Horizon: Zero Dawn Review

Many games make the mistake of confusing innovation with improvement, thinking that new concepts automatically equal a better experience. Horizon: Zero Dawn on the other hand shows that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, particularly if you have a really fantastic wheel. Much like the giant mechanical beasts that populate Horizon‘s landscape, the game is significantly more than the sum of its parts.

Guerrilla Games have always been known as a technical powerhouse with their signature Killzone series, bringing gritty sci-fi warfare to  PlayStation platforms over the years. I want you to bear this statement in mind when I tell you that Horizon: Zero Dawn makes everything that Guerrilla Games has ever previously done look amateurish by comparison. By any standard you wish to measure against, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a quantum leap forward for the studio, and has instantly become a worthy contender for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as the best PlayStation 4 exclusive title. Perhaps I’m giving away the outcome of the review, but I don’t want there to be any uncertainty when I begin to lay out my critique that this is an excellent game and a must buy for any PlayStation owner.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a third person, action/adventure game (with some light RPG elements) set in a distant future that has moved well beyond the collapse of modern civilization, and is now witnessing the tentative steps of new cultures, literally building out of the ruins of the old. Civilization as we know it today survives only as concrete and metal wreckage, slowly being consumed by natural vegetation that twists through the forgotten remnants of our world. Humanity has survived and thrived in this new world, reverting to primitive tribes that both fear and revere the ancient ruins, treating any uncovered relics of the past as equally compelling and dangerous. The most obvious and impactful of which are the strange, animalistic machines which now wander the landscape, each with its own place in this new ecosystem.

From the player’s perspective the link between the downfall of the modern world and the rise of these all-pervasive mechanical beasts is obvious, but their presence isn’t even questioned by the emergent cultures of this post-post-apocalypse; to them, this is the way it has always been. The mystery of this new world, of what happened to civilization, and why the machines have suddenly turned hostile, all come to head in the strange origins of the main character and her people. At its core, Horizon: Zero Dawn is the story of Aloy, an outcast of the Nora. Her perspective as an outsider of her tribe offers the player the perfect window into this new culture as we learn about Aloy’s world just as she does.

The story opens with Aloy as a child hiding in some bushes, spying on other Nora children gathering berries for the village. When she innocently tries to help, she is instantly shunned and treated as a non-entity. Crying and running through the woods, she stumbles and falls into a crevasse, finding herself trapped in an ancient underground ruin. Having little choice but to explore the forbidden place to find a way out, Aloy discovers a strange device called a Focus which, when placed on her temple, reveals information and hidden mysteries about the world around her. Immediately her sense of curiosity and wonder shines through, as through it she learns that she can read ancient computer logs, analyze machines, and find their weaknesses. At one point she even discovers a hologram of a long dead man wishing his son a happy birthday, showing her a poignant snapshot of a family unit that she had never known. Aloy is clearly intrigued by this recording, growing wistful after a second viewing. Using this new power she is able to pass through the bunker, finding her way back to her adopted father, Rost, who scolds her for entering the ruin and tries to take the relic away from her. Willful Aloy refuses to give up the Focus however, despite Rost’s warnings of the dangers such devices from the Metal World represent. Her brief glimpse into a hidden past is compelling to her however, particularly given the questions she has about her own mother.

Guerrilla’s presentation of Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s tutorial comes through Rost’s training of Aloy, and is the perfect example of Guerrilla setting high expectations for the player for the rest of the game. During the tutorial, the narrative is used to both communicate and facilitate learning important game concepts, even while being layered in among exposition that fleshes out the world in an almost backhanded fashion. It happens so organically that it never feels like you’re being hit over the head with the story. In fact, if anything the slow build whets the appetite of the player and makes the obligatory text and audio collectibles (called Datapoints) legitimately interesting, providing another fascinating insight into this unusual world. As the tutorial continues, systems and plot strands are skillfully layered on top of each other, slowly weaving the tapestry of the game as we learn right alongside Aloy. She learns about scavenging and crafting, making arrows and healing items from both naturally occurring resources and the harvested mechanical components of fallen enemies. The importance of stealth and how to avoid detection is stressed to her, guiding the player to take a more cautious approach when hunting the machines, to rely on subterfuge and prepared traps rather than relying on brute force. Finally Rost imparts to her training on how to hunt, showing how the machines have  armored plating but have weaknesses that can be exploited, further reinforcing taking a measured approach to even the simplest fight.

Supplementing Rost’s training, Aloy learns that the Focus can show her the weak points on the machines, both their physical locations and elemental effects that they are either strong or weak against. In addition, Aloy demonstrates the ability to visualize the route the machines take on their patrols, assisting in both stealthily avoiding a fight or planting traps to set an ambush. All of this while still subtly adding details to the story, and informing Aloy’s character. Her quest to find the truth about why she is an outcast and what happened to her mother set her on a path to become a warrior, to try to rejoin the tribe that she has never known. Cue an incredible training montage of Aloy perfecting her skills over years of effort, and finally the game opens up into regular play.

