Video Games

‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ a breath away from perfection

It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that our beloved machines will someday kill us. My electric razor will go for my throat. Your waffle iron will close on your hand. And our iPads? Well, you don’t even want to know.

For more than a century, our increasing obsession with technology has only been rivaled by our fascination with how it will one day turn on us. Books, movies and video games have mapped this territory pretty thoroughly, but we still hunger for more.

Enter “Horizon Zero Dawn,” a PlayStation exclusive beaming with AAA polish and bringing tons of hype with it. The game follows the story of Aloy, a huntress fighting to save her tribe from increasingly hostile and animalistic machines. The Old Ones – presumably our grandchildren – have ruined the world, forcing Aloy’s people to revert back to primitive hunter/gatherer tendencies.

“Horizon” came loaded with expectations. Its announcement blew us away at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo, and it was one of my most anticipated games of 2016 before Guerrilla Games pushed its release date back. This can often be a death sentence – think of the recent backlash when “No Man’s Sky” failed to deliver on its promises.

But not “Horizon.” It delivers in a big way – offering a pulsing action style with slight tinges of familiarity.

The combat is similar to Ubisoft titles like “Far Cry” or “Assassin’s Creed,” but Aloy’s battle style is clearly her own. She can take down huge mechanical beasts or rival tribesmen with her stealth, gadgets or strength. These options are nothing new, but “Horizon” strikes a great balance. Action games often punish you for going to the frontal assault mode and reward you for living in the shadows, but all approaches are equal in the Nora hunting grounds. The bow-and-arrow mechanics are particularly satisfying.

“Horizon” also paints a striking picture. The mix between futuristic technology and a fun caveman aesthetic works well. The graphics – even on my lowly PS4 – are spectacular. They’re even better on the PS4 Pro, but you know my feelings on the “half” consoles.

My appreciation for “Horizon” goes a little deeper than the typical review checklist (look good? play well? work well?). The game avoids the pitfalls you often see with a female main character. In the ’90s, female leads were – how to put this – disproportionate. Most American developers have started making women that look like actual people (it still remains a problem in Japan), but they often trip over bringing attention to the character’s gender. A supporting character, typically a man, will say something like, “Wow, I didn’t know girls could shoot like that.” Or maybe the lead has to seduce or charm an enemy not easily beaten by force.

“Horizon” cuts through all of that. Aloy is awesome. War Chief Sona is awesome. The men are – less awesome, but still pretty cool. And most importantly, neither make any sort of references to each other’s sex organs. The men and women all kill. They all love. It’s a pretty progressive society, despite the fact they live in tents. It kind of makes you think.

Aloy’s tale is an early frontrunner for game of the year, but “Horizon” could have been something truly special if the second half of the storyline held up.

For the first 10 hours or so, I was all in. Aloy’s childhood and mysterious past intrigued me, and the chaotic swing during her rite of passage helped push the story into a higher gear. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the answers to the game’s burning questions left me wanting. The reasoning behind why the machines are growing angrier and more aggressive was a bit convoluted, and Aloy’s personal mystery could have come together better.

The plot pitfalls are a problem, but “Horizon” still holds together quite well. The increasingly difficult battles and diverse scenery keep you interested enough to push through. The cutscenes are marvelous, and Guerrilla doesn’t bog the game down with overburdened crafting or progression systems.

“Horizon” is definitely worth 30 hours or so of your time – especially if you are an action game freak. It’s also a great choice for younger players, as unlike many similar titles, it does not rely on blood and gore to spice up the conflict.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Video Game Review

1/2

  • Rated teen for blood, violence, mild language and mild sexual themes
  • Developer: Guerrilla Games
  • Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Out now for the PlayStation 4
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