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Be the hunter or become the hunted

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    Horizon Zero Dawn

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    Be the hunter or become the hunted

    Ah, Horizon Zero Dawn. For people who want an open world RPG that blends tribal and futuristic aesthetics, or those who crave that Dark Souls style challenge, this is the game for you. One of the first games I was eying when I finally got my PS4, the ads really caught my eye as something I’d enjoy. A tribal-style woman hunting down behemoth-size robots with a bow and arrow? Sign me up. Well, after hours upon hours I can tell you that I love this game… even though it can really piss me off.

    Horizon Zero Dawn has a wonderful presentation that sucks you in right from the get-go, giving a glimpse of the world you’ll be exploring as well as the machines you’ll be coming across. The game starts with our protagonist, Aloy, as a baby being taken to a ritual with her guardian Rost to have her name decided. Right away this game lets you in on its unique atmosphere, with humans living primitive tribal ways in a future where robots have seemingly overrun the world. It’s a nice take on the post-apocalyptic setting that differs from the more common steampunk or Mad-Max style. We finally get control of Aloy when she is a toddler living as an outcast from the Nora tribe but eager for acceptance. After falling into an old-world dungeon (AKA a high-tech facility now in ruins), she finds a handy device that will serve as a major gameplay mechanic: The Focus. The Focus is like an all-seeing vision mode, and during a trip where Rost is teaching Aloy to hunt we are shown all it can do. The focus can be used to see enemies through walls, detect weaknesses, highlight specific targets, detect points of interest during quests and even highlight the patrol route enemies undergo in their standard AI package, and while that sounds completely overpowered you’ll quickly learn how fun- and essential- it is to use during the game. After Aloy uses her focus to help a member of the tribe avoid a herd of robots only to be mocked by tribal matrons and children alike, she becomes driven learn from Rost and take part in a tradition The Proving where she can not only become a member of the tribe but also earn an answer from the ruling Matriarchs. The prologue is very gripping and it sucks you into both the story and the character of Aloy as she undergoes her training and transition into adulthood to undergo the Proving and find answers. What does Aloy seek? She wants to know who her mother was, and why she’s mockingly referred to as “no-mother.”

    Once you get to play as grown-up Aloy, the game immediately gets you into the thick of things and shows its wild side. It’s like a massive playground where you get to hunt herd of machines; likewise, they can also hunt you. Armed with just a spear, a bow, and your reflexes, you have to make your way through this massive world and take down hostile robots in order to scavenge them for parts. This opening act really like a taster for the whole game as you get to know the basics of hunting and realize just how useful you Focus is. Seeing a machine’s patrol tracks and searching for its weak spots become key elements of gameplay because you aren’t an unstoppable hero of destruction. The enemies in this game can take you out relatively easy, so having stealth and reflexes on your side is essential. It’s not just robots you are hunting, either. You’ll also want to hunt the wildlife in the game because of the essential crafting resources they drop. In fact, you’ll pretty much want to gather every resource you come across because of the immense crafting in this game. You’ll need to craft your own ammo, traps, potions, and even travel packs and these all require different items you’ll either find by looting destroyed machines, scavenging the wilderness, or hunting animals. This is where the game shines at it brightest. The way the designers implemented the robot enemies and the way you have to devise the best way to take them down really makes you feel like a hunter stalking its prey whilst avoiding becoming the hunted. As time goes on you’ll get access to different weapons or other items to take down your enemies. Snipe the explosive canister on a machine to trigger a massive explosion, use a trip-caster to catch a machine off-guard and stun it with electricity, lay down proximity traps to deal damage without revealing your position, use ice arrows to freeze enemies and make them susceptible to other attacks, and so much more. It’s like the designers just handed you a bunch of tools and said “Figure out how to handle this,” and I absolutely love that kind of freedom. It makes the gameplay feels so organic, like you are making your own experience every time… or your own demise. Machines can take you down much easier than you can take them down, so using tactics is essential. Hide in the tall grass, bide your time, and strike when you are ready. Combat and hunting are the most innovative and fun parts of this game, which is good because the impressions given to me by the platforming and physics are not as grand.

    Platforming is hard to rate or judge. It’s mostly an autopilot design of sorts; jump towards a ledge or yellow handle and then mostly just point the joystick in the direction you need to travel. Aloy will mostly move herself, and only occasionally do you need to jump to make a longer movement. On the one hand, I dislike this type of auto-drive platforming because it’s on-rails nature is the opposite of the open-ended combat mechanics. On the other hand, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise because the physics are not the greatest. Aloy jumps up normal but then falls as if Jupiter’s gravity is yanking her down, and sometimes I have slipped of ledges right after landing solidly. When navigating close areas, you will also find yourself oddly moving up and down anything with elevation such as a desk or a pile of rocks. It’s not entirely bad, because you can unlock sweet abilities like pulling unsuspecting enemies to their doom when hanging from a ledge, or firing arrows from a vantage point on a balance rope. It’s also a pretty cool visual to watch Aloy rappel down from a tall ledge. I’m just saying the designers clearly do not specialize in platforming physics or mechanics. Luckily combat is the meat of this game, and where it shines. That, and the story.

