Horizon Zero Dawn was touted as the PS4s next big exclusive. I had it as my most anticipated game of the year. The descriptors sound like a perfect storm: open world, post apocalypse, robots. I’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks playing Guerilla Games’s latest release and all the hype is deserved. Horizon Zero Dawn is the best game I’ve played in a long time and easily my current game of the year.
- TL;DR: A gripping story, challenging combat, and breathtaking graphics make Horizon Zero Dawn one of the best action RPGs ever created
- Platform: PS4 (reviewed)
- Developer: Guerilla Games
- Time Played: 31:45
- What I Played: Completed the game at 69.2%, reaching level 43
Aloy, our heroine, starts with the deck stacked against her. She is shunned by her tribe, the Nora, and raised as an outcast. The world isn’t exactly a welcoming place either after being overrun by animal-like machines that have forced humans to regress into tribal living. Throughout her 30+ hour adventure, Aloy’s primary goals are to learn who she is, why her own people hate her, and what caused the world to fall into the hands of machines.
Hunting and killing these machines is the main selling point of Horizon and with good reason. Aloy doesn’t have any guns, combos, or superpowers — she is just a regular person trying to make her place in the world. She and the remaining humans fight back with bow, spear, and intelligence. Fighting the hostile machines that now inhabit the world is challenging from start to finish. There wasn’t a point in my adventure that I felt I could easily overpower two or three enemies at the same time. Thankfully Aloy has her focus, Horizon’s answer to the “how do I instantly highlight everything important around me since this is an action RPG” question, to help her identify and exploit weaknesses in enemies and her surroundings.
Without the help of combos or magic, Aloy has to rely on her brain to learn enemy tendencies and swap between weapons. The primary bow does decent damage but if you want to pack a punch, the slow firing sharpshot bow is the way to go. Even the biggest threats can be tied down with the ropecaster and the aptly named tripcaster can set elementally-charged trip wires to temporarily stun enemies. Freezing, burning, and shocking enemies with elemental arrows and traps is absolutely key to surviving.
That right there is a Thunderjaw, one of the more difficult enemies in Horizon. Between it’s jaw-mounted guns, laser cannon, and enormous size, you can see why. Learning how to deal with the 25 types of machines is half the battle. Watchers, the simplest of them, are small raptor-type machines that patrol an area and alert nearby enemies. Stalkers like to use their stealth drive to become nearly invisible before pouncing while the rhino-like Tramplers waste no time getting up in your face. The hardest enemy has got to be the Stormbird, an enormous flying machine with area shock attacks and a propensity to swoop. In order to kill my first one, I had set it on fire to force it to land, freeze it to increase my damage, then fire triple shots of my strongest arrows into its weak spots. All of this took place on top of a snow-covered mountain. What a fight.
Combat is incredibly quick and active with parts of metal flying off machines as they spark and screech. Limited healing and a simple dodge roll are your only lines of defense so you’ve really got to keep your head on a swivel. Horizon doesn’t really give you much in the line of gear, either. There are a good amount of weapons and armor across a few rarities, sure, but you can easily have close to if not top tier gear around the middle of the game. Learning how to take down machines and getting by primarily on your skill instead of some overpowered endgame gear just feels so damn good.
Horizon, being an action RPG, gives you a ton to do other than hunting machines. The bevy of quests are handily broken up into main quests, side quests, and errands. There are bandit camps of human enemies to conquer and hunting grounds with combat challenges against machines. Cauldrons are where it’s at, though. Each cauldron requires stealthy movement and puzzle solving to reach the core that will reward you with the ability to override a new set of machines to fight for you. Earning that ability means a hellish boss fight against one of a few very angry machines in a closed arena. There are only five cauldrons and I urge you to seek them out. Completing them were some of the best experiences I had in the game. Guerilla even found a way to make the typical “scale a tower to reveal map waypoints” system more fun by making those towers actual machines called Tallnecks. Finding, scaling, and hacking into these machines is a blast.
The story in Horizon Zero Dawn plays a huge role in making the game as fantastic as it is. It’s a world that I can’t tear myself away from with a story that isn’t just a simple tale of saving the world from the big bad. What caused the world to fall into the hands of these machines? What were the Old Ones, i.e. people near our current time, like? Why are there so few humans remaining? Why was Aloy cast out at birth? There’s a huge focus on the religion of the various tribes that worship machines versus Aloy’s desire to learn the science behind how they came to be. Each tribe feels very different whether it’s the Norse-like Nora who say that the All-Mother killed the Metal Devil, the medieval Carja that worship the Sun, or the Shadow Carja that pray to Shadow. I spent a good 10-15 minutes reading about the past Sun Kings of the Carja empire in the capital city of Meridian. The world that Guerilla has built is deep, enticing, and packed with detail and history.
Exploring this world as a character as in depth as Aloy is a joy. She isn’t the typical macho hero that puffs his chest out ready to save the world. She has real emotion and isn’t afraid to show it. One of my favorite lines is when an onlooker praises the Sun after Aloy kills a machine to which she replies, “it wasn’t the Sun risking its ass down here.” Aloy is legitimately interested in the plight of the random people you find that ask for help and angry at those who stand in her way. She feels more like a real person than most rigid main characters. A big reason for that is the roughly four hours of lead time before you are set loose on the world. That time is spent literally growing up with Aloy as she learns how to hunt and survive. It gives you time to bond with Aloy instead of being dropped into the shoes of a hero the world already expects.
That world feels genuinely alive even though it’s primarily inhabited by walking hunks of metal. There are dozens of crafting materials to pick up to make different types of arrows, traps, and carrying pouches. Arrows can be crafted on the run which is a great way to keep the focus on the game and not on a menu. Horizon has a great healing system, too. Generic medicinal herbs can be gathered and stored in a medicine pouch that holds a few extra life bars worth of health. A simple touch of a button drains from the pouch until your life bar is full instead of having to drink a full health potion, which you can still do in a pinch. Campfires are scattered around to double as save points and fast travel locations. What few towns do exist are packed to the brim with civilians, merchants, guards, priests, rulers, etc.
All of this exploring and hunting takes place in one of the most lush and breathtaking worlds I’ve seen. Horizon is, in a word, stunning. Every detail, from the largest mountain to the smallest blade of grass, is rendered in incredible detail. Guerilla encourages you to take the time to soak it in by making fast travel cost a resource which is perfectly fine by me. Watching Aloy seamlessly transition from sprinting to sliding to crouch walking never gets old. If you’re looking to book it, certain machines can be hacked and mounted. Few games promise so much and deliver, especially on the small details, like Horizon does. It’s one of the few games that made me stop and actually take screenshots. Pro tip – you can set the HUD to disappear until you touch the touchpad. Do that ASAP.
The cut scenes and dialogue are just as well done. Small facial movements, especially around the eyes and mouth, give each character life and energy. Eyes will shift and gleam in the sun instead of laying flat and lifeless. It can be easy to get lost in the technical prowess of Horizon. I can’t talk it up enough.
I had high expectations for Horizon Zero Dawn and it managed to surpass them. Hunting machines is a challenging and dangerous task that truly makes you feel powerful. The stories of both Aloy and the world around her are as deep and well-written as I’ve seen. Visually, there are few games that can compete with Horizon. Guerilla Games has raised the bar for big, sprawling, open world games. Horizon Zero Dawn is, I think, the best game on PS4 to date and deserves every bit of praise that it receives.