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Friday, March 10, 2017

The BEST video game I've ever played!? Horizon: Zero Dawn review!

Well it finally happened... They made a video game that is so good that it psychically hurts me in real life. What video game may that be? Sony's brand new IP and sort-of mascot franchise in the making, Horizon: Zero Dawn.

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If an introduction like that doesn't convince you that Horizon: Zero Dawn is a fantastic game, then there is something wrong with you. But anyway, Horizon Zero Dawn is a brand new IP from Sony developed by Guerilla Games. The general idea for this game was basically, "Let's make a video game that will be the foundation of a beloved and long-lasting franchise that people will come to associate with The House that Spyro the Dragon built" (or, depending on whether you consider the Crash Bandicoot franchise dead -which, spoiler alert, it is-  it's "The House that Crash Bandicoot built").

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Joking aside, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that has only one real flaw, and that flaw has nothing to do with the game itself. It's gameplay, which I will get to in a moment, borrows a lot of concepts from other franchises, and puts them all together. It does put a unique twist on it's concepts, but some people might get annoyed at the lack of originality in the gameplay.

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The story of Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth where machines built to resemble both modern and prehistoric animals have taken over the planet and humanity has been reduced to living in primitive tribes of hunter-gatherers. My first praise (of many!) with Horizon: Zero Dawn is it takes a widely used (some might say overused) setting (life after the apocalypse) and it DOESN'T make it dark and depressing! It's such a breath of fresh air! Another story note I like is how instead of taking place shortly after the world-changing apocalyptic event, like literally every game that uses "life after the apocalypse" as a setting, it starts literally thousands of years after this event, meaning humanity has gotten so used to life with robo-dinosaur things and living off the land that they don't even remember a time before this era.

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Our tale follows the adventures of Aloy, a young woman ("WHAT!? The main hero of a video game is a girl that is not designed to look like a super-model!? Then this game is obviously Pro!Feminist propaganda!" cries the shameless and pathetic morons who somehow find ways to hate on a video game before it EVEN COMES OUT) born into the Nora tribe, but casted out at birth due to one of the three tribal elders believing Aloy's mere existence is a curse. Praise number 2 is about Aloy herself. Unlike a LOT of video game protagonists, who are blank slates for you to project on, Aloy is a well-developed character with a fun personality (I swear, Aloy is the sassiest person alive...). Another thing I love is how the game never makes a big deal out of Aloy's gender, despite what the aforementioned morons claim as they try to convince people to not spend their hard-earned money on this game. What I mean is, they don't play the "Story of a Woman trying to make her way in a Man's world" card at all during the roughly 60-hour-long story campaign. You never hear "I can't believe a girl beat me" or "There's no way a woman can do this thing". I kind of half-expected them to, but half-hoped they didn't because that would be kind of cliche. And boy oh boy, am I glad they didn't!

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Anyway, back on subject. Aloy's status as an outcast obviously makes her life miserable, but when her mentor and surrogate father Rost tells her of an ancient Nora ritual known as the Proving that she can partake in will remove her status as outcast (and, in turn, the other residents of Nora-land will enter Aloy among their ranks) should she pass it, she spends every day training (for SEVEN WHOLE YEARS!!!) so she can compete for a chance to pass the Proving. Adding more fuel to Aloy's motivation fire is whoever places first at the Proving shall be allowed to make one request and the tribal elders will have no choice but to fulfill that request. But what request does Aloy have in mind? The elders know more about her heritage than she does herself, so her request is simply to learn the truth of her origins.

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But unfortunately, (mild spoilers, I guess) a mysterious group of demon-worshipping killers invade Nora-land, murder well over half the Nora teens competing in the Proving, and attempt to murder Aloy herself, but Rost intervenes with a last-minute rescue/sacrifice. Aloy then packs her things and heads off to track down these mysterious killers and bring them to justice, and (hopefully) learn the truth about her heritage, as well what exactly happened to humanity to reduce them to living in primitive tribes.

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I LOVE the story of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It's mysteries are intriguing and the characters are memorable (except Resh. Resh can go jump off a cliff and the game wouldn't change at all) and the villains are a legitimate threat. Why do I consider that a good thing? Rule One of making a compelling and beloved story. The villain MUST be a threat. They MUST demonstrate they are willing to do anything to achieve their goals. And the main villain of Horizon: Zero Dawn, Helis, meets these criteria perfectly. Helis is a religious fanatic who initially wants to avenge his king, who was killed two years before the events of the game, but by the time Aloy comes face-to-face with him, all he wants is to watch the world burn. Combine Helis's religious fanaticism with the fact he has fully operational 21st century weaponry at his disposal and you have a genocidal terrorist in the making!