    HZD’s story grips you early and keeps going strong. While somewhat annoying in her brief scenes as a child, Aloy is very likeable protagonist that makes me root for her. She is stubborn, driven, focused, compassionate, sarcastic, and strong-willed. Her character is very fleshed out and the development she undergoes fits the narrative well. The setting itself may seem contradictory with humans living in primitive tribes while surrounded by super-advanced machines and electronics, but as events unfold you learn what happened to Earth in the past, where Aloy came from, and how she fits into the grand scheme of things. As you progress through the game you’ll discover there is a lot of detail and lore given to this world; random data logs scanned with your focus give you a glimpse of what happened before the fall of civilization, and by talking with NPC’s you will learn how fleshed out the world is. The tribes in the game are not just random factions you do things for- they have their own history, their own secrets, and their own clashes with each other that play a part in both main quests and side quests. The majority of characters are well done in their own right. Occasionally there is a character that feels phone-in but the majority are well-written and well voiced. It’s not hard to feel the emotions portrayed during cutscenes, or to get behind Aloy as her personal quest to discover the truth about her past and identity becomes connected to a grand plan revolving about the preservation of the Earth.

    Once you move past the opening act and leave the initial playing stage is where you will truly be tested. This is when the game spikes the difficulty up immensely. You will feel hopelessly outgunned and underpowered by several of the massive and agile machines you will come across, and this is where it will sink it just how important stealth and pre-fight strategy are in this game. Stealth and patience are the keys to progressing in this game, and there will be plenty of times when running away or avoiding an encounter altogether is the right choice. When the game forces you into a fight, I pray that you have excellent reflexes and know how to target enemy weaknesses. Enemies will blast you with fire, shoot long-range laser cannons, charge at you and drain half your health in one shot, etc. This middle-act and forward is where the game becomes make-or-break. I’ve rage quit the game a couple times but kept coming back with determination to beat it. Those who love a challenge without hand-holding will enjoy the game. Those that get frustrated easily when a game leaves you on your own will probably not finish it. It’s worth persevering, however, because once you can to explore the entire map you get to see how much the game offers. There is an absolute plethora of side missions, some which pop up during the main story and others you will find as you explore. These aren’t just “go to point A, kill B, and retrieve item C” either. These quests have stories of their own, sometimes taking twists and even requiring the use of your focus to play detective by following tracks or investigating scenes. There is a hunting lodge where you can test yourself through various time trials or by hunting dangerous machines and retrieving trophies. Update your map with points of interest by scaling Tallnecks and overriding them. Investigate old-world ruins called cauldrons that will let you override certain robots in battle, causing them to come and fight on your side. Clear out bandit camps scattered about and watch ordinary civilians move in. This game is also completionist’s dream, with all kinds of knick-knacks laid about worth exploring for such as metal flowers, ancient artifacts, data logs, etc. Just exploring the map is worthwhile, because this world is designed elegantly and with great detail. The way the breeze will cause tall grass to sway, the colorful fields, the desolates canyons, the run-down looking ruins, the various weather effects from heavy rain to snow to dust storms- This world is one of the beautiful I have ever explored in an open world map. The map rivals Bethesda games in terms of how good It is.

    I would say this game is a contender for 2017 game of the year if it wasn’t for the myriad of issues that tend to plague it in the category of mechanics and game design. For one, the inventory system is kind of archaic and clunky. It uses a system where you have only so many slots for items, and only so many of a certain item fit can fit into one slot before they pour over and take another one. It honestly would’ve been easier to simply have an encumbrance limit, in my opinion. It would’ve also been nice to have a place to stash some of your gear. In a game with this much stuff, I need a stash spot. Speaking of which, I’m not a crazy fan of many items requiring rare items for trade. I get that the idea is to get good gear you need to take risks for rare items to exchange, but the concept’s execution doesn’t appeal much to me. Simply making powerful items expensive and rare items worth a lot of money would have worked just fine. Multiple item requirements is good for crafting, but not so much for currency exchange. Also, the system to use items or specific abilities like the lure call is limited. You have to manually cycle through all your potions, traps, and abilities in the same system with the D-pad and then use the centered one by pressing down. Imagine trying to desperately cycle through your inventory one-by-one in the middle of a massive battle where you are dodging enemy attacks and trying to focus on getting the right item without getting hitting. They could have at least given the option to enter the menu and use items through there, but instead we have to select them in game-time. It’s a pretty frustrating mechanic in the heat of battle.The enemy AI is a little cheap because sometimes alerting one enemy causes all enemies within a practical mile-radius to start looking for you. It’s a little hard to be stealthy when one surprised machines seems to cause a couple others to appear out of thin air (Not really but they might as well).

    Finally, the game does not let you save the game whenever you wish but rather requires you to save at campfires spread throughout the world. I really don’t like it when games do this, especially open world game. I get that the idea is to make it more challenging and tense by limiting your saves, and to the game’s credit these campfires are found in abundance throughout the world. Still, in a game this massive that will have you playing hours upon hours upon hours to get most of its content, I dislike not being able to save whenever I choose. That’s an option I always like to have.

    In the end, Horizon Zero Dawn is a fantastic new IP that has some really great designs and mechanics but also seemed to mess up on some key points, in my opinion. Overall, however, it’s a great game that could become a top-tier franchise with some fine-tuning and improvements. Revamp the platforming a little bit, design a better inventory system, and tone down some of the difficulty spikes and this could be a legendary series going forward. Highly recommended to open-world RPG fans I would just recommend you’re willing to put up with the more challenging and frustrating moments, because this game WILL frustrate you and make you want throw the controller. Those who love beautiful yet challenging worlds, welcome. Be the hunter, or become the hunted.

    -Beautifully designed world.
    -Immersive story and characters.
    -Combat system is fresh and organic.
    -Loads of side missions and things to do other than the main story.

    -The game elevates its difficulty REALLY fast after the first act. AI loves to alert practically all enemies around you.
    -Platforming and physics feel kind of strange in design.
    -Some clunky mechanics such as the inventory system and item usage.

    Final Score: 8/10

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