So many games have hamfisted tutorials, shoehorning in button prompts and arbitrary actions just to ensure that the player jumps through all the hoops needed to play the game. In under an hour, Horizon: Zero Dawn has outlined all of the basic mechanics of the entire game, laid in some basic world building, and sketched out the overall character arc for Aloy that will define her throughout the rest of the game. Three complicated components of a successful game, executed not only simultaneously, but effortlessly. The tutorial was the first time that I took note of a feature that is commonplace in similar games, but was implemented so well that I was forced to take note of it. Over the course of the next sixty hours of the game, it was certainly not the last time that a common feature did so.

Character progression in Horizon: Zero Dawn is through experience gained from either direct combat or the completion of the many quests in the game. As characters gain levels, they earn skill points which can be spent on either Prowler (stealth), Brave (combat), or Forager (scavenging) skill trees for a total of 36 possible skills to acquire. While they are of varying degrees of usefulness, not one of them did I find unnecessary over the course of the game. (As a side note, I highly recommend that you prioritize Silent Strike, Lure Call, and Concentration skills in that order as your first purchases in the game.)

Aside from a few minor traversal issues I had, mechanically Horizon: Zero Dawn is rock solid. Aloy can move from ranged to melee combat effortlessly, sliding or dodging as necessary to evade counterattack. Combat is satisfying, with weapons and hits feeling weighty and substantial. The machines themselves are incredibly impressive, able to move and react quickly and always adjusting to your tactics. Varying in size from the raptor-like Watcher all the way to the massive Tyrannosaurus Rex styled Thunderjaw, every enemy is impressively designed, conveying both realistic movements and weight. These implacable enemies always seem like a threat, no matter how powerful you get in the game, and even the smallest machine can inflict significant damage if you grow carelessness. Using your Focus, you can to identify weak points to target that can significantly shorten most combats, but may result in the destruction of valuable salvage if you aren’t careful (more on that later.) For more dangerous enemies, this becomes a necessary tactic to limit their combat effectiveness, for example pinpointing weapons or sensor systems and prioritizing their destruction over using other weak points to do direct damage. In some cases, like the Ravager Cannon or the Thunderjaw Disc Launcher, you can even turn their own weapons against them.

When hit, enemies react based on damage location, and vary their tactics based on which of their various components or weapons systems are damaged. Hitting a machine in a weak spot may cause them to stagger, or doing significant damage to a leg could cause them to fall down, leaving them open to additional attacks or exposing vulnerable areas. Knock an enemy down while they are charging, and they will literally tumble across the terrain, chewing up the ground as they thunder past you (or into you) with earthshaking force.

Pressing L1 brings up the weapon wheel, making switching weapons and crafting ammunition on the fly in the middle of combat so easy that it quickly becomes second nature.  Which is good because doing so is absolutely vital for your survival. The weapon wheel UI is clean, showing not only the attack value of each weapon available to you, but also exactly the type and quantity of each resource needed to craft ammo, including how much of each resource you have left.

Over the course of the game Aloy will acquire additional weapons, each with their own specific application. Bows do direct damage, usually with an additional elemental modifier or the ability to detonate and tear off armored plates. Slings also do direct elemental damage, but can be arced over obstacles or cover, and do area affect damage. Tripcasters can be used to set wire traps for wandering machines, and can cause damage without revealing your position, or slow down pursuers while you try to hide. Rattlers are basically machine guns, trading accuracy for rate of fire, which can be useful when stealth fails and you’re fighting in close quarters. Finally there are Ropecasters, which actually let you tether a machine to the ground to limit its mobility. The stronger the machine, the more ropes it will take, but this weapon is a key strategic asset when fighting extremely powerful machines like Stormbirds or the terrifying Thunderjaw. Aloy also can acquire different outfits, each of which bears a different modifier. Some will improve melee or ranged defense, others will provide additional elemental protection, and some will grant a bonus to your stealth, offering more strategic flexibility and possibly avoiding some fights entirely. Both weapons and outfits can be improved by modifications which can be found in chests or bought from vendors, but (like all good loot) the best versions of these modifications will only be found as random drops from powerful machines.

While scavenging or looting fallen enemies, you’re eventually going to run out of space. Similar to Far Cry, you have the option to craft larger storage containers for general inventory, or specific types of ammunition. If however you just can’t find the space, by looking in your inventory, the description of every item shows not only where you can find more, but exactly what each item is used for. No more wondering if you are selling an item that you might need again one day, you’ll be able to see immediately what is useful and what is just vendor trash (though they also have a buy back system, just in case.) When crafting an item if you don’t have everything you need for a recipe, or at a merchant if you don’t have the right items for trade, right from the crafting/merchant screen you have the option of creating an Errand, a sort of mini-quest that tracks your progress towards getting the items you need and notifies you when you’ve completed your goal. When attacking machines for their important components, the game offers this marvelous risk/reward system that often forces you to adjust your tactics and attack creatures in a more strategic fashion in order to prevent the destruction of the very components that you’re trying to harvest. For example, detonating the Power Cells on a Thunderjaw’s belly will inflict a lot of damage, but at the expense of destroying all the Chillwater that those Cells carry. As a result, sometimes it is beneficial to approach combat in a less efficient way, if at that moment salvage is a more pressing concern than survival.

