The PS4 finds a new peak in Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn is a tricky title for undisciplined minds to remember. It has echoes of Black Hawk Down and Forward Unto Dawn.
Conversely, there is nothing tricky about the experience of guiding Aloy (Ashly Burch) through Hudson Hawk Down. It is memorable. It is distinct. It is compelling.
It is also inspired. If you have dedicated some good hours to the recent Tomb Raider games, or Fallout, or The Last of Us, even Far Cry or Skyrim, then you will have a sense of how to navigate this hero through her world.
However not one of those stories, as brilliant as they all are, will have prepared you for the unique characteristics of the world that Aloy and her primitive people inhabit – one that is rich in beautiful decay and mesmerising regeneration all at once.
There’s a common bond with the classic comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which a wandering African tribesman finds a Coca-Cola bottle in the desert that his people believe to be of divine origin. In the same way, Aloy’s earth is our earth, but we’ve done something very silly with technology and it has bitten our faces off. What we left behind has been buried beneath years of new rock, sediment, and vegetation. What these primitive peoples of a future beyond the apocalypse find under their feet, that is holy too. Sacrosanct, actually. Forbidden.
Thus we have the foundations – tribal, matriarchal, religious, industrial – that make up Aloy’s world and set out a stacked platter of mysteries for her to delve into as she seeks to determine the origin of her species, to understand why she has been society’s most hated outcast since her birth, and to uncover the world left behind, all while hunting and killing robotic wildlife that is as common to her time as the domesticated dog and cat are to ours.
Like Far Cry Primal before it, Horton Hears Dawn compels a smart player to hunt and forage for crafting resources and food. Like no game before it, Aloy’s adventure compels a player to develop not just an understanding of how this artificial wildlife works, but a very real and wholesome respect for the animals in her role as hunter, collector, and master.
As an emotional vehicle this is an experience that is almost on par with the greatest PlayStation title of all, The Last of Us. It fails to maintain a consistent grip on the heart from stop to finish but when Aloy shines – and she often does – it is in irresistible fashion. As an action-adventure character she is challenging and fun to work with in the way that the modern Lara Croft is, and brings the fight better than Nathan Drake.
Aloy is a well-rounded avatar striding confidently atop a clever interface, taking advantage of an easy-to-use skill development programme. If you want her to become the greatest tracker in the world, she will be. As with the best elements of a roleplaying game with a skills tree, much of the fun – and interest – lies in the decisions around which new skills and abilities to apply, and when.
As an emotional vehicle this is almost on par with the greatest PlayStation title of all, The Last of Us.
Ashley Burch and Lance Reddick (Sylens) can be relied upon for strong performances from the first breath to the last. So many voiceover performers are reading, and you know they’re reading. These two succeed in suspending the disbelief, and it doesn’t hurt either that the writing is very good – full of pain in some places, peace in others, and some wry callbacks to the present day give us an idea of what it might be like to be a fossil lying prone under some future scholar’s microscope.
“Pharmaceuticals,“ says one such character with a puffy air of wisdom, is “an ancient word for ‘medicine’.”
There are occasional missteps in how the story plays out but any disruptions you encounter, particularly if you choose to wander off from the narrative in favour of side missions, won’t distract from the simple thrill of being loose in the wild with little more than your will and your way.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Cast: Ashly Burch, Lance Reddick, Crispin Freeman
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Playing time: 30+ hours