I expected to have a good time with Horizon Zero Dawn when I started playing it over the Christmas holiday. But I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did, given its ostensible feature set.
Though Horizon’s protagonist and aesthetics are breaths of fresh air for the AAA video gaming world, its feature set was predictable affair. It felt like the developers (perhaps at the behest of publisher Sony) scrolled down a checklist to make sure all the features gamers expect from a big-budget game these days made it into the product. An open world? They’ve been extremely popular throughout this generation, so that’s here. Crafting? Check. A Batman: Arkham-like Detective Vision? Yup. Stealth and melee options? That’s here too. It included the ingredients for a fun experience, but nothing that would set itself apart from dozens of other games of this type released during this generation, outside the aforementioned unique features.
In playing through it and venturing further in, though, I realized something I should have understood before the dark clouds of cynicism cluttered my initial view: The features a game has don’t determine how good or bad it can be. Some games that check those lists don’t turn out as enjoyable as they should in the end, like some Assassin’s Creed games. But others use them to create cohesive experiences that are rarely a chore to play, and developer Guerilla Games achieved the latter with Horizon.
Since this game is stuffed with so many features, it starts off a little slow as the gameplay options are introduced to the player. Protagonist Aloy starts out young, as she makes he way through the first enemy-deprived dungeon that introduces the player to the game’s flow. She also gets her focus here, a remnant of technology from the so-called “Old Ones” that works as this game’s Detective Vision equivalent. It’s the best tutorial they could have implemented outside of having an optional playable one that could be used to familiarize the player with the game’s style first.
The tutorial continues with the modern 18-year-old Aloy, where she’s taught to approach combat encounters with stealth, and how to use it to potentially avoid encounters. There are no guns to use in this game, so you’re taught how to aim some of the game’s bow variants early on — though not all of them to not waste too much of the player’s time. It’s not the kind of introduction slow enough to bore the most impatient among us into quitting the game. But it’s also not the kind for anyone who wants to be immediately thrown into the action and left to fend for themselves, because that will take a few hours.
Horizon has the kind of natural progression found in many modern western-developed action RPGs. Aloy will explore smaller environments with small to mid-sized robots prowling around the land early on, but those will get larger as you play through and explore the world further. What distinguishes this game is how the battles can be approached. Stealth is a good one, though not every enemy can be toppled easily through stealth attacks. But it’s also fun to start battles with Aloy’s bow variants blazing if you’re feeling confident, even though it could get you killed if you’re not careful since she takes a lot of damage, even with good armor. It’s good to mix it up, though it’s best to make sure Aloy’s saved at a campfire before doing anything daring, or you’ll lose a lot of progress like me. I learned my lesson quick.
The game has Monster Hunter-style battles, but it will take a while before those machines come into play. It’s clear the game was made for battles like these, given the arsenal Aloy can quickly obtain not too long after the game’s start, provided you have enough Metal Shards (the game’s currency). All of them can be taken down by targeting the right armored body parts. They can get tough, especially if you stumble into fighting multiple large machines simultaneously. But they don’t feel unfair, and are perfectly manageable if you’ve concocted an adequate strategy and have adjusted to the controls. If you’re not, it’s possible to run from them. This will take a while, but it’s what makes the gameplay shine.
It’s fun fighting robots, but that can’t be said of humans. When I fought my first gathering of human enemies, I figured these types of encounters would only be occasional battles. But there were far more than anticipated, and they mostly the same predictable affair. Their AI is embarrassingly bad, as they sometimes have trouble finding Aloy even when she goes to hide in the same spot they found her in. Aloy’s wide swings also aren’t made for human combat, meaning fighting them with melee attacks feels awkward. I’m not sure who told Guerilla they needed to have plenty of human combat, but hopefully they listen to those who didn’t like this next time around.
The mission design and progression are good, despite a few minor hitches. The main story missions are well-paced, and present a variety of challenges and exploration opportunities. That’s not the case with some side quests, though, outside those that had important story and world developments tied to them. Too many side missions involve tracking down a specific person and finding them. It’s more forgivable compared to the number of human encounters, thanks to how many of them there are, the developers were clearly strained for ideas.
Since Horizon is partly an RPG, there’s quite a bit of story. The quest is about Aloy’s search for answers concerning her unique upbringing and to shut down the robot menace, and discover what happened to the dilapidated world she lives in. The storytelling is a little messy, partly due to the writers having to focus on writing several side missions in addition to it, but it’s entertaining enough. There’s also a dialogue wheel, but it’s mainly used for listening to all the information key characters have to give to Aloy. She can occasionally give an emotionally-driven retort when prompted, but this won’t alter the plot or character interactions too much. Her lines are well-written, but hopefully they can make dialogue choices more meaningful with the follow-up.
I also have to give Guerilla a hand for including one of the most diverse casts I’ve ever seen in a game, from a team of storywriters and planners who paid attention to social-driven movements in the last few years. Aloy looks like she’s culturally appropriating Native American culture at first, but the developers were actually inspired by Viking designs.
There’s no denying that Horizon is a gorgeous-looking game, even for anyone still on a 1080p TV with the original PS4 model like me. Everything from the character models to the environment and weather effects are beautiful. They’re admittedly a bit too beautiful when the shimmering effects sometimes make it difficult to see parts of the environment, though the weather shouldn’t always be agreeable when exploring an open world. The animations for Aloy and the robots are great too, though that’s not the case for most NPCs during dialogue sequences; but it’s not too distracting.
Speaking of those: Aloy is a good character, and Ashly Burch puts on a great voice and motion capture performance. The same goes for Lance Reddick’s performance as Sylens, and other vocal talent like Bryce Papenbrook and Crispin Freeman. The music is mostly atmospheric, and there aren’t many tracks that accompany outdoor exploration, so the same ones are played multiple times outside of towns. But what’s there is good.
Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t a flawless game, but its issues don’t get in the way of its best qualities, and it stands above the pile of open world AAA games we’ve received throughout this console generation. The story is also inconclusive, and given the sales and awards it’s received, a follow-up is inevitable. Give the game a shot, even if you’re feeling burnt out on open world titles.