I got to play for about five hours, and so far it is everything and more that I hoped for. Much remains to be seen obviously, but the framework for magnificence is firmly in place.
My disc arrived from Amazon right on schedule and in perfect condition. Upon opening, I encountered a minor disappointment. The only piece of paper was an advertisement for a PS4 Pro bundle deal or some such. Sadly, HZD does not measure up to Witcher 3 with respect to accompanying documentation. Ah well, such is the way of the world now.
The game installed without issue. I wasn’t really paying attention to the time, but it didn’t seem abnormally long for a sprawling RPG. One thing I was paying attention to, was whether there would be a giant day 1 patch. And indeed there was a patch, v1.02, but it was miniscule and downloaded in seconds. Well done Guerrilla Games; thank you for not leaning on that crutch. As far as settings, the only thing I adjusted was brightness, and I have to say, their method for doing that may work, but it’s painful on the eyes.
After selecting New Game you must choose one of four difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Hard, or Very Hard. This process always makes me a little sad. I like Souls games where the only option is Get Rekt. Completing those games makes you feel like a special snowflake, but I digress. Being the way that I am, I cranked it right up to Very Hard.
I’m not going to describe the prologue; it’s better experienced first hand. But I will say that it does a very nice job introducing you to Aloy, her caretaker Rost, and the world they inhabit. After the prologue you start your first proper mission and head out on your own—face first into open world gameplay.
I never completed the first task of my first mission. I spent the night hunting, foraging, crafting, and working on one of two side quests I picked up. I made a bunch of regular arrows and fire arrows; upgraded my resource, weapon, and arrow capacity; made some potions; and modified my bow. I killed Striders, Scrappers, and Watchers as well as rabbits, turkeys, fox, racoons, and a boar. The goose got away, fucking goose.
I ended the night just shy of level 5 (more on this later) and purchased three skills which I can’t remember. Gameplay is fast, fluid, and responsive in all respects: shooting, fighting, running, crouching, sliding, jumping, climbing, everything. Everything Aloy does is done with swift grace. In spite of all this wonderfulness, it’s the little details that really blew me away. Here’s a freeform list of observations from my first night of play.
- The visuals are spectacular, with an awesome render distance and no loading pauses encountered thus far.
- To accompany the game’s beauty, there is a ridiculous photo mode with a host of options. You have a camera on a crane and can frame the shot however you want. You can remove the HUD and/or Aloy. You can add color effects or borders. You can adjust the brightness, exposure, and depth of field up to and including focal length and f stop. I seriously can’t get over this shit right here.
- Not only does the game look amazing; it sounds amazing. The music and nature sounds blend together beautifully, and the directionality of the audio is excellent. I had to turn the SFX and music volume down to 80% in order bring out the dialogue, but in general, the audio balance is very good.
- Speaking of dialogue, I love Ashly Burch’s voice.
- A day/night cycle and dynamic weather are present. It rained on me once, but not for very long. At night time, I looked up and saw the band of the milky way, or whatever galaxy the world of HZD is in. I decided to take a picture of it with photo mode, but got completely distracted by how the moon cast its light across Aloy’s face.
- The HUD is clean but includes everything you could possibly want. I especially appreciate the presence of an experience bar, and little things like how the tools flow side to side through the quick access slot (down on the D-pad). The compass is unobtrusive and yet loaded with information. It shows campfires, settlements, herds, quest destinations, and waypoints. If a quest has multiple destinations, the compass indicates their recommended order with a small Roman numeral. There are tons of these little quality of life things.
- The 3D style of the map is a thing of beauty. I love just scrolling around, looking at the freaking map, nevermind exploring the world itself. You can place a waypoint on the map and when you arrive there, it automatically disappears.
- Even the menus are excellent. They are simple to understand and easy to navigate. Something that can’t be said about more than a few RPGs. When you scroll through your quests, it tells you how far it is to the next objective. It just takes a moment to see which quest has a task closest to your present location. Such a little thing, but so helpful. You can add your own quests as well. Want to remind yourself to make a health potion? Create a Job. It’ll appear on your quest menu under Errands. Again with the quality of life items.
- After a kill, you can see from a distance what the commonality of the drop is: common, uncommon, rare, etc. I know I sound like a broken record, but this is yet another example of the developer really focusing on the player experience. On making sure that the game gets out of its own way; allowing us to spend more time playing, and less time fiddling.
- The crafting system is easy to comprehend and for items you use a lot, like arrows, you can quick craft right from the radial menu. It may not be very realistic, crafting 10 arrows with a Scrapper charging at you, but it’s better than the alternative of running away and coming back.
- On the artistic side, you know how small children have kind of stubby underdeveloped fingernails? Yeah, they even got that right. When young Aloy first holds the Focus to her head, she recoils in fright and throws it down. It’s a beautifully animated natural reaction. Then she tentatively reaches out to pick it back up with her curious little hand and little kid fingernails.
- The last thing I’ll mention is consequence. There are save points all over the place, but it’s very easy to get caught up exploring. At the end of last night’s gaming session, I foraged a bunch of stuff, killed a few animals, and took out several Machines. I ticked up to level 5 and was about to go find a campfire when I came across another gaggle of enemies. A couple mistakes later and I’m dead, all the gains since my last save lost. FML. It felt very Soulsesque.
So what’s my first impression of Horizon Zero Dawn? It’s phenomenal, with a consummate attention to detail on all fronts. This is clearly a labor of love for Guerrilla Games and their passion shines through in every way.
In an attempt to balance this glowing commentary, I tried and failed to find some negatives—much however, remains to be seen.