As refreshing as Horizon Zero Dawn is for the Killzone developers Guerrilla Games, it also stands alone as a superb design in a modern mishmash of genres. It pushes back against the worst parts of open world games, it finds new ways to make stealth interesting, and it creates genuinely exhilarating set pieces in between. Strangely, though, it’s a game that also tends to fight itself along the way.
Horizon Zero Dawn tells the story of a girl named Aloy (Ashly Burch). Born an orphan and an outcast from her religious tribe, she’s raised and trained by her surrogate father in the wilds of an odd world full of familiar but decrepit artifacts and aggressive, fully self-aware mechanical dinosaurs. In an effort to find out her origins and answers to so many questions about what the fuck even is this place, she fights to earn her place among her people and this wide and wild land.
I’d really rather not say much more about the story because it is one of the largest hooks of the game. Fully divorced from the Killzone days of Fuck It Space Nazis, this instead tells a full and rewarding story from beginning to end. It begs questions at a natural and tantalizing pace through her foreign eyes before splaying it all out.
It’s far darker than you would expect. The whole revelations contained shocked me in ways I was prepared for, though there certainly are also uplifting elements. And granted, it can indulge in straight exposition a bit too often, it’s welcome every single time because you want to so desperately know what is going on. It earns its words.
Part of that is because of the characters, each of which are individual in personality but cohesive in narrative. They seem to all point to the finish line but in their own way. Take Aloy’s father Rost (JB Blanc), for example. He has a…predictable arc, but not a single part of the lead-up is wasted. From start to finish, he is a unique presence and one that is impactful to everyone before and after the story of the game.
Transient characters even feel fully realized. One particular pair left a lasting impression on me and the story itself despite having less than five minutes of screen time. The presentation, however, can be weirdly stilted, biting whole cloth the Fallout-style of conversation where two people just awkwardly and unnervingly stare each other down until all the dialogue wheel choices are expended. You occasionally get choices, though, that represent one of three ways to proceed in a pickle, which can range from Mass Effect-style interrupts to a joyous verbal takedown of a raging jerkwad.
A good amount of the singular direction that the game exudes comes from the fact that it doesn’t do the usual thing open world games do, which is to say bullshit out the yang. There aren’t unending radiant quests or generic Fill in the Blank fetch quests. Each side mission falls under specific story influences while being of a categorical ilk. Clearing out enemy camps, competing in hunting trials, and running literal fetch quests all actually push forward the characterization of Aloy and the world itself with worthwhile conversations and consequences.
Admittedly, though, the open world is also where the game mostly breaks down as an actual game. Enemies respawn at a remarkable rate with either seemingly endless dominions or inscrutable boundaries that make running through on foot or on your mount a foolhardy endeavor. It’s best, instead, to creep along and figure out inch by inch where you need to go as going aggro through a field of Scrappers may land you well within their reach and inches away from your objective.
That can get exceedingly tedious as you the best way to deal with opposition is hardly the most fun. Some of the earliest skills you can pick up include a whistle ability and a silent strike ability, both of which combine to make you the most dangerous creature in the land. All you do is hide in tall grass to render you almost entirely invisible (seriously, they can be literally touching you and you won’t be detected), whistle one baddie over at a time (only one ever comes to investigate), and then stab it to death. It’s boring but effective.
Luckily, there is a remedy to that: stronger enemies. Giant hermit crab things, for example, are hearty foes, so even if you attempt a silent takedown, you only knock off maybe a fifth of its health. The game is at its best when everything goes wrong—like, say, when you whistle over one of those fuckers instead of a fodder Watcher—and you suddenly find yourself knee-deep in Oh Fuck.
Surviving robust encounters like that require dexterity, strategy, and fully turgid, unrelenting vigilance. You have to manage the lower level enemies while finding some way to avoid the arcing fireballs and speedy charges of the larger ones as you dish out damage with your whole range of skills and weapons. You’ll, for instance, roll out of the way, lay down a dual-action tripwire trap, trigger your health regen, and turn around to land a crit on a downed Strider. It’s invigorating in the same way I imagine taking a morning dip into a lava pit would be, but my gosh is it fun.
Doing that regularly, however, is a terrible idea when it can all turn bad in an instant, forcing an incredible consumption of resources to top yourself off after any given encounter or, worse yet, wasting time as you die and reload. It actually is—as boring as it is—better to just hide in the grass and kill them as much as you kill yourself with tedium.
And you do want to kill them all as you get to loot their corpses afterwards. With color graded loot à la Destiny, you find common goods like wire and sparkers that will help refill your ammo along with rarer goods like weapon modifications and specific crafting materials to bolster your potion pouch or bow quiver. It’s a tried and true formula, sure, but don’t forget that second part: true. It works.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that this is, among the likes of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, one of the best looking games out there. Clambering to the top of a Brachiosaurus-like Tallneck just as it crests a hilltop with the sun rising behind it, you’d be hard-pressed to think of something more visually striking. With wispy waving grass amidst a rutilant sunset, you can’t fault the aesthetics of the game. (And on a PlayStation 4 Pro and 4K display, gosh does this thing sing.)
Horizon Zero Dawn, despite its faults, is a nearly staggering work. It’s huge in ways games like Just Cause 2 would brag about but it’s also small and personal in ways a forensic narrative would go for. It doesn’t hit either extreme, but it doesn’t need to. I can’t help but feel like this is exactly what it needed to be, both for us the players and the studio behind it. If you can muster within yourself enough life force to sink 40 to 50 hours into a game, you can’t pick much better than this one.
+ Builds and delivers on a story that goes places you wouldn’t expect
+ Combat is strategic chaos that forces you to think on your all of your feet
+ Quests are meaningful and reinforce all the worldbuilding before it
– Game loop settles into a tedious and exhausting rut far too easily
– Stilted and awkward conversations with occasionally poor lip syncing
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Horizon Zero Dawn
Release: February 28, 2017
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4