Any time a new and original idea comes around there is a bit of trepidation. That was certainly amplified with something as ambitious as Horizon Zero Dawn. It sought to marry science fiction, primitive tribes, and barely medieval civilizations all into one. In a quick description, it sounds too disparate to ever mesh well. However, Horizon Zero Dawn makes every facet of the game compelling, from the world to the gameplay, all while fitting those different pieces together into a cohesive whole.
One of Guerrilla Games' best decisions was its approach to introducing the player to Horizon Zero Dawn's world. It's both instantly familiar and intriguing enough to pull players in. Some may criticize the game for not explaining enough of the world soon enough, but it's largely that mystery compelling people forward to learn more. What starts as drips and drabs slowly forms a stream, ending in a raging river of information in one of the greatest examples of pacing by a game of this size.
Guerrilla Games accomplished this through the details. The armor and dress of the various peoples throughout the game feature pieces of the Machines, the animal-like robots who are the enemy of the game, which was an awesome choice in showing how lived-in the world is. The trophies from the many machines are used just as humans have done for millennia in the creation of clothes, tools, dwellings, and more. It is something that is instantly acceptable without ever having to think about it, making the player buy into the world all the more.
Set after Earth's apocalyptic end, the world is full of brilliantly used ruins of old. The skeletons of skyscrapers claw at the sky and are easy to recognize, but the underpasses (buildings that left nothing but their supports behind) and crumbling walls have been so well-blended into the environment that they don't really stick out. Passing a building's corpse covered in greenery just comes to make sense very quickly. It's there and seems as though it should be. This is even true of the more desert environment, where the rusted relics of Earth's past are just a fixture of the scenery now, a natural fit alongside the sandstone arches.
Those that populate the world have, fortunately, more good going for them than bad. Each is well-crafted in their purpose of Horizon Zero Dawn's overall story and their role as believable persons in the world and expositors to the main character, Aloy. However, most characters aren't all that interesting, and anyone with even a brief experience with games will recognize their archetypal portrayal.
Luckily, Aloy's interactions usually involve Horizon Zero Dawn's most interesting characters. From Sun-King Avad who killed his own father, the previous Sun-King, to end the bloodshed, to the mysterious Sylens who is knowledgeable about so much that many in the world don't even know exist, those who Aloy spends a reasonable amount of time with offer the most rewarding moments in the story. Their clear, unbending principles inform everything they do, and those characters are very grounded in their core personalities and beliefs, allowing for some interesting story moments due to their role in various plots going on at once.
Unfortunately, few except the game's overall villain and one major character introduced fairly well into the story do much to affect the world on their own. Basically, Aloy is basically the game's sole changing force, and only she can advance the plot forward or doing anything all that spectacular. In that sense, each character, even the biggest of them, serve no more purpose than a tool. Normally that would be very off-putting, but the gameplay that surrounds the interactions with these characters is fun and interesting.
What starts as a tired "Chosen One" beginning slowly develops over time into something more as certain secrets are revealed. It goes from the boring cliched set up into a wonderful realization as the expectations in that Chosen One story are shattered into something else. I can't say more without spoiling, but Aloy's value purely in terms of plot is monumental and smartly utilized. More importantly, who she is as a character is well-done too.
Aloy is a girl shunned by the Nora tribe for being born with no mother as far as they can tell, and is therefore deemed an outcast. With the help of her mentor and father-figure Rost, Aloy fights to win the recognition of those who would banish her. An attack by a cult known as the Eclipse sends her veering off from her tribe out into the wide world as an outcast. The Nora aren't known to leave their lands and the few that do are not allowed to return—outcasts forever. Aloy as an oddity comes up time and again to where she must prove herself, offering a convenient avenue as an ignorant protagonist. She sees what many never do, let alone a member of the Nora tribe. Smart and capable, Aloy proves her worth to pretty much everyone she encounters, creating quite the reputation while opening up more opportunities to learn more about herself and the world around her.
Through the course of the game she'll encounter a tribe devoted to the spirit of Machines and learning to live with them, a nation known more for conquering others than its recent attempts at peace, and a group of fierce warriors and tinkerers trying to carve some influence in a part of the world they have little footing. That's not to mention the many brushes with texts and audio recordings of important figures of the past for Aloy to react to as she explores the ruins of their final creations before the end of the world. Her determination in trying to find out who she is, what the mystery of the corrupted machines is, who exactly the people of the past were, and more makes it easy to grow attached to her. While her goals are inherently selfish, she easily sacrifices them in order to do something for others. All of that makes it easy to like her and make her a wonderful character to experience Horizon Zero Dawn's world.
