterpiece. It's one of the best games I've played in about a year. It did so many things well in terms of technical achievement, graphics, and game design. It will be remembered as one of the best games to come out on the PS4, and if you own PS4 this is a must play. 

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