Horizon Zero Dawn is a departure for developer Guerrilla – not just in terms of perspective, but also design. Heated hunts and a solid progression structure, in tandem with a bold and colourful art style, propel it over its open-world peers – but drawbacks in camera control, encounter design, and traversal stop it from reaching the apex spot.
Humanity is all but extinct, following a nameless catastrophe that engulfed the planet. Fast-forward into the future, and primitive civilizations have risen from the ashes. Players take on the role of Aloy, as she combats an evil tribe with the ability to control metal machines. What follows is your typical hero’s journey, but with some interesting twists and turns along the way that stop it from becoming too familiar.
Getting through the main story will take you about 20 hours, but there’s also a collection of side-quests available. Doing these will introduce you to new characters, and allow you to explore Aloy a bit. Headstrong, calculating, or thoughtful dialogue options can be selected via a Mass Effect-style wheel, but they don’t take away from any of her defining traits – she’s cool, confident, and witty. You aren’t making your own Aloy, you’re just seeing different facets of her personality.
The world that Guerrilla have created is indelible. Tribes live in the shadows of something much larger than themselves – not just the hollowed-out husks of our former civilization, but the robotic dinosaurs and jaguars that infest it. These creatures pose a real challenge, and make the world feel dangerous. You’ll be presented with encounters early on that will require you to run or hide to survive.
Fights with the local wildlife are one of Horizon Zero Dawn’s best elements. They start slow, as you scope out your surroundings and the structural weaknesses of the machines. You’ll methodically set up traps and tripwires around choke-points, and then wait for that one perfect shot to start the whole thing rolling. From there fights pivot, becoming fast and chaotic. Twitchy reactions are needed to avoid being trampled, and intimate knowledge of your tools and weapons are required to pry the protective plating from your foes.
The level of quality in encounter design does see a dip when human enemies are introduced, however. Bandits and raiders make up the bulk of what you’ll see here, and they occupy encampments, abandoned villages, and ruins. Opportunities to break line of sight are rare, and most fights devolve into you clumsily finding cover to hide behind. Your most reliable tactic is to exploit the game’s weak AI – calling enemies into bushes to be stealth killed, as they ignore the growing pile of bodies nearby.
The camera struggles in these fights too. In enclosed areas it’ll get snagged on geometry, and with no ability to swap the shoulder you’re aiming over, some tight corridors just become death traps. When executing melee strikes, Aloy gravitates towards her foes to make sure that attacks connect – but the camera doesn’t keep up. Successive melee strikes can make her fall off the screen entirely. Your viewpoint doesn’t recover snappily enough either, meaning you’ll have to aim your bow to reset the camera position.
The scrappy, scrounging nature of humanity is reflected well in the game’s progression systems though. You’re perpetually picking up ingredients and harvesting materials, so you can build more arrows, traps, or other tools. This is extended further by gear with different rarity ratings, modifications, and skill trees. The loop of hunting foes to acquire more resources, upgrading your gear, unlocking new abilities, and using that to target bigger creatures, is incredibly satisfying. There’s also a tangible jump in power between different tiers of gear. They don’t just offer higher damage numbers, but also present new ways to play the game, like elemental attacks.
Unfortunately, the game does a poor job of comparing relative stats of gear – meaning you’ll be jumping between a vendor’s window and your own inventory to see the scope of these benefits. It’s cumbersome, and something other games have figured out before.
But what the game lacks in user experience, it makes up for in its visual treatment. Expansive plains, derelict dustbowls, and steamy jungles are the backdrop for your journey, with small civilizations and cities dotted throughout. Each one carries its own unique flora, fauna, and colour scheme – but the flourishes presented by the time of day and weather conditions cement the game’s position as one of the prettiest titles on the market. Trees and grass undulate in digital winds, with specks of light dancing off them. Each frame of Horizon Zero Dawn is a painting.
These environments are a wonder to behold, but traversing them can be a hassle. Aloy is a bit of an acrobat, but she’s selective; only certain ledges can be grabbed, leaving you to ineffectually bunny hop up cliff-faces and waist-high terraces – things she shouldn’t have trouble clambering onto. Lengthy jaunts between areas can be handled via fast-travel, but treks to unexplored territory require you to hoof it. Early on, Aloy gains the ability to turn some creatures into mounts, but they don’t stick around for long – disappearing entirely after you’ve initiated a mission, or moved far enough away. All your quests into the unknown are soured by an initial bout of busy-work.
Aloy’s quest through the post-post-apocalypse is one of pros and cons. Encounters with robotic wildlife are equal parts tactical and reflexive, but fights against humans are awkward, and the camera is unwieldly. The world is lush and gorgeous, but traversing it can be a chore. Horizon Zero Dawn is a breath of fresh air, and a welcome departure from Guerrilla’s previous offerings – but the journey takes some missteps.
Keith received a physical copy of Horizon Zero Dawn from PlayStation NZ. The game was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro.