“What if we lost?” This is the central question of many works of science fiction, and Guerrilla Games’ upcoming open-world action game, Horizon Zero Dawn, follows that long tradition. In this case, the question refers to humanity losing all that we’ve built, and becoming consumed by the technology that we’ve created. Horizon Zero Dawn’s open-world gives players a chance to experience an immense, deep world where robots rule, humans are the underdogs, and mystery surrounding the fate of the human race looms invariably.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in the far future, where life as we know it has ended after a mysterious extinction event, and humanity has been reduced to tribalism. Enormous, deadly robots roam the lands, and are a constant source of hardship for the fledgling human population. Horizon Zero Dawn tells the story of Aloy, a red-headed outcast who grew up in isolation, banished from her tribe at birth for an unknown reason. When Aloy comes of age, she seeks to regain membership into the Nora tribe and discover the origin of her expulsion, which seems inexplicably intertwined with her mother, or rather lack thereof. The plot quickly spirals into a much broader quest to save the Nora people, and humanity at-large, as Aloy is designated a Seeker by her people. The Seekers are an elite order of hallowed pathfinders tasked with exploring the vast lands beyond the Embrace, or Nora territory. Along the way, the mystery of Aloy’s parentage, and the untimely demise of the humans who mastered technology, known as the Old Ones, begins to surface.
The narrative shows promise at the outset, as it establishes a compelling setting and sets up an exciting premise of our hero setting out to explore the world as an ambassador for the Nora tribe, determined to save her people. As the plot progresses, however, it becomes bogged down by the lengthy, Hydra-headed story of the world’s origins thousands of years ago. It’s not that the origin story is especially uninteresting, but rather that it has little to do with our protagonist, and feels largely irrelevant to all of the things that make Horizon Zero Dawn enjoyable. In the latter half of the story, you spend hours watching lengthy holographic projections of events recorded eons ago, listening to old recordings, and reading diary entries. It draws the focus away from our protagonist, and instead focuses on characters which are mostly inconsequential, and tells of events that happened so long ago that they have only a peripheral bearing on current events. In the end, it’s hard to tell who the protagonist of Horizon Zero Dawn really is. For at least half of the game Aloy is the undisputed protagonist, but in the latter part of the game, the narrative pivots and makes an ancient, long-dead character the focus. And it’s disappointing, because Aloy is an interesting, genuinely likeable character, and I wanted the story to be about her.
Speaking of characters, Horizon Zero Dawn has a lot of them! As you explore the peculiar beauty of the ruined landscapes, you encounter a wide range of people from tribes with differing cultures and customs. Unfortunately, a lot of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, including a lot of the people at the center of the narrative. One character is a self-described drunk who talks about how he is drunk, and how he likes to get drunk nearly every time you speak with him. Another character is a ruthless bounty hunter who states that she is ruthless and reminds you that she is a bounty hunter every other sentence, as if she’s speaking to someone with severe short-term memory loss. It doesn’t help that a lot of the writing and voice acting for many of these characters is choppy and stale. The good news is that for most of the characters that matter, like Aloy and her adopted father Rost, the writing and performances really shine. Aloy quickly became one of my favorite video game characters in recent memory, and at times the interactions that she has with others are emotional, hilarious, and gripping, despite inconsistency.
Horizon Zero Dawn is at its best when the player is out in the world, exploring vast landscapes, encountering deadly machines, gaining new abilities and skills, and taking on side quests. From my 40 hours so far playing Horizon Zero Dawn, about three-quarters of my time was spent doing exactly that, and it was an absolute blast. The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is a breathtaking place with desert canyons, dense forests and swamps, icy mountains, massive human settlements, and dark caves with forgotten technology. Each area is filled with animal-like machines, from the timid Grazers, which resemble deer or antelope, to the massive sawtooths, which look like giant tyrannosaurus rexes with advanced weaponry mounted on their body. There are few better feelings than setting out into an unexplored area, and discovering new mechanical enemies, climbing colossal “tallneck” robots to get a better view of the surrounding area, hunting wildlife, and taking on daunting hunting lodge challenges, which are difficult time trial hunting quests. Horizon Zero Dawn offers a ton of content for players to explore at their own pace, and any of these activities make Aloy more powerful as she levels up, acquires skills, scrap for crafting, and acquires better equipment.
