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Horizon Zero Dawn review - A game that surpassed its hype

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Trembling, I hid away in the tall grass as a Thunderjaw stomped past me. The sound of cracking trees thundered through the air as it sought its nest. It was like I was a child again, watching Jurassic Park for the first time, and the T-Rex was breathing steam onto the glass window on the roof of the car, ready to slam its head into it to topple it off the cliff. The only difference now was that I was armed to the teeth with post-apocalyptic weaponry, that could hopefully fell the beast, but I knew I had to use everything in my power to take it down.

Everything in Horizon Zero Dawn is overwhelming - and that was the impression I hoped the final game would deliver on the player - and it did. All the trailers we've seen teased us with the promise of a world that would be unlike anything we've experienced on the PlayStation 4; and not only did Guerrilla Games meet the hype; they surpassed it.

And that is something we rarely experience in games.

And so it begins ...

I started my preparations for the looming battle with the Thunderjaw.

Planting shock traps on the floor in front of me, then shooting tripcaster wires along my escape route in case I had to make a run for it. I had to predict all the possible outcomes for the battle ahead, by taking every tree and rock around the soon-to-be battlefield into account.

I waited for the Thunderjawto emerge from its nest, and luckily my Focus highlighted its route. I crept out the grass, shot some tripcaster shock traps into the ground, and crept back in before it could see me. The Focus came in handy many times before, as it let me scan every machine I planned on hunting. Every weapon, weak spot, and weakness were revealed thanks to the help of this nifty device.

I knew I could shoot off the Thunderjaw's disc launcher, and possibly use it against the beast, or my Focus let me know that it had blaze canisters on its back that could be shot with a fire arrow, resulting in a massive explosion.

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A multilayered experience

In Horizon Zero Dawn every hunt plays out differently, as the environments are so diverse, that they all house different machines. Walking through the desert, I died a few times to the Stormbird, a massive eagle that dominates the skies. It has shock attacks, and its powerful melee dive had me rethinking my approach. In the jungle the Snapmaws plague the lakes with their alligator sounds, and frozen shots. They too had a specific way to take down, but it all depended on how many they were, and the time of day.

Every session of Horizon Zero Dawn brought a new experience with new places to visit, people to chat to and learn of their sorrowful pasts, and so the story becomes more and more of a mystery. What is this world I am exploring, who is Aloy and why do people want her dead?

The game touches on so many different themes when it comes to the story - courage, politics between tribes, and the idea that life is so fragile. I fell in love with this fantastic world Guerrilla Games created - with its people, the land, and the creatures I encountered. Some of these will linger in your heart throughout the game, and on reaching the end, you'll want to return to the world of Horizon Zero Dawn.

When I was not walking about Meridian, the biggest and most gorgeous city in the game, I was helping out stranded tribesman who messed with the wrong Grazers. I found them atop a rock, screaming for help as the crazed machines tried their hardest to reach them. Every little errand I ran for people, or quest I took on, rewarded me with shards, one of dozens of crafting materials that you can find in the game - and this brings me to the loot system.

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Horizon's loot system is not as complicated as say The Witcher, yet works just as well. Aloy needs specific meats, bones, and pelts to increase her bag carrying space. Luckily there are always animals running around for you to kill and loot for these things. Ammo and traps are a little more complicated, as they rely on machine parts like blaze, chillwater, and shards, the game's main currency, to be crafted. At times I went from being overwhelmed by blaze, to having nothing at all to craft for arrows with. This was because I stopped knocking the blaze off enemies, which resulted in it flying to the ground and me picking it up as a resource. Every component can be hit off a machine, and looted for different resources, so running into a nest and killing a machine is great, but you will not walk away with anything useful.

Everything in Horizon Zero Dawn compliments each other when it comes to combat. Different machines have different weaknesses to elements, and luckily there is just a handful of them in the game, ice, fire, and poison. It goes hand in hand with Aloy's weapons, which have unique elemental attacks, and her armor too that has different defense to specific elements.

