Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 4
From the moment when Horizon: Zero Dawn was first revealed, it was a game that I loved the concept of, but had little faith in the final product living up to my hopes and expectations.
A free-roaming open world game set in a dystopian future overrun by mechanical dinosaurs which you navigate as a bow-wielding warrior woman sounds fucking amazing but it’s an idea that I think the best developers in the world would find difficult to pull off. That it was being made by Guerrilla Games, the Dutch studio best known for their unremarkable first person shooter series Killzone didn’t fill me with much hope at all. It was a project that was completely outside of their wheel house.
Three months after the game’s release, I have poured over a hundred hours into Horizon with my wife and we have unlocked the Platinum trophy for discovering and conquering everything there is to do in the game. I can tell you straight that Guerrilla Games have nailed it. They have emphatically succeeded in delivering on the premise of the game beyond my wildest expectations. Horizon: Zero Dawn is the real deal.
Horizon: Zero Dawn begins with the origin story of its heroine Aloy. An orphan with parents of unknown origin, she is shunned by the people of the Nora tribe who are deeply suspicious of anyone they view as an Other. She is raised into adulthood by the outcast Rost, who teaches her how to survive in the wild and battle the hostile machines that roam the land.
One day, Aloy saves a Nora boy from being mauled by a pack of Watchers but she receives no gratitude from the villagers who continue to bully her and cast her out from the village. Frustrated, she runs away and falls into a cavern, where she discovers a mysterious device called a Focus, which grants her the ability to interact with a neurological network that may unlock clues as to how the planet came to be overrun by machines. Angry at the behavior of the Noras and curious to uncover the secret of her own birth, Aloy decides to enter into the annual Proving ritual, a gruelling contest and rite of passage that Nora teenagers compete in, as part of their transition into adulthood. Tragedy strikes at the Proving and the stage is set for Aloy’s adventure into the vast world of Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Horizon: Zero Dawn sets a new visual benchmark for open world video games. Just look at this thing. Even on a base model Playstation 4, the game looks absolutely stunning with its gorgeously detailed open world populated with both natural flora and fauna as well as the terrifying colossal machines, some of which are the size of Redwoods. That this game came out within a fortnight of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a stupendous one-two punch for open world games. Each is as good as the other.
It’s also great to see a fantasy genre video game that is of a different flavour to the Tolkien-inspired fodder that passes for the usual fare. Horizon‘s universe feels refreshingly unique and is coloured with lots of impressive little details. It feels credible in the way that the best fantasy novels do. Each of Horizon’s seven tribes has distinctive settlements, attire and cultural beliefs. I found it a genuine pleasure to go exploring in this game and learn more about the environment I was inhabiting.
As good as the window dressing is, its in the moment-to-moment gameplay and particularly the combat with the machines, where Horizon truly shines. There’s an expansive ecosystem of robot creatures in Horizon and it’ll probably be at least 10-12 hours before you see every species. Not every machine is openly hostile to Aloy and there is a pleasing variety to the designs which have analogues to real world animals including crocodiles, hawks, deer and tigers. Some machines travel in packs while others are loners.
Once you engage in combat, the game really flourishes. Aloy has a huge arsenal of weapons and traps at her disposal and by the end of the game, you will likely master most of them. Each machine requires a different strategy to take down efficiently. The sabre tooth tiger inspired Sawtooths are succeptible to electric trip-wires. The soaring Stormbirds will need a ropecaster to be brought crashing down to Earth. I never really figured out an optimal strategy for the ferocious Snapmaw but I found pelting it with explosives generally worked.
For a big budget triple-A title, Horizon is refreshingly difficult and not afraid to kick your ass. Particularly in the early stages of the game where you could accidentally stumble upon a T-Rex sized machine, it’s not unexpected to get one-shotted by the game’s tougher enemies. And once you do build up a sufficient level of weaponry and skills, you can still expect a gruelling 5-10 minute battle where you really have to be on your game. My favourite moments in Horizon are when you tackle some of the biggest enemies in the game. They can be scanned using Aloy’s Focus which highlights some points of vulnerability but it’s still a big challenge to manage your inventory and health whilst blasting these colossal creatures to kingdom come. It always felt supremely satisfying to take down a Behemoth or a Thunderjaw. Those battles are truly a high point of the game.
Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like an embarrassment of riches. Not only is the game blessed with incredibly lush graphics and a combat system that offers plenty of depth, its cast of characters is unexpectedly great too. Aloy is one of the best new protagonists in years. The game actually contains a dialogue wheel so its possible to influence her responses to be especially virtuous, sassy or arrogant. But irrespective of those choices, some consistent qualities to Aloy’s character is that she is empathetic, curious and resilient. She also is not above delivering the occasional sarcastic one liner or snappy banter when the occasion calls for it.
It’s also worth noting that Horizon has one of the most diverse cast of characters that I can recall in a video game. This game features an impressive number of speaking roles for black, Asian and elderly women and in an interesting wrinkle to the game’s lore, most of the tribes are lead by matriarchs.
Horizon: Zero Dawn raises the bar for open world games and sits alongside Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3 as milestone games in the genre that did it better than anyone else. Its an extraordinary achievement from a studio that had always shown they had technical nous but had yet to truly deliver on their potential to produce a game that was the total package. Horizon: Zero Dawn is that game. It’s easily one of the best of this generation.