Horizon Zero Dawn presents a very interesting world with lush forests and jungles, desserts and canyons, and plenty of snowy mountains. Scattered across this world are decayed remnants of civilization. What once were probably large cities and small towns have been abandoned for ages, becoming empty rusted husks covered in vegetation. Away from all these, live several tribes of humans. Some lead very tribal lives, living in wooden huts while hunting and gathering with spears and bows. Other tribes have managed to build castle like buildings while also engineering better tools and more destructive weapons. And, although these groups do not generally like each other, they all share a common foe. The untamed wilderness is not a safe place. Machines shaped like all sorts of animals, and even dinosaurs, roam the land and tend to attack anyone that gets too close. Furthermore, it seems that with every passing year, the machines are getting more aggressive.
Hailing from one of the most primitive tribes is Aloy (pronounced “ey-loy”), a girl outcast from birth for being “motherless”. Through circumstances, she is thrust into the world to figure out who her mother is and, consequently, how the world became the way it is. And answering these questions is what really drew me into Horizon Zero Dawn.
The story is presented in standard fashion with Main Scenario quests always moving Aloy forward and plenty of Side quests and “Errands” that pop up throughout the journey to further flavor the story and the world. The “pacing” at which Horizon exposes Aloy to these is very careful. So, even with the considerable amount of content that Horizon has to offer, at no point did I feel overwhelmed.
Furthermore, players that choose to focus on the Main Scenario while avoiding most of the Side content will probably have a much different experience than those who dive deep and strive to complete them all. Several Side quests serve to introduce Aloy to optional (and useful) side activities while others straight up offer gear and weapon improvements as rewards. Aloy can become a pretty versatile Machine hunter with tons of options and toys to approach each encounter. This means that players who take their time might have an easier or more exciting experience navigating the world and its encounters. Also, not a single Side quest or “Errand” in Horizon is generic. Every character Aloy interacts with has their own story and, if helped, will make a difference towards the final chapters in the main scenario. Much like a good book, players that take the time to explore all these threads will be rewarded with how they all tie up nicely with the main plot.
Audio-visually, Horizon is stunning. The world feels truly alive. Grass, trees and shrubs are gently swayed by the wind; which will also pickup dirt and sand depending on the area. Day and night cycles combined with changing weather always keep the environments feeling fresh and interesting.
The true stars of Horizon are Aloy and the machines. From the back, Aloy feels real; from the different types of fabric across her multiple outfits to her wild mane of partially braided red hair. Her demeanor is cautious when crouched and sneaking around, then large and aggressive when running into combat for a heavy attack. She will even respond to changes in the environment and weather like extending her hand to feel the rain or shivering and blushing when it is cold. But, turn the camera to face her and the situation is a little different. Aloy’s face while “action” rendered is pretty bland and, unlike EVERY other NPC in the game, does not blink or have moving eyeballs. It is a weird choice by the developers and I guess it is one of the many trade-offs they had to make to render such a gorgeous game. Now, things are wildly different when the game is in cutscenes and conversations. The background is taken out of focus (probably another trade-off) and Aloy is rendered in wonderful detail (“cutscene” rendered). The facial acting that went into Horizon is noticeable and, although there are a few scenes were it does look awkward, there are many more scenes where the characters look and feel alive. Aloy is one of the most charming female characters I have ever encountered within a game.
Next to Aloy, or even higher, in prominence are the machines that inhabit the world. Their intricate joints, cables, and all sorts of well crafted details are striking. But, it is the way they move and look “grounded” to their environment that really sets them apart. Different environments in the world are home to different kinds of machines and each machine serves some kind of role. On more than one occasion I found myself quietly crouching out of sight just watching the machines go about their chores. And I felt that, even in those details, there was an underlying story being told; another element working to further flesh out the world.
All the nice-to-haves from open world games are present in Horizon including an expanding world map, with “available quest” and quest waypoint markers, and the ability to set custom waypoints. There are two features that I found particularly unique. First, the world map is actually rendered and shaded in 3D; meaning that as players scroll around the map, they can actually tell altitude differences and all sorts of other intricate details about the layout of the world. Second, most things can be “activated” as quests to make it easier to find and to help players keep track of what they want or need. See a cool weapon at the shop but are still missing materials needed to craft it? Flag it as an errand and the game will keep track of what you need; even setting waypoints on the map for areas where to hunt. There is no need for pen and pencil, or going back to the merchant several times. When Aloy has all the ingredients, like any other quest, she is instructed to obtain the item from the merchant. This seems like a simple addition, but it made the experience so much nicer.
Horizon is a third person action adventure and shooter. And, whether players choose to run in, bow spewing, or sneak around picking off enemies as they go, the game controls very well. Motion is fluid and responsive. Aiming is sharp and certain skill upgrades allow for brief moments of focused “slowed time” to help land those nice tasty headshots. When the situation calls for melee attacks, the controls do fall apart a little. Aloy has one quick weak attack that is mostly useless and a very slow wide swinging heavy attack that is very reliable, when it lands. The game does not always do a good job of interpreting who or what players want to attack. So, sometimes Aloy sticks the attack and players cheer. But, almost as often, Aloy jumps onto a random location and hits the ground with epic force; while her actual opponent takes a nice cheap shot at her. This can be usually avoided if players are calculated and stay “in control” of the situation. But, the moment things go south, get ready for some mad swings. Running away and back into stealth is usually the best course of action. These issues really make me wish the game had the ability to “lock on” to enemies but we all know that would potentially just make the game too easy and not “shooter-y” enough.
Aloy’s arsenal of weapons presents more options than players are probably going to ever use. Each weapon type has its purpose and I suppose this will cater to different play styles, which is a good thing. Any time Aloy obtains a new weapon type or variation, a Tutorial side quest is unlocked. Players that activate these quests, will be pretty much forced to use the newly acquired weapon or ammunition type under specific situations. Completing these quests gives experience points and leaves players with a modest idea of what purpose that weapon or ammunition serves. The same cannot be said for potions and traps. Aloy randomly gets these and can also craft them but the game does not really explain their use. I mean, health potions are pretty straight forward. I just like a game that explains everything to me; not hand holding per se, but a random small scripted moment where the game goes “This enemy is using ice attacks. Use an Ice Defense potion!” would have been appreciated.
All that said, it is true that Horizon Zero Dawn does not trail off far from the already well-treaded open world game formula. What makes it stand out is its story; how every main scenario and side quest layers and flavors the world. Players curious to understand what happened to cause this future will be addicted to Horizon. Others who do not care as much, will still find appeal in the game’s pacing and action. Also, Aloy is very fun and interesting to play, and Guerrilla Games found an amazing way to justify such an astute and witty character within such a repressed world. It is a remarkable game and, no matter what game genre they are inclined to, PlayStation 4 owners should give it a shot.