Note: This review contains mild spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.
The way I play video games doesn’t often align with the “open world” design methodology — that is, peppering the map with dozens of small distractions from the main story and allowing me to explore at my own pace. I tend to develop decision paralysis — overwhelmed by opportunity until I quit playing the game entirely.
I enjoy narrative in games, and if there isn’t a strong narrative focus, I demand a certain gameplay hook that will keep me going through whatever side-scrolling, puzzle-solving, and/or button-mashing action I’m pursuing.
I say all of this to point out the fact that Horizon Zero Dawn shouldn’t really be my type of game. It clearly takes inspiration from other open world games such as Assassin’s Creed, and its systems aren’t all that unique. You climb a thing, it unlocks a million waypoints on your map, you do whichever of those things you enjoy, rinse and repeat. There are plenty of side missions scattered about the world, though most amount to fetch quests, escort missions, or “kill this thing” objectives.
It’s weird then to say that Horizon is easily the best game I’ve played thus far in 2017 — and will undoubtedly be a strong contender for my game of the year come winter.
So, how did Horizon break away from the overcrowded open world pack? How did it speak to me, someone that usually burns out on these types of games after a few hours? Let’s figure that out together, shall we?
In case you’re coming into this review completely blind and know nothing about Horizon Zero Dawn, here’s the elevator pitch. Horizon takes place in a post-post-apocalypse where society has begun to renew itself after being nearly wiped out by a species of robot. Those robots — which were designed with clear inspiration from dinosaurs and other predatory animals — were of human creation. Not much else is known about the history of the world, since visiting sites of old technology is forbidden amongst the Nora, the tribe to which your character, Aloy, sort of belongs (more on that later).
The first thing that stood out to me about Horizon was its world. I knew from the trailers that this was a place I’d like to explore, but I was honestly blown away by the visual variety and scale. Sure, there are the expected “zones” — mountainous, wintery, dry and sandy — but they flow and connect in satisfying ways.
The game is also smart about cordoning certain areas off depending on where you are in the story or your leveling progression. It becomes obvious that the farther west you go, the more difficult the enemies become. There was one instance I remember of stumbling across a t-rex inspired enemy and thinking “okay, yeah, I’m not supposed to be over here yet.”
I was even shocked early on to discover just how big Horizon’s world was. The game begins with you in the wooded homeland of the Nora. For the first several hours, you run around the forested area completing side quests and preparing for the impending trials, where you can earn the ability to become a Brave — a renowned Nora hunter.
Once the trials have passed and the next story beat is set up, the narrative dictated I venture west and the world opened up immeasurably. It was a very cool moment of stepping beyond what you know into the unknown. Aloy felt it, and I certainly felt it, too.
Horizon starts with Aloy as a young girl. You quickly learn that she’s an outcast of the Nora, being raised by another outcast who isn’t her real father. Child Aloy falls into a pit, which happens to house old technology and information about the world before the fall of humanity. It’s there that she finds a Focus, the device that will enable many gameplay mechanics throughout the game — as well as move the story forward.
I don’t want to go into many spoilers here, because the story in Horizon is actually a much larger draw than I would have guessed, and was really the thing that kept me pushing through the game when I got a little bored with the combat and side missions. I will say that it’s a story about Aloy discovering who she is, both literally and figuratively. She learns more about her world and its history, and I think all of the pieces come together brilliantly.
There are several instances of exploring the forbidden ruins, and they’re great. They provide a context for the world that doesn’t initially exist, and the game is smart about doling out information in a variety of ways. In addition to the cutscenes and forced interactions with other characters, you’ll also learn more through audio diaries, text logs, and ambient storytelling driven by exploration.
However, the storytelling method does house one of my larger complaints about Horizon. Though the story is interesting, engaging, and often surprising, the historical sites really function as info dumps. There’s very little to learn about the world out in the open air, while you’re running around killing robots. Most everything is contained in these ruins, so they feel a bit over-packed.
This is especially noticeable with the audio diaries. Audio logs in games are a hard thing to pull off, since the developers can’t count on them all being discovered or listened to. But for people like me that want to get every morsel of story possible, placing five audio diaries in the same room leads to me picking them all up and then putting my controller down as I just sit and listen for ten minutes. Well-placed audio logs should work as the player is exploring the world. I shouldn’t have to stop what I’m doing to listen.
Even besides that relatively small inconvenience, there’s often just too much information given at once. It makes the story feel rushed and overwhelming, especially in the latter half of the game when things are really popping off. This is a very complex story with different kinds of technology and new characters introduced that you never actually meet face-to-face. That makes the story harder to parse for the player, and I don’t think Horizon handles that in the best way.
Overall, though, I loved the ride. I made the mistake of ignoring the main story for too long and focusing on side missions and exploration, which led to me feeling a bit aimless in the game. That’s more a fault of how I play games and the general structure of open world games than a complaint against Horizon specifically, but I do think Guerilla could have done more to encourage sticking to the main line until the late game. There are also gameplay reasons to hold off on some extra missions and exploration until higher levels.
The core combat loop in Horizon feels good, if not amazing. You fight with a variety of bow and bow-like weapons, including a slingshot, trip wires, and a rope caster that can trip up and tie down enemies. There are also traps you can lay, but I found their utility to be lacking compared to the regular weapons. I’m sure on higher difficulties they’re more useful.
