Hori­zon Zero Dawn

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That light. Milky peaches and pinks seem to bathe the world rather than sim­ply il­lu­mi­nate it, while sear­ing reds, yel­lows and blues as­sault the screen ev­ery time you point the cam­era vaguely in the di­rec­tion of the sun in what must be the most un­apolo­get­i­cally over­wrought lens-flare ef­fect ever com­mit­ted to a videogame. At night, lime­stone greys and damp-mossy greens dom­i­nate while ghostly, moon­lit sil­hou­ettes are picked out in the rolling mist. It’s im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous that Hori­zon Zero Dawn shares DNA with Guer­rilla’s Kil­l­zone se­ries via the Dec­ima en­gine, which pow­ers both, but the tech finds even greater po­tency in this new, more nat­u­ral­is­tic set­ting.

And what a set­ting. Hori­zon’s post-apoc­a­lyp­tic wilder­ness is sprawl­ing but in­tri­cate, tak­ing in vast deserts, dense forests, ru­ined cities, and snow-cov­ered moun­tains. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary land­scape that evokes as­pects of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Last Of Us, En­slaved: Odyssey To The West, and even Red Dead Re­demp­tion, but it never quite feels like some­where you’ve vis­ited be­fore.

Much of this is down to the herds of in­dige­nous ro­botic di­nosaurs that call the wilds their own. Broad­heads graze while rap­tor-like Watch­ers pa­trol like par­tic­u­larly vi­cious shep­herds, lights from their heads il­lu­mi­nat­ing the un­fa­mil­iar flora un­der­foot. Hulk­ing Tram­plers, which con­gre­gate in desert ar­eas, de­stroy rock for­ma­tions and trees when charg­ing at you. Scrap­pers scav­enge from fallen beasts and other ma­chin­ery, fling­ing en­ergy pro­jec­tiles at you when you get too close. And the sight of a Tall­neck – a cross be­tween a gi­raffe and the Star­ship En­ter­prise – cut­ting through the mist is noth­ing short of ma­jes­tic.

These sen­tient ma­chines – or at least their an­ces­tors – were cre­ated by hu­mans thou­sands of years ago and ap­pear to be tightly bound to what­ever caused the world to col­lapse. But in among the ru­ins of one civil­i­sa­tion, an­other has sprung up, con­struct­ing set­tle­ments and forts from wood, cloth and re­cov­ered metal to guard against the me­chan­i­cal apex preda­tors that prowl be­yond their rudi­men­tary walls. Pro­tag­o­nist Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, is a ma­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety (see Post Script) which shuns tech­nol­ogy and ap­peals to magic and gods. This par­tic­u­lar group of well-mean­ing Lud­dites is a lit­tle heavy-handed, and Aloy is branded as an out­cast and shunned by the oth­ers even as a child. She lives with fel­low out­cast Rost – a man with a deep re­spect for the Nora’s tra­di­tions and rit­u­als, de­spite his own re­jec­tion from the tribe – who trains her in the art of sur­vival and piety. Head­strong Aloy, how­ever, isn’t quite so zeal­ous and holds lit­tle truck with any laws that for­bid her to ex­plore or learn about the world.

As a child she stum­bles on a de­vice cre­ated by The Old Ones en­tombed in the re­mains of one of the tow­er­ing build­ings they con­structed. Called the Fo­cus and worn in front of her ear, it gives her the power to scan en­vi­ron­ments and ro­bots, pick­ing out points of in­ter­est, vul­ner­a­ble or volatile com­po­nents, and even re­veal­ing the AI paths of crea­tures – a use­ful tool when it comes to mak­ing your way through a dan­ger­ous herd to get close enough to an an­i­mal for a silent take­down, or to re­pro­gram it as a loyal mount. The Fo­cus also al­lows Guer­rilla to in­tro­duce a sur­pris­ing el­e­ment: in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Through­out the course of the game’s spi­ralling Machi­avel­lian plot you’ll en­counter crime scenes in which ev­i­dence must be gath­ered, and trails that must be picked up and fol­lowed to what­ever rev­e­la­tion they lead. It’s a sim­ple but ro­bust ad­di­tion in which LA Noire’s yel­low ev­i­dence mark­ers are re­placed by an ag­i­tated mass of dig­i­tal tri­an­gles, and it’s one that al­lows the stu­dio to con­struct rich, lo­calised sto­ries from just a hand­ful of com­po­nents. Aloy is a keen de­tec­tive, but she is much more at home hunt­ing big game or clam­ber­ing up rock faces out in the open. She’s beau­ti­fully an­i­mated, and there’s a weighty sense of con­nec­tion to the world in all of her move­ments. Hunt­ing re­quires you to get in close to your quarry with­out star­tling it and with­out at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of any watch­ers, which will im­me­di­ately pounce on you. Aloy can tar­get spe­cific com­po­nents of crea­tures with her bow or go in for the kill with her staff. Strong and weak melee at­tacks are com­ple­mented by crit­i­cal hits that can be launched while stand­ing next to a stunned ma­chine, and you can even turn some crea­tures against their com­pan­ions once you’ve learnt how to over­ride their sys­tems.

