The moment I saw the first trailer for Horizon Zero Dawn at E3 2015, it instantly skyrocketed to the top of my “most wanted” games list, resting just below The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. My love for Nintendo’s storied action-adventure series has carried me through good times and bad, and Guerrilla Games’ new IP reminded me of that franchise in the best possible ways. Of course, it came with a couple of refreshing elements that only increased my excitement: one, its blend of fantastic environments and sci-fi elements looked absolutely stunning (who could forget those sights of monstrous machinery amid beautiful wildlife once they saw them?); and two, unlike Nintendo, it seemed Sony had no difficulty making a woman the protagonist of their game (I kid, I kid!).
As is customary for my reviews, I’ll get the most negative element out of the way first — although, I’d like to be clear that Horizon doesn’t have a bad narrative so much as it has a missed opportunity to tell a much more compelling story. I’m not going to get into any spoilers, but suffice it to say that the game has two narrative threads to follow: one involves protagonist Aloy’s adventure in the present day, and one involves the mysterious past that led to a world inhabited by angry robot animals.
Unfortunately, neither of these manage to be greater than the sum of their parts; I was left feeling a bit cold by both, mostly owing to the episodic nature of the plot. Although Aloy meets plenty of characters from both the present and the past over the course of her journey, few of them stick with her — she helps them in two or three sidequests, and you’ll see little else of them until the very end.
Though I still think the individual details of the story work enough in its favor to recommend it — particularly the fascinating bits of lore surrounding both the “Old Ones” and the new, primitive world that has sprung up — I couldn’t help but feel the story lost its way soon after the starting point. For the first five or so hours, Guerrilla introduce you to a very small part of this harsh world full of tribalism, superstition and paranoia — and along the way, you meet a few characters that are (as one NPC puts it later) “whispers of reason in this howling pit of insanity.” I got excited for a tale of camaraderie set against the backdrop of these dark themes, only to be disappointed by the game relentlessly redirecting Aloy to go it alone for the next thirty hours.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this being a personal journey, of course, but I did feel the story lacked humor and got a bit too heavy-handed for its own good at times. Many characters are introduced and whisked away — sometimes to their graves — before we ever get to know them. And when certain memorable NPCs only have their backstory explored through optional side missions (the bandit-slicing sociopath Nil and the flirtatious rebel Vanasha were two of my favorites), those who only play the main story are in for a very lonely quest indeed.
But hey, I’m only criticizing this aspect of the game so much because of its huge potential to be better… and because the rest of the experience is so excellent. On the surface, Horizon Zero Dawn might appear to be part of the herd charging toward what my fellow critic Jordan Hurst has identified as the “Sandbox Singularity,” which he defines as “the point at which all big-budget games are sandbox action-adventures distinguished only by their settings.” After all, this game features a huge map peppered with things to collect, challenges to conquer and new areas to reveal — but it’s the varied way you do each of these things that ensures Horizon is far from a cookie-cutter, cut-and-paste open world. While there are a bunch of go-here, fetch-this errands handed out by NPCs, but they’re easily forgiven by a) an outstanding combat system and b) a number of fun alternatives to your standard sandbox fare.
That combat system is easily the best one I’ve played in recent memory. While it might not be fair to compare this with the other most recent open world action-RPG I’ve played, I couldn’t help but notice how much Final Fantasy XV‘s battles feel like they’re on autopilot by comparison. Doing the 100-plus floor bonus dungeon at the end of that game made me groan each time I got into another battle; here, I welcomed one combat section after another, knowing the variety of options at my disposal would have the potential to switch things up. That goes for your choices on how to do battle on a very large and a very small scale. As examples of the former, you can opt to stealthily kill all foes without ever alerting them to your presence, charge in with your weapons blazing, or simply opt to have “overridden” monsters do they dirty work for you. As examples of the latter, well… just look at the number of weapons at your disposal and you’ll see what I mean!
This might seem daunting to someone getting into the world for the first time, but the best part is that no particular play style is punished. If you’re not comfortable taking the stealth approach, you’re allowed to dive into battle and start swinging your spear around like a madman. The game rarely, if ever, forces you into a situation where you won’t be able to win by playing how you like to play. With that said, though, people who enjoy a lot of strategy in their action-RPG games (myself included in that bunch) are likely to have an even better time. A massive set of weapons and outfits, each customizable with “mods” that drop from enemies you defeat, mean you can easily avoid long, drawn-out wars of attrition with even the biggest baddies if you know what you’re doing.
