Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available On: PS4
Released: February 28, 2017
“I Am Riding A Robot Elk, Your Argument Is Invalid”
I can’t tell you how hard this review was to write. Every time I took a break from Horizon: Zero Dawn and sat down in front of my laptop, all I could think about was how much I wanted to go back into my rec room and keep playing it. Games I love come out every year of course, but I don’t think a game has so completely consumed my thoughts like Horizon has since Fallout 3, or maybe even Diablo 2. Not since Oblivion have I had the thought “I wonder if I’ll be able to get over there”, followed by “Holy crap, I can!”.
Developers of some open-world games seem to think that having a huge world gives them the freedom to take their hands off the reigns, ultimately delivering a tedious, meandering experience. But by meticulously crafting every element of Horizon: Zero Dawn, focusing on a tight, compelling story and top-notch gameplay, Guerrilla Games have created not only an early game of the year contender, but one of my favorite games of the generation so far.
I’ve always maintained that open-world games simply can’t tell good stories as well as linear ones, and while I still believe that, Horizon is the exception that proves the rule. By not handing you a weapon until at least thirty minutes in, the game puts you in the right mindset right from the start with a linear story sequence that centers around exploration and using a Metroid Prime-style scanning device called a Focus, which can identify items and also decipher the numerous well-written text and audio logs scattered throughout the game.
While Horizon does technically take place after an apocalypse, I would argue that it isn’t and shouldn’t be described as “post-apocalyptic”. This isn’t Fallout, where many characters still remember or have connections to the old world, trying to emulate or recreate it. Horizon takes place so long after the fall of the old world that no one has any least inkling of what it was like. An entirely new civilization has sprung up in place of the previous one, so different from what came before that much of the time the game might as well be set on another planet.
The world of Horizon is instantly visually distinct, with natural landscapes populated by strange, animalistic machines. In this beautiful and dangerous world, protagonist Aloy, a hunter and lifelong outcast from her tribe, sets out across the land in search of her mother and the secrets of her birth.
In most of my reviews, I don’t usually go very far into a games’ story beyond the basic premise. Once I become interested in a game, I typically try to avoid any further information on it until I play it and so I usually try to keep my story synopses relatively brief out of respect for people who feel the same way; It’s not as if there aren’t dozens of other places people can go for more in-depth story discussions. Given the overall quality of the story, not to mention it’s various twists and turns, I really do think it’s best to go in as unspoiled as possible.
The entire game is permeated by mystery; where did the machines come from? Who is Aloy’s mother? What happened to the old world? It’s one of the games quietly brilliant conceits, presenting mysteries great and small, planting burning questions in your mind and then setting you loose in search of the answers.
Making Aloy an outcast was a deceptively smart decision on the part of the writers, as it allows her to function as both a knowledgeable native of her world and an audience surrogate as the need arises, such as when we learn about the histories and traditions of the various tribes across the world.
The world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is stunningly beautiful, with lush plains, deep forests, snowy foothills and arid mesas. I don’t think I explored the world for more than a half hour at any point without coming across a gorgeous, screenshot-worthy vista. Exploration is made much more enjoyable by the ability to hack or “Override” certain machines and use them as mounts to get around faster.
While Horizons’ world is massive, it definitely isn’t the biggest open-world game out there, taking about thirty minutes to cross end-to-end. But Horizon goes for quality over quantity in all cases and you won’t spend long exploring before coming across something of interest.
Understanding that less is more elevates the game’s side missions as well. Each is bookended by cutscenes with high production values, even one-off characters are typically well-written and acted, and each is a multi-part quest that tells the story of one or more characters in the world. None of the missions felt disposable or insubstantial, no “Kill X number of monster Y” missions here. Several side missions involve little or no combat and instead center around using your Focus to investigate points of interest or to track a target or missing person. Every mission felt important and made me glad I’d happened upon it; like helping an ex-soldier hunt bandits, escorting nobles out of hostile territory or getting embroiled in the politics of a hunting lodge, leading to darker intrigues.
Much like MGS5, gameplay in Horizon in built around stealth. It’s entirely possible to wade into a group of enemies, arrows blazing, but you’ll generally have better luck using your Focus to mark enemy positions or highlight their patrol routes before setting some traps, picking off smaller foes with stealth kills or at the very least finding a good vantage point before starting the festivities.
This is especially true when fighting machines, humans usually go down relatively easily, but machines will always be tougher and more powerful than you are. By scanning a machine with your Focus, you’ll be able to identify their weaknesses and vulnerable points.
Horizon’s machines are a marvel of design. Not only is each visually distinct and appealing, but also incredibly well designed from a gameplay standpoint. With the exception of the very smallest machines, each one has at least a dozen destructible parts, be they armor, weaponry or containers of one type of item or another. This destruction isn’t just superficial either, the way that shooting a zombie’s limbs might be in other games. Destroy an armor plate, the machine becomes more vulnerable in that spot. Shoot a container with an arrow, it’ll fall off, granting you more of that item. Every machine is designed differently as well, necessitating different tactics to take down effectively. Shooting the container on a Bellowback will detonate the element inside, coating every enemy in the area with napalm. Knocking the mounted plasma cannon off of a Ravager allows you to pick it up and use it to blast that bastard into Tamagotchis.
