Robot Dinosaurs. Whoever dreamed up this combination, and not only treated it seriously but figured out a way to make it even vaguely plausible, was a genius. There’s something about the combination which, whilst sounding ridiculous on paper, is undeniably appealing when translated into a visual medium. Part of this, I suspect, goes back to childhood, as nearly every little kid will tell you that robots are cool, as are dinosaurs. Robot dinosaurs, on the other hand are (for anyone lucky enough to see Robosaurus munching on derelict cars at the Sydney Easter Show), a whole other level of awesome.
Set in a, quite literally, post apocalyptic American landscape, humanity has been reduced to a tribal existence, scratching out a living amongst a wild landscape populated with sparse wildlife, and plenty of robots. These robots take a variety of forms, from herbivore-like Grazers, to the sabertooth tiger-like Sawtooth, and the towering Thunderjaw (a mechanical monster the size and look of a T-Rex, and bristling with weaponry to-boot).
Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition sees players having to navigate this strange and brilliant setting, as they follow the journey of Aloy, a young woman from the Nora Tribe as she firstly sets out to learn about her mysterious past, and then gets thrown into a plot which could see the world destroyed again. This involves traveling the large open world, finding villages, bandit camps, the Carja’s mountain-peek city, technological wonders from the ruins of the ancient world, and plenty of forests, deserts and, as the PC version of the game comes with The Frozen Wilds expansion, the frost-covered realm of the Banuk tribes.
As this game is largely story driven, it would be wrong to spoil it by going into details. Suffice to say it is well constructed, and contains perhaps one of the more imaginative apocalyptic scenarios, as well as justifying why the now dead civilization left behind tons of robotic monsters, all of which seem intent on eating, crushing, shooting, or generally tearing whatever human they come across limb-from-limb. While some have noted the lack of humour in the story – it does set a fairly serious tone – humour has been embedded elsewhere. The metal-themed names of some of the characters like Aloy (alloy), Rost (rust), and the fact that Aloy is a flaming red-head and belongs to the Nora tribe (‘Flaming Nora’ being a British expression expressing surprise and irritation – akin to rolling one’s eyes while saying ‘God help us’), are subtle but effective.
What players will find themselves doing in this game is hunting the robotic monstrosities for parts which can be used for trade or crafting, and doing quests including hunting particularly dangerous machines, standard find-and-fetch tasks, and main quests which reveal more about the story and the world. While the quests should be familiar to most people, it’s the hunting aspect which really shines.
Each type of robotic creature (and there are quite a few) has their own set of behaviours and personalities. The twitchy, Velociraptor-like Watcher, for example, will patrol around herds of easily-spooked Grazers. Scrappers and Glinthawks are drawn to wrecked machines, grinding them down with their saw-and-drill-tipped jaws for recycling. Apex predators like the Stalker, Sawtooth and Thunderjaw are far more aggressive, and will instantly attack with terrifying ferocity. Each of these have distinct strengths and weaknesses that the player will have to exploit, as well as use cunning and planning, if they want to succeed.
So how do players exploit the weaknesses? With the help of the environment, traps which can be carefully placed on a machine’s patrol path, and a raft of weapons, the prime one of which is your bow. Yes, that’s right, you’re hunting multi-ton killing machines, armed with a bow and arrow. As such, while an arrow through a lens of a machine’s eyes will inflict massive damage, hitting one of the armour plates will simply see your arrow bouncing off and inflicting little more than a scratch on the machine’s paint job. You also have a wide variety of arrows to play with, including ones that set machine’s clad in flammable housings on fire, electrocute others, or even use a compressed-air grenade to tear components off the machine. This last is more than simply cosmetic, as you can use it to remove particular components you want to harvest, disable certain abilities, and even knock off heavy-weapons which you can then turn back on your foes.
Encounters blend planning with stealth and, occasionally, blind panic. None of the machines are to be taken lightly, especially those modeled on predators. These are super aggressive, will barely give you a moment’s respite, and can close ground incredibly quickly. That, and their threat is only increased by the fact that the machines have quite a long detection range. If you’re not wearing stealth armour or hiding in the handily placed red-foliage (the natural hiding place for a red-haired person) and the machines aren’t pretty well on the horizon, they will spot you. This holds especially true for the Thunderjaw, which is only ever a few steps from looking like it’s too far away to worry about, to being close enough that you can get an uncomfortably detailed look at the inside of its mouth.
Again, whilst this all may sound slightly ridiculous on paper, in reality it’s tense, exciting, and very satisfying. In fact, given the paucity of Lord of the Rings inspired games, this is the closest you will get to playing as Legolas (right down to shooting several arrows at once). Really, the strength of this game lies in its execution. Guerilla Games have done a marvelous job of instilling each type of machine with a distinct personality, reflected in the wonderful attention to detail in both the models (if you’re unlucky enough to get close enough to a Glinthawk’s jaws, you can actually see the saw-blades whirring) and the animations. I know of no other game, not even ones where they populate it with models of real animals, which is better animated. Each robot moves in a way which looks either like the animal it was modeled off, or how you imagine such a construction would move in the real world. There’s a fluid grace and weight to the animations which is simply a delight to watch.
There’s also plenty to do, and for the completionist who wants to do every quest available, there’s easily 80 hours of game to be had. That’s not to say that it does everything right. For example, traversing the huge world can sometimes get a bit tedious before you’ve unlocked the ability to fast travel (and also occasionally after), and the story can sometimes take too much precedence over actual gameplay, to the extent that in a few of the later missions (particularly those from The Frozen Wilds) I felt that it was just one stream of exposition after the other. Also, the game explains very little, which means that you might have to turn to the internet to figure out just how some of the things work. Fortunately, none of these is serious enough to be game-breaking, and what it does well it does brilliantly.
With regard to problems, its also likely that if you’ve been interested in Horizon Zero Dawn’s release on PC (it was initially exclusive to the Playstation 4) you will have also heard of performance issues.
Thankfully these problems appear to have been solved, as was perhaps one of the more annoying oversights from porting the game to PC which I like to call the drunken camera effect. To explain, the camera often sits to the side of one of Aloy’s shoulders (a feature which happens automatically and over which you have no control). However, movement was relative to Aloy. As she was off-center to the camera, pressing the forward button on the keyboard would result in her tracking off to one side, meaning if you wanted to actually walk in a particular direction, you would have to position it off-centre of your screen. This problem didn’t really matter using a controller (as it simply meant you adjusted the direction you were pushing the stick slightly), but on a keyboard and mouse – the best way to play this game – it was maddening. Thankfully, this has now been fixed, and Aloy now moves wherever the camera is looking.
All in all, Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition on PC is a solid and enjoyable game, set in an alien landscape with foes quite unlike anything ever before seen in a game. If you like action and adventure with an element of RPGs thrown in (think a low-fat version of Skyrim), stunning animations, and particularly if you’re fond of archery and robot dinosaurs (and who wouldn’t be?), then Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition should be on your list of games to try. ■