Tuesday, May 28, 2024

An Intimate First Look at Horizon Zero Dawn

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Everyone stay calm, the hype is accurate. Well more than most of it. I’ve been anticipating this game for a long time, yet when I finally got to play it I have to say I wasn’t expecting even half what this game was going to hit me with. Twenty five hours in and the game is so massive in its scope that often times I’m overwhelmed just walking around to find the resources that I need to progress whether in the main quest or doing simple errands. Let me keep this straight to the point though, I am nowhere near the completion of the main quest, not even doing the side quests and treasure hunts and all other things the game makes you run through while exploring its massive map. Therefore, I won’t call this a review but rather a very intimately detailed first look at the main accomplishments and downfalls of this game.

I’ll start with one of the more interesting aspects of this title. Upon asking a lot of my gamer friends during the initial release of information for the title, a lot of them were skeptical about the fact that, one, the game was in the future yet humans are living in tribal style culture and two, that there are machines in modeled like animals everywhere. The only thing that would come to mind is Battlefield Earth, which wasn’t that great. But anyone who enjoys anything out of the fantasy or RPG genre has to be ready to suspend their belief in order to comprehend what the game is trying to achieve. Let me tell you that even though I’m not far in, it’s great. In terms of world building and glimpses into the immediate past of the story, it’s something you piece together yourself, which I’ll get to in another section.

The story of your character Aloy is deeply personal in a world that screams out for you to notice it. As I don’t want to complete take away from the experience of uncover her plot I’ll stick to the basics. In this world, this is (spoiler!) Colorado, various tribes stick to certain areas of the map while spaces in between are full either bandit or large open areas of ruins of the old world filled with machines. We first meet Aloy as an infant in the lands belonging to a tribe called the Nora, a deeply religious people. While not much is ever explained about their belief system, other than the Nora seem to have an unreasonable prejudice against orphans, which Aloy is. By the time we end the first cut scene she is I guess adopted by a fellow outcast like herself named Rost.

Aloy and Rost are reminiscent of Joel and Ellie

The first hour of the game is very emotional as we see a young Aloy deal with this prejudice while trying her hardest to be accepted amongst the Nora. Yet it’s tough when the adults treat you just as bad the children. We also see her grow to be a mighty hunter under Rosts teachings, all of this to participate in a proving with all of the other Nora adolescents. It’s a rite of passage and should she pass she will be accepted among the Nora as one of their own. There is a higher meaning in this for her however, should she be accepted as a Nora, it would give her access to the resources she needs to learn about her lineage. By the time you get out into the actual rest of the world Aloy becomes entangled in a religious conspiracy that threatens all the tribes and her mission begins: to stop this new evil cult that is corrupting machines to their will and find out why her families past is directly involved. What follows soon after is a very coming of age story with themes that are very human and philosophical in their ideas.

A cult fanatic

Now here’s where things get truly amazing in this game. Best things first of course, the combat. I live for the combat in this game; it’s so fluid, so incredibly fast paced yet precise and tactical. At first glance from the cover and the first hour of the game you would think that Aloy solely relies on using a bow and arrow. This is false. Granted, you do use her various bows and arrows for most situations, but they are not your only source of combat. Every machine has various ways of being defeated and every arrow has a different effect. On every machine lies plates of metal that can ripped off, canisters filled with either electricity, fire, or ice that fuel that machine, sacs that weaponize these elements and various weapons and components that can be ripped off to further incapacitate your enemy. This is where different type of arrows comes in. Firstly the arrow heads are made of pieces of metal you shoot off these machines and some serve other functions that are geared toward specific enemies. Some arrows are better for piercing skin and good for human enemies, some have are better at tearing of or punching through metal and some can even cause the enemy to burst into flames or cause a shockwave blowing off several components of a machine.

