There is something hugely satisfying in booting up an all-new intellectual property in gaming, not least one that has been subject to a fierce hype machine for the last couple of years. Even more satisfying to find out it's good. Scrub that. It's great; truly, splendidly great.
The games industry has been buried underneath an avalanche of sequels in recent times. And while we love many of them, eagerly looking forward to plenty of others too, playing something new is refreshing.
Horizon Zero Dawn is new, different and unreservedly a hit. A splendidly great one at that.
Horizon Zero Dawn review: Extraordinary depth
Well, it is when it gets going, anyway. The game takes an age to get to the meat. It feels like you've been playing one long tutorial for the first six or so hours. But persistence is rewarded and as that's our only real quibble, it's a minor one.
When the main plot kicks in and the open world map becomes truly open, you suddenly get it. Developer Guerrilla Games has crafted a fascinating fantasy setting quite unlike any other, and while the wealth of lore takes some getting used to, there is an extraordinary amount of depth that most game franchises take years to establish.
It is a massive role-player set in a land far, far in the future. Mankind has survived apocalyptic events but has reverted to a tribal, basic lifestyle – adopting bows and arrows (mainly) and, for all intents and purposes, living like native Americans of our own past.
There is a heavy science fiction element too, with sometimes huge mechanical dinosaurs and beasts roaming the landscape. They both look amazing and serve to give Horizon Zero Dawn a different dynamic to many RPG peers.
Combining the high tech mechanoids with distinctly low-tech surroundings is a masterstroke. It makes the whole game feel completely original, even though, at times, the gameplay borrows heavily from other influences.
Horizon Zero Dawn review: The Focus
Throughout the third-person action role-player you play as Aloy, a strong, positive female character that clearly has a long future in videogaming ahead of her.
Aloy has previously been shunned by her tribe, for reasons you will discover along the way, and made into an outcast. This provides her, and therefore you, with the tools to survive and hunt in the wilderness, partly played through tutorial missions, partly through an 80s movie-style montage.
She also, as a small girl, stumbles upon what she names "the Focus". It essentially looks like a cabbie's Bluetooth earpiece, but allows her to see the wild robots in another light, with their flaws highlighted and travel routes visible as glowing neon graphics. It also helps the developer accentuate in-game objects and moments without breaking the simple majesty of the fantasy world. Clever.
When using the Focus, it feels and works a bit like Geralt's Witcher vision in The Witcher 3 and isn't the only nod to that highly acclaimed title. Encounters and optional missions found on the side of the road echo it. And crafting, modifying equipment and weapons, plus gathering plants and herbs are familiar too.
They also bring to mind the more recent Far Cry games. Indeed, we spent a long time hunting small animals in our first 10 hours of Horizon play – as they also roam the lands – purely to expand our inventory slots. We did the same in Far Cry 3, 4 and Primal. Zero Daw's expansive open-world map even has Far Cry-style icons dotted around for different hunting zones and the like.
Horizon Zero Dawn review: Borrowing from the best
But borrowing from its influences is no bad thing, especially when these gameplay mechanics and features are much liked already – as long as there's enough originality and clever development accompanying them.
That's where the combat comes in. In Horizon Zero Dawn it's a joy to behold. Aloy can shoot arrows, place traps, lob bombs from a sling and take on mechanoids and humans alike up close with her spear. All of these combat options flow naturally and are simple to control.
Fights end up being fast-paced but never frenzied, and the clever use of just a few buttons on the controller ensure you are never worrying about finger dexterity over on-screen action.
There are some awesome boss battles too. Artificial intelligence in Horizon is excellent, with the more common machines having enough nous to surround you when in groups or second-guess some of your tactics, depending on how complex a beast they are.
Major bosses, however require careful planning to take on and, like us, you might be respawning at a previous save point often.
You especially find them during dungeon crawls, in massive machine-based lairs, which also adds to the variety and scope of the game. They add visual variety too, giving you totally different eye candy than the mainstay of the outdoors landscapes. Both, however, are simply stunning.
Horizon Zero Dawn review: Beautiful to behold
Horizon Zero Dawn is by far and away the best looking game we've seen on the PS4 – among the best looking games full stop. At times it is breath-taking, with HDR TVs being exploited to great effect whether on a standard PS4 or PS4 Pro.
The latter console also gets 4K checkerboard images, making the game look even more outstanding. The action is locked to 30 frames per second, which ensures that it moves smoothly throughout, but the draw distances and detail are magnificent. We found ourselves dwelling in each new zone we explored, simply to take in the surroundings. We're sure you will too.
It's also rare to find human faces that move so believably. All of the people you meet and talk to seem convincing, not just hokey, random NPCs (which many actually are). The script is sometimes a little overwritten, but the delivery and facial rendering are excellent.
We've held high hopes for Horizon Zero Dawn since we first saw it at E3 2015. The premise always seemed interesting, but we didn't even know what kind of game it was going to be back then.
The final release has exceeded our expectations. It is a visual masterpiece when running on a PS4 Pro, and is even one of the best-looking games for PS4 on the standard console. Its depth and playtime of more than 40 hours also puts it up there with some of the greats, while the combat system never gets tired.
Because it's an all-new IP and idea, every area we explored or creature we encountered has delighted. And we get the idea there is plenty of extra scope for future expansion now that the game lore has been established.
A new franchise has surely been born, therefore and we'll be more than happy to see Aloy again sometime in the future. Yep, it's that sequels thing again, but on this occasion we're more than happy to accommodate. Because Horizon Zero Dawn is, quite simply, the most stunning looking game on PlayStation 4.
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