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The game everyone’s raving about 100% lives up to the hype.

When I first saw the Horizon: Zero Dawn teaser, it looked gorgeous. As trailers trickled in, that opinion didn’t change. The more I saw, the more excited about it I got. I tempered my hopes, however. Plenty of games look great and have grand concepts that make you impatient to play them, and there aren’t many that live up to that initial promise. Horizon does.

 

Gameplay

Horizon exceeds my expectations in every aspect. Right from the start the tutorials – usually something to slog through – integrate with the story in the most natural and player-friendly way I’ve experienced. Tutorials for newly acquired weapons show up as side quests that are completely optional for those who want to gain a little extra experience or like the challenge.

The gameplay is near flawless, with smooth, responsive controls that are what the Assassin’s Creed franchise wishes it was. Nothing I came across felt counter-intuitive. Easy to navigate menus are stylistically pleasing as well as functional. A varied arsenal of weapons, potions, and traps allows for player creativity and keeps combat interesting throughout the game, though I would have preferred a larger inventory capacity (a minor gripe).

This open world is full of plant life, wildlife, and machines that give you plenty to do, explore, and learn without being overwhelming. Machines are brilliantly designed, each with its species-specific weaknesses, strengths, and combat styles. Human enemies as well come with different types that don’t require as much creativity to defeat as the machines (naturally) but nonetheless add an added layer to combat. Just remember, fire is your best friend.

 

Soundtrack

Horizon’s epic and haunting soundtrack perfectly complements the story. It’s ominous, mysterious, adventurous, fast-paced, all when it needs to be, while maintaining a post-apocalyptic eeriness and wonder. It feels heavy but unpredictable, sad but hopeful. There’s some a sense of history, of an old and dangerous world full of secrets and tension.

 

Characters & Story

A pretty game that controls well is nice, but for me, story and character are what make or break a game. Guerrilla Games very intentionally created a world around a dynamic female protagonist who interacts with an ensemble cast of various personalities, genders, races, social status, cultures, and sexual orientation. What’s more, these characters are memorable and I grew to like (or dislike) them. All this positive, realistic representation from a game developer known for its first-person shooters, a genre infamous for its sparse storytelling and non-existent character work. Who would have thought! Guerrilla didn’t skimp on the voice acting, either. Ashly Burch delivers her best performance to date, bringing to life a lovable Aloy who’s both human and empowering – regardless of the player’s gender. Add to that the different dialogue options, and you get a character who feels both personalized and distinctly herself.

I can’t stress enough how grateful I am that Aloy is never sexualized, and in fact, not even given a romance plot. Sure, having a canonically queer female protagonist would have blown me (and the LGBT+ community among others) away, but I understand that given the stakes, romance isn’t something on Aloy’s mind (though there is some interest in her from both men and women!). It’s unnecessary at this point and does nothing for Aloy’s character development, so Guerrilla graciously didn’t try to shoehorn it in.

The mystery of Aloy’s origin is the guiding force that pushes her to learn more about the world outside her sheltered, isolated upbringing as an outcast in a matriarchal tribe. This personal quest ties into a much larger story related to how the world became the way it is. It’s a jaw-dropping, intrigue-filled journey that will have you riveted and in desperate need of someone else to discuss it with – especially once you finish the game. If you pay attention to the details, you’ll get an idea of how much thought Guerrilla put into building this world, from the sometimes emotional and insightful voice recordings, to the amusing e-mails sent between scientists. Storytelling is nuanced, complex, and incredibly mature.

The end scenes beautifully wrap up the arc and set up the sequel – which by the way, has already been announced! I’m not embarrassed to say I cried at the end during a couple of scenes, and once at the very beginning. Guerilla Games did something I had no idea they were capable of in Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s more than memorable; it’s legendary.

 

Summary

Every part of this game is lovingly crafted, with breathtaking attention to detail woven seamlessly into the larger picture. Combined with stunning visuals, quicksilver controls, an unforgettable story and diverse, grounded cast, this is an achievement that will go down in gaming history. For anyone who thinks one game can’t have it all, that some parts have to be sacrificed to strengthen the experience as a whole, you need to play Horizon: Zero Dawn. It made a believer out of me. Astonishingly well-rounded and polished, game developers worldwide need to study this and follow Guerrilla’s example.

 

10/10 – Flawless!

 

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