The final thing I want to mention is one of my favorite things I've seen put in a game. Avoid the rest of this paragraph if you do not want spoilers. Throughout much of the story, Aloy is tough, relentless, and always putting on a certain persona around others to keep the look of strength alive. However, Horizon Zero Dawn offers a chance to see Aloy in a very vulnerable moment. If players return to Rost's grave, she will talk to him, letting him know what she has been up to. It shows the deep love she had for him, while simultaneously revealing her true thoughts and emotions to events in the game. The more player's progress in Horizon Zero Dawn, the more she'll have to tell Rost. I wholeheartedly recommend doing it.
Horizon Zero Dawn's overall story is deceptively complex, with three main threads being pulled on at one time. The first is what grounds the game as a whole and allows for a story that is easy to grasp in the rise of a cult known as the Eclipse. The Eclipse are a subsection of the Carja, those who Sun-King Avad rules, and are servants of the god known as "Buried Shadow," who seems bent on destroying the world by corrupting the Machines. The cult is, of course, the crux that gets all of the various peoples of the world involved, while giving them immediate stakes and an enemy to unite against. That's the backdrop and often the driving force to push Aloy onward into the world. At the same time, early on Aloy learns of her mysterious birth, and finding answers to where she came from and who she really is becomes a major driving force for her as well.
Hidden beneath both of those is the story of the Old Ones, the humans that lived before the world's destruction, and of course that brings with it many questions. Who were the Old Ones and what did they do? What brought their destruction and what are all the ruins that fill the land? Why did they make the Machines and what is their purpose? The more players progress, the more questions get some answers and even more arise. While the Eclipse drives the world's interests forward, the constant tugging at this strand of story keeps the player strung along.
The combat is the glue holding Horizon Zero Dawn together and plays a significant role in nearly ever piece of gameplay throughout the campaign. Aloy has a lot at her disposal in the form of traps, tripwires, two different slings, a spear, a bow that shoots rope to tie down enemies, a "rattler" that is a sort of machine gun of arrows, and the biggest of them all: the bow, which itself comes in three varieties. Players can even get their hands on something called the Tearblaster, which uses compressed air to tear components off Machines.
It's a large list of weapons that only gets exponentially larger when looked at individually. Aside from just the straight up damage from weapons, the familiar trope of elemental damage is also present. Fire, Frost, and Shock play out as one would expect, and certain Machines are more vulnerable to one over another. The more interesting effect weapons can have is Tear. Tear is the attribute that deals with how effective a weapon is at ripping off components such as plates of armor, canisters, or even guns from a Machine. Every fully upgraded weapon can have three different ammo types, and many have something specifically designed to help tear some things off a Machine.
Tear is the perfect mechanic to highlight the variety in enemies, namely the Machines. There are over twenty different Machines, and only a few are slight variations on other foes that have something unique to set them apart. Tear is one of the most strategic attributes players use in Horizon Zero Dawn, as knowing the components to try to separate from any given Machine is paramount in every encounter. Each Machine has their own unique components that have different vulnerabilities and effects. For example, the Body—the main portion of a Machine—may be weak to Frost, but a component is weak to Fire. Targeting that component with Fire to destroy it, therefore separating it, could remove that Machine's ability to use an attack or ability. From knocking off claws to prevent a Machine from digging underground to chipping off components and removing their ability to fly, to the simplicity of destroying a gun, the breadth of mechanics on display and differing routes of strategy on offer is astounding. Focusing on destroying a Machine's firepower, crippling their movement, or using their own components against them ("blaze" is the fluid stored in tanks on many machines that, as you can guess, explodes with some fire added) are all more than viable strategies. Mixtures of two or more strategies are often necessary to take down the biggest Machines like the Thunderjaw above. On top of everything, look out for certain components that can be torn off of Machines and then used against them. That big gun blasted off the Thunderjaw? Aloy can pick it up and use it.
That was just the choice in combat players have with one mechanic. The Ropecaster ties down machines and offers some interesting strategy, as does the component-blasting Tearblaster and the many different tripwires and traps that can litter a soon-to-be battlefield. All have their own strengths and weaknesses suitable for different situations. Switching between all of them is a regular occurrence depending on the Machine or situation encountered. The Sharpshot Bow has a longer draw but usually does more damage at a long distance. It's really great for picking off that one particular component to start off a battle, but may not be all that useful in the middle of a fight. That trade-off and evaluation for nearly every weapon always keeps the combat refreshing.
Aside from the combat, Horizon Zero Dawn does have a decent amount of stealth gameplay, although most of it is fairly basic. Hiding behind outcroppings, in tall grass, silent takedowns, etc. It's all pretty standard and doesn't really take away from the game at all, instead offering players the opportunity to avoid a fight if they want or to set up a certain strategy before engaging the Machines.
