Review: ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ a gamey but gripping PS4 exclusive

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Horizon Zero Dawn screenshot

New PlayStation 4 action-adventure exclusive “Horizon Zero Dawn” is set in a post-post-apocalypse, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain.
The events that wrought the end of the world are just the beginning of the mystery before Aloy, the protagonist of Guerrilla Games’ follow-up to its long-running “Killzone” series. Braided into the cataclysm is what came after: tribes of multicultural people whose look appropriates the aesthetic of “Mad Max” as much as that of American Indians, animalistic robots prowling their surroundings and, most importantly to Aloy, her own origins. Orphaned and given to tribal outcast Rost, she sets off on “Horizon’s” savaged landscape to find her parents and learn why they left her.
The pitfalls of Aloy’s quest for knowledge which she shares with an ally she meets halfway through “Horizon’s” main quest parallel those of Guerrilla’s game itself. Enlightening as her discoveries are, they’re often quite grim. They recontextualize her world, putting dark “whats,” “hows” and “whys” to the ruins that dot it. In some cases, she almost seems to think they were best undisturbed.
The very design of “Horizon Zero Dawn” contains a similar tension between its surface and the gameplay systems that gird it. Aloy’s world is a visual marvel, a mix of lush overgrowth, snowy cliffsides and perpetually dusty desert rock. In its depth of environmental and character detail, plus an unfailing framerate, Guerrilla may have built the best-looking console game one can find these days. It’s a living dream to wander, to negotiate its mechanical threats and wildly changing topography only to discover yet another screenshot-worthy vista (there’s a photo mode, thankfully).
However, Guerrilla plunges the reverie of its open game world into every genre trapping possible. Icons sprout from the world itself, recontextualizing it as a field of crafting materials to weed, corpses to loot and rarities to collect. Its HUD and map are cluttered with more icons, meters and objectives more “whats,” “hows” and “whys” amid sights and sounds best undisturbed.
To play “Horizon,” then, is to reckon with this tension between savoring its beauty and turning away from its gamey guts. Should one withstand that tension long enough to tally a few hours in Aloy’s world disabling the HUD helps it’s all but resolved by the game’s other saving graces. The first, indeed, is its story, a silicon onion of technological singularity and all its terrifying consequences. With a few shocking turns and real-world resonance, it captivates despite some lazy voice acting and a heavy debt to science-fiction canon.

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