Fight­ing the more ag­gres­sive strains of ma­chines is ex­hil­a­rat­ing, and suc­cess­fully de­feat­ing larger ro­bots re­quires you to make full use of Aloy’s avail­able tools. You can use the Fo­cus to re­veal el­e­men­tal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and high­light weak spots in yel­low. Click­ing R3 while aim­ing the bow will slow time for a few sec­onds, al­low­ing you to fo­cus on dis­abling shields, dis­lodg­ing ar­mour pan­els or re­mov­ing a ma­chine’s of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties. And you can place traps and ex­plo­sives in the field, while a sling­shot weapon al­lows you to hurl var­i­ous el­e­men­tal grenades. There are also two types of Caster: Rope and Trip. The first of these al­lows you to tem­po­rar­ily tether en­e­mies to the ground, and if enough lines are at­tached you can top­ple them and move in for a cou­ple of crit­i­cal strikes be­fore re­treat­ing back to a safe dis­tance. The Trip­caster, mean­while, can be used to lay elec­tri­fied trip­wires that stum­ble and stun en­e­mies.

You switch be­tween these var­i­ous tools by hold­ing L1 to open the weapon-se­lec­tion wheel – do­ing so also slows time to a crawl – and if you have the nec­es­sary in­gre­di­ents you can craft ammo for each of your weapons from here, even in the heat of bat­tle. In some sit­u­a­tions, en­vi­ron­men­tal haz­ards can be used to your

The Fo­cus de­vice al­lows the stu­dio to con­struct rich, lo­calised sto­ries from just a hand­ful of com­po­nents

ad­van­tage – shoot­ing out the sup­ports of pre­car­i­ously bal­anced piles of logs, for ex­am­ple – while hu­man and ro­bot en­e­mies will fight each other, too.

There’s also a se­lec­tion of cob­bled-to­gether guns, in­clud­ing the Rat­tler – a short-range hy­brid of shot­gun and ma­chine gun – and a fire­work-fling­ing hand cannon called the Firespit­ter. You can bring over­rid­den steeds into bat­tle with you, too, and mounts can do dam­age with some painful-look­ing front and rear kicks, but they’re frag­ile in the face of larger en­e­mies.

Many of the quest mis­sions see you go­ing into bat­tle with al­lies by your side, though stealth still plays an im­por­tant role – in ev­ery case you’re given the chance to en­ter sit­u­a­tions alone first, sneak­ing through long grass to pick off as many ro­bots, ban­dits or en­emy tribe mem­bers as you can be­fore the alarm is raised and all hell breaks loose. Hu­man-on-hu­man com­bat isn’t as en­joy­able as tack­ling the ma­chines, since there isn’t as much dy­namism in­volved, but once Aloy is lev­elled up enough you can cut swathes through groups of en­e­mies in a way that’s sat­is­fy­ing, if not par­tic­u­larly en­gag­ing.

Char­ac­ter de­sign through­out is ex­quis­ite, how­ever. Dec­o­rated with an­i­mal furs, found tech, dread­locks, blue face paint, and Aztec-flavoured jew­ellery, each new in­di­vid­ual is a plea­sure to en­counter. Vis­ually, at least: while the main char­ac­ters are, for the most part, wellper­formed, the qual­ity of voice act­ing drops off steeply once you start dab­bling in the game’s deep pool of side mis­sions and dis­trac­tions.

Sid­e­quests present them­selves reg­u­larly as you en­counter all man­ner of stricken in­di­vid­u­als through­out the world, but there are also ran­dom events such as res­cu­ing peo­ple from a ban­dit or ro­bot at­tacks, or op­por­tu­ni­ties to ambush ban­dit-hunt­ing par­ties. De­spite the size of the world, Guer­rilla has re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to make these events too fre­quent and in dozens of hours of play we’ve seen very lit­tle rep­e­ti­tion. Ban­dit camps can be found around the world, and clear­ing them will see lo­cals move into the set­tle­ment once the area is cleaned up. Hunt­ing Grounds mis­sions set spe­cific chal­lenges – dis­lodge ten Blaze can­is­ters as quickly as pos­si­ble, for ex­am­ple – and help Aloy to ac­cel­er­ate the ac­qui­si­tion of new skills. Tall­neck quests set ver­tig­i­nous plat­form­ing chal­lenges in which you must first fig­ure out how to climb onto the tow­er­ing beasts, and then scale them to ac­quire their data. Cor­rupted Zones, mean­while, must be cleared of virus­in­fected ro­bots. Aloy is never short of things to do and, bliss­fully, there are no ar­bi­trary col­lecta­bles to hunt.

Hori­zon: Zero Dawn is an enor­mous, am­bi­tious curve­ball from the stu­dio be­hind the promis­ing but peren­ni­ally flawed Kil­l­zone se­ries. In Aloy, the game in­tro­duces an en­chant­ing pro­tag­o­nist and sets her on a re­mark­able ad­ven­ture that steers clear of rote sci-fi. It takes place in one of the most be­guil­ing game worlds in re­cent mem­ory, and the whole thing is paced with the kind of deep, grin-in­duc­ing com­bat be­fit­ting a ded­i­cated brawler. While the di­a­logue doesn’t al­ways strike the right tone, and some ill-judged boss bat­tles later on can feel more like a slog rather than plea­sure, Guer­rilla’s vi­sion for an open-world ac­tion RPG never im­poses on your time or runs out of fresh ideas. Hori­zon emerges as a grace­ful, in­tox­i­cat­ing and of­ten sur­pris­ing ad­ven­ture.

Hori­zon’s world fea­tures colos­sal tracts of land, which are home to roam­ing herds of ro­bots, nat­u­ral re­sources, wan­der­ing traders and ban­dits, and more be­sides. De­spite all this open space, you’re never far from some­thing to do

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