During the first 5 or so hours of Horizon Zero Dawn, I was drawn in but not necessarily captivated. The game felt solid as an iron forged spear, but the magic wasn’t there that would cement this title into the upper echelon of games I hold dear. However, time has a habit of proving people wrong. After I have played and subsequently finished Horizon Zero Dawn, I can confidently say that what Guerrilla Games achieved here is nothing short of a marvel. Something to treasure and look back on with fond remembrance. A true testament to the potential that this interactive medium has. A masterwork.
Bold words right out of the gate, one would say, but I feel entirely confident in writing them. There’s a saying we use, “give credit where credit is due,” and I’m giving Horizon Zero Dawn the credit it deserves. This is a game you cannot afford to sleep on and this review will be dedicated to the reasons why that is.
Nora The Explorer
Horizon Zero Dawn follows Aloy, a young woman that has been outcast from her tribe called the Nora since birth. The reason for her outcast is kept remarkably secret and she grows up in the care of another outcast who just happens to be a warrior. Aloy lived her whole life being shunned and ridiculed, but what bothers her the most is why. She never receives a clear answer why she has to live such a lonely and harsh life and, stubborn as she is, can’t just lie down and accept her fate. She is remarkably curious, something that resonates throughout the whole game, and she starts off trying to find her mother and where she came from. What she didn’t know is that she would stumble into something much bigger than herself.
[pullquote_right]Aloy, in particular, is a strong protagonist that holds the story together[/pullquote_right]Horizon Zero Dawn is a personal story, but it also deals with monumental events that Aloy just happens to find herself in. In Aloy’s quest for personal discovery, she discovers secrets that would end up shaping the world in more ways than one. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go into spoiler territory, but know that the narrative is exceptionally strong. What I first thought was a simple coming-of-age story that just happened to have dinobots, turned into something thought-provoking, challenging, tragic and immense. Aloy, in particular, is a strong protagonist that holds the story together and her thirst for discovery often mirrors yours as you guide her through this strange and dangerous world.
And what a world it is. Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic land that has lush fauna and flora, vast deserts, high snowy mountains along with tribal villages and small civilisations littering the landscape. There are remnants of an older, much more advanced civilisation everywhere with gigantic structures and ghosts of human progress. It’s a futuristic world that has fallen into ruins and it now has people worshipping Sun gods, living in huts and hunting with bows and spears. The prey they are hunting isn’t simply deer or rabbits, but giant machines that resemble animals. They adorn their homes with pieces of metal from these beasts and even craft armour from the spoils of their hunts. It’s fascinating to see the juxtaposition of futuristic and primal. Here are people in loincloths stripping high functioning lenses from massive, intricately designed robots.
Aloy has the upper hand because she discovers a relic as a child called a Focus which allows her to interface with a lot of old technology. It also allows her to see the unseen. A futuristic detective vision if you will. Not many within this world have harnessed this “ancient” technology, but Aloy uses it to her advantage in a lot of ways. She can interface with old technology, use it to track machine and man alike, as well as scan her environment to have a strategic advantage. Many of the primitive inhabitants of this land do not understand the old technology, but Aloy’s Focus shows her everything, which leads her down some interesting paths.
Have Bow, Will Travel
Horizon Zero Dawn features a massive open-world for you to explore. You might have sighed at that statement, given how a lot of open-world games suffer from the same monotony and giant maps littered with insignificant activities these days. In some ways, Horizon Zero Dawn suffers a bit from the same fate, but it sets itself apart from the pack just enough for it to not be a problem. Yes, there are towers that you need to climb to reveal the map, but they are giant roaming robots called Tallnecks that are awe-inspiring to witness in the environment. Yes, there are many errands that you need to run, but most have some kind of worthwhile payoff at the end of them and some nice stories along the way too. There’s a lot of crafting and hunting for materials, but it soon becomes second nature as you progress through the game.
There’s a plethora of content to go through and most of it is fun thanks to the game’s wonderful world and pinpoint execution. It has a lot of tropes from the open-world genre, yes, but you’ll find yourself compelled to do everything and discover more of the world that you find yourself in. Some of the stuff can be a bore, admittedly, but you can easily skip it if you so choose and you’re not a completionist. Besides, the world is just begging for you to explore it. Even when I was at the later stages of the game, I still found interesting landmarks and areas with their own individual stories to tell. The environmental storytelling is extremely prevalent as you’ll find derelict machines and ruins that all seem to have a timeline and series of events that you can piece together. You won’t run into the trouble of running around samey environments and getting bogged down by the monotony of it – there’s always interest on your path.
One of the strongest aspects of Horizon Zero Dawn is no doubt its combat. Enemies have immensely intricate and impressive designs and you’ll find yourself staring at them in wonder before they try and trample you. Gigantic robot birds, walking killing machines, horse-like robots that graze the fields, giant carriers full of volatile fluid and so much more. You’ll even stumble on some monstrosities in the open-world that will make you feel like a pesky ant by the sheer scale of them. Each enemy robot has its own set of attacks that you can memorise and you’ll have to devise strategies for taking them down. Where’s the weakspots, how can you exploit parts on their bodies and so on. There’s also human enemies who are obviously easier to understand, but they can be pesky as well.
