I feel bit sorry for Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a hell of an achievement for many reason; the first open world game from Guerrilla Games, starring a kickass female protagonist and refining open world tropes into something interesting and new. It was the talk of the gaming town until less than a week later Zelda came out and pretty much obliterated it. I played Zelda first; as hyped as I was for Horizon, Zelda is…well, Zelda. Going back to Horizon after Zelda was interesting; after the freedom of Breath of the Wild, the first few hours of Horizon felt maddeningly restrictive. As I progressed I was able to appreciate better what this game achieves, but it was never quite able to get out of the shadow of Zelda. Others have made this point better than I, but Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like the apotheosis of an old way of making open world games and Breath of the Wild feels like the first of a newer, more genuinely open development philosophy.
Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, long after a mysterious calamity plunged the remnants of humanity back to pre-Industrial culture, with the land roamed by increasingly hostile machines. The protagonist is Aloy, a young woman born in the lands of the matriarchal and religious Nora tribe, but branded an outcast since her birth and forced to live away from her community with fellow outcast Rost. At a young age she stumbles upon forbidden secrets of the old world and as a young adult determines to enter the Proving, a test of strength and agility which could grant her membership of the tribe. Events at the Proving catapult Aloy into the wider world as she discovers the range of Tribes and cultures that have sprung up since the apocalypse and a looming threat connected to her own mysterious heritage.
It’s a good story and well told, with some interesting twists and reveals and a successful marrying together of the modern day politics and rivalries of the present with the gradual reveal of the secrets of the past, communicated through holograms and audio tapes. It’s all anchored by Aloy, a wonderful protagonist. Hardened by a tough upbringing, she’s singularly unimpressed with those with puffed up notions of themselves and can indulge in some withering put downs. I particularly enjoyed how several male characters express their affection to Aloy throughout the game, with her brushing them off because she has far more important shit to do. The supporting cast are a bit more mixed, with standouts being Lance Reddick’s Sylens, a mysterious expert in the technology of the old world and some intriguing characters in the side quests, such as Vanasha who seeks to rescue a boy-King puppet of a ruthless Priesthood. Some dodgy voice acting for some supporting characters make some moments a bit silly and a few characters verge on bland, but in general Horizon: Zero Dawn tells a good tale with plenty of strong characters to keep me engaged.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an action-RPG, as basically all open world games are now. You’ll spend a lot of your time exploring the vast world. It’s a beautiful setting, but the actual exploration feels hampered in some regards. First of all, the waypointing is a bit aggressive and there’s a strong feeling that Guerrilla Games would rather you stick to the path please. There’s little reason to wander off the beaten track. Of course, you could always turn the way pointing off, but where Zelda’s Hyrule was filled with clear landmarks to orient yourself and navigate, trying to work your way through Horizon’s world without way points, or constantly pausing to look at your map, would be pretty much impossible. It just isn’t designed that way. This means that Horizon lacks the sense of adventure open world games, at their best, can have. The other issue is gathering materials for crafting ammo and potions, as well as medicinal herbs for healing. Constantly stopping to pick up every plant on your way, which shows up with a big symbol on your UI, upsets the momentum and pace of your journey. It means that you’re always looking at the next plant, rather than your destination. This isn’t a problem unique to Horizon; the Far Cry games are the worst for it I’ve played, but it’s a shame to see such a beautiful setting bogged down with all these superfluous mechanics. It may be an action RPG, but most of the best moments fit into the ‘action’ category and less into the ‘RPG.’
Where Horizon comes to life is the combat, and this is the main arena where I think Horizon could be said to have bested Zelda. There are fights against human foes, which some have criticised but I found fun enough. The core combat mechanics are very strong, unlike in the similarly bow and arrow focused Tomb Raider reboot series, so popping off bow and arrow headshots didn’t really get boring for me. Still, the main fun to be had are with the machines. There are a good range of machines to fight and you do, genuinely, have to adapt your strategies for each one. Horizon can be punishing if you’re unprepared, you have to think smart and lay traps and plans for taking down the most dangerous foes. Taking down some of the larger machines involved some of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something tactile about the machines which is wonderful. Different components can be shot off to weaken them in particular ways. It can be tempting to brute force your way through some of these guys, but it’s always more rewarding to give it some actual thought. The highlight for me was taking down my first Thunderjaw, which is essentially a robot T-rex. This involved shooting off its back mounted cannons, removing laser guns from its jaws, pinning it to the ground with ropes, before picking up its own cannon and blasting it to bits. This was my preferred strategy, but I’m sure there are other methods, such as using elemental trip wires or slingshotting bombs. One element which is a little bit underdeveloped is the ability to override machines. The side quests you do to progress this ability are brilliant, but ultimately it’s not as impactful as it may seem. One machine cab be hacked to ride, but all the others just assist you in combat. It’s an interesting idea and one I hope the inevitable sequel does more interesting things with.
The main quest is pretty lengthy and involved, with some fantastic set piece moments. Horizon is a big game with lots to do and in all fairness most of it is worth doing. Many of the side quests are fascinating, with their own stories and unique scenarios, which makes some feel essential and unmissable. We’re not quite at Witcher 3 side quest quality, but it’s the closest I’ve seen any other modern Western RPG reach. Alongside the more substantial quests are a lot of standard open world fare, but even these are made more engaging than usual. You still need to climb towers to reveal the map, but in Horizon the towers are mobile robot diplodocuses which you can hack. There are bandit camps to raid, but there aren’t too many to every get boring and they’re attached to Nils, one of the more interesting supporting characters. There are optional dungeons, known as Cauldrons, which allow you to override more machines. Hunting missions are always more than ‘kill x amount of y’, and usually offer interesting gameplay challenges, such as knocking the cannon of one creature, picking it up, and using it to kill another. Horizon doesn’t waste the player’s time with busywork. It may lack the sense of gentle wonder seen in Zelda, but it also avoids the open world game curse of feeling like a list of boxes to tick.
Horizon’s world is simply gorgeous, taking in several different biomes such as desert, jungle and snowy wilderness. This is a seriously good looking game and relatively free of open world technical snafus, with the few I encountered leaning more towards funny than annoying or immersion breaking. It has a decent soundtrack too, with a soaring main theme and some intense battle music. It’s nothing particularly memorable, but it serves its purpose well. The weaker area lies in the characters, both in the animations and the voice acting. I watched a great Extras Credits video about animation recently which made me appreciate how difficult animating an open world game like this can be, but the reality is that Horizon’s characters often fail to truly come alive due to the stiffness and awkwardness of their animations. It’s difficult not to compare it to The Witcher 3, similarly open world but with much more expressive and nuanced animations. Still, the overall quality of the writing elevates these encounters and the animations were never a serious impediment to my enjoyment.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a very good game and a pretty massive achievement for Guerrilla. I truly hope this is the start of a franchise, a nice replacement for Uncharted in Sony’s line up of AAA single player blockbusters. It does feel constrained by some unnecessarily baggage in the mechanics and could do with some feature trimming, but these issues are never significant enough to ruin such a solid experience. Sony’s had a hell of a Q1 in 2017 and Horizon: Zero Dawn may be the cream of the crop.