Horizon Zero Dawn - Brutal Backlog

May 6, 2019
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

It was recently announced that Horizon Zero Dawn had sold 10 million copies, which encouraged me to put it at the top of my backlog. Guerrilla Games was best known for its futuristic first-person shooter series Killzone, but it turned all previous expectations on their head as it gained high praise all round for this impressive looking open world action RPG. Everyone agrees that it looks good, but how does it play? I finally put aside some time to jump into the game and see what all the fuss is about.

Thirty Minutes In

I always find it refreshing to play as a female protagonist. It opens up the opportunity for the story to go places we are less familiar with, due to the hero usually being male. In Horizon Zero Dawn you play as Aloy, who from a baby was made an outcast from the Nora tribe for being motherless. After we see Aloy being cast out of the Tribe and taken on by an adult male outcast named Rost, the story skips a few years to when Aloy is around six years old. Aloy is alone as she comes across some Nora children and an adult who quickly moves away from her as she tries to offer them some berries. This upsets Aloy so she runs away and then falls down a hole into a cave. The cave leads on to some kind of futuristic underground base which is where you step in.

You'll meet a number of NPCs in between taking down robots.

It is here, in this cave system, that I was first blown away by how good the game really looks. Everything from the lighting to the water and the overall colour palette stands out above many other games. And as I made my way through the cave and into the base, the neon blues from the technology impressed me even more. It is impressive how well Sony’s first party games seem to always push the boundaries of the PlayStation hardware.

One of the first things that you find is a device called a Focus. It is with this device — that Aloy instinctively knows to attach to the side of her head — that Aloy is able to see and interact with the cave’s old technology, and the machines you encounter later on.  

Three Hours In

After a well-crafted intro where I learnt the basic gameplay mechanics and a dramatic encounter with an enemy tribe, Aloy is on a mission into the unknown to find out the secrets of who her mother is and why the Nora tribe was attacked. It turns out — at least in these early stages — that stealth is the best option, and I always prefer stealth anyway so I’m all for it. The open world is conveniently full of long grass that you can hide in when sneaking past machines.

The machines are what makes Horizon Zero Dawn so unique. They are best described as robot dinosaurs, although some are modelled on animals that are around today. Using your Focus along with some other found technology that allows you to override the machines, you are able to take them down or sneak past them with ease. Overriding them allows you to ride some of them like a horse, while I found it more useful for turning them against the other machines. By doing this it saves you from taking them all down on your own and saves your ammo.

Scaling Tallnecks lets you see further across the land.

Bow and arrow is your main way to attack, with throwable bombs and tripwires as secondary weapons. You craft ammo using a mix of plants and wood picked up from the ground as well as a variety of machine parts collected from machines you’ve destroyed. The combat system is really fun and shooting an arrow is really satisfying. Using the Focus to highlight weak points is made challenging because you’re trying to aim precisely while also jumping and rolling out of the way of a charging robot. Each machine has different strengths and weaknesses to elements like fire and electricity. Using the right type of bomb or arrow can therefore make a big difference to the damage you deal.

Ten Hours In

As Aloy learns more about what is referred to as the ‘metal world’, I have a love for the mystery of what happened to civilisation and why machines are roaming around everywhere. The story so far has been compelling, with little filler or repetitive quests. Although I must admit that even though I was completing all the side quests I came across in the first few hours, I have ignored almost all since. I think I was just too interested in unravelling the mysteries of the main story rather than taking time to do something less interesting like helping someone find their friend. There are also various areas you can go to to complete endurance challenges, but I don’t have any interest in these. Instead I just want to play it for the main story.

Taking control of machines gives you an advantage on the battlefield.

After meeting a man who also wore a Focus earlier on in the story, Aloy is trying to track him down which takes her all around the vast map that is great to explore. She has also been contacted via her Focus by a man who seems to know a lot about what’s going on with the machines and the metal world, but he is only drip-feeding information while he guides you on your journey. It turns out that the people who attacked the Nora tribe have dug up an army of killing machines and are trying to resurrect them. This cleverly interweaves with the quest to find out who Aloy’s mother is, but to say any more would spoil the story.

