Horizon: Zero Dawn is the first, absolute must play PlayStation 4 exclusive since Uncharted 4. Horizon lets players loose in a brilliant, brutal and fully established world. Most of all, it’s a believable place filled with realistic, human and flawed people.
Horizon might feature robotic animals, but it’s the humans who steal the show. Aloy in particular. Horizon is her story and it’s one of the best we’ve seen. Playing Horizon is more fulfilling than almost any other game I’ve played. It’s a journey and a personal one that’s shared by all of us.
Horizon has more to say about the human condition than your average game and it made me feel more than I have since Red Dead Redemption.
Not where, when are we?
As Guerrilla Games describes it, Horizon is set in a post-post apocalyptic world. The post apocalypse is something we’re used to seeing in gaming and pop culture in general. The remnants of civilisation and humanity after a terrible event have become staples of fiction and sci-fi in particular.
Enter Horizon. Not only is the apocalypse a distant memory, so too are humans, humanity and civilisation. The landscape isn’t barren or scarred. Nor are there giant monoliths and monuments to the past. Nature has fully reclaimed the world and it is gorgeous. Horizon spans mountains, plains, forests, deserts and more and does so with aplomb.
Sure, these all sound like pretty standard video game destinations, but Horizon makes these places real. Not just visually, also physically. They look real, they feel real and aside from the deadly wildlife, they’re places that you’d want to visit.
Mountains and Vistas and Rivers, oh my
It’s pretty clear — despite Guerrilla being so coy — that Horizon is set on a future earth. That’s not to detract from the setting in any way. Planet Earth, as far as we know it, is the only planet possible of sustaining life. Horizon shows us why, in an odd way. It’s strange to appreciate the real world around you because of how a video game makes it look, but that’s part of what makes games so special.
I can’t even count the number of times I stopped and simply looked at the world around me. Horizon is a visual feast and one that deserves as many patrons as possible.
Wait, you want me to play as a girl?
I’d hate to get into spoiler territory regarding plot, so I’m going to stick to the very beginning of the game and be as broad as possible. Horizon stars Aloy, an outcast from the Nora Tribe. The Nora are one of several tribal societies that exist in the wake of the downfall of civilisation. The how and why of Aloy’s casting out are a small part of the broader mystery of Horizon, but the game and its story are not withholding.
You’ll discover plenty and quickly as you play. Horizon is dense with lore and dense with story. Aloy’s plight is the focus, but there’s much more at stake. Simply exploring the gorgeous playground Guerrilla has constructed reveals information otherwise hidden.
The opening few hours serve as a quasi-tutorial and introduction to the universe. Once you’ve completed the Proving, a Nora ritual, Aloy is free to explore the entire world. At its core, Horizon combines the basic elements of three of the seven basic plots; ‘The Quest’, ‘Overcoming the Monster’ and ‘Voyage and Return.’
The Self, the Shadow and the Animus
In fact, Jungian psychology extends simply beyond the story archetypes in Horizon and instead, touches on every facet. Jungian archetypes include events such as birth, separation from parents and the union of opposites (man and machine) and also include archetypal figures like the ‘great mother,’ ‘wise old woman/man’ and the ‘hero.’
Jung’s psychological theory extends to archetypal events too and reference the apocalypse, the deluge and the creation. Horizon’s narrative extends far beyond what is shown on the surface, but only for those willing to look and navigate beyond. If you’d prefer your games to provide a simple story then Horizon of course delivers, but that’s akin to paying for an all you can eat buffet and filling up on bread.
Aloy is unlike other standout video game protagonists is some ways, but exactly alike in others. For one, she’s a woman. It’s bizarre that in 2017 Sony was nervous to release a game featuring a female lead. But along with cohorts like Lara Croft, she has smashed the glass ceiling. Aloy isn’t given some flimsy backstory or clothing, instead she’s a real, human person. That’s what makes her a standout. She thinks and speaks like someone with real, human emotions. She’s not a character, she’s a person.
Horizon doesn’t stop with Aloy though. It’s inclusive from start to finish. The Nora is a matriarchal society. Characters span the entire gamut of race and gender across the entire game. You won’t find a more diverse cast anywhere in a video game and without such diversity, Horizon would be worse off for it.
