Horizon: Zero Dawn is an interesting direction for studio Guerilla Games. The developer is better known for their key franchise, Killzone. However, Guerilla has decided to take a step in a new direction, thus giving us Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a third person action/adventure title, with an open world full of content. Featuring strategic and fast paced combat, a gripping narrative, and impressive visuals, Horizon starts off on the right foot. Does it stay fun throughout, or fall off after an impressive beginning? I’ll be the judge of that.
An Expanding Narrative
We are first introduced to our main character in the game’s opening cut scene. We meet Rost, an outcast who lives in the wilderness. Tucked in Rost’s arms is our protagonist. In a beautiful opening, we see Rost declare the child’s name to his goddess, seeking her blessing. Outstretched over a large cliff (kind of like The Lion King), Rost shouts her name… Aloy.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game about Aloy, and the world she inhabits. The game starts controlling Aloy as a child. She is deemed an outcast at birth, shunned by the surrounding tribe. Determined to gain information about her mysterious parentage (Rost is not her father, rather a guardian), Aloy trains to take on an initiation test known as The Proving. If she succeeds, Aloy is able to join the tribe called the Nora, and get a chance at the knowledge she seeks. After a terrible turn of events, Aloy sets out on a journey of epic scope. The world around her is one of mystery. All she knows is of the metal monsters that lurk in the wilds; machines remaining from a world gone by.
Through this introduction, we’re introduced to the major players before the game really breaks up. We learn of the Nora and their traditions, as well as their rival tribe, the Carja. The game’s story is one of progression, ever expanding as Aloy grows in both knowledge and power. It’s easy to relate to Aloy as she continues her adventure, as the player learns with her as they advance. The lore and universe of Horizon is dense and interesting. Story quests provide excellent world building. Despite the focus on Aloy, the narrative is about much more than her parentage. I hesitate to reveal too much, as the game asks some pretty interesting questions and goes to some profound places. Often, the answers are just as rewarding as the mysteries themselves. Thankfully, Guerilla Games was able to weave an engaging mystery that includes significant backstory and detail. What starts as a deceptively simple plot quickly branches into a thought provoking scenario. The pacing is top notch, and I never needed extra motivation to pursue the game’s tale.
A Beautiful New World
There’s little I need to say about the game’s look; it speaks for itself. Horizon: Zero Dawn is graphically insane. Character models are beautiful and detailed down to the pore. Environments glisten and shine under impressive lighting effects. The combination of nature and metal works well in both world and enemy design. The world map is large and varied, containing environments ranging from snowy peaks to lush forested creeks. The world feels alive and inhabited, despite the post apocalyptic setting. Additionally, the color palette is hardly muted, often creating vibrant vistas that are amazing to see. I’ll let the screen in this article do the talking, as it’s not a hard call to make. When it comes to visuals, Horizon: Zero Dawn is potentially the best looking game I’ve seen yet. However, the game does have some visual glitches from time to time. It’s not uncommon for an open world game to have bugs, and Horizon is no different. The mistakes are a bit more obvious since the rest of the game is so flawless in terms of graphics.
The audio works well too. The score of the game is minimal, save for climactic moments. The music compliments the atmosphere of the game well, punctuating fights and enhancing exploration. Everything sounds damn good, from the attacks and roars of the machines to the ambience of standing in a forest. Voice acting is top notch as well. As the story expands and progresses, we are introduced to a variety of characters, all of which are voiced very well. Voice actress Ashly Burch does an excellent job portraying Aloy, and was refreshing to hear. I enjoyed her work as Chloe in Life is Strange, so it was nice to see her make a return. Another major stand out is Lance Reddick as Sylens, a character who appears a bit into the game. I don’t want to spoil what Sylens is all about, but know that Lance Reddick does a great job in the role.
As a side note, interacting with characters often brings up a conversation wheel. Aloy is a solid character with her own motivations, so you won’t be able to influence large decisions. However, you can decide what type of response she elicits during certain conversations, as well as control the dialogue tree. While it’s not a massive feature, the attention to detail is appreciated and nice.
Smart Gameplay and Tons of Activities
The actual gameplay of Horizon is your standard third person action with a bit of stealth and plenty of crafting. As you explore the world, you find resources and loot from enemies you’ve bested. There’s light puzzle solving, but most of the quests and activities are action oriented. Missions are broke up into three quest categories: main, side, and errands. Additionally, there are a variety of activities to partake in. These range from hunting grounds with time trial challenges to bandit camps that you clear out. There’s also appropriately named “Tallnecks”, which are towering giraffe-like machines that you can climb. There’s a few other types of side content to experience, and all of it is great. I never felt like the side content was padding or dull. It always remained interesting, especially side quests.
Combat is a mix of strategy and skill, but can be brute forced if needed. Your main weapon is a trusty bow, but there are several other weapons to use and upgrade. In fact, there are numerous replacement bows and weapons with better stats. New gear can be bought or traded for at merchants, and sometimes found in the wild. Besides the bow, you can set traps with the Trapcaster. You can pin enemies to the ground with the Ropecaster, and lob elemental bombs with the Sling. The other weapons are handy in certain situations, but they aren’t forced upon you. It’s ultimately up to the player when it comes to how strategic fights will go.
Horizon: Zero Dawn also has great progression, thanks to a peppering of RPG elements. You gain experience as you kill enemies and complete quests. Leveling up gives you a boost in health and a skill point to allocate. Skill points can be used to gain new abilities and passive bonuses by spending them on three different skill trees. These abilities are often game-changers. Certain skills let you slow down time, stack multiple arrows at a time, and gain extra resources. Early leveling is an easy way to get over powered, but Aloy feels super strong even at a fair level. You never feel incapable as Aloy, rather constantly feeling powerful and skilled.
Apart from combat, some traversal mechanics, and leveling, Horizon has a few other features. There’s a scan mode similar to the Batman Akrham series. The scan mode comes in the form of a small device known as the “Focus”. This allows you to see enemy weak spots, track enemy movement, see collectibles, and more. It’s also tied into the story, so the ability doesn’t feel out of place or cliche. The Focus device is comparable to The Witcher 3‘s “Witcher sense”, lending to gameplay that has you tracking footprints and patterns in quests. When it comes to picking your shots and being strategic, scanning becomes a handy tool that is indisposable.
The one thing I had a bit of an issue with was the amount of crafting. It makes sense from a narrative standpoint, being a tribal survivalist and all. Story aside, the crafting gets a bit excessive. While the actual act of crafting is quick, it’s silly to have to craft so many items. I often found myself crafting ammo and traps in the middle of battle. This was due to having a mediocre capacity on my gear, but increasing capacity is tied to crafting as well. Even fast traveling requires you to craft an item every time. After a few hours of combat experience, crafting becomes second nature. I still found myself buying the majority of potions and gear from merchants, as crafting them from scratch was more time consuming and difficult.
The Bottom Line on Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: Zero Dawn is reminiscent of the true action adventure era mixed with some great modern influences. Games like The Legend of Zelda, Tomb Raider, Skyrim, and The Witcher all seem to be inspirations. Otherwise, Horizon reminded me of those games because of its greatness. It does these influences justice with well thought out quests and excellent overall design. There’s a significant amount of polish on this expertly crafted journey, and it’s one that is definitely worth taking. The main story will run you somewhere around 20 hours, but completionists are looking at around 40-50 hours of content. Not only is Horizon: Zero Dawn a fantastic game and a great new property, but it’s also one of the best games of the year. I have no doubt that Horizon will pop up during Game of the Year talk for 2017.