Horizon Zero Dawn is the first game in recent memory where I’ve been thrown into a post-apocalyptic future and actually believed in the world around me. Horizon places you 1,000 years into the future, when humanity has been reduced to tribal societies, and machines roam the land. The concept sounds far-fetched and yet every minute I spent in the game enhanced my immersion in the story, instead of making me question why the trash hasn’t been cleaned up in the 250 years since the bombs dropped. (Yeah, I’m talking about Fallout 4).
Horizon’s world is glorious to look at and explore. The map may not be the biggest I’ve ever seen, but there’s a variety of environments from dense jungles, to snowy mountains, to dry desert. There are a few too many ‘RPG-lite’ mechanics in place for my liking, but Horizon’s combat and story are phenomenal and you’ll crave more of both after reaching the end.
The opening credits set the scene beautifully, with a man called Rost carrying baby Aloy through a world where large machines roam the land in the guise of animals and dinosaurs. What’s left of humanity has gathered into tribal societies of varying degrees of sophistication. The first tribe we meet–the Nora–are a matriarchal society with such a strong religious fervor that they banish Aloy for supposedly being born without a mother.
Rost and Aloy live as outcasts, prohibited from even talking to members of the Nora tribe. Rost teaches Aloy how to fight–and avoid fighting–the dangerous machines that roam the landscape, but Aloy has her heart set on a bigger goal. She wants to know who her mother is, and she’ll do whatever it takes to find out. Fortunately, Aloy’s desire to find out more about her mother and the world around her lined up nicely with my own desires as a player. I couldn’t wait to unravel the mysteries that were slowly teased out through exploring the world and completing the main quests. There’s none of that ludo-narrative dissonance nonsense here. (Looking at you, Fallout 4).
The story starts off slowly, teasing its mysteries and reeling you in, before lumbering through a bloated middle act. Just when you think Horizon might fail to live up to the intriguing premise, the big reveals start hitting you with every main quest. The amount of thought put into the premise is worthy of high praise. Every time I thought I’d found a plot-hole, the story would quickly plug the leak and wipe the arrogant smile from my face. I loved it. I suspect Horizon’s main premise–Aloy fighting large machines–came first and then the story was built around it; however, so much care has been taken in developing the story that I didn’t notice.
Horizon’s story is strong, and yet the combat will constantly pull at your desire to power linearly through the main quests. For many players, the story might just be an excuse for some incredible combat. There are over 20 different types of machine roaming the world and you’ll need to continuously change up your tactics in order to defeat them all.
Aloy’s focus device helps identify weak spots on machines, but there’s far more to combat than just hitting the obvious green bits. When Aloy first ventures out into the world, she can take out Watchers with a carefully aimed arrow to the eye. From there, progression comes so smoothly you won’t even notice your own skills improving. Grazers can be taken out with a few fire arrows, and the Sawtooths–machines resembling saber-toothed cats–are much easier to defeat after they’ve stumbled into a carefully placed tripwire. Fire-breathing Bellowbacks can be frozen and then blown-up with an arrow to their fire sac (sounds painful!).
You’ll soon become adept at combat, but any developing cockiness will soon evaporate the first time you see a Thunderjaw; a machine that looks like a T-Rex except with massive guns instead of tiny arms. Those guns aren’t just decoration and you’ll likely get torn to shreds the first time you stumble into this thing. Fear not, you can rip those guns off and use them against it.
With seven different weapons on offer and a variety of elemental damage types, you can mix things up however you want. My only major complaint is that the weapon wheel is limited to four weapons, which means you’ll likely pick your favorites and only swap them out in extreme circumstances. I picked two types of bow, a slingshot, and a ropecaster, but such is the variety that I’m sure other players will adopt completely different set-ups.
You can even turn machines against each other. Four cauldrons are littered around the world, and if you complete these puzzle dungeons you’ll gain the ability to corrupt machines which can then fight on Aloy’s behalf. Watching two Thunderjaws go up against each other is awe-inspiring.