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My only real gripe with the story (again, mild spoilers) is how the game introduces VERY early on a character named Bast. This character was obviously being set-up to be the "Draco Malfoy" to Aloy's "Harry Potter" (a blonde-haired bully that has a rivalry with a kind and empathetic, if somewhat snarky outcast? It's basically the same thing!). My problem here? They kill off Bast shortly after the Proving. I feel this was a waste of a character because the only way I could personally improve on the story is if both Aloy and Bast survived the attack at the Proving and both ventured off, with Bast being one step ahead of Aloy, constantly taunting/teasing her and giving Aloy even more motivation to complete her quest (to one-up Bast). But hey, I didn't write the story. Guerilla Games did. But that's the only thing I DON'T like about the story, which is simply a missed opportunity.

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This is Nil. Out of all the supporting cast,
he is by far my favorite.

I know this whole time I've gushed over the story, and while I am justified in doing so due to my status as a hopeless lore junkie, how does the game actually play? Well the gameplay is somehow even better than the already great story. Horizon: Zero Dawn borrows concepts from other action-adventure games and the game can be best described as Destiny meets Ratchet & Clank meets Monster Hunter.

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Aloy has two different melee attacks (Light and Heavy) can be used to inflict damage should enemies get a little too close for comfort. However! Most of the time you will be using a variety of guns (that's the Ratchet & Clank part) to fight larger than life mechanical monstrosities and using the loot to craft weapons, potions, ammo, and traps (the bread and butter of Monster Hunter) and level up, which rewards you with points you can use to unlock a wide array of passive abilities that make your life easier (like the Skill Trees from Destiny), like the Concentration ability, which slows down time while aiming, making it easier to aim in the middle of a hectic battle.

Adding a layer of depth to the combat is the fact they put in a stealth system. What does that mean? Self-explanatory, press the Square button to crouch. Crouch while standing in red colored grass and Aloy effectively becomes almost completely invisible (she blends in perfectly thanks to her ginger hair!). Additionally, you can sneak up to enemies (while crouched) and perform a instant kill move on them. However, this instant kill move is balanced out by only being able to perform it on certain enemies (if said enemy is around Aloy's size, she can do a stealth-kill. If the enemy in question is several times bigger than Aloy, then that enemy has an immunity to being stealth-killed).

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Adding even more depth to the combat, later on Aloy gains an ability that it DOESN'T borrow from other Action-Adventure games known as Override. What this ability does is it lets Aloy effectively hack the various machines you will encounter throughout the adventure, having them fight for her and even giving her a ride if need be. This ability is perfect for grinding for specific materials, as you can Override one machine and send it off on a suicidal rampage, killing every other machine in the vicinity until it itself is killed (or until Override wears off...) and you can safely loot the trail of death and destruction your robo-buddy left. Sadly, this ability doesn't come in much use during "Kill all the [insert enemy type here]" type missions since you also have to kill the machine you Overridden for it to count.

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Horizon: Zero Dawn also sports one of the most beautiful open-worlds I've seen in a long time. It has breathtaking mountain vistas, densely forested jungles, ancient ruins that have become covered in vegetation due to neglect, and cyber-punk factories that pump out the games iconic robo-dinosaur things en masse. Heck, even the towns and settlements are beautiful, from the obviously Roman-inspired city Meridian to the wooden cabins used by the Nora. Well over half of my playtime was spent drooling over how beautiful everything looks. The other half was spent getting demolished by the ostrich-like Longleg enemy, and running away from groups of Longlegs, and having important boss battles get rudely interrupted by, you guessed it, Longlegs. Seriously, Longlegs are out for blood. They are PURE EVIL.