Not everyone you meet is well rounded or acted, but most are. Aloy’s characterisation is so good and so full that minor characters often seem poorly drawn in comparison. Aloy is a PlayStation icon of the future according to Sony and we couldn’t agree more.
What’s with the Zoids?
Aside from being set some 1,000 years after an apocalyptic event, Horizon’s other big ticket items are the robotic animals roaming it’s world. You’ve no doubt seen the Thunderjaw, present in most promotional material, but he’s just one of more than a dozen incredible machines who call Horizon’s future earth home.
Huge kudos has to go to Guerrilla for making the robotic animals seem like living creatures. There’s a huge focus on scavenging in Horizon and I felt just as bad killing a wild boar as I did taking down a Strider. Eventually, the knowlegde that you need to hunt to survive manages to suppress the guilt, but not entirely.
Horizon’s machines feel every bit a part of the world as the Nora, Carja or Oseram (other tribes). They act like it too. Some operate in packs and herds, relying on each other to detect predators or threats. Others work alone, silently stalking and hunting their prey.
Fighting with numbers
Combating the machines is where Horizon is at its most RPG. Attempt a battle at too low a level or without the right equipment and you’re in for a hell of a fight. You can walk away victorious from any encounter, but some are going to test you and your skills to the max.
The humans who inhabit the world have only ever known the machines to exist, so do little to question their existence. Aloy, representing the player character, has that inquisitive spirit and demands answers. This obviously helps the plot of the game while engendering the player to Aloy.
You had me at robot dinosaurs…
As I mentioned earlier, the plot in Horizon is a deeply sumptuous affair, but one that you needn’t explore at depth. If you’re so inclined.
For some, fighting robot dinosaurs and exploring a post-post apocalyptic world will be enough and for others that’ll be the icing on top of a delicious cake. Either way, playing Horizon is spectacularly satisfying.
Lots of games either look amazing and play like a turd or look like arse and play like a dream. It’s only the few, truly special titles that manage to nail both aspects and Horizon is a leader in both. Playing on a standard PS4, Horizon is easily the best looking game on the PS4.
Transitioning between cutscenes and gameplay, mountains and forests and combat and exploration are all seamless. Frames are rarely (if ever dropped) and the graphical fidelity is peerless.
Getting around the world is just as good. Aloy has trained all her life to compete in the Proving which has given her considerable combat and movement skills. She’s no parkour master Assassin, nor can she climb any surface like Link, but she easily traverses the world around her. She’s stealthy when she needs to be and races into battle when it’s called for.
Combat is a mix of ranged and melee attacks and switching between the two is fast, fluid and natural. Discovering how to combat each of the machines and human enemies in Horizon is part of the journey and each have different strengths and weaknesses which Aloy can exploit.
Early in the piece, Aloy gains the ability to Override machines and can use them as allies or rideable mounts. Trust me when I tell you that successfully overriding a Thunderjaw and watching as it fights a second one is probably one of the best things I did in game. Robot Fighting League anyone?
But, I don’t have time
March has been and continues to be an incredibly busy month for games. Particularly open world games, but Horizon should be at the top of your list. It is goddamn near flawless, it’s free from most of the mindless drudgery of many games and it avoids the narrative pitfalls of them too.
Aloy’s quest is more than a simple journey of discovery or revenge. The world isn’t just some facsimile for our own or a projection of a loos collaboration of themes. Horizon is a carefully constructed, intricately detailed and breathtaking analysis of humans, humanity and the nature of survival.
Horizon’s launch may have been somewhat overshadowed by Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild, but don’t let it get away from you. Horizon is a better game than BotW and while maybe not as ‘important,’ Horizon is the game that will have a lasting, personal impression.
The PlayStation 4 continues to dominate this console generation and with titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn it’s easy to see why. If you own a PS4, I implore you to play it and you can thank me later.
Horizon: Zero Dawn was reviewed using a promotional disc, provided to PowerUp! by Sony.
Game Title: Horizon: Zero Dawn