Unfortunately, combat isn’t just woman vs machine. There are plenty of bandits littered around in camps that you’re encouraged to take over, and the main quest line has you fighting a group of humans called the Eclipse. Aloy’s just as capable against humans, but this combat is nowhere near as fun or varied. Most enemy encounters are set up to favor a stealth approach which means ‘hiding’ in tall grass and whistling to encourage enemies to walk over for a critical hit. It’s a system that’s almost impossible not to abuse to breaking point. Aloy can sit in the grass and whistle to her heart’s content, and your opponents will never question the big pile of bodies lying next to you. You can’t hide the bodies, but why would you want to? Enemies never raise the alarm in response to dead bodies. Instead, they just crouch down and look at it until you’ve lined up your headshot. There’s no doubting that the machines are the star of the show in Horizon, but it’s disappointing to see so little effort put into the human AI.
You know you’re playing a good game when one of the best video game characters of the last ten years is the third best feature after the combat and story. Aloy is
a strong female protagonist an incredible character, who doesn’t hesitate to end a conversation with a firm put down or sarcastic remark. She’s in a small league of video game characters who feel like people. Actual, believable people. My only complaint is that she spends the vast majority of the game by herself. She desperately needs a companion to bounce off in the way that Nathan Drake does with Sully, Elena, Chloe, and Sam. Talking to herself only goes so far.
Horizon wouldn’t be a video game in 2017 if it didn’t ram some RPG elements down your throat. This is the one place the game feels under-baked. There’s an exhaustive skill tree to unlock new abilities which fall into one of three categories: (1) skills that should have been available from the beginning; (2) skills that enhance existing abilities; and (3) skills that you’ll never use anyway. It’s rather uninspiring and could have been completely scrapped without much loss.
Likewise, Aloy needs to do a fair bit of crafting during battles, and inventory management after them. The crafting can be done on the fly by slowing down time, and it’s so quick and easy you’ll rarely be all that bothered by it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the inventory management, which is a constant hassle as you try to collect your hard earned loot and decide what to drop. Many items you collect can be ‘stacked’ so Aloy can carry multiple in one slot, but just as many items take up a slot by themselves. It’s all a little messy and unnecessary.
Aloy can add mods to her weapons and armor, to enhance different damage types and protection. However, even when decked out in rare armor with the best bows and slingshots scraps can buy, you still can’t take your safety for granted. Large packs of watchers and grazers can still wipe Aloy out near the end of the game if you’re not careful. And don’t even get me started on those damn Glinthawks. These airborne pests are hard to hit–partly due to a cumbersome camera–and they swoop down in packs to have you frantically firing your ropecaster, hoping to tie one down to the ground for a critical hit.
Horizon is littered with the usual open-world nonsense that I’ve come to expect in games these days. The list of checklists to complete can appear intimidating at first; however, Guerrilla Games has done a great job of keeping the less interesting stuff out of the way if you’re not a completionist. Climbing large giraffe-like machines called Tallnecks opens up points of interest on the map, with the downside being that the map quickly becomes cumbersome to navigate. The map desperately needs a legend and filter to cut down on the noise.
For those who like collectibles, there are audio and data logs to collect, and a few other trinkets that can be sold to collectors. The logs are well worth listening to or reading. They provide snippets of interesting information related to the quest you’re currently playing. I often found myself putting the pieces together seconds before an official cutscene popped up to confirm my suspicion. It’s leagues ahead of the random lore dumps you typically see in open world games.
When you’re not progressing with the main quest, there are plenty of developed side quests to get your sawteeth into. Quests categorized as “errands” can largely be ignored without missing much, but the main side quests are genuinely worth exploring. There are a handful of fleshed out characters who help you understand the world and those who inhabit it, without the need for large exposition dumps. By completing side quests, I learned all about the Carja tribe, who are struggling to rebuild their reputation after the brutal reign of the previous king. Not all tribes get the same amount of attention, but each plays its part in proceedings.
Here’s the real shocker. Hold on to your hats. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably. Put your phone on silent. It’s my pleasure to let you know that Horizon Zero Dawn is a complete, working game. [Pause to let that sink in]. There’s a complete story in the game, albeit with a small sequel teaser, and only a couple of minor technical issues. In my fifty hours with the game, I only encountered two glitches: once when I got stuck in the environment and once when a quest failed to complete, requiring a quick reload. The level of polish in Horizon should serve as an example of the standard the games industry needs to meet more often. (Do I need to mention Fallout 4 again?)
Horizon Zero Dawn hits the trifecta. Incredible combat, story, and characters. It’s also polished and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. I can’t imagine I’ll play it again anytime soon, but the fifty hours I spent with Horizon were some of the best I’ve ever had.