Horizon: Zero Dawn follows a young girl called Aloy, who is introduced while still just a baby, being taken care of in a Lone Wolf and Cub style by an older man named Rost - both with ties to the "Nora" tribe, but neither actually part of it. The society of the Nora is strongly based around respecting "the mother" and with Aloy having no mother - the details as to that come much later in the story - she is cast out from the village and granted into the care of this outcast warrior, Rost. Life as an outcast is a hard one, having to live removed from the rest of the people, suffering constant disrespect from them, not to mention having to learn how to live in the dangers of the wilds, hunting for food and fighting against the machines. It's a life that Aloy hopes to escape as she grows older, and so she talks Rost into training her for The Proving, a rite of passage that could win her entry into the tribe once more. The world is a much bigger place than the Nora tribe, though, with dark forces moving to change everything, suddenly Aloy will find being accepted by her people is the last of her problems.
Once the initial introduction to the story has played out, the world is opened up to explore and for the completionists out there, there is a mammoth amount of things to do both on and off the beaten path. There are challenge locations called Training Lodges, which give specific tasks to accomplish based on stealth, speed, or accuracy. There are bandit camps to be taken over; there are "Cauldron" dungeons that when completed grant Aloy the ability to take control of different machines in the world; then, of course, there are the collectibles. There are different types of collectibles to track down - special "Metal Flowers" that usually bloom near some obscenely powerful enemies, "Ancient Vessels" from the previous world with strange markings (known today as mugs), wooden figurines that tell the story of another tribe known as the Banuk, which are usually balanced precariously on a cliff edge that requires some scaling to acquire, and vantage points, areas that overlook scenery and overlay a hologram of how it looked before what it calls the "Shit-pocalypse," paired with audio recordings that give a glimpse into the world that was. On top of these primary collectibles, there is a huge amount of "Datapoints," which are random news stories, blog posts, logs, and more from the world before that all contribute to the lore and world building of the universe.
That world-building is done magnificently. Horizon: Zero Dawn has an absolutely outstanding story that develops and grows from these first steps into an engrossing and compelling narrative. There are tons of storylines and side-quests that help to tell the story of how humanity is surviving, the beliefs and factions, and just exactly what happened to make the world this way. The world itself is actually surprisingly varied, too; lush forests give way to rugged mountainous areas, underground mechanical tunnels filled with high level technology clashes with the tribal themes seen in the villages spread across the map - and all of it looks absolutely stunning, too, bringing out the best in the PS4 and it's a masterpiece on PS4 Pro for those who can splash out the cash for one.
The combat mechanics made a wise choice utilising a bow as the primary weapon as there's just something about a bow that makes for satisfying combat. Judging the path the arrow will take, the ability to take out enemies in silence, the slight delay of drawing the string as a huge mechanical nightmare is barrelling towards you… There is more than just plain arrows in Aloy's quiver, too, since as the game progresses, new bows are available and there are some special elemental effects added to the arrows - ice to slow and freeze, explosives for big damage, flame to ignite enemies and add a damage over time effect, corruption to drive enemies berserk, and more. These effects are also available to the other munitions in Aloy's equipment - after all, it's not just the bow in Aloy's arsenal. There are also slings to launch explosive shells, launchers that can place tripwires, harpoons to tie enemies down, and a "rattler" that rapidly fires out sharpened spikes. Aloy also has her spear for melee attacks and, if skilled up correctly, can use it to deliver instant kills from stealth.
A wide range of weapons is available and appropriate for the wider range of enemies. The robotic menagerie of creatures includes plenty of fantastically designed beasties that are familiar to a whole host of animals alive and dead today. Fans of Zoids will adore this game. The first enemies encountered are "Watchers," bipedal creatures with long necks and no arms that look a little like Jurassic Park's Raptors, their head replaced with a huge light that searches for prey. They are a nice introduction, easily destroyed, and they do a good job of introducing the concept of component destruction that is the core of the combat. Each machine has some weak points that can be exploited in numerous ways - detaching armour to reveal the weak points below, blasting fuel tanks with fire, and so on. From this simple entry-level enemy, the machines get bigger and badder quickly. There are some that resemble today's herbivores, like horses and antelope, which offer little challenge, the signature horns being obvious weak points, and then there are more vicious creatures resembling big cats, which come equipped with laser cannons and stealth devices. A step up from those sees huge Chocobo and crocodile-esque machines that do huge amounts of damage, and then there's the top tier of enemies - terrifying monstrosities that look like T-Rexs or building-sized turtles, and more.
Aloy has a hand against these and in exploring the world thanks to a device she finds while she's still young, called a "Focus." This little wearable tech has a huge impact on gameplay and story alike, becoming a major story curmudgeon later on. It shows Aloy things, allowing her to see the components that make up her enemies, to see living creatures in the wild and to get text descriptions of what she's seeing, among other things. Think detective mode in the Arkham series. It's also very useful in tracking down the appropriate wild fauna and flora as the game has a crafting system for producing weapons and ammunition, not to mention expanding carry capacity and trading with sellers in towns. Hunting down not just the machines but slaughtering countless foxes, fish, turkeys, and raccoons for their skin and bones, using their meat for potions - every small aspect of Zero Dawn like this is well done and complements the already solid game.
Sony already has many of the best characters out there, like Nathan Drake and Kratos, or even Ratchet & Clank and Crash Bandicoot, but it's so refreshing to have a new breakout female character. It's been quite a while since a new one has been introduced and it's about time Lara and Ellie got another sister (sorry Nariko, no-one liked you…). Hopefully, there are many more stories in Aloy's future and she becomes a permanent fixture of the PlayStation brand.