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Anyway, ignoring the obvious threat Longlegs pose to the Tribes and questioning why they don't hunt them all down to extinction, The character and creature designs are also top-notch. I know I've said this before, but Aloy is designed to look more like a normal human being and not a super model, which is an inherently fresh breath of air because literally any time video games have female protagonists, said protagonists are designed to be as attractive as possible (Bayonetta being an M-rated example of this cliche), because apparently, if the morons I love hating on so much are to be believed, making a heroine look like a normal human being and not designing said heroine to be as attractive as a super-model is inherently wrong but it's perfectly okay for games like Bayonetta to get rated M for Mature because the development team spent an unhealthy amount of time making the heroine of that game as attractive as possible. On a more positive, less moron-bashing note, I really like the human character designs since they look surprisingly realistic, and normally I'm not one for realism in video games (if it takes place in a work of fiction, why bother making it realistic in the first place?), here it works wonderfully. On a less positive note, the lip-sync is kind of hit-or-miss. It's mostly good. Until you meet Vanasha. Her lip-sync is atrociously bad but that's the only instance of the lip-sync being bad enough to notice.

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Speaking of lip-sync, the voice acting is also really good. I know I've praising Aloy constantly (to the point where some people would think I have a crush on her, but I promise from the bottom of my heart that I don't) but one last praise I'll give is her voice acting is FLAWLESS. She has a kind of sassy/snarky charm in most of her dialogue, but has some moments where you can almost feel what emotion Aloy herself is feeling at that moment. Oh, and Lance Reddick lends his golden voice to the mysterious archaeologist/hacker Sylens, so instant coolness.

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Admit it, this shot looks flipping awesome!

Anyway, something else I love about Horizon: Zero Dawn is it's music. I'm actually listening to the game's soundtrack as I'm typing out this very sentence. It has a really good soundtrack. The songs range from peaceful and serene, to adrenaline-pumping and energetic. There is not really a bad song in the entire score at all, and the music is just really fun to listen to.

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Almost forgot to mention this, but early on Aloy
gets a device known as the Focus, which is basically
a Scouter from Dragon Ball Z. It shows you enemy
strengths, highlights weak-spots, makes enemy patrol
routes visible, and makes really cool noises when you
turn it on.

One last thing before I score the game, I really like the little details. Namely, when the weather changes Aloy verbally acknowledges the weather change, the plant life sways realistically in the wind, dialogue from NPCs change based on how far you are into the game (example, characters will recognise Aloy as an outcast if you talk to them before the Proving, but will treat you like a Nora Warrior if you talk to them after the Proving), you will occasionally stumble across hunting parties from the various tribes patrolling the main roads (and actually fighting and sometimes defeating the robotic beasts prowling the wilderness), and how if Aloy says anything while in a canyon or valley, you can hear her voice echo. Just little details that help make the world seem more alive.

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Overall, Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of the best video games I've ever played in my life. The only real flaw is it borrows a lot of gameplay concepts from other franchises but puts them all together in a way that just works.So I give Horizon: Zero Dawn a 10/10. I STRONGLY recommend this game to anyone that has a PS4, since it's currently exclusive for the PS4 (and it will ALWAYS be exclusive seeing as how the entire point of Horizon: Zero Dawn is to have a golden IP/mascot franchise). If you have a PS4 Pro, then lucky you.

EDIT: I forgot to mention this when I originally wrote the review, but the game gives you multiple different emotional choices that affect how Aloy acts towards certain characters. These choices won't change the story at all, but it gives you the opportunity to make your playthrough of the game more unique. It's not like a Telltale game where you can pick what Aloy says during cutscenes, and you don't even pick exactly how she responds to something, since all the choices do is determine which part of Aloy's personality shines through during that moment, those choices being Insight, Confront, and Empathy, respectively. Not sure how I could forget something like this, but eh, at least I remembered to edit it in later. No matter what choices you make Aloy will still be a walking fountain of sass lol.

P.S. Random fun fact! Aloy's design is inspired by the Game of Thrones character Ygritte (I hope I'm spelling that right). I don't really know a whole lot about Game of Thrones other than it's insanely popular, it's an EXTREMELY mature TV show, and there's a character called Hodor that talks like a Pokemon.

P.P.S. I just now realized a lot of the character's names are puns. Aloy is a pun on Alloy, a reference to the machines she battles throughout the adventure. Rost is a pun on Rust, referencing again, the machines as well as the fact he is one of the oldest characters in the game (one might say he's RUSTY!!!). And Sylens is a pun on Silence, a reference to the fact that he spends most of his time quietly observing the events of the game through Aloy's (and other people's) Focus devices. I'm pretty sure I can figure out some other puns with the characters' names, but we would be here forever.

P.P.P.S. If Guerilla Games makes a sequel, I would buy that sequel day one. Although, Guerilla Games, please bring in the less plot-relevant tribes into the spotlight.

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