Horizon Zero Dawn Review
A Post-Apocalyptic Masterpiece
The post-apocalyptic setting isn’t exactly virgin territory for games these days. Big-budget AAA titles like Bethesda’s Fallout series and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us are amazing examples of how to do the post-apocalypse justice. It may seem like there’s not a lot of room left for innovation in this field. But combine an extinction level event with behemoth dinosaur-esque robots roaming the land, and you’ve got the makings of a much more novel, not to mention irresistibly intriguing, concept. Guerilla Games is about to step out of the shadow of its Killzone series and become known to RPGamers of all shapes and sizes simply as the studio that made Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s a gorgeous open-world game that absolutely nails important RPG features like its deep yet highly accessible combat system and spellbinding narrative. It fuses together elements from a myriad of well-known games, like the aforementioned Fallout, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, and Uncharted, and manages to emerge as something that goes well beyond a cheap imitation. Put quite simply, the game is an absolute masterpiece of interactive story-telling, and far eclipsed all my expectations of it.
Of all Horizon Zero Dawn‘s considerable accomplishments, the most arresting one is its spectacular narrative. It’s a story that throws players right into its alien world, intentionally neglecting to acclimate them and keeping them in the dark about much of the backstory. The game takes place hundreds of years in the future, after a calamity befell mankind, now called the Old Ones, and wiped all but a few survivors off the face of the planet. Their descendants now live in tribal hunter-gatherer societies, surrounded by the few remaining husks of long-deceased modern civilization that still dot the landscape. So what’s the wrinkle? The presence of fully-automated, animal-like machines that roam the land and more often than not aggressively attack any humans they lay eyes on. Who created these machines, and to what purpose? This question is one of the great mysteries driving much of the game’s story along; it’s a tale that grows increasingly complex as players make astounding discoveries in the abandoned bunkers of long-ago years that have stood silent and sealed for centuries. Not much more should be divulged here, as making these discoveries for oneself is one of the great joys of the game. The writing is handled with an impressive show of confidence and maturity, and it’s clear the development team revelled in telling a rich, deliciously thorough drama about man’s darkest hours and his struggle against his own darker nature in the face of total annihilation.
The game’s first four or five hours are an absolute master class in setting a stage, demonstrating many gameplay elements to the player while introducing important characters, conflicts, and relationships. We first meet the game’s heroine, Aloy, barely more than a toddler, as she’s receiving her name from her guardian, the outcast Rost. For the next few hours, players watch Aloy grow, actually taking control of her as a six-year-old for a few early missions. As the characters shaping Aloy’s life up to that point are introduced, the player can’t help but follow Aloy’s example and form emotional connections to them, and particularly to her desire to break free of her exile status and be accepted by the tribe. This is merely the emotionally-charged opening act of what goes on to become a surprisingly personal epic tale of survival, redemption, and heroism, but it grips the player in a way few games manage to do, eliciting complete and utter buy-in to what’s still to come. A team of horses couldn’t have dragged me away from the screen during those opening hours, and by the time the Nora’s heavy wooden gates open and Aloy takes her first steps beyond the Sacred Lands she’s spent her entire life in and sees the rest of the world for the first time, I was utterly and completely hooked.
As captivating as the main story arc is, or rather because of it, the open-world bent the game takes on after leaving the initial area is as much a curse as it is a blessing. True, there are a ton of side quests to complete, errands to run, bandit camps to clear out, and ancient artifacts to find, just to name a few. The trouble is, some of these activities feel like busy work when stacked up against the addicting narrative, and have the unfortunate side effect that they take focus away from the real meat of the game, going so far as to interrupt the feeling of immediate urgency that the main quest thrives on. It’s a necessary evil though, as completing side quests nets items and experience needed to progress through the considerably tougher world areas Aloy must travel to. However, these slight shortcomings are more than made up for by the quality of the narrative once players do progress through it. The main quest takes several twists and turns, even branching off into multiple subplots that end up uniting again nearer the end. Easily a third of the game’s sixty-hour runtime is spent completing main quest objectives, and the final ten or so hours come at a breakneck pace of immersion that should keep players clutching their controllers well into the early morning hours. It’s moments like these, spelunking through ancient and defunct facilities, reading former inhabitants’ text logs or listening to audio files left behind hundred of years ago, that Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t just fire on all cylinders but effortlessly burns the proverbial house to the ground. Being able to piece together tragic events from the past by digging through wreckage and left-behind artifacts can be a fascinating way to uncover a story, and the wailing denials and desperate pleas of a people coming face to face with their own extinction in Horizon ranks as some of the most gripping, mature drama in a long time.
True to the low-tech society of Horizon Zero Dawn, combat also adheres to equally primitive guidelines. That’s not to say it is spartan in its execution — far from it — but Aloy’s arsenal is exactly what one would expect from a tribal huntress; whereas the machines are outfitted with rapid-fire machine gun turrets and laser armaments, Aloy comes into battle with bows, slings, and her trusty spear. The beauty in this system lies not only in its simplicity but also its adaptability; restocking ammo is often a simple matter of collecting bundles of wood or certain herbs and grasses, or harvesting small mechanical parts from downed machines, like wire or elemental cannisters. Switching between weapons is a breeze: Aloy has four slots to equip them to, and a quick press of the L1 button brings up the weapon wheel that not only lets players switch between weapons with the flick of a thumbstick, but also craft the appropriate ammo for the weapon by highlighting it and pressing X, all without ever completely pausing the action, which continues at a slowed state. As long as Aloy has collected the needed materials on hand, she will automatically craft the desired ammo. A separate equipment pouch, controlled via the directional pad, handles potions, traps, and healing herbs in a similar way, making constant resource gathering a necessity for survival.
