Horizon Zero Dawn is probably the most awe-inspiring game I’ve played in a long time. Maybe ever. I was fully expecting the initial impact of the gorgeous visuals, genuinely engaging characters, and fluidity of control to wear off as the game progressed, but Guerrilla Games manage to orchestrate new moments of wonder at nearly every turn. The sheer thrill of being simultaneously pelted from the sky and charged at on the ground by the mechanical enemies. Cresting a hill overlooking a great plain dotted with fallen ruins and verdant forests. The multitude of ways to augment your style of play, such as with upgrades, weapons, and just by formulating tactics for each situation. And it all comes together with the protagonist Aloy, showing that once again Sony just seem to attract exclusives from studios with an aptitude for character design and development. As you watch Aloy grow and undertake a very personal quest, you’ll quickly begin to realize that Horizon Zero Dawn is not just a video game. It’s an experience.
Obviously the game isn’t without its flaws. Pre-teen Aloy looks so odd that I was almost rushing through the initial segments of the game just so I could finally be with the fully-fledged, machine-busting, normal human looking Aloy. Aside from this, Horizon does a great job of getting you emotionally invested in the story and characters from the off. The game is set on a future-Earth, where some disaster has befallen the planet, and feral machines roam the land. After being branded an “outcast”, Aloy and her adoptive father Rost live and hunt on the fringes of the tribalistic society of the Nora. One day, pre-teen Aloy, whose birth is shrouded in mystery, vows to uncover the truth about her origins. Almost immediately, you’re hooked, not just on this overarching premise, but on everything else you encounter along the way. From the small settlements dotted throughout the world, to the variety of interesting characters that inhabit the lands in and around them, the game world feels so alive and authentic.
I was initially worried that the sheer volume of things to do would overwhelm, especially if this content was meaningless filler, but I was stunned by how distinct each particular task felt. Competing in hunting trials throughout the world tests your combat skills in a variety of scenarios. Exploring Cauldrons, vast underground mechanical mazes, enables you to expand your “override” ability, allowing you to take control of a wider variety of machines. There is also a nice scattering of side quests that get you interacting with the different tribes, and learning about each of their distinct cultures and belief systems. Although, the side quests can sometimes get a little samey. Go to this location, scan some oddity in the landscape with Aloy’s lore-friendly “Focus” earpiece, and follow some tracks for a while to a new location. These sections could do with some attention, but there’s so much variety in Horizon that I was more than happy to overlook them, especially after recently finishing Final Fantasy XV, where the side-quests are tantamount to repeatedly fetching things.
If I’m being completely honest, there’s a lot in this game you will have seen before. A wide range of collectibles lie at the four corners of the Earth for you to gather up. Looming giraffe-like Tallnecks plod about the landscape, and climbing them reveals more of the map. You can zoom in with your bow to slow down time and take aim with greater care. It’s as if Far Cry, Tomb Raider, and Assassin’s Creed all had their core elements extracted to create what should have been a nightmarish love-child. Instead, Horizon Zero Dawn has taken the best from its inspirations, and then gone on to surpass them in a big way. Everything you do adds to, or draws from the lore of the world. Collectible metal flowers? They were dispersed throughout the world to promote seed growth. Corrupted zones, areas where machines are made stronger by a visible corruption enwreathing their bodies, start to occur after a very specific narrative event. I even loved finding the text or video logs dotted among the ruins of the old world, as it allowed for another opportunity to try and establish what happened to get Earth to such a state. Somehow, Guerilla Games have made nearly everything they’ve implemented immensely fun and meaningful.
In this way, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn feels like no other game world has before, and it is a joy to be in amongst it all for what can easily be a 40+ hour campaign. For me, it was a 60 hour campaign, because for some reason, I played it on Hard mode, and I simply couldn’t walk past a machine without picking a fight. Combat is where Horizon Zero Dawn shines brightest. It is seriously tough, even when I scaled down to Normal like a commoner for an hour, just to see how punishing the standard mode was. The machines are as feral as their organic counterparts, and twice as relentless. My first encounter with a Sawtooth, a machine enemy modeled off a Saber Toothed Tiger, saw me repeatedly shredded, especially since I had only just become competent at dispatching the relatively manageable, and smaller, Watchers and Striders. I learned more about the Sawtooth’s behaviors and attack patterns after each encounter, and now the Sawtooth may as well be a kitten. Unfortunately, there are always bigger beasties out there rip you to shreds again.
