Developed by Guerilla Games
Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available Exclusively on Playstation 4
Rated T for Teen
Horizon Zero Dawn is what you would get if you mashed together Far Cry: Primal, Blood Dragon, and Red Dead Redemption. If that sentence was enough to get you fully erect, then congratulations, you already own Horizon Zero Dawn. Chances are, you already know if Horizon is your kind of of game. It’s a big open world loaded with sidequests, collectables, challenges, and some crafting. It’s the kind of massive game that you dump dozens of hours into, even if you aren’t sure why exactly you’re scooping up every last collectible doohickey.
Personally, I’m not automatically sold on a game just because of its scale. I used get all wide eyed at the promise of limitless exploration of a huge living world, but 6 years of World of Warcraft has since permanently scratched that itch. I prefer my games now to be tight and driven. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort it takes to make a map that rivals rural Texas but with significantly more to see. I’m just the kind of guy who got bored 3 hours into the sandbox full of gunpowder that was Just Cause 3. Hell, I never even played Grand Theft Auto V. Do I think that they are bad games? Certainly not. Do I regret not playing them? Not at all.
So far the game has received near unanimous praise (except for the people saying the game is racist, which is dumb). To just list off the reasons it’s great and give it an A+ would be acceptably par for the course. So am I going to be a rebel and say that everyone else is wrong and that the game is actually a hot trash fire but with more charred robot bodies? Nah, I’m not that much of an edgelord. What I’m saying is that even as someone who doesn’t gravitate towards these kinds of games, I thought Horizon Zero Dawn was fantastic.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I don’t see how hunting robo-saurs in the primitive apocalypse future could go wrong. You play as Aloy, an Outcast of the Nora tribe. Born shunned by her people, her only companion is her guardian and surrogate father Rost. Despite Rost holding firm to the rules and faith of the tribe, Aloy can’t find two shits to give about the faith or people that have turned their backs on her. All she wants to know is why. If she can prove herself worthy, she’ll be accepted into the tribe as a Brave and be given the answers she desires.
On the day of her Proving, things don’t go quite as expected. Aloy finishes the trial strong, but plot happens and she’s forced to leave the Nora’s sacred lands to hunt for more answers. She’ll travel far and wide, meeting tribes like the Carja, Oseram, Banuk, and several others. Across Horizon’s many areas, the environments are as diverse as the people that inhabit them. From the icy peaks of the north to the towering spires and deep woods of Meridian, there’s as much to see as there is to do in Horizon Zero Dawn.
The diversity in climates helps keep Horizon interesting, because you will be doing a lot of walking. It’s an inevitable fact that open world games will be comprised of a good deal of hoofing around looking for stuff to do. Horizon alleviates this considerably with fast travel campfires, liberally applied to every piece of the map you might have need to revisit. There are seriously some campfires across the river from other campfires. You need to use a consumable fast travel pack to take advantage of this teleportation, but the packs are easy enough to craft and you eventually are given access to an unlimited version.
I’m going to be deliberately vague on the plot. If you know the premise, you can make some educated guesses. Some time ago the world ended, and people now live on a scale from stone to bronze age. In addition to wild game like boars, foxes, and turkey, an entire ecosystem of machines also roam the earth. These machines act like animals, grazing in herds or hunting for prey. Aside from just making for a really cool setting, there is a purpose to it all that is revealed as the game goes on. I have to applaud Guerilla on their expertly crafted story, as some of the twists and turns really did take me by surprise. You probably guessed the broad strokes already, but some of the finer details really moved me. This is a surprisingly beautiful and tragic game.
But hey, who am I kidding? You aren’t here for the story. You’re here for the robot fights! I can confidently say that this is the best robo-animal hunting simulator on the market. I’m not really sure how to judge hunting games, since I’m personally not a fan of rubbing deer piss on my boots and sitting in a tree stand for three days. From what I can tell, most hunting games just ramp up the pace by 10,000% and are sure to plant a deer directly in your crosshairs. Most of the subtlety and craft are lost in this approach.
Horizon Zero Dawn manages the best of both worlds, combining complex planning with breakneck speed and brutal combat. Larger enemies especially will require a good degree of planning and familiarity to overcome. Imagine if you will that you’re tasked with hunting a tyrannosaurus with a bow and spear. Calling the weaponry primitive is a bit misleading, since your arrows can also shoot lightning/fire/ice/explode, and you have a number of other weapons like a bomb slingshot and tripwires to give you the advantage. On the other hand, the T-Rex you’re being asked to hunt also has laser cannons, dual machine guns, and drone strikes. So yeah, you’re going to want to have a game plan.