At a certain point in the game, combat gets a stark and sudden difficulty spike. Where stealth and carefully placed headshots (or whatever passes for that on a machine) were enough to deal with most foes in the early zones, enemies suddenly become larger and much more aggressive and well-armored. Simple tactics no longer suffice, and players are forced to upscale their arsenal appropriately. All weapons are available in three tiers, from uncommon to rare and very rare, with appropriate stat increases, and can be purchased from many vendors in the world. Additionally, most weapons feature upgrade slots that further improve their handling, as well as elemental or tear damage, the latter of which lets players tactically sever specific parts from machines, interrupting attack patterns or otherwise disabling them. There’s a great sense of smug satisfaction when a towering, snarling Thunderjaw is brought to its knees with the very disc launcher that it was, just moments earlier, using to make Aloy’s life miserable. Depending on the weapon, different ammo types can be utilized. Corruption arrows, for example, temporarily addle a machine’s programming, making it a reckless danger looking to pick a fight, while the Ropecaster can be used to tie machines down, where they can be either dealt a critical blow or have their circuits overridden, turning some into allies, others into rideable mounts. Fire, freeze, and shock arrows, bombs, and tripwires round out Aloy’s arsenal. Combating human foes, however, is slightly less versatile, as most weapons are tailored for machine damage. All that hard work in battle pays off handsomely in the form of not only materials, but also eperience points that provide Aloy with levels and skill points to spend on any of her three skill trees. Players can freely switch back and forth between improving Aloy’s combat readiness, her survival instincts in the wild, or her stealthy huntress senses. Skills cost one, two, or three skill points apiece, and most must be unlocked in a certain order, but by completing a healthy amount of side quests and errands, most players will likely unlock the bulk of all three skill trees with relative ease. A selection of outfits, each with its own benefits, can also be equipped and upgraded, though these didn’t seem as vital, and served more of an aesthetic purpose.
On the topic of aesthetics: Horizon Zero Dawn is — easily — the best-looking game I’ve personally played on next-gen systems. Everything from character and enemy designs, to architecture and landscape, down to the very way the dawn sun will throw lens flares across the screen if viewed from the right angle, looks absolutely amazing. There’s no shortage of eye candy to marvel at. Animation is super fluid, environments are lush and crisp, and enemy robot designs are impressively detailed. Traveling from one end of the game world to the other means crossing dusty mesas, lush plains, humid jungles, and frozen, mountainous wastes, featuring some of the most gorgeous vistas conceivable. The included photo editor, which lets players crop, tilt, zoom, and tint screenshots in-game, then share them via social media, is sure to get a lot of mileage from many players. There are myriad little touches of detail apparent during dialog with human NPCs as well: brows and foreheads furrow and arch realistically to create true-life expressions, facial features convincingly mimic the varying ethnicities of the game’s characters, even trivial details like the narrowing and widening of eyes to express emotion is recreated faithfully. To get an idea of the developer’s obsessive attention to detail, one needs to look no further than at the realistic way hair moves, as evident in the braided beards of the tribal Nora braves and warriors. Older members of the tribe have individual gray hairs interwoven into their beards, and stray hairs sticking out of place here and there, evidencing one of the strangest feasts of visual detail ever translated into code.
Not to be outdone, the game’s sound design is as strong and skillfully implemented as anyone could ask for. Ashly Burch’s portrayal of Aloy is one of the highlights here; during the frequent stretches of solitary exploration and hunting, Aloy’s musings about the current situation, her comments and complaints as she’s scaling naked rock faces or prowling through waist-high grasses, never grow old. Burch isn’t the only shining star in the vocal cast; Lance Reddick is a name (and faithfully-recreated likeness) many will recognize. In general, the cast isn’t a who’s who of voiceover star power, but you wouldn’t know it from the overwhelming bulk of the performances. Elsewhere, the sound effects themselves are outstanding as well, serving a vitally important role during the many scrapes with the machines. Watchers wind up a mechanical screech just before unleashing a vicious tail lash, while Longlegs use a sonic shock to daze and confuse Aloy before attacking in a flurry of razor-sharp claws and talons. The only slight blemish is that the soundtrack is a little light on identifiable themes, aside from the main title theme, which appears in various forms throughout the game. It does, however, provide a well-written, well-orchestrated wall of music that provides a great accompaniment to Aloy’s adventure.
Horizon Zero Dawn is as close to a flawless RPG as one could hope for; developer Guerilla Games went for the gold in every respect, and it shows. The game boasts immense production values in its gorgeous art direction, and is stuffed to the gills with great voiceover performances, atmospheric and tuneful music, and visceral sound effects work. Even more importantly, it provides a top-notch story that delights in plunging the unsuspecting player headfirst down a rabbit hole of epic proportions, far and away its strongest achievement. This is coupled with a battle system that has been built from the ground up for flexibility and ease of use. The areas that do have room for improvement — namely a looser focus once the game world opens up and a shortage of heavy-hitting musical themes — are easily eclipsed by its many superb plus points. Guiding protagonist Aloy from a Nora outcast to the savior of her world is an amazing experience that explores the past and present, and indulges in one deliberately-paced revelation after another. In the end, it can best be summed up by three words: play it now!
A jaw-dropping story
Incredibly fun and flexible combat system
Breathtakingly gorgeous to look at
Errands dull the story's razor-sharp focus
Too few musical themes to stick in your head