Note: This review will attempt to avoid any major plot spoilers, but read at your own risk.
We’re finally here. Horizon Zero Dawn was first demonstrated with gameplay footage at E3 all the way back in 2015. The idea of hunting robot dinosaur-esque creatures while roaming a post-apocalyptic world captivated the audience, but it also came as a huge surprise. Developer Guerrilla Games’ last new IP was Killzone back in 2004, and since then they’ve done nothing but design sequels and provide support for their shooter franchise with varying degrees of success. This announcement didn’t just come out of left field, it came shooting out of a neighboring galaxy. Could Guerilla successfully develop such an ambitious title so far outside of their comfort zone?
Concept and Execution:
Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world fantasy/sci-fi title that takes place in the far future. Humans no longer rule the planet. Instead, they’re separated into factions and scattered around the world, their population diminished. Now, giant robotic beasts (simply called “machines”) dominate the Earth. Born into this world is our protagonist named Aloy, a girl cast out from the Nora Tribe. Upon reaching adulthood, she uncovers a mystery that demands she travel beyond the tribe’s land. On her journey, she uncovers the origin of the machines, the fate of the old humans, and the purpose of her own existence.
Horizon falls into a wide range of genre categories. It’s a 3rd-person action game. It’s an adventure game. It’s a story game. It’s a pseudo-RPG. It’s an open-world explorer. All of these labels have some merit, but first and foremost, this is a hunter-gatherer game. The gameplay centers around gathering materials and items, used to craft and trade for the best tools you can get your hands on. It requires analysis and understanding of your prey, with machines ranging from the glinthawk (robotic vultures with freeze breath) to the thunderjaw (a T-Rex fitted with an absurd number of turrets). And most importantly, the game requires careful and thoughtful execution in combat.
Once the hunt for these creatures begins, success comes most easily to the patient, tactical strategists. Players that target soft spots and elemental weaknesses will deal the most damage. Players that use the right weapon for the job will take their enemies down the fastest. Players that use the best stealth techniques can take down herds of machines without getting annihilated. On the other hand, those that run up to a tank-like deathbringer and mash the spear attack button won’t survive long. The reason why this hunting concept differs from the premises of other games is because Horizon’s enemy types are so creative and varied. Every enemy type has strengths and weaknesses that must be learned, memorized, analyzed, and exploited. Stealth strikes that take out tiny watchers barely put a dent in the health of a lumbering bellowback. Fire arrows might be effective in taking out spider-like corruptors, but using them on a trampler might get you…well…trampled. Multiply this concept by the number of machine species present in the game, and you’re looking at dozens of wildly different strategies to master. This is clever and innovative game design that combines the best pieces of different genres to build something phenomenal.
Other than the spectacular gameplay premise, the title’s strongest aspect is its narrative. As Aloy explores Horizon’s world to uncover the chronicled lore and intriguing conspiracies, many story-lovers will immediately feel driven to find out what happened to this mutated version of Earth and its original human inhabitants. The primary questline will keep you on the edge of your seat for anywhere between 15 and 25 hours, and that’s without the inclusion of the many side activities and exploration opportunities the game offers. The plot rarely drags, almost always pushing forward with compelling tension and surprising twists. While at first glance the antagonists might appear to be personified in a few specific characters, the situation is actually a story of woman vs. nature. The personal mission soon expands into grand mystery begging to be unfolded, constantly driving you with points of motivation and teases of grandeur. Dangerous forces keep the stakes high. Epic battles and alarming danger arise at unexpected moments. On top of it all, the context of the world hits all the right emotional and psychological beats, utilizing a mix of wonder and melancholy to keep players invested in what lies beyond every turn. Seeing the story progress all the way through to its conclusion was an epic experience full of memorable moments, intelligent writing, and emotional backbone.
Speaking of Horizon’s emotional backbone, Aloy is a wonderful character. Her willful determination and her insatiable curiosity make her a relatable protagonist, and it was easy to get invested in the adventure with her at the helm. Her behavior is sensible, her choices are justified, and her background is fascinating. Even when you think you have her arc figured out, the writers still manage to surprise you with clever character moments that form an interesting, fleshed-out personality. She’s sure to become Sony’s newest icon alongside the likes of Kratos and Nathan Drake.