Certain machines have certain elemental weaknesses as well. For example Sawtooths have a cluster of blaze canisters (flame fuel) on their underside that you need to remove metal plating to expose. Once they’re exposed you can fire a normal arrow to remove them for bonus damage or you can be smart and shoot them with a fire arrow, which will cause the volatile canisters to explode causing instant death on weaker machines or very heavy damage on larger machines like Bellowbacks or Thunderjaws.

A Bellowback with two Watchers

You, of course, have other tools to your disposal that offer a lot of help when combining them with your bow. My personal favorite is the Tripcaster. With this weapon you can create short or longer trip wire traps that will explode, cause stunning shock damage, or set its victim a flame. This weapon is better for a planned assault, sneaking around and setting them in the paths of the machines or around your escape routes if the fight gets too much. Another of my favorites is the Ropecaster. It’s a simple thing; you shoot a harpoon like projectile attached to a rope that anchors itself into the ground. Now this is especially useful against giant machines or incredibly fast ones, if you can hit them. Put enough ropes in them and they’ll fall over exposing weak points. These of course are just my favorites; others work for other players as well such as the Blastsling, and the Rattler, which all of course have their uses.

In addition to the variety of weapons you get you can further their effectiveness by customizing them with coils and even your various armors with separate modifications. Coils can range from having single effects such as a higher percent of tear damage or a various elemental damage to increasing the handling of the weapon for added precision. As you progress in game you also get access to a more armors that vary in their specialties such as elemental protection, melee and projectile protection, and better stealth. These armors too have special modifications that you can craft to them in order to even out their stats or further focus a single area of defense.

Of course this means little without the context of the various enemies you encounter in this game. Machines come in various forms with their own strengths and weaknesses that Aloy needs to adapt to and have an almost procedural way of dealing with each. The most common type of machines are modeled after bipedal and quadrupedal animals but larger in size. They are fast; rely on melee strikes like Striders and Chargers, and some even have projectile energy weapons or elemental sacs that belch the corresponding element at you, like the amphibious Snapmaw. Other enemies include flying beasts like the Glinthawk who scavenge other machines bodies and oversized, almost boss like behemoths like the Thunderjaw. My favorite pastime is to use the Ropsecaster to topple the large Bellowbacks and tear relentlessly at their huge elemental sacs until they explode, try it, it’s fun. If you’re into a run and gun style then you can make use of Aloy’s zoom which slows down time giving you time to make precise shots and tearing off vital components from even the biggest of machines. Longnecks are a mission in themselves to climb, but once you do, the map is revealed for a pretty big area.

Aloy vs. Snapmaw

The game wants you to kill as many machines as possible, also humans as well; the bandits and cult fanatics because the loot and resources are a plenty and serve a lot more than just for currency. Killing machines will give you metal shards that can be used as currency or to make arrows and other various raw materials to craft weapons and ammo and even armors. Occasionally these beasts will drop modifications, but even more importantly they will drop their lenses and hearts, which are most important if you want to upgrade your gear at merchant shops. For example to buy a low level Nora stealth armor you need only a certain amount of metal shards, but for Shadow Carja version you would need even more metal shards and additional heart of certain machines as well. This keeps you trying to take on every machine you can, also helping your level grow. Speaking of, the level system is almost identical to Far Cry’s which isn’t terrible but not very original. With each level you gain a point and perks are unlocked using these points such as Death from below or above (exactly as they’re called in Far Cry) and stealth kill.

Also like Far Cry you rely on collecting resources from hunting animals for their meats and bone as well as flowers for various properties such as healing, elemental resistance, and even creating bombs and traps. Bones of animals are especially essential in crafting bigger pouches that all serve different purposes from being able to hold more ammo for a certain weapon, maximum number of potions, and even total resources. With how much this game wants you to collect having bigger pockets is defiantly a must have.

