Horizon Zero Dawn is the best game Guerrilla have made. It’s not that the Killzone series is bad, far from it. But with Horizon, the studio has truly established an IP that can proudly stand as one of the finest in recent memory. An expansive, open world adventure, Horizon Zero Dawn is part-Tomb Raider, part-Assassin’s Creed in terms of its action, with its far-flung post-post-apocalyptic setting a mix of Jurassic Park and The Last of Us by way of Transformers. It’s a glorious melting pot of influences and flavours, one that brilliantly juxtaposes lush natural environments and tribal culture with flashes of futuristic technology and heady science-fiction.
It helps that Horizon is one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen. I frequently found myself coming to a halt just to admire the vistas, the breathtaking views, and the gentle sway of grasses in the breeze. The weather can change at a moment’s notice, and I’m not ashamed to say that the first time it rained, I spent several minutes just admiring how the water fell and splashing in puddles. The end of the world has formed the basis for many a game over the years, but few have captured the aftermath of the apocalypse with such gorgeous grace as Guerrilla have here.
The land that time forgot
The scene is set in the far future, on an Earth reclaimed by nature, where human tribes scrabble for survival in the shadows of vast mountains and the remnants of long-lost civilisation. The Nora, a matriarchal tribe, huddle their settlements around a towering escarpment at the top of which sits the corpse of ‘Metal Devil’ – the dormant remains of a huge, tentacular war machine. The Carja, to the west, hold sway in lands with a bright city of spires and palaces at their core, their dark history making for tense relations with their neighbours.
Beasts of steel and spark roam freely, from the raptor-like Watchers to larger mechanical monsters that resemble giant crocodiles, fearsome saw-toothed felines, and more. They will attack on sight, even those that take the form of herbivores and cattle. These machines, along with roaming bandits and outcast zealots, make the wilds a perilous place to journey.
Into this crucible steps Aloy, a former Nora outcast obsessed with a single burning question: who is her mother? She is phenomenally skilled, implacably brave, and possessed with a quick, dry wit to match her driving inquisitiveness. I mentioned Tomb Raider before, and there are certain parallels between Aloy and the modern incarnation of Lara Croft. Both are incredibly adept with a bow, for starters. They both forage for useful resources and craft what they need on the fly. Both plumb the dangerous depths of historied caverns to uncover the secrets within. And the smooth, acrobatic verticality that they both possess owe more than a nod to Mssrs Drake and Auditore.
The thrill of the hunt
But Aloy is the complete package. A huntress trained from the moment she could physically hold a bow, all she has ever known is the wilderness around her. That, and the paternal care of her mentor, Rost. All of this makes for a capable, likeable character to whom players can add compassionate or vengeful twists with certain dialogue choices. These conversation wheels won’t make much of a difference in terms of BioWare-esque consequences, but they do allow for a spot of role-playing as we shape the tiny details of Aloy’s character.
Though perhaps a little limiting given the physical expansiveness of the game, it makes sense. This is no RPG, not really, but don’t let that dissuade you. This is expansive action-adventuring at its very best, focused on the journey of one very special woman. Horizon Zero Dawn unfolds as a grand journey of exploration, tactical combat and no small amount of stealth. Long grass provides cover for Aloy as she makes her way around the world, and the various arrows and slingshot bombs serve to deal damage, lay traps, and dish out environmental afflictions.
The perils of the world make every journey an adventure. Combat is a strategic affair. Aloy is quite fragile, but well armed. A device picked up early on allows her to scan enemies for weaknesses, and a handy whistle will attract foes into the long grasses where they can be dispatched quietly…well, the smaller ones anyway. Fire-spewing therapods and other, larger steel-clad deathbringers require more planning. Unlockable skills will allow Aloy to notch more arrows to her bow, strike harder with her spear, and dodge attacks with greater precision. Resistance potions can be crafted from flowers found about the game world, and tripwires and sticky bombs manufactured from the remains of the machines she defeats.
Rich without reward
I must admit to being a little disappointed, however, by the game’s shallow approach to customisation and equipment upgrades. Although the combat works well, there’s not much reward in the gifts that your fallen adversaries leave behind. You’re rarely out of pocket, and the modifications that you can pick up for your weapons and armour aren’t particularly thrilling. Not once did I find Horizon eliciting the same euphoric response in me as, say, Borderlands. Even the best armour in the game, which you can stumble across early on, is sort of superfluous by the time you can go back and actually access it. By the time I was halfway through the game, I’d stopped paying attention to anything that wasn’t a health potion or Blaze, which forms the basis for crafting most of the fiery and explosive projectiles.
That being said, because Horizon never really makes itself out to be an RPG except in scope, it actually didn’t bother me too much. Instead of dishing out new toys all of the way through the game, the machines simply get bigger and badder. You have to buy into Horizon’s combat mechanisms and think your way around the increasingly dangerous encounters. While that may seem a little stagnant for some, and I could totally understand how that might be the case, for me it just never became an issue. Instead, I can still remember barely making it through my first battle with a Thunderjaw, and the breathless sense of achievement that came afterwards.
Although Horizon does contain glorified Eagle Vision in the form of the little Focus earpiece that Aloy plucks from an old ruin early on, it does at least have some rooting in reality. You can pick out enemies at a distance and through walls, scan machines for weaknesses, track footprints and patrol paths…you know, the usual stuff. But, given the futuristic setting, the suspension of disbelief isn’t quite as jarring in this case. Indeed, the capabilities of the Focus tech become a key aspect of the game’s story later on.
Child of destiny
Speaking of which, Horizon is a story of discovery, so I won’t go too deeply into the narrative here. But part of what makes the game great is the persistent dramatic irony. We can identify and comprehend the ruins of this world before Aloy realises their true significance precisely because we players inhabit the lost Old World. The fragments of that fallen civilisation are well-known to us, but the reasons behind the fall are not. Although we can give greater meaning to the relics of ages past than Aloy and her peers can, our journey of understanding as to the reasons why parallel her’s. Its a joy to watch her character develop as well, from spiky outcast with a chip on her shoulder to something of a child of destiny who accepts the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Aloy manages to be a character with near boundless capability, but she carries questions and fears and feelings that make her vulnerable and relatable. Later on, she encounters a character named Sylens, played by the excellent Lance Reddick, with a thirst for knowledge that exceeds her own curiosity. The relationship between the two brings out Aloy’s overriding concern for her people even more, and more specifically, her fears over what she is learning means for the world. She’s an inspirational hero – curious yet conscientious, passionate yet thoughtful, and her interactions with Sylens reveal a dry humour and capacity for pithy asides. She is destined to become a PlayStation icon. Maybe she already has.
Often, by the time I reach the end of a massive open-world game, I’m done. I’m not a completionist sort of guy, and I’m easily distracted and frustrated. But I sit here after 35 hours, at a 51% complete screen, itching to dive back in. Once you finish the main story, the game returns you to a point in time just before the final battle, with all your gear and skills and any unfinished quests you might have. And it’s here that perhaps Horizon shines most brilliantly, with you free to take down machines that previously seemed too perilous to approach, exploring to the very edges of the map and letting curiosity be your guide. There is so much rich detail packed into Horizon’s world, and Aloy is such splendid company that returning to the game feels like more time spent with a good friend than it does trophy chasing. I can count on one hand the games in the last five years that have made me feel like that.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a brilliant, beautiful and bold action-adventure. With this expansive and ambitious game, Guerrilla finally have a masterpiece to their name, and, in Aloy, a PlayStation legend in the making.