There's just four weeks to go now until Horizon Zero Dawn does a massive electric roar and charges towards us through our PC screens, and as RPS' resident HZD obsessive, I'm excited. And to my own surprise, possibly the thing I'm most excited about is the chance to just drink in the look of the game again. In fact, no. I don't want to drink it in at all. I want to chug it down as if it were a protein shake, and my eyes were a pair of totally shredded bros.
Possibly because I've spent most of my life with PCs some way behind the curve in terms of hardware, I've never been that bothered about how games look. But Horizon Zero Dawn is an exception. It looked a couple of years ahead of its time even in 2017 on PS4, and if Katharine's experimentation with Death Stranding (which uses the same engine) are anything to go by, HZD's PC port is going to absolutely batter us aesthetically. With this in mind, then, I thought I'd take you on a little sightseeing trip through some of the things I'm most excited to behold with new, muscly eyes.
Spoiler alert: some people got upset because point 6 in this list mentions one of the boss fights later in the game, so... yes. Don't read point six I guess, if you don't want to know about that.
1. The Metal Devil
As part of its long-post-apocalypse setting, one of HZD's hallmarks is the casual blending of the landscape with corroded technological horrors from a distant age, and the Metal Devil is the dad of them all. Part geography, part religious icon, and part parkour run, old Metty D is a sort of tentacled slaughter leviathan that's draped over a mountain range like it got home pissed and fell asleep on the sofa, and it's equally magnificent whether it's sprawling in the background of a scenic view, or giving you vertigo as you scamper through the sky across its massive legs.
2. A nice walk in the woods
As Aloy, the main lass in HZD, you spend a lot of your time hunting mechafauna in order to scrounge up ammunition, weapon upgrades and trade goods. As one might expect from a hunting game, this involves a lot of crouching in bushes. It's lucky, then, that the bushes look really, really good. So do all the game's plants, actually: grass rustles gently in the breeze, trees actually look like trees, and riverbanks teem with creeping plants and stands of rushes. Vegetation is always a hard thing for games to get right, and I'm pumped to see how it grows in the fertile soil of... a computer. Ok, rubbish metaphor, let's move on.
3. Mesa country
The landscape looks just as good when there's barely any plants at all, of course. In fact, possibly my favourite region in the game is the sprawling Northwestern desert, and in particular the bit where algal green rivers snake through classic sandstone mesas in an otherwise parched landscape. Yeah, you have to fight a load of robot crocodiles there, but it's more than worth it.
4. The Frozen Wilds
HZD's PC release will include the Frozen Wilds expansion, which introduces - you guessed it - a honking great snow level to the game. It wasn't my favourite, I'll admit, for its habit of ending each story quest with an ever-increasing number of huge mechabears to fight. I found that quite stressful. But the titular Wilds were just as gorgeous as anything that had come before, and I'd happily stare at that ominous volcano, pictured, for hours.
5. The Thunderjaw
Of course, HZD wouldn't be HZD without the big man himself: the Thunderjaw. This blatant T-rex analogue is astonishingly stressful to fight, to the extent where my wife would start playing "Cotton Eye Joe" really loudly on her phone whenever I had to tangle with one, just so I couldn't get too anxiously immersed in the situation. It should be even more intense with PC visuals, so we may have to break out even more appalling one-hit wonders from the 90s. Suggestions below, please. (Also, I love this particular image of the Thunderjaw, as it's a really smart take on the classic "dinosaur skeleton in a museum lobby" format).
6. Helis' monster arena
Admittedly, gladiatorial duels against huge monsters in dusty arenas are not exactly virgin territory for video games. But if you're gonna do a cliche, it's worth doing it well, and HZD does not disappoint. Later on in the game, maniac-in-chief Helis dumps you in his personal thunderdome to fight the Behemoth, a kind of Pacific Rim pantomime horse of a beast, and it's one of my favourite set piece boss fights in games.
7. Borked old war machines
As I mentioned above, Aloy's world is rammed with subtle relics from an ancient gigawar, and there are all sorts of moments when you realise a rock you've been using as a landmark for hours is actually the rusted-apart turret of a tank or such. My favourite old wreck, however, is the bipedal death machine you find snarled up in vines, deep in the Soutern jungle. I couldn't get a good shot of it for this post, but it's pretty faithful to the concept art above, and I'm really looking forward to running into it again.
The answer to the age old question "what if the Starship Enterprise fucked a giraffe", the Tallneck is the only non-aggressive megabeast in the game, and acts as HZD's equivalent of FarCry radio mast things. It's always a pleasant surprise when one comes trotting mightily into view from behind a mashed-up old skyscraper, and as you can see from the screenshot above - one of the few released from the PC build so far - they're looking extremely handsome these days.
9. Biggest Bird
Have you seen that tweet that suggests that the existence of Sesame Street's Big Bird suggests the existence of a Bigger and a Biggest Bird? Well, this is the Biggest Bird. I only ever fought one in the game, I think, and that was by accident as I was just trying to cross a bit of desert. But it shot tons of electricity out of its chest and screamed a lot, and I enjoyed a nice dose of adrenaline. Again, this is a PC screenshot, and those lighting effects look dead tasty, so I can't wait to experience this lad going Full Palpatine on me.
10. Old cities
Skyscrapers just look so damned nice covered in plants. And weirdly, considering their apocalyptic undertones, HZD's ruined cities are some of the most relaxing environments to explore. The old cities are considered off-limits to Aloy's people because of religion and that, and this means they've become these sort of ironic nature reserves for mechanical wildlife. Sometimes you can find old mugs and watches and stuff in them, which I also suppose will look marginally better with cranked-up graphics settings. But it's the skyscrapers I want to see.
11. New cities
In the many years since our own civilisation backflipped into a skip, human cultures have risen again in HZD's world, and have made some fairly astonishing cities of their own. The best by some way is Meridian, which is slightly Roman, slightly Mesoamerican, and slightly Medieval European, depending on what angle you look at it from. It's built on the top of a huge mesa, with counterweighted elevators, aqueducts and a surrounding sprawl of terrace farms, and I enjoyed hours and hours just poking around it like I was in some kind of open air museum. It's fascinating, and I want to visit again.
12. Weird AI dinosaur factories
And then there's the cauldrons - the big underground production plants, where the strange forces at work in HZD's setting construct the robeasts that roam the wilderness. I will admit I really didn't enjoy the cauldron sections of the game, as I always seemed to spend them getting smashed into paste by the creature I called the Bully Crab, because my patented death-avoidance technique of "constantly rolling around like fucking Sonic" got stymied by tight corners. But they did look astonishing, in a shiny, high-tech way that contrasted well with the rest of the world's tumbledown design. I suppose it'll be alright to venture into them again.