Menacing bird-type enemies like the Glinthawk, for example, are an absolute pain to hit while they’re soaring above you. Rather than shooting and missing over and over again, you can bring them crashing down to earth with a flurry of fire arrows or by using the Ropecaster to bind them to the ground — then head over with devastating melee attacks to make very short work of them. But then what about the nightmarish Thunderjaw, whose myriad weapon parts make constant dodge-rolls a necessity? Well, you can use a special arrow type to blast its special “disc launcher” weapons off, then pick them up and give them a taste of their own medicine. These are just a few of the monsters and approaches you can take, and experimentation will lead you to discover even more exciting possibilities. Oh yeah, and these battles are incredibly cinematic, too; my finger hammered on the Share button like it was nobody’s business as I looked forward to reliving some of my toughest struggles.
I mentioned fairly bog-standard sidequests as one of the activities you can partake in, but as I suggested, there’s a hell of a lot more to Horizon‘s huge map than that. If you find yourself getting a bit tired of fulfilling NPCs’ requests, you’ve got options: you can search the world for materials to craft new items, hunt down datapoints that give you fascinating details about the history of the world, participate in ranked challenges that require you to employ some of the many battle strategies I alluded to before, or even dive into mini-dungeons called Cauldrons that (upon completion) increase the number of machines you can override. That, by the way, is one of the game’s most fantastic features — while mounting Broadheads early on is a fun way to get around, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve charmed a titanic Sawtooth to your side.
A common complaint facing open world games is that their overall worlds, while peppered with things to do, are kind of bland and empty overall. That’s absolutely not the case with Horizon, whose in-game universe feels alive in ways that so few others manage to accomplish. First off, Guerrilla have made sure it maintains an air of grandeur and spectacle without creating vast spaces with nothing to do; since this world is relatively small, you don’t have to traipse through 15 minutes of samey-looking plains to get to your next objective. At the same time, there’s enough variety in the environments, the creatures that inhabit them and the changing weather conditions that you’ll rarely feel bored as you walk through an area. Lush green forests look quite different when they’ve got pale red sunlight filtering through the branches, for example, and they change yet again when stormclouds form and start to pour thick sheets of rain — sending small animals scattering.
Based on what I’ve said about the appearance of combat and the environment, you may have picked up on the fact that I think this game is a sight to behold. But it’s more than just that: out of the hundreds of games I’ve experienced over the last twenty years, this really is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played. Please don’t chalk that up to the much-trumpeted technical specs and buzzwords that are so common in the industry, though; as impressive as it was to behold everything rendered in 4K on PS4 Pro, the credit really has to go to the artists and designers that gave Aloy, the creatures she battles and the world she inhabits such unique and fascinating properties. From the freckles on the hero’s face to the sparks that fly every time her spear strikes an enemy, there are so many amazing little details that I found myself wanting to stop blinking in order to take it all in. All this is complimented by a soundtrack that’s equal turns tranquil and jarring, blending real instruments and electronic beats in a way that mirrors the dichotomous nature of the environment.
Now that I’ve spent 40-plus hours with one of my most anticipated games of the year, how does it line up with the expectations I had for it? Well, I’m happy to say… quite beautifully. Horizon Zero Dawn is a stunningly gorgeous game, an awesome open world action-RPG that overcomes the gameplay conventions of the genre by giving you so many options on how to tackle combat. It does stumble a bit trying to tell a cohesive story, but I was too caught up in exploring all the little details of the world to let that bother me. If you’ve got a PS4 and you’re looking to totally lose yourself in a fully-realized universe bursting with things to discover, there aren’t many better choices than Guerrilla Games’ fresh new IP.
This review is based on the PS4 exclusive, which we were provided with. Reviewed on PS4 Pro.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a stunningly gorgeous game, an awesome open world action-RPG that overcomes the gameplay conventions of the genre by giving you so many options on how to tackle combat. It does stumble a bit trying to tell a cohesive story, but I was too caught up in exploring all the little details of the world to let that bother me.