There is little that I can say about Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s narrative that isn’t a spoiler to some degree (I can’t even bring up Lance Reddick’s role as Sylens, despite his usual fantastic performance), so I will endeavor to paint in broad strokes. Aloy herself is an amazing character, skillfully brought to life by Ashley Burch (Tiny Tina from Borderlands 2, Chloe in Life is Strange). Simultaneously strong and vulnerable, she is our sympathetic conduit for understanding the mysteries of her world. Aloy’s quest for answers eventually leads her out of the sacred lands of the Nora, leading her to interact with many different cultures, each with their own unique customs and beliefs. Ironically, Aloy’s status as a Nora outcast distanced herself from her own culture, but everyone else sees her as nothing but a Nora ‘savage’, so she is effectively treated as an outsider everywhere she goes. She deals with the machine savvy Banuk, the staunchly patriarchal Oseram, the newly liberated Carja and their Shadow Carja brethren, cast out of Meridian after the fall of the Mad Sun-King. Every conversation contributes to this subtle world building, every side quest grants a little more dimension to the cultures and characters that you deal with. Each character is very well fleshed out, blurring the line between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ characters, allowing you to form attachments even to those who you only see for a very short period of time (shout out to my girl, Petra Forgewoman.) Similarly no individual quest, either main or side, feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things; they’re all building to the ultimate conclusion of the story. When finally Aloy starts to learn the full truth of how the world collapsed and how it relates to her role, as the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together, it is fucking bleak. The realization of the sheer enormity of it is an amazing payoff to a carefully crafted narrative structure that links the past, present and ultimate future of these emergent cultures into a very satisfying conclusion that leaves you as the player both satisfied and begging for more.

Up until this point, I have not mentioned graphics at all, and it’s important that you take note of this fact, because Horizon: Zero Dawn has the most impressive graphics I’ve ever seen in a console game (controversially including Uncharted 4.) All of the environments, character designs, creatures and machines have such amazing depth and complexity that I almost spent as much time in photo mode as I did playing the game itself. That is actually a literal truth, as over the course of the game I took well over 400 screenshots. Horizon: Zero Dawn is now the de facto showpiece for the PlayStation 4 Pro, taking an already beautiful game and adding a level of fidelity that seems unbelievable in games today. The HDR lighting alone plays such an incredible role in bringing the visuals to life, blowing out your vision during massive fires, or throwing your silhouette into sharp relief when the cold electric blue eyes of an enemy sensor snap to red. At the beginning of this paragraph, I asked you to take note of the fact that I left off mentioning the graphics of Horizon: Zero Dawn until the very end, and the reason that this is noteworthy is because that should indicate to you how solid this game is in every other area. Paradoxically, the graphics are so good that they almost aren’t even worth mentioning, because there are a million screenshots out there with the hashtag #HZDPhotoMode that will let you see its impressive visuals for yourself.

Nailing this game right out of the gate has moved the needle on Guerrilla Games being seen as ‘that studio that does Killzone‘ firmly into the top tier of first party Sony studios. Like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Horizon: Zero Dawn strikes a perfect balance of scavenging / crafting mechanics of Far Cry, and the pulp adventure of Uncharted. It has a compelling narrative and characters like The Last of Us, but still manages to be an open world exploration game like Assassin’s Creed. At its core, Horizon: Zero Dawn may offer a lot of familiar systems and concepts, but it does so with such polish and attention to efficiency that as a whole the game feels like Guerrilla’s been doing third person games action/adventure RPG hybrids forever. As much as it might sadden me to not see Guerrilla Games make a new Killzone game any time soon, if that’s the trade-off that’s required for more Horizon: Zero Dawn, they wouldn’t even have finished the sentence before I’d have taken that deal.

FINAL SCORE THE GOOD THE BAD
9.0
  • Fantastic characters and worldbuilding
  • Excellent showcase of PS4 Pro graphics
  • Gameplay is tight and responsive
  • Even sidequests tie into main plot
  • Unable to buy crafting materials in bulk
  • Gameplay sticks to safe territory
  • Can sometimes be dogpiled by enemies
  • Has ruined me for other games
Horizon: Zero Dawn · Played to completion (~60 hours) · Purchased game

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Jack McBastard on Email
Jack McBastard
Editor in Chief and Co-Super President at Digital Fiasco
Hailing from parts unknown, Jack McBastard is more machine than man, twisted and evil. He doesn't agree with the other four dentists, and always stays crispy in milk.
Favorite games include Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, XCOM.