The combat in Horizon Zero Dawn is excellent, but will feel very familiar to anyone who has played a recent Far Cry or Tomb Raider game. Combat strongly favors stealth, and using a bow and arrow at long range. Over the course of the game, Aloy’s arsenal grows, and she has access to all sorts of destructive traps, bombs, and my personal favorite, armor-wrecking kinetic arrows. The skill trees available allow players to prioritize whichever play style they prefer, although I found open close-range combat to be nearly useless even at early stages in the game, as melee weapons don’t do much damage and Aloy gets killed pretty quickly at close range. Hiding in bushes, attacking with your knife while in stealth, and damaging enemies from afar with arrows and traps account for the vast majority of a player’s experience. Aloy also gains the ability to override her robot rivals and make them fight for her, which can lend some much-needed help during particularly challenging encounters. Weapons and armor can be upgraded and improved over the course of the game through purchasing new equipment with metal shards (Horizon Zero Dawn’s currency), and acquiring new items during quests.
Aloy is usually outnumbered and outmatched during combat, so to overcome the odds, she must make full-use of the tools available to her. I rarely make use of traps and stealth in open-world games, but Horizon Zero Dawn does a great job of making these options invaluable to the player. In a typical encounter, I found it best to set up various traps while sneaking around and doing some recon on the enemies in the area, then I would take out as many enemies with my knife as possible. If I ended up getting caught, then I’d fall back with my bow and do as much damage as possible, while the enemy ran toward me and fell victim to my traps. Seeing a plan come together as you single-handedly take down hordes of giant robots is an addictive, rewarding experience that left me feeling giddy every time.
Unfortunately, like many open-world games, Horizon Zero Dawn is prone to various glitches and crashes. Aloy will get stuck in between rocks, fast traveling will spawn you off the edge of a cliff, and the game will crash on you after ten hard-fought minutes of battling especially-tough enemies. Crashes only happened a handful of times during my playthrough, but in those cases it was especially heartbreaking, as it seemed to happen when I was on the verge of a major breakthrough. In one example I spent a great deal of time setting up a bunch of traps, and tied a Stormbird (a massive bird-like robot with lightning powers) to the ground using the ropecaster (a gun which can hold moving enemies in place for an extended period of time). After finally doing enough damage to remove most of its armor and nearly kill it, the game suddenly froze up. I had to put the controller down for a bit after this experience. That said, Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t nearly as glitchy as some other open-world games, so players shouldn’t feel too discouraged by this… but you have been warned.
There are also times when Horizon Zero Dawn can be laboriously repetitious, especially when it comes to the game’s main quest line. In open exploration, the player can simply do something else when they get bored, but in certain quests the player is required to participate in the same combat sections ad nauseum. One example is a side mission where the player must fight off waves of human enemies in a small combat arena, after which they must watch an unnecessarily long, unskippable cutscene of Aloy and her companion climbing up a cliff, only to repeat an identical combat section and the same climbing cutscene two additional times. The worst offense however, is in the main quest line, where nearly each mission in the second half of the game ends in an identical boss fight, down to almost the last detail. It’s disappointing when you have to retread through the same section of content over-and over again, but it’s much worse when this retreading is curiously mandated as a part of the primary narrative.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s visual presentation is excellent, especially when it comes to the environment, and its robotic inhabitants. It’s less excellent when it comes to humans though, as many characters have a bizarre dead look in their eyes, and are animated unnaturally. Again, this is par for the course with a lot of open-world games, but it’s worth noting. In 4K with HDR, Horizon Zero Dawn really shines — literally. The sun breaking through the canopy of a forest lights up the screen with an impressive lens flare that will make you want to shade your eyes. The power of the PS4 Pro is on full display here. The sound design, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. The voice acting and music are inconsistent throughout, with some sections being top-notch, while others are peculiar and annoying. In particular, I noticed a low rumble consistent throughout most of my time with the game, which was extremely unpleasant. Every time I went to a menu, or popped into a loading screen I became aware of the omnipresent, irritating noise. I checked my bass levels on my sound system, and everything was in order, so it seems to be an intentional part of the sound design.