Horizon Zero Dawn review – an epic adventure
A few blockbuster debuts throughout gaming history have had a surreal, uncanny power to them. You know it when you feel it: a certain magnetism pulling you in, that can’t-stop-thinking-about-it quality. Their stories and worlds are so unique and satisfying, married to such high-quality gameplay and visuals, that you can practically see the franchise to come. An epic journey passes by in an instant. You instantly fall in love with characters and can’t wait to play more.
Horizon Zero Dawn marks one such debut, a modern classic that’s compulsively playable and creatively ambitious. A wealth of new ideas top-to-bottom make everything from the story and heroine Aloy to the way she fights hugely interesting. But it’s not enough to be merely interesting. Guerrilla Games has trimmed the fat off open-world RPGs in 2017 and polished what remains to a mirror sheen. The result is a more focused adventure that sidesteps a common pitfall of gargantuan games: their never-ending checklist of activities. Instead, Horizon presents a legitimately challenging adventure that never loses steam as you rocket from revelation to fearsome boss fight and back again.
The pace and exposition make for truly excellent science-fiction. This is post-post-apocalyptic Earth. Animalistic machines with the appearance of predatory wolves, grazing cattle, ferocious birds, and everything in-between stalk lush forests and vast desert stretches. In the spaces between, pockets of humanity have adopted tribal cultures, placing community and sacred traditions above all else. People have filled in the gaps left by the apocalypse with new gods–and with them, new reasons to go to war and cast judgment. The commentary on our own world isn’t subtle, but it’s extremely well done. Guerrilla has imagined a future where, reduced to a simpler existence and harsh conditions, humanity’s darkest and brightest traits are on display–in the Nora tribe’s fanatical devotion to the All-mother, in the Oseram tribe’s pragmatic wartime readiness.
The tribes and their starkly unique cultures make Aloy and player alike feel like true foreigners from region to region. Aloy is usually discovering things about her world at the same time you are, which lends intrigue to the journey and its ever-present question: How did we get here? When it comes to answering this question, Horizon Zero Dawn is supremely satisfying. The danger of a world this interesting is that its makers won’t follow through on the very questions and concepts that make it so. Too often we’ve been left hanging in service to a sequel, or because the answers didn’t exist yet.
Not so with Horizon. So many questions are raised as the game expertly unfolds its storytelling layers, and nearly all of them are answered. The tale is epic and sweeping, but remarkably self-contained, for which the writing deserves immense credit. This isn’t the longest of RPGs, which means dialogue has to quickly and convincingly introduce megaton plot twists that still feel earned, all while avoiding plot holes and feeling believable. Horizon doesn’t just do this, it does so often, and sometimes in quick succession. This cohesion elevates Horizon’s narrative to masterpiece status. There’s allegory and symbolism to unpack if you so desire, but more importantly, Horizon offers a robust, fascinating tale that steps on the gas early and never lets up.
The lore and world-building may be excellent, but Aloy is the star and emotional core. She positively pops with personality, skepticism, and wit, grounding the tale in someone relatable and likable. Her distinct look is that of a PlayStation icon in the making, and her unique perspective on the world is an effective lens through which the player can interpret. Motherless from an early age, she is raised an outcast, never subscribing to the beliefs or culture of the people around her. Having never left her homeland, the rest of the world map is foreign to her, and she embarks on a journey that’s personal and intimate, not in service to a tribe or nation. Her story offers a highly refreshing counterpoint to traditional world-saving RPG fare, and Horizon does an admirable job juggling both. Even when the stakes grow wider and peoples’ expectations mount, she’s unafraid to periodically ask questions and chase answers only she cares about. And, like any great story, her character growth imparts meaning of its own–lessons to take with us at journey’s end.
Horizon’s setting and story are wholly unique, but Aloy’s capability and resourcefulness as a female lead are equally refreshing. She’s acrobatic and powerful, running and rolling with deliberate, confident motions. When her tools and speed collide with fearsome metal monsters, it makes for action-heavy gameplay that’s fast, exciting, and consistently challenging.
