It seems that video game developers have conspired to make 2017 one of the strangest kind of hells for gamers, the kind of hell where so many awesome things are happening that it is just physically or monetarily (and temporally?) impossible to get around to everything. Quality video games have been coming lightning fast out of the gates this year. February alone saw the release of Nintendo’s newest and best mobile title Fire Emblem Heroes, the Dark Souls/Onimusha-esque action adventure Nioh, and Ubisoft’s For Honor which merged third person action with fighting game style dueling mechanics. Any one of these games could have taken the top spot this month, and the staff here had quite a hard time picking a definitive one to go with. Ultimately, however, it didn’t feel right to give Game of the Month to any game other than Horizon Zero Dawn.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s post-post-apocalyptic setting feels like a genuine ecosystem with dangerous mechanistic creatures wandering and interacting with the all but deserted wilderness. While it’s easy to get lost in the grandeur of the machines, the diverse and fully-realized cultures of Horizon’s world are what truly set the game apart. They all feel distinct, believable, and well-thought out. The world and mythology of Horizon set a new bar for future open world games and the immersion they can elicit.
Horizon also impresses through its challenging but rewarding gameplay loop. You can never let your attention stray too far when you engage wild machines or you’ll end up with a quick death. The combat is tough but never feels unfair. It isn’t as tough as Dark Souls but it’s not as easy as something like Call of Duty. It strikes a refined and addictive balance.
Guerrilla Games really stretched itself compared to their previous first-person shooter franchise Killzone. Horizon’s third person open-world adventure represented a significant shift in design from the studio’s’ earlier efforts, one they might have easily fumbled. Yet not only did they avoid fumbling, they managed to succeed in delivering yet another powerful new IP for Sony’s console. We’ve now seen the beginning of a new direction for the studio. It’s rare to see developers make so drastic a shift in design, and even rarer for that transition to feel so seamless. There are moments when the game’s aesthetics and style feel distinctively Guerrilla (like Aloy’s overly epic rappel animation) and the merger of this identity with new gameplay styles is both unusual and impressive.
There are very few negative things to pick at in Horizon, but perhaps the most damning has nothing to do with the game itself: timing. Released just three days before the megastorm of the Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild, Guerrilla’s beautiful world went from being a case study in how to refine open world design to being an example of how that design is starting to feel traditional (ie. dated). This does not, however, minimize its achievements. For capturing our imagination, establishing yet another excellent franchise in the PlayStation family, and setting an established development studio on a brand new path, Horizon Zero Dawn is our February Game of the Month.