Stealth is usually employed for the mostly disappointing human enemies, too. Instead of offering interesting challenges the further along in Horizon Zero Dawn, they just get more health, do more damage, and there are a lot more of them packed into an area. The biggest enemies become sponges, and most humans can be easily dispatched with a headshot, which is easily achieved. There's not much to say other than, while they do not feature greatly in the game, fighting against them less often would have been nice.
Horizon Zero Dawn goes for a horizontal progression, rather than a vertical one where damage scales as player's level up. Instead, over time players acquire more weapons with differing abilities. Those Watchers, the initial Machines players will encounter, will be the same all throughout the game; they don't get more health, do more damage, etc. It places great focus on the player figuring out how to combat certain Machines instead of powering their way through as they grind up levels, because just as the Machines stay the same, so does Aloy's damage output; a certain arrow will, for the most part, always do the same damage. The scaling and utility of armor is the same, which can easily be switched out on the fly given the situation. Except for one piece of armor that can be acquired at the very end of the game, each piece has its own strengths. One may be better against Fire, one against Ranged attacks, the other against Melee, and so on.
Many weapons and pieces of armor have slots for modifications, however. Those are where some of that vertical progression comes, as the further into the game you get, the better chance there is at finding better upgrades. These offer percentage increases for things like straight damage, Fire damage, draw speed on bows, and other things along those lines. Modifications do allow for the chance for players to feel rewarded for the more difficult things they accomplished, while at the same time not offering such power that it will eventually make all Machines a simple arrow from death. So Aloy's damage will increase later, but not significantly; the focus remains on tactics and execution of the mechanics on offer.
Luckily, all along the way, Horizon Zero Dawn offers plenty of opportunities to do fun and interesting things on their way to piecing together the story. Horizon Zero Dawn's approach to the open world is not too groundbreaking, but all of the gameplay elements are very high quality, and they usually have interesting twists on the familiar. For example, the Machine used more than any other to advertise the game is the obviously named Tallneck. The Tallneck roams a set path in certain parts of the world, constantly scanning. They function as the towers in a typical Ubisoft or open world game, revealing the map and various activities hidden therein. Climbing a Tallneck was a lot more interesting to me, as getting to them was usually not just as simple as finding one and then climbing it. They are often surrounded by ruins, structures, or cliffs that Aloy needs to scale first to get a jump on a Tallneck's back. That's not to mention the many Machines that often crowd the area, forcing her to either avoid combat by stealth or rampage through and destroy them all before missing her climbing oppertunity.
Side quests, hunting grounds, bandit camps, collectibles, and many Machines greet players venturing out in Horizon Zero Dawn's world. The most disappointing are the side quests and bandit camps. Bandit camps are full of the most boring enemies in the game, and the side quests just aren't all that memorable. None come to mind now and looking back through them, none grabbed me again. However, they do offer plenty of chances for interesting Machine encounters, which is always enjoyable.
The most interesting things out in the world are the hunting grounds. These are dotted throughout the world and each offers a unique set of challenges to complete, that are ingenuously designed to teach players different strategies to employ against Machines. Not sure what to use the Ropecaster for? Completing the hunting ground related to it teaches how it works. Completing the challenges in certain times awards marks, which can be turned in at the Hunting Lodge for some of Horizon Zero Dawn's best weapons.
Surprisingly, even collectible hunting is enjoyable. Personally, I hate collectibles and never try to do them. Horizon Zero Dawn had a certain draw for me, however, and running through the world, scaling cliffs and trees to get to hard to reach places to grab whatever it is I was looking for was both relaxing and fun at the same time. It helps that the scenery was always gorgeous to look at too. One particular collectible was interesting. Vantage Points are often high up and overlook some sort of ruin of Earth's past, a long-dead bony structure. Aloy can examine the ruin to bring up an image of what it looked like in the time of the Old Ones and play an audio clip related to what Aloy sees, offering the chance for more worldbuilding. These definitely helped Guerrilla Games make a world where it is easy to accept the wonders of our future as the relics of Horizon Zero Dawn's past, which is a great feat.
This has been a lengthy review to be sure, but great games with so many awesome things to do are easy to talk about for a long time. Indeed, there is a lot more to talk about. Horizon Zero Dawn had a lot of goals and some very lofty ambitions, particularly in a new series outside of the familiar for Guerrilla Games. I am more than happy to say that they met most of those goals and exceeded in many. Put simply, Horizon Zero Dawn is great game design wrapped up in one of the best AAA packages put out to date.
Horizon Zero Dawn was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy purchased by the reviewer.
Horizon Zero Dawn is great game design wrapped up in one of the best AAA packages put out to date.
- A Gorgeous Presentation
- Varied Combat
- Wonderful Worldbuilding
- Intriguing, Unique Story and Setting
- Mostly Forgettable Sidequests
- Human Enemies Are Boring