A Longneck

While the main quest is very intriguing and adds loads of backstory and mystery solving that affect the discourse of the game’s world building and the plot as a whole, it’s everything other that he main quest that makes the game suffers more than a little bit. More often than not most of the side quests had you indulge in the same formulaic process as the previous; go see this person, who will send you to another, who will either send you to collect something or just see another person. Usually towards the end you’ll have a fight and that’s it. Even though each has its own backstory and context they tend to run robotically, I hardly payed attention to what I was doing, only worrying about the experience and reward.

The treasure hunts and hunting other collectible items are mostly much better. While collecting metal flowers and vessels are tedious at best, their rewards are well worth fighting a few machines that may be guarding them. Get enough of them and certain merchants will trade them for rare items or packs full of valuables and hard to find resources. While not technically collectables, vantage points end up being extremely informative. They show us holographic images through Aloy’s focus, of whatever the vantage is staring at but in the premodern past. They also come with audio records from that era and offer a lot in terms of how they lived right before the world fell to machines.

After you encounter the corrupters and the cult in the main quest you’ll notice certain zones begin to pop up. These offer challenge and reward against corrupted machines that are much stronger than their normal counterparts. My favorite of all these however, are the Cauldrons. These are underground bunkers of the old world that are completely made of mechanical structures, crawling with enemy machines and rare items that can’t be found easily in the world. What most appeals about these places are the numerous amounts of text and audio files spread out gratuitously amongst the ruins. These really contribute to the worlds past as a whole and structure a pretty good history of what life was like before the machines came, some even venturing into the causes of mankind’s downfall. Yet, the most important function of the Cauldrons is the power they hold. With each one you explore, you get the ability to override and control more and more power machines and use them either as transportation or an ally in a fight, which can be invaluable.

The Heart of a Cauldron

In terms of visual aesthetic the world is beautiful and incredibly diverse. While in the Nora area of the map we mostly see green plains and clear streams, very natural. Yet, once we move beyond the reaches of Nora everything changes. The Carja homeland moves from rolling green hills to lush and dense jungles, arid wastelands, and treacherous snowy mountains to the north. Not only are the natural sights a wonder to behold with Horizon Zero Dawn‘s beautiful graphics but the lonely and desolate overgrown ruins of the old world add an elegantly melancholy aura that follows you throughout the entire game. Even the tribal cities are gorgeous to look at. While the Nora areas are rustic in their small villages, you’ll be certainly amazed when reach Meridian in the heart of the Carja territory. The bustling city is walled, multi leveled with grand markets, farmlands, and elevators!

The city of Meridian

While roaming the wide world you’ll be treated to a delightful soundtrack. This is always a big deal for me, especially when it comes to PS4 exclusives because it’s one of the main things I love about them. This game doesn’t disappoint in that department. The background of nature mixed with haunting melodies and thrilling action themes flows harmoniously with every point of the game. Even the menu music is lovely. There is a tradeoff however; the voice acting is so bland. This hurts the narrative at points when an emotional scene comes off as comedic because the actor playing Aloy sounds stiff as a board or when someone forces sarcasm to the point you think they’re serious. This really affected the side quests as well, whereas in the main plot you’re absorbed enough by the story to forgive the voice acting. When it comes to the side quests however, it’s hard to focus on any backstory being explained when you just want to rush through the narrative and get on with robotic and repetitive objectives.

In closing, Aloy is a wonderful character, between her plot, her backstory, what she has to gain and lose, we love her. She’s a well-constructed character and the only shame is there are few in this game who matches up to her, Rost being one of them of course. The main plot is full emotion, mystery, and intrigue but the sub plots are lacking and repetitive. A lot of the systematic processes such as the leveling and resource collecting are not original but they work for this type of game. The extras are fun enough to seek out between missions and offer experience and reward to keep you interested and motivated. This games greatest strength is the combat which flows so sharply and fluidly making it seem second nature but still offering enough challenge and variety with multiple weapons to make one of the most fun combat systems I’ve ever encountered. While considering the games numerous flaws, like the acting, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives and create one great game that’ll you spend hours exploring.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Images Courtesy of Guerrilla Games

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