Horizon Zero Dawn is juggling a lot of things at once. There are robot dinosaurs, stunning visuals, and an (at times) overwhelming open world. It doesn’t, however, ever quite get around to one thing: feeling like an open world. Really, it feels like, well, just a world.
That’s a hard thing to capture. Whether in books or movies or TV, it’s a dangerously alluring thing. To many writers, it can be their white whale, chasing it with reckless abandon at the simple, straightforward price of everything. And despite all that effort, it will still elude their grasp but never their reach, and that is a scary, addictive proposition.
Perhaps that’s why it ends up working out so well for developers Guerrilla Games, a studio previously known for only producing triple-A filler in the shape of the Killzone series. Not to say any of them were bad (hell, Killzone 2 was pretty damn great), but even fans could at least agree it was a creatively bankrupt well that they had been diving back into since 2004. But as shown in Noclip’s documentary series, that was something Guerrilla Games themselves also realized.
Horizon Zero Dawn feels like the game that they’d been waiting to make for the past ten years; they just didn’t know it yet. That is the level of world we’re dealing with. Yes, it features some extraordinarily stilted acting and the cultural appropriation aspects are deeply problematic, but it also manages to infuse every part of its gorgeous world with identity and meaning.
Running across this massive world can be a chore (thank god for fast travel), but doing so will remind you of the simplicity of its genius: you remember it. Not the time you spent holding the stick forward, necessarily, but rather the fact that exploration was tied so deeply and meaningfully to the lore you were absorbing. Even to this day, almost a full year after the game’s release, I can still remember the way the sprawling plains by the river fed directly into snowy mountaintops and how it informed not just the type of mechanized fauna you’d see but the types of people you’d interact with.
That’s in dire contrast to pretty much every other open world in video games. Many other times I’d recall the vague shape the map would make in my brain as I would scroll all the way up or left or whatever to get where I needed to go, but Horizon Zero Dawn chose a different tact. It chose to make the world and let it fill itself, letting life and purpose take hold where it needed to and create something fresh and memorable. And that’s why it’s our number four game of the year.