If you truly wish to succeed in later parts of the game, where there are literal T-Rex sized machines called Thunderjaws to take on, you’ll have to get tactical. Aloy has access to a diverse range of weaponry, each of which has its own specific use depending on the situation. After some experimenting, I decided that my most effective tactic was the “slash-and-dash”. It starts by hiding in tall grass, which keeps you hidden from the beasties, and free to lay traps. The Tripcaster can be used to lay tripwires imbued with various elements along the patrol path of a machine. Scanning the enemy with Aloy’s Focus earpiece highlights the vulnerable areas and their specific elemental weakness. Still hidden, I fire a few tearblast arrows from my Shadow Hunter Bow, which removes the highlighted protective armor plating and mounted weaponry, such as the front facing cannons, from the Thunderjaw. At this point, I’ve usually been spotted. The machine charges towards me only to set off the tripwires, taking heavy damage and stunning it for a short time. I swap to my Shadow Ropecaster, a weapon that fires ropes to pin the machine in place for an extended period of time. The bigger the machine, the more ropes required. While immobile, I have great access to the Thunderjaw’s heart, which I shoot with high damage precision arrows. Before it breaks free of the ropes, I run away, hide, and start again.
There are many ways to handle the same situation, and Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t force any of its tools upon you. You’re free to approach enemies any way you want, and this flexibility is what makes the combat so enjoyable. There are loads of other weapons to bring to a fight, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Choosing the right tools for the job makes every encounter a heart-thumping, death-defying struggle that leaves you feeling like an accomplished hunter after succeeding. Or an angry ghost after dying, eager for a rematch. What can really turn the tide in a battle though are the weapon modifications. Upgrading a bow capable of shooting fire arrows with mods that increase the fire damage means that instead of needing 3-4 shots to set a target on fire, you will only need one. This is extremely helpful when taking on Glinthawks, annoying machine-birds that heckle you in packs from above. Setting one of these machines alight causes it to fall from the sky, giving you the opportunity to land a well deserved critical hit.
You can further hone your hunting prowess with the skill tree, which in itself isn’t revolutionary in its design, but allows you to tailor the type of hunter you want Aloy to be as the machines you come up against become more ferocious. There’s also a pretty standard crafting system that allows you to create smaller traps, potions and elemental buffs. You will need to hunt a more standard range of animals such as foxes, fish and boars to collect the materials needed to expand your carry capacity. For me, this caused a little hiccup of annoyance, as there’s no fun to it. At least give me a grizzly bear to fight for the bones and pelt I need for my new super snazzy quiver.
All of this dangerous (and sometimes not so dangerous) frolicking is set against a truly remarkable landscape. Every trek holds the promise of stunning vistas, as the world is as diverse as it is gorgeous. The most striking visuals come when relics of the old world are set against the new. The aforementioned Cauldrons exemplify this juxtaposition best. You could at one moment be wandering through a village surrounded by lush forest, only to stumble upon the entrance to a Cauldron and be suddenly plunged into a hyper-advanced autonomous factory. I absolutely adored this marriage of tech and tribe. Each of the machines resembles some animal or another, and act just as they would. Snapmaws lunge at you from the water much like crocodiles, and herds of Grazers, once startled, flee en masse as a herd of deer would. Yet their physical design is decidedly mechanical, from the way some machines are enhanced by weaponry, to the distorted, artificial cries they make when taking damage.
I feel the humans themselves could do with being a bit less inorganic. The facial animations sometimes place the characters firmly in the uncanny valley, but the personalities and voice acting behind the faces do more than enough to make you love, hate and laugh at the NPCs you interact with. Aloy herself is a wonderful protagonist. Having lived apart from the Nora tribe as an outcast, she hasn’t adopted many of their ways and traditions. As a result, she is free-thinking, iron-willed, and often quite cynical and sarcastic towards those that blindly follow societal customs. It makes for humorous viewing, particularly when she puts bullish priests still loyal to old, bloody customs in their place. Aloy is the bright centerpiece to a lavish spread, a protagonist that puts the world to rights with her wits as well as her might. She is simply an excellent female figurehead to stand along side the likes of Jade (Beyond Good & Evil), Amanda Ripley (Alien: Isolation), and Lara Croft (Tomb Raider, obviously).
It’s utterly ridiculous how much Horizon Zero Dawn gets right. I’ve often felt that open world games were in dire need of a refresh. Guerrilla Games have taken an age old formula and somehow produced a distinctly unique experience. Aside from a few very minor blips, Horizon is a masterpiece. The kind of masterpiece that defines the year’s gaming. Heck, it could define this generation. After finishing the campaign I wasted no time in delving right back in to finish any remaining side-quests and collectible hunting, all while making an active effort to aggravate the local wildlife. You need to think of this game as your favorite cake, except someone has laced it with nicotine, and you don’t notice how engrossed you are in your cake, because it’s your favorite, so you don’t care, and you keep eating and getting more addicted, and you finish, but there are no side-effects except joyful satisfaction. That’s Horizon Zero Dawn.