The game’s story is so dense with themes that it lends itself well to critical analysis and scholarly evaluation. It comments on the dangers of idealistic zealotry, isolationism, discrimination, and disloyalty. It’s a story with a theme of discovery, both inward and outward. And, at its heart, Horizon Zero Dawn is about working with others and learning to serve something greater than oneself. Considering the tumultuous society we’re living in today, this theme resonated with me most strongly of all.
Concept and Execution Grade: 25/25
This game has perfected its gameplay in terms of how a 3rd-person action game should perform. Movement inputs are executed without a hitch, allowing Aloy to run, jump, roll, slide, and scale across her environment with no rejected commands, delayed actions, or sluggish movements. Overall, most of the gameplay mechanics are a perfect mix of ideas pulled from different earlier titles and blended together seamlessly. Ranged weapon mechanics feel exactly like those from Shadow of Mordor: light, quick, but satisfyingly accurate. The observation mode works like Arkham Knight’s detective vision, allowing you to spot enemies, highlight weak points, and investigate tracks. The stealth setup is pulled straight from Assassin’s Creed, with instant takedowns, lure whistles, and patches of tall grass in which to hide. The familiarity does make the base controls feel derivative, and it earns no points for originality here. This aside, the flaws of the other title’s systems have been thoroughly ironed out in this version, and the finished product feels great.
I mentioned earlier that the game is sort of a pseudo-RPG. And it is, with its leveling system, skill trees, and gear customization. Completing quests and defeating enemies earns you experience which you can use to gain skill points and health upgrades. Skill trees offer you the important techniques that help you improve as a player, with skills as basic as holding more medicine in your pouch to skills as complicated as firing three arrows at once. The most invaluable skills are evenly distributed amongst the three separate trees, and it was refreshing to see no transcendental meta-game to achieve. Everything has purpose. As far as gear customization goes, there are a couple different weapons and outfits with various versions of each. Players can add modifications to each item to adjust its base statistics, adding even more variety to the combinations one can create. It’s not a hugely expansive system, but it does benefit the game by complimenting your play style. Will you pour all your modifications and skill points into stealth bonuses, or will you try to find the heaviest armor? You decide. All the RPG elements form an efficient balance of simplicity and depth, working for both the casual player and the seasoned one.
While some of the systems might feel derivative, the gameplay’s most original aspect is its interaction with the machines. It’s a good thing that Aloy is such a well-written character, because if she were boring, the machines would be the real star of Horizon Zero Dawn. There are over 20 machine types in this game, all of which have their own aesthetics, behaviors, and combat styles. Grazers are robot deer that travel in herds, and they run away if they spot a threat. Tallnecks are graceful behemoths that can be climbed and hacked to reveal areas of the map. Shell-walkers, huge crablike monsters, carry tanks of supplies and protect them with energy shields. The designs are creatively inspiring, and it was an absolute blast to hunt and battle them.
Along the way, Aloy learns how to hack into machines and turn them to her side. “Overriding” is a technique used to control machines to fight alongside you, or to offer a riding mount for swifter travels. At the start of the journey only a handful of the machines could be overridden. But as the game progressed, I delved into dungeons called “cauldrons” and learned to upgrade my override capabilities. Eventually, I was even able to hack the largest and most powerful machines in the lineup. Some of the most enjoyable moments I had in Horizon involved turning the most ferocious of the machines against each other and watching the duels play out.
One gripe I do have with the gameplay is that the combat with the human enemies is less satisfying. Their detection ranges teeter on the brink of godlike omnipotence, so newer players without stealth skills will probably find themselves in shootouts for every single encounter. Many of said skills do offer advantages, but they seem to often encourage sitting in a patch of tall grass and whistling to lure each enemy over one-by-one. There simply wasn’t enough differentiation in the human enemy types to make this combat feel more fresh. It’s fun, absolutely, and it was pleasant to fight these opponents as breaks between the machines, but it’s definitely a more streamlined, linear experience than what the hunting offers.
Otherwise, the game might be a familiar jack-of-all-trades in terms of base controls, but interacting with the awesome machines made the experience different than anything I’ve played before.
Mechanics Grade: 22/25
The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is eloquently realized. Visually, the sights of the environment can take one’s breath away as it blends decaying ruins of the past with the flood of overgrown foliage from the future. The plant-dominated areas are especially detailed, realistic down to the lush trees and twisted vines. The graphics are absolutely stunning; light rays bounce off objects to create amazing color palates, individual raindrops glisten on the skins of the character models, and machines are intricately organized down to the last screw. Biomes range from snowy mountaintops to packed jungles, from sunny deserts to rocky canyons. The map is massive, so it was nice to see this environment evolve as I traversed it.