Everything has a rarity, with a payoff to compliment it. Purple weapons will have three ammo types to choose from, and more damage boosts to specific elements, while armor has higher stats to prevent damage from shock, ice and so on. Mods that can be found throughout the world bare the same class rarity, and can be placed into weapons and armor to further boost handling, resistance and even damage to a specific element. It all comes together like a well-oiled machine, and while I explored the world, I often changed armor to protect me from the machines I planned on hunting.

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PlayStation gets a new legend

While the combat is unbelievably diverse in every encounter, it is just one of the game's highlights. Horizon Zero Dawn is like a perfectly layered trifle. The stunning world is carefully layered at the bottom, with many different locations. The combat is then poured in to set atop of it, never once feeling out of place. We then have the loot system that further enhances the taste, and lastly Aloy, who without her, it would just be sponge and jelly.

Aloy from the start of the game stole my heart as the opening hour sees you dive into her childhood, so curious and innocent. She is an outcast who has been banished from the tribe along with her guardian Rost. She tries her hardest to be nice and make friends, but the old-school way of thinking has brainwashed even the youngest of the tribe to thinking she is evil. She could have turned out to be a terrible person, given her harsh past, but instead she drives forward to take on the rules, and prove she is worthy in the Proving, a traditional event that grants the tribe reconciliation. 

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Aloy is a fighter, and during the game I watched her grow beyond my expectations. Some dialogue has optional choices that don't have an impact on the overall story, but they do give you an alternative way to tell someone off. In the end though, I had Aloy perfectly formed the way I wanted her to be. Horizon Zero Dawn is an RPG at its core, and so many of the mechanics in the game play into this. The skill system lets you focus on three different trees for Aloy. It was tough at first to decide whether to go for a more survival Aloy, that can loot more items from enemies, or the Prowler skill tree that focuses more on silent kills and spear attack boosts. 

There are some skills that are vital to the game's overall combat system like the overriding one that lets you speed up the time it takes to override a machine to turn it on your side, and the concentration skill that slows down time while aiming down your sights. These help in the game, and after you have played a few hours of it, you will see what works better for your play style.

Also, do not be scared to hang onto your skill points for a while, I often had ten or so with me extra, and waited a while to decide on what I was going to upgrade. This is because the game changes so often that you think the spear will be your main weapon, but it turns out that it does not work that well all the time as machines get tougher as the game progresses.

A thing of beauty

We have experienced so much beauty in gaming over the past few years that I thought we hit a cap in visuals, I could not have been more wrong. Horizon Zero Dawn is the most beautiful game I have ever seen, and I am so happy that I got to experience it. The world you explore is like nothing I have experienced in my gaming life, and the tech running behind it all it just remarkable.

One of the most memorable moments was when I was in Meridian, and I could clearly see a Thunderjaw walking in the far distance, say a good 4km away. Not guttering animation, no technical hiccups at all, it was like real life when you can see beyond the horizon at cars driving in the distance. It was something I had never seen before.

I cannot put into words the beauty of the world, as every day I played the game and I ventured further, it become more and more breathtaking. Running on the PS4 Pro, the game runs at a solid 30FPS at full native 4K, of which this cannot be explained, but rather has to seen to believed. I spend a good few hours in the game's photo mode, just messing around and getting my inner Spielberg going. The perfect shot felt like it was always there, I did not need to find the time of day, or the right posture of Aloy, it just happened. Water dripping off a character's chin while it rains, or the sub-surface scattering of light that hits the eyes during a conversation. It is a technical marvel that feels out of this generation of gaming. 

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It goes without saying that Horizon Zero Dawn is absolutely magnificent in every way. Do not be fooled, this is not an over-hyped game, it is a masterpiece that deserves every piece of recognition it gets. If you own a PS4, there is no question whether or not you should play this, and if you don't have one, well then best you start saving as it is an experience that comes every so often. 

So here I wait in the tall grass, hand trembling, speakers rattling in my room as the Thunderjaw breathes down my back. My traps are planted, and all I can do is hope that I make it out alive. Time to fire the first shot....

Take a look at one of the combat areas I encountered in this gameplay video below.

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"the most beautiful game I have ever seen"

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