The key factor to what makes the game’s combat so enjoyable is the level of variation. You can take a traditional approach and just pepper the enemy with arrows, but you’ll soon find that this is woefully insufficient. You’re given access to many tools such as a Ropecaster that allows you to tie an enemy down to make your life easier, a Tripcaster that can make booby traps along the path of attack and multiple bows each with their own unique advantages and uses. It’s about reading the situation and formulating the best course of action. This keeps everything exciting with each encounter because it doesn’t get benign after you have faced the same enemy multiple times. You can always do more and you can always do better.
There’s also multiple movement systems that make navigating the battlefield fun to do. You can slow down time with a focus ability, slide around dodges and there’s also stealth that you can utilise if you wish. What is usually the outcome in non-stealth encounters is a frantic display of finesse, precision and planning. Usually, I would be sliding around, slowing down time and making my arrows hit exactly where I need them to hit. I would leverage my tools such as the Tripcaster and make the battlefield a booby trap nightmare as well as use elemental arrows during opportune times.
Worthwhile is a simple word you can use to describe the gameplay. I hardly ever groaned when there was combat because I was excited to try out new stuff. Can I expose a cannister on the robot’s body, shoot a fire arrow in it causing it to explode and set off a chain reaction with the rest of the horde etc. There’s also a progression system attached with a simple skill tree where you can improve 3 types of skills namely Prowler, Brave and Forager. Stealth, combat and scavenging, to put it in simpler terms. The progression isn’t comparable to bigger RPGs, but that wasn’t really their focus here. This was to give a sense of progression where Aloy becomes smarter and more diversified as her journey goes on.
[pullquote_left]It cannot be overstated how absolutely gorgeous this game looks[/pullquote_left]Crafting is also an important aspect where you need to make materials out of things you scavenge from robots and the land. You need to make your own arrows, special ammo and so on, but I never found it overbearing. I almost always had plenty of resources, but not enough that I didn’t have to be somewhat conservative. Additionally, arrows are also made from the same material that you use for currency, so you should be careful. You can also modify your outfits and fit your weapons with powerful mods that you pilfer from robots. These modifications actually have a significant impact as they sometimes greatly increase the attributes of your arsenal.
It cannot be overstated how absolutely gorgeous this game looks. See those images above? Those aren’t concept art pictures or stuff we got in a media pack, these are screenshots I took as I was playing using the game’s photo mode. If you think the still images look gorgeous, you should see it in action. Particle effects that make the landscape pop, the jaw-dropping world that actually has a sense of scale and feels incredibly organic, the robots with their painstakingly intricate designs, the vistas you can marvel at and the list goes on. Horizon Zero Dawn is nothing short of a technical miracle. It looks so gorgeous at all times, yet it runs smooth as butter. Throughout my 40-hour playthrough, I didn’t experience one dip in frame rate. Even when there were 10 bots kicking up dust, shooting at me and burning, the game didn’t even bat an eyelash. This is all on a standard PS4 too, by the way. I am actually stunned how they managed to pull this off.
The only thing I found real issue in is the UI. It feels bulky when it could have been much cleaner. Each resource has this massive pop-up that appears and you’ll often find your vision plagued by these pop-ups when they could have been much more discrete. The HUD can also be overbearing because of its size and how much it occupies your screen. Thankfully there is an option to put the HUD on dynamic mode that I highly recommend you switch on immediately. It makes certain HUD elements disappear when they’re not in use and a simple touch of the touchbar makes it all pop up again. Still, the UI could have used some work as it’s quite intrusive at times and could have been handled in a more productive fashion.
As for audio, the soundtrack is wonderful during cutscenes and I often found my heart being wrenched by a smooth vocalist and some delicate strings. However, in the overworld or in menus, the soundtrack isn’t all that memorable. It didn’t really stir the fire within me during combat scenarios either and they often reuse the same tracks. It’s certainly functional, but more variation and a little more punch would have been welcome. The voice performances are great with Ashly Burch voicing Aloy perfectly and Lance Reddick is also in here with his signature voice that makes you want to surrender your nuclear codes as soon as he opens his mouth. Some NPCs suffer a bit with less than stellar voice work, but like the soundtrack, it’s more than functional.
This has been a decidedly long review, but I can honestly write 2000 more words about this game at the drop of a Ravager’s cannon. I don’t think I properly conveyed just how incredible the narrative is once it really gets rolling and how this world just swallows you up and doesn’t allow you to climb back out for a while. There’s so much to do, see and experience that it would take a gigantic act of idiocy to not recommend this heartily. Minor complaints in the form of UI, open-world tropes and sound design, but honestly it barely detracts from what makes this game so special. If you’re worried about value for money, don’t be. The main story on its own will take you close to 30 hours to finish with a rollercoaster of events and to complete the whole game 100% will take you quite a while. I desperately want to jump into the game some more since I did leave some unfinished business. There’s even more for me to explore and experience and I couldn’t be happier.
Guerrilla Games, you nailed it. This game should resonate for a while to come and it’s a strong contender for my GOTY already. Just get it already.