There are 25 different machine enemies in the game (thanks Wikipedia!), ranging from standard melee trash mobs to the aforementioned laser-rex. The middle-tier enemies can put up a fight even at max level, and the strongest foes can take minutes to overcome. The general game plan is to isolate a weak point and target it for maximum effect. These weak points generally fall off after a certain amount of damage, so you’ll have to hit a few different ones to win. Most of the machines are also armored, requiring you to strip away their defences before dishing out the damage. There are elemental weaknesses to take into account, allowing you to disable enemies and deal more damage.
If you take the time to study your prey, you’re given all the information you need to overcome any foe. It’s just up to you to act on it. The difference in efficacy between just throwing arrows wildly and planning an attack is incomparable. You will not be able to beat Behemoths or Thundermaws without strategic attacks. Mid level nuisances like the big ostrich assholes can be taken down well enough by just shoving arrows in their face, mostly due to big easy to hit weak points directly on their chest. The only enemy that really stands out to me as intolerable were the Glinthawks. Fuck you Glinthawks. Fuck you right in your stupid exploding icetank.
It’s undeniably awesome to set up a bunch of explosive traps, knock off the machine’s armor with Tearblast arrows, freeze it with some bombs, and finish it off with a firm stab to the dick. That being said, Horizon Zero Dawn‘s combat isn’t perfect. Most glaringly, some of the hardest enemies are made significantly easier by the presence of detachable heavy weapons. Early on you are introduced to the Ravager, a towering tiger-like foe that can tear you apart with either its jaws or mounted laser cannon. What should be a terrifying foe quickly becomes the key to an easy fight. You can knock off the cannon and use it yourself, which can fell several Ravagers before running out of ammo. I actually cleared out the highest level Corrupted Zone by just dragging two cannons to the fight and unloading. Nothing even got close to me. I like the idea, but it reduces the difficulty significantly.
Secondly, weaker enemies are stupid. It’s way too easy to just lure them one by one into a bush and push the stealth kill button. As long as you are in a bush, basically nothing can see you. Several times I would kill at least a dozen enemies by sitting in the same bush and whistling. Enemies can be alerted to dead bodies, but won’t raise the alarm for it. So as long as you chill and just keep stabbing when people get close, you’re gold.
Lastly, as awesome as the fights can be, they get tedious after a while. You’ll get into a rhythm, and after that fights just become a chore. The actual main campaign and side quests mix it up enough to stay interesting, but just running around is a hassle. I’m cool fighting a Snapjaw to rescue a merchant’s daughter, but taking a few minutes out of my day to take one down just because it saw me from across the river is irritating. The drawback to the robust combat complexity is that none of these fights are easy. After the 500th Glinthawk, you’ll be begging for a one-shot Glinthawk-slayer bow.
Horizon Zero Dawn also very much suffers from open world game syndrome. Any character you meet, no matter how interesting, will not see more than an hour of screentime. I get that the draw is supposed to be the massive world, but I want more time with Erend damn it! He was cool! The revolving cast are all interesting enough to draw me into a side quest, but that’s it. When the big reunion happens at the end, I was struggling to figure out just who I should care about.
My final piece of criticism has to do with the collectibles. I might not be a fan of these types of games, but I can spend days hunting for baubles if it means I get a shinier bow. There are loads of collectibles in Horizon, ranging from random text logs to scattered metal flowers. There’s usually a logic to it, like the ancient vessels being in ruins or the vantage points being in hard to reach spots. There are merchants in the main city Meridian who will trade you these items for special reward boxes, full of resources and a few rare modifications. Let me be clear, this is total bullshit. The modifications they were giving me were the same kind I would find on a high level enemy. By the game’s end, I had more money than I knew what to do with and enough materials to craft my entire arsenal ten times over. Collectibles are supposed to reward you with something special, a new piece of armor or even some cosmetic reminder of your accomplishment. Just supplementing your inventory with shit you can get off of a Behemoth is lame.
Ultimately, most of my grief with Horizon Zero Dawn is that I just wish there was more of it. I wanted more quest rewards, more time with these characters, more machines to kill, more to explore. I want to keep diving in and see what else this world has to offer. That being said, if I want more and not less, then Horizon must be doing something right. Though the actual quests, towns, and crafting are pretty shallow, the depth to the combat and story easily make up for it. Even when the game was at its most tedious, I was still blowing up robots with lightning arrows.
So even if you aren’t into big open world games, I’d say give Horizon Zero Dawn a shot. There’s nothing else out there like it. I’m curious as to what they are going to do with the sequel. I appreciate them setting their sights modestly on this first one (I wouldn’t want another No Man’s Sky situation), but it’s clear to see where there is room for improvement. Congrats Guerilla Games on your new successful franchise! Now get to work on the next one, I want to play it.