Horizon boasts RPG trappings like skill points and equipment, but the soul of this game is action-adventure, and Guerrilla brings its Killzone sensibilities to the table for some truly white-knuckle encounters. Unlike many RPGs, you can’t trivialize battles by grinding out levels to raise strength and defense nor brute-force your way through boss fights with enough health potions. Skill points from leveling up are spent on combat tools like sneak attacks and slow-motion aiming, not stat boosts. Weapons and outfits are distinguished far more by obvious and dramatic trade-offs in damage type and elemental weakness than they are by number increases.
In real-time, Horizon practically demands that you assess a combat situation quickly, consider your tools, find the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, and exploit them with speed and precise aim. The mechanics of aiming and movement are suitably precise and polished, but any misstep along the way could be fatal. Forgetting to swap stealth armor for a frost-resistant suit could mean death in just a few hits. Choosing to buy traps and weapons instead of a new outfit is tacitly embracing a strong offense at the cost of self-preservation. The game’s economy can be similarly challenging. You may desire that outfit which protects from melee attacks, but you’re missing the Shell-Walker Heart the merchant demands. So begins the hunt, with its own challenges and costs.
On top of everything, machines can be ferociously aggressive and unrelenting in their assault. They grant no reprieve as they leap far distances to crush you from above (following up with a tail whip or stomp for good measure). Frustratingly agile and intelligent, they’ll starting dodging traps after the first couple and have a nasty habit of striking you from behind while you’re engaging their friends. All told, they demand respect. In a somewhat rare turn for video games, the sudden appearance of a new enemy type is an uncertain (even scary) event. Horizon hearkens back to a time when boss fights were memorable and imposing–when beating a game felt victorious, not automatic.
With invigorating difficulty, Horizon approaches the line between fair and cheap, sporadically crossing it. On Normal, some action-game skill is required, and I found Horizon to be significantly harder than games that control similarly (think Rise of the Tomb Raider or Uncharted). But a large, towering machine once moved so fast my slow-motion aiming couldn’t keep up with its lateral movement, and some foes will attack from outside your field of view in ways that are difficult to reliably dodge. Admittedly, after a few encounters with enemies that once had me pulling my hair, I felt rewarded as I took them down faster and more confidently. A few cheap deaths, where Aloy didn’t feel equipped to deal with the machines, still frustrated me, but if those are the occasional cost of thrilling battles I never take for granted, I’ll gladly pay the nostalgic leg-slapping.
Aloy’s Focus is the first step toward evening the odds. Clicking R3 activates this enhanced vision, which highlights noteworthy structural elements of machines. From the invisible safety of tall grass, I scan a Ravager, a wolf-like quadripedal robot with incredible speed. The small, box-shaped power cell on his back glows yellow, as does the freeze canister on the underside of his belly. I act quickly–in the span of several seconds, I fire a Shock Arrow at the power cell, triggering an electric explosion that deals hefty damage and stuns the machine. Before the Ravager can muster a counterattack, I switch to my Ropecaster and begin firing, pinning roped arrows into its body and sticking them in the ground. With the Ravager fully immobilized, I pull out my Freeze Arrows, only to find the underbelly canister is encased in metal and inaccessible. Before I can react, a nearby Thunderjaw charges me from behind. Half of my health is gone in an instant, and in that micro-second, I must decide: finish the Ravager to keep him out of the fight, or switch attention to the Thunderjaw, from whom one more hit is fatal?
The fight could have played out several ways–notably, by opting not to surgically remove the Ravagar’s back-mounted machine gun with a Tear Arrow, I’m unable to use its cannon against the Thunderjaw. I could have given myself more breathing room by tying down the Thunderjaw with a Ropecaster first, or vice versa. Through trial and error, by getting knocked around and facing real adversity, my combat instincts improve to give me a fighting chance. Skill points help make that stand, too. Earned with each level-up and some important quests, these are put toward increasingly costly abilities in one of three trees. In the early hours, these choices are difficult and meaningful. Whether to unlock stealth kills from above or a chance for extra resources when looting machines is a tough proposition and emblematic of how the skill trees embrace different playstyles. The choices remain interesting until you start running out of choices to make. I found the progression a bit too generous; I stopped doing side content about halfway through my playthrough, and by game’s end, I had still unlocked 32 out of 36 skills.