One of my favorite things about Horizon: Zero Dawn’s design is actually something it doesn’t have, survival elements. In an open-world game, especially one in which hunting is one of your primary activities, mechanics like hunger, thirst and fatigue are far too common and invariably make a game much less enjoyable. Guerrilla Games have streamlined systems like resource gathering and crafting to give the feel of a survival game without any of the tedium.
Metal shards, gathered mainly from machines, are the games primary currency, but are also used to make arrowheads and most other types of ammunition. Trading in Horizon employs the barter system, meaning that in addition to metal shards, a merchant might request anything from wood to meat to specific machine parts in exchange for their wares.
Medicinal herbs can be gathered and add to a meter that Aloy can draw from to heal herself. A full meter can restore an entire health bar, and you can stack multiple meters, which can be a lifesaver during sustained combat. I will say that after about the halfway point in the game, I was crying out for either the ability to sense these medicinal herbs more easily or a skill that made each one contribute more health to the meter, but overall the system works rather well and it’s nice that you don’t have to manually craft healing items.
When you do have to craft items, Horizon makes it quick and easy. Ammunition can be crafted directly from the games radial weapon menu and the resources required to create them are either common or not rare enough that you’ll be without them for long. Common resources like wood are harvested in large enough amounts that you don’t have to spend long gathering them when you’re low, especially after an early-game upgrade that increases the amount of resources harvested from the wild. When looking for specific items to either trade or craft a certain upgrade, Horizon helps you out by allowing you to create custom side missions that will mark the general location of those resources on your map. As such, I never had to scour for resources or just hope that I stumbled across them in my travels. It’s a simple, straightforward crafting system that, unlike some Witcher 3s I could name, respects the players time and doesn’t get in the way of the fun.
Littered throughout the world are campfires that act as save points and can be fast-travelled to once discovered. In most open-world games, players will usually begin to fast-travel everywhere after a certain point simply as a time saver.
I’d like to say that Horizon imposes an interesting limitation on fast-travelling by requiring the use of a Fast Travel Pack every time you travel to a campfire, thereby making you ration out your Fast Travel Packs and encouraging you to explore the game’s world rather than just warping everywhere.
I’d like to say that, but I can’t, as I discovered a few hours into the game that you can craft your own Fast Travel Packs and do so for a cost so low that they might as well be free, effectively negating the entire mechanic. It isn’t really something that negatively impacts the game, it’s just a bewildering design decision; like if an FPS gave you unlimited ammo but still let you pick up bullets.
Horizon also suffers from the odd graphical hiccup. Some minor pop-in occurred when running across large stretches of open terrain. Several times during cutscenes I saw Aloy’s hair jump up and then settle back down and during dialogue, some characters had a terrible habit of putting their arms through their loose-fitting garb while making gestures.
Then there was the case of the wild boar that obstinately refused to die even after I sunk four armor-piercing arrows into its skull and went to town on it with a spear.
I never ran into any truly significant glitches or game-breaking bugs, but the better a game is, the more it’s flaws stand out and it would be disingenuous not to mention them.
When Horizon: Zero Dawn was first announced, the general consensus was that as good as the game looked, it had a terrible name. Quick to rush to it’s defense, Guerrilla Games insisted that the name would make perfect sense one you’d played it. To their credit the developers weren’t lying and the name does indeed have a meaning, though discussing it would constitute huge spoilers, but doesn’t stop the title from just sounding like a mishmash of cool-sounding words to anyone who hasn’t played it.
Horizon: Zero Dawn isn’t perfect of course, no game is, but every time I sat down to play, it the issues it does have all come off as the pettiest of gripes that melt away in the moment-to-moment gameplay. The intriguing plot and Aloy’s involvement in it kept me engaged and focused throughout the main story. The open world is a joy to explore, with tons to see and do, but also appropriately sized for the amount of content it has and how fast you can get around. In that regard, I would argue that it’s one of the better open worlds out there; and that’s before we even talk about how good it looks.
The controls are tight and responsive enough to feel fluid and natural however you have to apply them. Traversing the world, climbing up cliff faces or racing through the wilderness on foot feels as smooth as ever. The versatile stealth-action combat never stopped being exhilarating, methodically stalking human enemies through tall grass or sliding out of the way of a Behemoth’s attack while letting off a precision shot to one of its weak points.
Bringing down my first Thunderjaw with a combination of explosive traps and by blasting it with the missile launcher I’d torn off of it mid-fight gave me the intense sense of accomplishment I haven’t felt since the first time I beat a Dark Souls boss.
“Can I get a HELL YEAH!”
Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of the best games on the PS4. Even after earning a platinum trophy after 56 hours, there’s still a part of me looking for an excuse to keep going. I can say with relative confidence that for some, Horizon will be this generations Oblivion, it certainly deserves to be. This is a game players can truly get lost in, exploring, finding new characters to talk to, getting into fights, or just gazing out at the world, ignoring the passage of time and hoping it goes away.
+ Compelling Story, Well-Written Characters
+ Smooth, Versatile, Stealth-Action Gameplay
+ Brilliant Enemy Design
+ Sensible, Unintrusive Crafting System
Also Try: Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, Far Cry Primal