Horizon: Zero Dawn takes familiar open world elements and makes them its own, but it is the game’s blend of nature and technology that help create a memorable PS4 exclusive.
Horizon: Zero Dawn wears its inspirations on its sleeves. But where other games simply copy the frame work of popular franchises and try to replicate their success, Guerrilla Games’ latest, a complete departure from its Killzone series, takes inspiration from its forebears and tries to meld it into something familiar and evolutionary. And by and large Guerrilla’s methods work, making Horizon: Zero Dawn into a layered and memorable open world RPG.
The story in Horizon: Zero Dawn has familiar trappings as well. Players are put into control of Aloy, a young girl born into a world where humans are practically extinct and nature has reclaimed most of the planet. The game may be set several hundred years in the future, but the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn has a lot more in common with a Western, with wide open plains, snow-covered mountains, and lush forests. If not for the sparse civilized communities and the roaming robotic “animals,” Horizon: Zero Dawn could have easily been set in pre-colonial America.
Overall, the character and story work in Horizon: Zero Dawn is strong enough to make the narrative engaging, but there are some small gripes to be had here and there. Character interactions, for example, can feel stiff at times, especially with a dialogue tree that is focused on exposition. Similarly, while the facial and character detail in Horizon: Zero Dawn is of a high caliber, the animations during those dialogue bits are awkward and occasionally lifeless. Thankfully, the game spends just as much of its run time using exploration as its storytelling device, giving players new threads as they learn about Aloy’s history and the machines that seemingly eliminated most of human civilization.
But of course, it’s the existence of those robotic animals and futuristic technology that help give Aloy’s world a little extra flavor. As she tries to understand her ancestry and work to uncover a looming threat, the player will be thrust into a world that is a wonder to explore. Many games seek to capture the Midwest in an open world setting, but Horizon feels like the first game to nail it. And with a dynamic weather and lighting system, the same environments can take on several different personalities depending on when the player ventures through them. There are also areas that are clearly from the technologically advanced era that predates the game, highlighted by pristine futuristic areas or rundown facilities that have been swallowed up by time. Much like the open world environments, these futuristic installations are carefully crafted and offer plenty of treats for explorers.
There are so many tiny details in Horizon: Zero Dawn that it’s easy to see why the game is such a passion project for Guerrilla. From the small pieces of rope and fabric in Aloy’s outfits, to the numerous moving parts on the mechanical creatures, Horizon has that current-gen polish gamers love to see. Speaking of the mechanical creatures, they are easily a highlight of the game. The developers do a great job of imbuing them with the personalities of organic animals, but they become something else with the added technological aspect. No doubt, players will recognize the Glinthawk or the Strider’s form, but challenging them to battle will reveal these are menacing machines.
Horizon offers many different gameplay opportunities, but it is the hunt of these machines – or them hunting you – that highlights what makes the game so special. With so many tools at Aloy’s disposal, from modified bows to tripwire launchers to slingshots, players will be able to create strategies and setup the encounter before actually firing the first arrow. Perhaps an enemy is weak to fire, so Aloy sets up a fire tripwire in its path and crafts a handful of fire arrows. Or perhaps the enemy is weak against explosions, so Aloy readies up a few blast traps and stocks her slighshot with explosive ammunition. Once players do initiate the conflict, however, the battles can be over with two quick hits from Aloy’s spear, or they can become an intense push-and-pull where players will need to use everything at their disposal.
Truly, Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of those rare games where a compliment of weapons, potions, and traps are necessary for success, and very few encounters with the machines feel like pushovers. Sometimes a stealth approach is the best course of action, while other missions require a lot of firepower. Then there is the added element of the Focus, a piece of future tech that Aloy uses to scan enemies and find their weaknesses/ strengths. With the Focus, players can further expand their strategies to knock offensive parts off creatures, or deal massive damage to key weak points. Coupled together, these elements turn each encounter into a mini-boss fight (sometimes even a normal boss fight), as players exploit the creatures’ weakness and avoid their varied attacks. There’s even a full skill tree to help make future fights easier and to better equip Aloy for the tougher machine enemies later in the game.
Unfortunately, where the mechanical creature encounters in Horizon: Zero Dawn typify the game at its best, the human combat is less inspired. Most human enemy combat sequences boil down to basic ranged or melee fights without the need for strategy or pre-planning. In stealth situations, for example, it’s possible to eliminate two targets right next to each other, without either acknowledging the nearby murder. Or if the player is hidden in a patch of tall grass, they can lure enemies one by one to their hiding place, take them out, and no one is any the wiser. That’s not to say the human enemies are boring looking or don’t offer a challenge, but when the tech-based enemies are so unique and afford a memorable and dynamic combat experience, it’s a shame the human enemies can’t at least meet that same level.
Lucky for Horizon: Zero Dawn, the creature encounters take up a much larger portion of the experience than the human ones, as players explore the sprawling open world. Yes, there is a focused series of main quests and side quests, but Horizon lives up to its billing as an open world experience with numerous “things” to do outside of the main story. It’s here that the game feels most familiar, while still iterating in some smart ways. Crafting is a huge part of the game, and there are plenty of bits and bobbles to collect as players move forward. The world is also littered with organic animals to hunt, plants to harvest, and the usual selection of collectibles, but very little about the collecting and crafting feels tedious; it’s all necessary and motivated by the needs of the gameplay loop.
Still, a game that fleshes out its experience with familiar open world tropes deserves its fair share of criticism and is not going to be for everyone. At times the game does feel like there is quite a bit of filler, and the same types of critiques that are raised against Horizon: Zero Dawn’s open world forebears will apply here as well. The exploration isn’t particularly boring or copy-and-paste, but some will be disappointed to see how much of the title relies on emergent open world gameplay. There are plenty of story-driven missions to complete, but a lot of the fun players reap from the game will come from how much they enjoy (or don’t enjoy) interacting with the systems and exploring the open world, but personally that didn’t make Horizon: Zero Dawn any less engrossing.
Dark Souls, Far Cry Primal (or any open world Ubisoft game), Uncharted – these are just a few of the games players will cite when finding points of comparison for Horizon: Zero Dawn. But the Guerrilla Games developers have made sure that its game still feels unique by comparison, thanks to a vibrant world bursting with stunning detail, challenging robotic enemies, and a story that explores an uncivilized world in an inventive way. Some weak AI, awkward dialogue sections, and a prototypical open world framework are the game’s bigger faults, but they don’t weigh the game down to much or ruin the experience. When all is said and done, Horizon: Zero Dawn could easily be Sony’s next great franchise, but even as a one-off it’s very impressive.
Horizon: Zero Dawn releases February 28, 2017 for PS4. Game Rant was provided a PS4 copy for this review.