It’s crazy to think that Horizon: Zero Dawn is developer Guerrilla Games first foray into the open-world genre. After working on their first-person shooter franchise, Killzone, for over a decade, legions of fans (myself included) were cautiously optimistic to see what the team could do with a game on a much grander scale. As it turns out, Horizon is a masterpiece and it boasts a strong sense of confidence that’s lacking in most open-world franchises that have existed for years. And as much I love Killzone, after seeing Horizon: Zero Dawn through to completion, I firmly believe that it’s the best game the studio has released to date.
Horizon depicts a version of Earth that takes place hundreds of years after a catastrophic event eradicates the majority of life from the face of the planet. However, mankind has continued to live despite the pain and suffering. Trading in designer clothes and high tech weaponry for animal hides and bows and arrows, society has reverted back to primal tribes, complete with varied religious and political beliefs. All that remains from the time of the Ancient Ones is the skeletons of their steel towers and the mysterious mechanical animals that populate the surface.
You enter this world as Aloy, a young woman shunned from the Nora tribe.
An outcast from birth, Aloy has spent her life on the outskirts of the Nora settlements, continuously looked down on with scorn from her own tribe. With the exception of her fellow outcast, Rost, who took her in and raised her since she was an infant, Aloy has no family or friends to speak of. She spends her days hunting the natural wildlife in the valley, as well as the robotic animals that prowl the land, but her real interest lies in her origins and the world of the Ancient Ones. Who were her parents? Why was she labelled an outcast? What led to the demise of the once great civilization? When a dangerous attack leaves her land scarred and in danger, Aloy sets off into the world to uncover the answers she seeks and look for a way to stop a new rising evil.
The story is my favorite part of Horizon.
This is one of those games where I went in to it expecting it to play out one way, but it ended up playing out in a completely different manner. It’s hard to get into details without spoiling anything, so I’ll simply say this. Horizon: Zero Dawn has one of the most inventive and original stories I’ve ever encountered within a video game. So much of the game is wrapped in mystery, with you slowly piecing together the answers until you reach the conclusion, where everything falls into place and reveals itself for what it really is.
In many ways, Aloy is the heart and soul of Horizon.
Her life as an outcast has helped her understand the pain and suffering of others. She’s a fierce and powerful woman, but she also has a tender heart and tries her best to help those in need. For the most part, Aloy is a pre-defined character, but there are moments where the game lets you control how she reacts to others in the world. You could choose to show someone kindness, or use personal information to retaliate. Lay down a weapon, or strike back. While there’s no overarching morality system, like in a BioWare game, these moments still allow you to put your own little mark on Aloy’s character.
Aloy is also a character who we get to see grow and develop over the course of the game. Her journey takes her to all of sorts of places, both physically and emotionally. We watch her learn to be a courageous fighter, a gentle voice of reason, and a brave champion of those in lower social standing. A lot of this growth comes from the side quests, that actually tell interesting stories and aren’t your typical fetch quest. As Aloy helps the people of the land, she grows in both her understanding of the world and its inhabitants. As you learn more about events that have happened in this universe, it affects the way in which Aloy speaks to people and views the world around her.
Thankfully, the vast majority of the supporting characters in this game are interesting as well. They might not reach the same level of depth and growth as Aloy, but I found myself really liking the new faces and allies I made on Aloy’s journey. One thing I thought was really cool is that the game actually rewards you for meeting new people and taking on the side quests. Without spoiling anything, the friends you make throughout the game will actually play a pivotal role later on, making it worth your time to complete every side quest you encounter and build friendships with the people involved.
The other shining star of the game is the combat system.
The fights against the mechanical creatures are ridiculously fun, largely due to how many different types there are and how many different ways you can bring them down. There’s smaller patrol type creatures that can be taken down with a well placed arrow or stealth attack, but a majority of these creatures are rather large and require strategy to topple. Using a device called a Focus, Aloy can scan these creature to look for weak points and vulnerabilities. Most enemies have multiple forms of attack, but you can use your weaponry to disable or completely remove the parts of their metal bodies associated with any particular weapon. Using traditional bows and arrows, elemental shots, and bomb launching slings are fun, but the combat opens up when you start using some of the more advanced weapons. You can use tripwires to set up explosive traps, tie enemies down with sturdy ropes, and even override them to switch their allegiance, allowing them to attack other nearby machines or provide you with means of transportation.
The combat is also considerably tough. Aloy doesn’t have much health, which means you have to be extra careful during your enemy encounters. Thankfully, she’s an adept runner and climber, and quite good at rolling too. Your survival often comes down to how well you can maneuver in a battle, as well as how good of a shot you are. Some of the machines you encounter later in the game are even capable of killing Alloy in as little as one or two hits. However, the game doesn’t constantly throw these machines at you, tasking you to fight members of other tribes as well. Unfortunately, your human foes aren’t much of a threat, and are actually defeated rather quickly. Most of them stick to bows and arrows, attacking you from a distance. There’s a delay of a couple seconds between shots, so it’s super easy to fire at them with a quick headshot or run in close for a melee attack.
Regardless of if your opponent is made of flesh or metal, you gain experience points for defeating them. If you earn enough points to level up, you’re awarded with skill points which can be used to unlock new abilities. These abilities range from how much damage you output, the amount of arrows you can fire at once, or enhancements to your maneuverability and stealth. You also gain skill points for completing certain story missions and side quests, meaning it’s entirely possible to unlock all skills before you even reach the level cap. The cap is currently at 50 (this could be changed in an update or future DLC), but I unlocked all abilities in my mid 40’s. It’s also worth noting that each level up increases Aloy’s health by 10 points, but with the amount of damage you take later on in this game, this isn’t as helpful as one would think.
There’s also a pretty great loot system present. Defeated enemies drop machine pieces (if they’re a machine, obviously) and enhancements for your weapons and armor. The machine pieces sell for money in town, but they can also be used as components for crafting and buying more weapons and armor. Enhancements give your equipment further abilities such as damage reduction or protection against certain elemental effects. Unfortunately, storage space is limited, and although it can be upgraded I found myself still running out of room for my rewards in combat.
Ultimately, everything is wrapped up in the gorgeous world that Guerrilla Games has painstakingly crafted for players to explore. There’s no way around saying it, so I’ll just come right out with it. Horizon: Zero Dawn is without a doubt the most gorgeous game to grace the platform. The beautiful rolling hills and forests are stunning, but it’s all the little touches that make it so special. The way sun reflects off the streams, the realistic snowfall, the fields of beautiful flowers. Horizon is a game that loves to display its beauty and I was completely enamored by it. This is a world that’s so easy to get lost in, which is great, especially considering how many interesting things it has for you to discover. From the side quests and collectibles, to the hunting grounds and ruins of the Ancient Ones, this is an open-world that actually has worthwhile things to see and do in it.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is PlayStation 4’s best game.
What Guerrilla Games have done with their first foray into the open-world genre is impressive. Everything from its masterpiece of a story, down to its engaging world and challenging combat make this a journey to be remembered. The leading character is so incredibly well written and realized that I can see Aloy becoming a PlayStation icon in the future. If you love strange new worlds, compelling characters, or challenging combat, it doesn’t get much better than Horizon: Zero Dawn.
– Zack Burrows