by Matthew Thompson
From the very first time we saw Horizon Zero Dawn, it was clear we were in for something different from Guerrilla Games. The oppressive tone, dreary environments and multiplayer focus of their flagship Killzone series are gone here in favor of a sprawling solo adventure into a vibrant new gaming world. One had to wonder how the developer would handle such a big step outside of their comfort zone, but Horizon delivers with a journey into an intriguing new sci-fi universe and some of the best third-person shooter combat around all brought to life via the Dutch dev’s sterling technical skills.
At first glance, the most eye-catching aspect of Horizon is the anachronistic setting that sees large robotic beasts roaming the land hunted by primitive human tribes amongst the ruins of the world we know today. Discovering how this version of Earth came to be as well as how fiery-haired protagonist Aloy and the game’s major threat connect to it all is the narrative’s biggest draw. The lore you uncover is fascinating and it feels like a lot of thought and care went into its creation. And honestly, it is just the kind of science-fiction I dig. This aspect is just plain cool. Other areas of the story achieve varying levels of success. On the positive end of things, Aloy makes for an extremely likable lead character and learning about the various cultures and more recent history of the places she explores is interesting. On the other end of the spectrum, there aren’t a load of memorable NPCs in the game and the dialogue leaves something to be desired. And while not necessarily a negative, those looking for meaningful decisions in the game’s dialogue trees won’t find them here. They mostly serve to allow the player to learn as much or as little as they’d like about the people they encounter and the places they visit. Still, Aloy’s strong presence and uncovering the secrets behind Horizon’s captivating game world make for a compelling narrative drive for the game’s lengthy campaign.
The core gameplay revolves around a third-person shooting component that rivals the best in gaming today. The anachronistic nature of Horizon Zero Dawn carries over to the combat. I love the use of old-world weaponry – bows, slingshots and spears – to take on larger-than-life robots. Battles with these mechanical animals are very strategic affairs. Where you shoot matters. What weapon you use matters. Hitting certain spots on enemies may reward you with more resources, dealing more damage, disabling some of the opposition’s attacks or even allowing you to use some of their more powerful, futuristic weaponry against them. Different robots – which include ones modeled after deer, alligators, ostriches and T-Rexes to name a few – and even different parts of those robots are more vulnerable to different kinds of ammunition. And Guerrilla got very creative with the types of ammo you can use. You won’t just be slinging rocks and firing simple arrows at enemies. You’ll lob shock bombs to stun baddies. Hit them with freeze arrows to make subsequent damage more impactful. Perhaps my personal favorite were the Tearblast arrows that ripped armor away from enemies to expose weak points and make them generally less resistant to damage. And there is so much more to the combat that I have yet to mention from the ability to hack bots and turn them to your side or use them as mounts to just how slick and smooth the controls are. Aloy’s battles against robotic foes are challenging and rewarding featuring combat with tons of strategy and depth. I can’t say enough good things about this part of the game. There are human encounters too. They are somewhat bland by comparison, but aren’t as large a part of the game and don’t bring down my feelings of the combat much overall.
Horizon is an open-world experience, but it doesn’t offer as much variety as I’ve become accustomed to from the genre. Traversal is simplistic and often limited to predetermined routes. The most rewarding part about exploration is likely the random scuffles you can get into with robo prey and predators alike. And that is the thing about Horizon. It keeps coming back to the combat and the narrative. The game shines most when its activities focus on those areas. Along with the main storyline and its associated missions, this includes some of the more in-depth side quests like one that sees you joining and rising up the ranks of a hunting lodge with a history of prejudice against certain groups. It includes Cauldrons – linear dungeon-type levels that take place outside the open-world. It includes hunting trials that ask you to hone your skills using certain weapons like the Ropecaster or abilities like stealth. All these succeed by crafting interesting encounters and sometimes adding a worthwhile plot to the mix. The rest of the open-world activities are pretty standard fare for the genre today. There are collectibles to find and things to craft. There are towers to climb and outposts to take over. This stuff is adequate, but not Horizon at its best.
I’d be remiss if I finished this review without talking about the graphics. Horizon: Zero Dawn is an absolutely stunning game visually. The locales from snow-topped mountains to muggy jungles to dusty plateaus are all beautiful. The animations during combat for Aloy and the robots are fluid, intricate and eye-catching. Guerrilla has always been one of gaming’s most technically proficient developers and never has their artistry been on better display than in bringing Horizon’s post-post-apocalyptic world to the screen. This game is certainly on the short list for best looking game ever and definitely at the top as far as open-world titles go in my opinion.
In a generation somewhat lacking in signature new series, I believe we have found another one in Horizon. This first entry packs a deep and challenging combat component that stands up against the best third-person shooters out there today. It offers an intriguing sci-fi storyline and introduces us to a wonderful new heroine in Aloy as well as a beautiful new gaming world to explore. It delivers visuals nearly unmatched in the medium. It all adds up to create one of the PlayStation 4’s best games. Horizon Zero Dawn is not to be missed.
A few more things:
- I prefer a little more gameplay variation in my open-world games personally. For longer games (this took me about 50 hours to get the platinum trophy), I think it helps to be able to mix things up. Still the combat here is good enough to carry the load and I was impressed that it largely stayed challenging from start to finish. So many games with RPG-like upgrading become too easy by the end.
- I love all the various armors that Aloy can wear. They have some really cool-looking outfits in the game that blend the sci-fi and tribal elements of Horizon well. I wish we could toggle the headwear off and on though. Some of them just look a bit silly and Aloy’s hair is pretty awesome, so really shouldn’t be hidden behind them in most cases. (Note: Apparently this option is coming in the next patch for the game that was announced the day I published this. A nice addition!)
- A couple minor changes I would make. Give us more than 100 resource spots after fully upgrading our bag or allow more of certain resources in each slot. I’m a bit of a hoarder, but I kept having to stop at merchants to sell and make room. And maybe add a second weapon ring to switch to on the fly. This way you could have more weapons available or a couple loadouts to quickly swap between during battles. I’d often have to pause and switch weapons mid-fight as my strategy or opponent changed and it hurt the flow of combat at times.
- There is an explanation for why there are robot dinosaurs alongside the more recent robotic wildlife and I loved it. There was just a small, little mention of it during a hologram or audio log, but I thought it was super neat.