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Horizon Zero Dawn: A Brutal, Gorgeous Adventure

When I first saw Horizon Zero Dawn at E3 2015, it looked too good to be true. Surely this footage of a flame-haired warrior hunting and riding living machines was pre-rendered, right? But as I'm sitting here finally playing this third-person action role-playing title for myself, I'm stopping every couple of minutes to check out the blades of grass blowing in the wind or the fog roll in from the distance. Guerilla Games' latest title is a visual showstopper. 

But at about 25 hours into the title, Horizon Zero Dawn is proving to be more than a pretty playground. Considered an outcast by her tribe, our hero Aloy must find the strength to fight against blatant discrimination, in the midst of saving her post-apocalyptic world from the onslaught of a fanatical cult and their corrupted bio-machines. Skillfully-placed skill trees and your decisions will determine what kind of world you're trying to save.

One thing's for sure, this is one PlayStation exclusive that needs to be seen and played to be believed.

From Outcast to Savior

Oh but for the folly of man. Horizon Zero Dawn takes place long after the events of some man-made calamity where the descendants of the survivors are broken out into several different tribes -- each with their own beliefs and traditions. You play as Aloy, a female member of the Nora tribe, who has lived as an outcast since birth. That means for Aloy and her guardian Roth, that no recognized member of the tribe can speak to them on fear of their own expulsion.

However, Aloy's banishment doesn't last forever and she is made a full-member of the tribe with varying degrees of acceptance from other tribe members.  Aloy is on a quest to save her world from a mysterious cult that are corrupting the animal-like machines prevalent throughout the land. Seriously, there are huge machines roaming this world that looking mechanical dinosaurs -- I'm kind of waiting for one to transform and scream out "Me Grimlock!"

Robo-animals aside, Alloy is also fighting a more insidious battle against an oppressive caste system that discards members of its society based on archaic rules, opening them up to cruel treatment from tribe members.

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As I played through Aloy's childhood, I encountered a group of children who despite being my age were instructed against interacting with me in any way. Later on, one of those children, purposely hurled a rock at Aloy, creating a scar that she carried with her into adulthood. While the other children quickly stopped him from continuing the assault, it was clear that the lessons of hatred and intolerance had taken root in a child that couldn't have been more than eight years old at the time.

It's a harsh, ugly lesson that's particularly relevant in the current climate where hate crimes based on race, sex, religion and gender are becoming more prevalent. Thanks to strategically-placed dialogue trees, you can choose how you want to react to the mistreatment.

So far, I've taken more of a non-violent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr approach, choosing to be loving in the face of hatred. However, there have been certain situations where I've wanted to take a Malcolm X "by any means necessary" stance. I guess everything will ultimately depend on how bad the disrespect gets. Either way, I'm determined to save this world.

Woman Versus Machine

Hunting is crucial in the world of HZD. The resources you retrieve from your kills can be used to create armor, ammo and traps. It can also be sold or traded to merchants for better stuff. While you'll definitely take down a boar or two, your real prey are the machines roaming about the land. For reasons I haven't ascertained yet, there are scores of machine-animals (macanimals?) running around that resemble a real-life fauna.

The Grazer for example, reminds me of a robo-elk or deer while the Sawtooth is like a mountain lion. The mecha-beasts even behave like their real-life counterparts, which allows me to run behind a herd of Grazers and force the into a trap I laid ahead.

While some macanimals are more dangerous than others, all bets are off when these beasts are corrupted. Thanks to the evil machine cult, ordinary robo-animals can be overwritten or hacked to behave much more aggressively than normal. In addition to becoming meaner, they're often twice as hard to kill. And if that isn't enough, the resulting corruption is toxic to Aloy, so much so that she starts coughing and losing life if you walk through a patch of it.

Luckily, just about every macanimal you run across has an exploitable weak spot that you can highlight with your Focus power. From there, it's just a matter of how you plan to take down your prize. Will you go in low and slow and deal a stealth blow or arrows and bombs blazing? Maybe  you'll use the environment to your advantage and set a trap or two. It's all up to you.

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Gameplay: Like Riding a Bike

Since she's a hunter, Aloy knows her way around a bow, spear and a slingshot. Going on my first machine hunt was sufficiently thrilling. Creeping through the tall red reeds towards my grazing prey, scanning their weaknesses with my Focus power, slowing down time and zooming in on my target and then connecting with that first strike -- it felt great, but decidedly familiar.

And if you've played Rise of the Tomb Raider or any of the newer Far Cry games, you know what I mean. Still, sending a flame arrow into a metal monster's weak spot only to watch it be engulfed in flames is extremely satisfying. The same goes for human enemies.

"On the PS4 Pro, the details were so sharp I could see Aloy's pores and every emotive line and crease on her face."

The climbing mechanic has Assassin's Creed written all over it, although Horizon Zero Dawn's feels a bit more fluid than the last AC outing. Another AC shout out is from the Locknecks, which in this world is like a mechanical Brontosaurus. To reveal more of the game's massive maps, you have to scale these bad boys Shadow-of-the-Colossus-style and reach the head.  

Another tried-and-true mechanic that makes its way into game is the skill tree. HZD's approach is a three-branch tree: Prowler, Brave and Forager. The first branch focuses on your stealth moves while Brave enhances your attack power. Forager develops your health and resource-gathering skills. Similar to other titles, you unlock more skills by spending skill points which you earn as you level up.

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A Brave New (and Beautiful) World

Horizon Zero Dawn is the first clear-cut case on why it might be time to invest in that PlayStation 4 Pro and 4K HDR-capable television. The world is absolutely breathtaking in terms of color and level of detail. Other post-apocalyptic games are content buffeting you with wave after wave of gray and sepia-toned despair. HZD's world is alive with all sorts of greenery and boasts a number of ecosystems including your prerequisite snow-capped mountains and wide open plains. There's also plenty of dank, dark nooks and crannies to explore for special items and powers.

Whether I was playing in 4K or 1080p, I had to stop every once and awhile to take it all in. On the PS4 Pro, the details were so sharp I could see Aloy's pores and every emotive line and crease on her face. The negative energy on corrupted machines undulated in hypnotizing red and black tendrils. And even though I knew it was poisonous, sometimes I couldn't resist getting near it for a closer look.

As gorgeous as HZD's world is to behold, Guerrilla's best work is in the character models. Just a touch off from being totally photorealistic, Aloy and the other humans you'll encounter are stunning. Details were crisp enough that I could see individual strands of hair in the various braids and locs hairstyles. Looking into a someone's eyes revealed flecks of gold, brown or green in their iris. I highly recommend playing this game on 4K as soon as possible.

Conclusion

So far Horizon Zero Dawn has afforded me plenty of ooh and ahh moments. There's so much to see and do -- I doubt I'll see everything as much I want to. The gameplay is balanced and fairly simple to get the hang of. If not, the game has plenty of tutorials to help you get some proficiency. Everything from the smallest blade of grass to the largest bio-mechanism is lovely rendered -- it's like running, jumping and hunting in your own movie. And from Aloy's outcast status to her subsequent rise as a hero, I'm invested with how she deals with the rampant disrespect she receives at every turn. Overall, I'm enjoying playing Horizon Zero Dawn and looking forward to updating this with my final thoughts in the near future.