The same can be said for the tonics you have at your disposal, which increase things like your armor or elemental resistances for a small period of time. Accessing these is a huge hassle, as they’re bound to the d-pad, making it very hard to use them in the heat of battle.
Aloy is a very spry character, with the ability to jump around, crouch behind cover, and most importantly, dodge roll around attacks. The camera often gets in the way of the action, and a better lock-on feature would have been appreciated. Aloy can also get in a sort of damage loop where she’ll get knocked down by a large enemy, only to take more damage upon standing thanks to another unavoidable hit. The jumping is also a bit floaty at times, though the game rarely relies on platforming so it’s no more than a mild annoyance.
You move around the world simply by running — or you can hack a few different machines that act as mounts. I found this to be less than useful considering the generous amount of fast travel packs and the tediousness of jumping on and off to fight and collect resources.
Speaking of resources, there are a shit ton of them in Horizon. Inventory management is a huge part of the game, and it’s as unfun as it’s ever been. Part of this is due to my “collect everything” mentality, but certain weapons, armor, and usables require specific types of enemy drops to purchase, so it makes sense to carry as many different ones as possible at all times. Alternatively, you could just wait until you wanted to buy something and then track down the specific enemy type you needed, but that process seemed even more tedious than constantly dropping things as new ones popped up.
Weapons and armor can be modified as you’d expect — take less damage from melee, be more resistant to ice damage, have better stealth, aim and reload faster, do more damage with fire, etc. These mods have rarities, though my inventory was already over-stuffed with legendary options by mid-game. Weapons and armor have rarities, too, with the better options offering additional ammo types and customization slots.
I definitely favored certain weapons over others — the standard bow deals a ton of fire damage, a common weakness, and the two slingshots cover most of the other elements — but it was fun to mix and match, if only for the sake of experiment and variety. There’s also an insanely overpowered armor set that thankfully isn’t available until near the end of the game. It isn’t hard to earn as long as you’re fully exploring the ruined areas, and it effectively gives you health regen that’s on a very short timer. This made combat so easy that I took off the armor for the final battle. It did look cool as hell, though. In fact, the armor in the game is all very well designed, and each faction has its own unique visual flair and resistance specialty.
Every enemy has a weakness to at least one type of damage, so it’s important to learn the unique situations before diving into a large battle against multiple foes. This is where the Focus comes in. You also use it while exploring ruins to find hidden treasures and bits of story, but it’s mostly a combat focused device. It acts just like “hunter mode” or any other heightened sense in a video game — you click the controller button and it highlights enemy weaknesses and other pertinent info. It definitely has a cool tech feel that fits well into the world of Horizon, and it serves an interesting story purpose later on, but it’s not all that fresh a concept.
This is an open world game, so the map quickly becomes littered with many different icons. It’s pretty easy to differentiate and figure out what’s what, but looking for a specific spot can be tedious. Thankfully, there are fast travel campfire locations scattered throughout the different zones. There aren’t many tallnecks in the game — the giant, docile machines you climb to un-fog the world map — but each offers a slightly different twist on the climbing mechanic. They were fun enough that I wish the game had another couple in there.
Despite the rote nature of some side missions and fetch quests, the characters you interact with on a regular basis are fairly interesting. The voice acting is a bit inconsistent, but there were several standout characters that came into the story at multiple points, and I found myself more engaged with their personalities than I expected. There are a few standout side missions, as well. As for the repeatable stuff, my recommendation would be to only engage with the things you find interesting. I for one didn’t get anything out of the hunter challenges, so I skipped those once I got past the introduction.
The soundtrack is great. I wish there was more of it, but I loved the music. It varied well depending on where you were located in the game and what was happening on screen. The combat music was intense at times, with more somber stuff being saved for important story beats.
The game also looks completely amazing. It’s easily one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen, all things considered. The art direction, color, and visual variety are stunning. The one piece of uncanny valley is with the NPCs. It’s partially a facial animation problem, partially a shiny skin problem, and partially an audio/visual sync problem, but the characters just look “off” sometimes. It did take me out of the conversations a bit, but compared to the rest of the game visually, it’s a very small complaint. The actual character and armor designs certainly helped make up for it, as well.
The final boss is disappointing — there’s no getting around it. The lead-up battles are great and help ratchet up the tension, but the final confrontation is basically just a repeat of an earlier battle, only made mildly more difficult with the inclusion of additional enemies. You do get to fight with certain characters you’ve helped throughout the game, which was a nice touch. But I wish the scale would have been a bit larger. The story certainly set it up to be.
Finally, I want to reward Horizon for telling a complete story in what will inevitably be the first game in a series. There is a little stinger at the end that partially sets up the sequel, but it doesn’t undo the events of the game. That’s rare these days.
As I said at the top, I’m still surprised by how much I loved Horizon Zero Dawn. There are plenty of small grievances you’d expect in a new IP, but Guerilla Games has stepped away from the first person shooter world about as well as you could hope. I can’t freaking wait to dive back into in a few years for the inevitable sequel. Hell, I might even take a shot at the recently released new game plus.
So, what did you think of Horizon Zero Dawn? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to check out my review of the Frozen Wilds DLC!