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Imitation is the finest flattery: a Horizon Zero Dawn review

Launching on March 1, Horizon: Zero Dawn is the next big AAA IP for the PS4. Josh Drummond has a hoon and finds a game that pulls from everywhere, but transcends its magpie tendencies. 

A girl, in a world very different to our own, is taken in by a strange tribe and raised as an outcast. She knows she is different, and is marked as such by her intelligence and strange affinity with mysterious artifacts. She’s driven to be accepted by her tribe, but also longs to know her origins and true parentage.

Aloy, the protagonist

That, in case you were wondering, is the premise of Clan of the Cave Bear, the bestselling 1980 histronic and historical novel by Jean M. Auel. It’s also the premise of Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Horizon is a game that doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as tattoos them to its face. It would be easy to dismiss it as a derivative game of cribbage, but for the fact that it’s so gobsmackingly goddamn good.

We’ll get the obvious out of the way. Horizon is a kleptomaniac of an IP. As well as its tribal and post-apocalyptic-fic ancestry (heroine Aloy’s name even sounds a lot like Ayla, from Clan of the Cave Bear!), Horizon steals from other games, nakedly and without shame. Do you like the Metal Gears from Metal Gear Solid? This game is full of them! Like (or loathe) the tower-based map-unlocking system from Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry? Then you’ll love or hate the tower-based map-unlocking system in Horizon: Zero Dawn! Also from Ubisoft games (and, to be fair, others) comes the “all climbable bits are one colour”, and “tall grass hides everything”, tropes. The Witcher? That’s here too, right down to Aloy’s constant sotto-voce commentary on the weather. Then there’s all the stuff nicked from the last two Tomb Raider games, which is damn near everything from the titular tomb-raiding on downwards.

Fortunately, everything Horizon nicks is high quality. It’s an assortment of other games’ paraphernalia and Priceless Ming Vases in a beautifully arranged collage. And developer Guerilla Games has polished everything in Horizon‘s showroom to a brilliant sheen. We should thank them for their thievery – in taking all the best bits from its antecedents, Horizon becomes not just a pale imitator but unquestionably one of the finest games in living memory.

It’s just so fucking pretty. Really, it is. The world is stunning. The art direction and the creature dynamics are breathtaking. The animation is yet another synonym for “really good”. The story is… well, most video games that attempt even a semblance of serious narrative usually trip over their own earnest desire to please. If you’re looking for an example, take Naughty Dog’s gorgeous but fundamentally dull Uncharted series. All the elements that would take Horizon down the same road are there – there are many clunky bits, and more than a few toe-curling lines of dialogue – but somehow it rises above the awkward necessities and tropes of video game stories to tell something special. There are two particular reasons for this; lead writer John Gonzalez, who penned the highly-praised Fallout: New Vegas, and Horizon‘s unabashed, matter-of-fact feminism.

Horizon: Zero Dawn lead writer John Gonzalez

If you’ve reached that bit and have suddenly decided Horizon is not for you, then you’re the one missing out. Also, fuck you. You don’t deserve this game. Horizon‘s embrace of a straight-up feminist narrative (set in a matriarchal society, with a well-drawn female protagonist searching for her mother) is one of the best things about it. It’s what lifts it above a host of similar video game stories, and sets it in the sun to shine.

The gameplay is what matters most, though, or Horizon might as well be a movie or book. Here, too, we are blessed, because the gameplay is savagely good. It’s the first single-player game in a very long time to regularly make me, and spectators, yell “whoa” at what’s happening on screen. I only reluctantly put down my controller to write this review, and I’ll be spending plenty more time on it to come. I’m here to assure you the game is more than hard and deep enough, if you’ve seen the trailers and were worried it would just be pretty (and it’s prettier than a console game has any right to be). The difficulty scales flawlessly with the player’s skill, and discovering new creatures as the game goes on presents a fascinating challenge.

The creature design is well worth singling out for attention. It’s in this element where Horizon is most innovative and dynamic. In this game, you will spend much time fighting animalistic robots, and they form a brilliantly realised ecosystem that fully informs the rest of the world around you. Grazing-type creatures will scatter when alarmed, but can be dangerous in numbers. Predators are an omnipresent danger. It engenders careful behaviour from players – I spent as much time avoiding battles as I did provoking them. It is, like all games, completely possible to cheese and spam creature encounters for quick progress and resource-grinding, but if you do that you’re only letting yourself down. Play Horizon the way it wants and deserves to be played, and it will reward you with some of the finest open-world gameplay in living memory.

While there are many good hours of gameplay in the main storyline alone, I don’t really say how long I’ll be kept involved in the game world after I exhaust the possibilities of the narrative. At this point, I don’t much care. The game’s beautiful, derivative, future-past Matrix has me, and all I want to do right now is spend more time in this  world. I suspect this will be the case for a long time.


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