As this is an action RPG, there is a skill tree that unlocks useful abilities and actions. Being able to slow down time while aiming your bow has been the most useful so far, but everything I have unlocked has improved gameplay and I have enjoyed earning XP to unlock them. Although I have never needed to go out of my way to earn XP so that I can level up enough to do something or get a particular skill, I have just taken it as it comes. The enemies, whether they are machines or human, rarely pose a threat from being too powerful due to Aloy being at a lower level. This was nice because it removes the need to grind side content just so you can progress the main story. There is a ton of loot picked up on your journey, so much so that I kept maxing out my inventory. There are plenty of merchants to buy and sell from, but there were a few times that I had to just drop a bunch of items so that I could gather something more important. Buying new outfits and better bows and weapons requires shards — the in-game currency — as well as rare machine parts. So I have spent some time hunting down particular machines in the hope that they drop what I need.

Twenty-Two Hours In

Despite being generally blown away by this game so far, the world has begun to feel a bit empty as if it has nothing left to show me any more. Some mysteries have been answered now but the biggest questions still remain and I am keen to uncover the truth of the past. I have now explored most of the map and I am mostly using fast travel to get from one mission to the next. Although you can ride some of the machines, I never really found the joy in it and it’s much easier to get around on foot due to the nature of the wilds. But now that the novelty of seeing new areas and sneaking around has worn thin, there is no need to waste time. With that being said, I am still enjoying the missions themselves and they are still varied, as well as containing useful information to further the story.

The bow mechanic is excellent.

My second favourite element of the game besides the machines and their design is the sound and music. There is a really unique blend of futuristic synths mixed with tribal instruments such as pan pipes and hand drums. The machines sound just how you’d think they would, with heavy mechanical stomps and synthesised roars. The music itself is cleverly sparse and never interferes with the action — which to me is a sign of great composition.

In order to unlock the ability to override more of your metal enemies you have to go into the cauldrons. These are where the machines are manufactured by other machines. They are built into the mountains around the map and they are some of the most impressive-looking places I have seen in a game to date. The futuristic geometric designs and cyber-machine feel, mixed with incredibly atmospheric lighting makes them a stunning place to explore. I got carried away with photo mode in these areas which resulted in me spending too much time in them. Some of them have been fairly challenging as they have some puzzles as well as being full of machines. At the end of each cauldron there is a boss to fight, which was always one of the bigger and more difficult enemies to take down. But I have learned to come fully equipped so I can set up plenty of traps and throw plenty of bombs to aid my less effective arrows.

Twenty-Nine Hours In

I have finally reached the end. I am satisfied by the story and what was revealed, but overall the last few hours have been a slight drag. I have fast travelled from mission to mission and every time I thought I was in the final part of the story, it would turn out it is not and I still had a few more to go. It is a shame that what started off as an incredible game overstayed its welcome, but it hasn't ruined the hours of enjoyment I got for the most part. In the end it was the story that kept me going and I still enjoyed those final missions overall.

The visuals are consistently stunning.

Final Verdict

Even though the world ended up feeling a bit empty and lacking in anything to do apart from travelling through it, the majority of my time with Horizon Zero Dawn was a complete joy. I was constantly mesmerised by the graphics and overall design of the machines and landscapes, while always kept on my toes in combat. The game puts you back in the world for you to finish off side quests, and although I have no interest in doing so, I will likely be coming back to play the highly praised The Frozen Wilds DLC once I have had a break because I love the idea of spending more time in this world as long as there is new story and visual variety.

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Worth playing? ABSOLUTELY - and why don't you own it already?
Joe Sheldrick

I have a deep love for story-driven and cinematic games, but after one of those I love to play a game where I can just run around shooting mindlessly. I will take stealth over action any day, and I mean in real life as well as in games.