The sound designers have definitely earned a raise as well. The constant ambience of the natural setting always makes the world feel alive. There’s nothing quite like enjoying the crystal-clear noises of rushing water and chirping birds. However, my favorite sounds came from the machines themselves, as their mechanical ticks, roars, and whines infused a strong energy into their presence. Voice acting is performed wonderfully and gives the writing life, even if some lines may sound corny here and there. The emotions coming from the characters always feel genuine, and I never once had any issues with the performances of the actors. Ashly Burch (Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?, Life is Strange) gives a stellar performance as the voice of Aloy, constantly keeping her lines grounded and never veering into bloated exaggerations. The score is worth listening to on its own (in fact, I’m enjoying it now as I write this). In tandem with the story experience, it’s poetic. The feelings of wondrous discovery, terrible loss, riveting action, and stark determination are all captured within its orchestral glory, and it accompanies each of the game’s scenes in a deliberate way, bolstering their emotional impact overall.
Horizon’s world is also realized through its content. Side activities and alternate questlines help familiarize you with the complicated cultures, histories, politics, and religions spread across the map. Each faction has its own identity; The Nora are a group of trackers and hunters, the Oseram are metalworkers and crafters, and the Carja focus on their military and economy (Points for whomever can guess which tribe the villains come from. It’s a tough mystery to solve, I know). Even the different camps of bandits have their own uniforms, weapons, and shelters. If you’re a completionist that enjoys the thrill of exploration and world-building, then you won’t be left unsatisfied.
A point I must mention is an issue I discovered with dialogue interactions. Guerrilla shoots for the stars here, utilizing optional exposition, disposition choices, and a set of expressive, diverse characters with which to interact. However, Guerrilla also tried to implement an ambitious micro-expression system, in which characters’ faces adjust in the smallest ways to reflect their emotions in real-time instead of just scripting and pre-rendering each expression sequence. While this is effective in many cases, it has its fair share of issues. Sometimes, too many commands are issued at once, and characters’ eyebrows will twitch sporadically as if channeling an electrical current. Other times, the character’s expressions won’t match their dialogue and they’ll be critically squinting as they cheer on your endeavors. My colleague even pointed out that since Aloy is so inquisitive, she’s constantly shaking her head in a quizzical manner. Soon enough, her armor set will need to include a neck brace.
It’s an ambitious technology that doesn’t always pay off, and it shattered my immersion in a couple instances. However, if my biggest complaint about Horizon’s atmosphere is that eyebrows can sometimes look a little funny, I’m not disappointed at all.
Atmosphere Grade: 24/25
After my many hours with Horizon Zero Dawn, I feel like I still need to keep coming back and exploring its amazing world. The story always engaged me with its personal appeals and its grand scale. Battling the machines never got old thanks to the sheer creativity behind the enemy types. The environments are absolutely beautiful and they provide an aura of mystery just waiting to be unraveled. I would consider this game a complete experience, something so dense with enjoyable moments that it’s worth playing over and over as years go by. It’s a technological marvel that capitalizes on the potential of what the PlayStation 4 can accomplish.
A concern that I do possess is that this game will not appeal to players that hate linear story sections. The first hour or so consists of streamlined plot that doesn’t offer you the freedom of the open world until later in the game, and several points near the third act return to this tactic. While it works wonders with the game’s pacing, setup, and general story value, it may deter players that detest story-driven titles. If you’re disinclined to play story games, then this might not be the game for you.
It might seem familiar at times, but the hunter-gatherer twist on the formula and a brilliant plotline sets it apart from the rest. It’s in the top tier of the 3rd-person action genre, and Guerilla’s finest work to date. The title marks yet another victory for Sony as they’ve continued to add iconic IP’s to their repertoire over the past decade. This could definitely be a platform-seller for the PlayStation 4 and the newly released PlayStation 4 Pro, since that system can display Horizon’s masterful aesthetics at an even higher resolution. The title is easily an early contender for Game of the Year.
Simply put, Horizon Zero Dawn is why I love video games. It’s a complex, thought-provoking, emotional tale told through a series of unique, immersive, epic encounters. It’s a demonstration of why video games are an art medium. Anyone hooked by its premise is certain to come back for a replay, or ten. If you do pick it up, happy machine-hunting!
Entertainment Value Grade: 24/25