In general, Horizon’s RPG systems are streamlined in favor of fun and accessibility. Resource management and crafting allows you to customize your weapons and armor while challenging you to stay stocked up on component parts, but these systems are generous and not overly complex. Ridge-Wood is plentiful and used for many arrow types. Elemental components like Chillwater (Freeze) and Blaze (Fire) are clearly denoted by name and color. The economy is focused on Metal Shards as currency, and you can make a healthy amount by selling components like Chillwater, but many of these are also needed for ammo crafting. The result is a persistent, casual need to control your resources, feeling out when it’s time to restock or if you’re clear to sell the excess. The same goes for machine parts like Hearts and Lenses. These fetch a great price, but an outfit upgrade down the line might require one as a part of the transaction. Part of Horizon’s unique challenge is recognizing skill beats numbers and weighing the opportunity cost of selling now what you could want later.
The limited resources and their clear uses make for a gentle learning curve with no dense, superfluous game systems to manage. Indeed, resource management and crafting coalesce in a fun, accessible way. Holding L1 slows the action to a crawl with a radial menu of up to four equipped weapons. Tilting the left stick toward an ammo type and holding X will craft more of it, if you can, and your total remaining resources are always displayed. Meanwhile, slotting your weapons and armor with stat-boosting mods, typically looted from enemies, is as simple as a few menu clicks. These systems, traditionally trapped behind NPCs or deep menus, are snappy and responsive. Combat, crafting, and looting all bleed into each other for an exciting, near-addictive game flow.
Combined with Guerilla’s focus on quality side content versus overwhelming quantity, Horizon can initially feel lean, but only by comparison to more bloated, overwrought RPGs. A fair criticism of some open-world games is the main story can get lost behind a never-ending checklist of side activities and associated systems. Pacing and tension can be compromised by too much freedom. By the Goldilocks principle, Horizon feels just right. The world is large enough to offer grand vistas and impressive environmental diversity, but not so large that activities are separated by barren space. Moving from quest to combat to city is quick and easy, so even short play sessions feel productive. Some side quests are on-par with the main story’s quality. Others shed story for challenging time trials or unique atmosphere. But my quest log never felt imposing. By the time the full scale of the world and its activities became apparent, the main quest had kicked into higher gear and become irresistible. Horizon’s side content actually feels like side content–optional fun to flesh out the world or break up the gameplay–and not the main attraction.
The beauty of Horizon’s world is an attraction of its own. Radiant sunlight casts shadows and god rays over incredibly detailed forests, snowy mountains, and canyons. Dense foliage covers the ground just about everywhere you’d expect, making the world feel alive and believable–to say nothing of the vivid particle effects. The machines are marvels in their own right, marvelously detailed down to the metallic sheen of armor and the dark, sinewy tubing that connects their limbs. Both PS4 and PS4 Pro maintain a consistent 30fps (brief drops are more common on PS4) and sport comparable levels of local detail, but PS4 Pro’s smoother framerate, checkerboard 4K, anisotropic filtering, and greater long-range detail make use of the hardware bump. Incidentally, HDR on either platform is a visual treat. Not every game’s implementation is equal, but Horizon dials up the natural brightness to sun-bake the earth, amplify local light sources, and cast a natural glow over environments and characters.
Beneath the beautiful surface is something greater: a triumphant beginning. Horizon enters rarefied air by telling an amazing story and building a compelling world atop excellent, challenging gameplay. With this debut, Guerrilla Games reinvigorates the open-world RPG, setting a laser focus on what’s fun and meaningful while permitting only mechanics that complement the player’s skill. Its rewards don’t come easily, but they are tremendous. Horizon Zero Dawn stands among the greatest debuts in modern gaming and is one of PS4’s best games.