If you haven’t heard by now, Horizon Zero Dawn is all sorts of good. Along with being remarkable, it is also remarkably long, which means I’m still working through it. (Working through even a simple majority of the side quests along the way to the finish is clocking in at 35+ hours.) But even then, it has made quite the impact on me.
It’s hard to say how unlikely this game itself was to exist. Developers Guerrilla Games had long been known for the Killzone franchise, which hasn’t been all that great since 2009, though calling it favorable would be fairly accurate. But for almost a decade, they were only known for a stoic, dark, and cliché-ridden first-person shooter.
You can imagine, then, the surprise that they would be working on a completely new IP, one that features giant robot dinosaurs, a female protagonist, and a relatively heavy amount of role-playing mechanics. Set in an open world in an age of open world games that end up using production volume as a coverup for production value, it’s more than fair to expect this to be a similarly troublesome departure for a studio that would bring along its hallmark problems of inconsequential story, dry characters, and cloying set pieces.
Horizon Zero Dawn, thankfully, opens in the only way it could to tell you it isn’t any of that. Gameplay, regardless of what you thought of the trailers, wasn’t ever really a concern. For all the faults of Killzone, those games at least played well. Every part of it worked mechanically as you would have expected.
The opening act instead focuses on everything else. It starts from as close to the beginning as possible, establishing heroin Aloy as an outcast newborn from a faith-based tribe. What’s interesting, however, is that she’s neither with her parents nor totally devoid of influence of the tribe or their religion. It begs about, oh, a million questions.
How, for instance, did your guardian get himself shunned from the tribe? Where are her parents? Those and many more questions actually form the basis of the story but knowingly so. The reasonable questions you have become the impetus for what you embark to resolve as the story opens up into the main game. It gracefully and thankfully avoids the biggest problem with video game narratives (outside of sexist or racist tropes): it not once tells you what it wants you to think.
The opening of Assassin’s Creed Unity, for example, is especially bad. You don’t lose just one but two dads, which might as well be the neon sign equivalent of telling the player “HEY YOU PROBABLY WANT TO GET REVENGE.” A natural curiosity, instead, takes hold here and Aloy’s various desires and quests simply feel more vital as a result.
It also layers in an overarching plot that reaches far beyond the one you have agency in. Even in knowing the least amount possible about the game, you know that there are living machines sharing the same space as a tribal world of humans, and since machines are generally seen as a human construct, how did this regression happen amidst rapid advancements?
This is set up wonderfully once you get control of Aloy. It pulls in the best parts of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the switcheroo of Assassin’s Creed III‘s opening, tenderly and lovingly teasing out your curiosity. The slow revelation that there’s more to these machines, that the setting and their construction is eerily familiar. It creeps up on you at a deceptively forceful and welcome drip.
After that, the game goes into the structure you’d largely expect, though it is pleasing in just about every aspect so far. I’ll have far more to say about it once I’m done and there’s a full review, but this opening to the game is superb. It sets up the rest of the game without being trite, inviting inquiries without being obvious, and when it is obvious, it does so with reason. If it follows through on everything in these opening hours, then we all are in for quite the ride.