We’ve known Horizon Zero Dawn was always going to be special. Right from the very first announcement back in E3 of 2015 and every subsequent trailer since it’s release, it wowed with its brave new protagonist and captivating world where primitive tribal culture fuses together with hi-tech robotic beasts roaming the wilderness. It quickly became PlayStation’s hottest, most exciting looking new IP.
Guerrilla Games, best known for their technical prowess with the Killzone series on both PS3 and PS4, surprised everyone. For a developer best known for linear first-person shooters with a muted colour palette to come out swinging with a vibrant third-person open world RPG, was not only a huge departure, but a studio reinventing itself in a new creative direction.
Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place many hundreds of years in the future after humanity has destroyed itself. But instead of beginning in a barren post-apocalyptic vision of earth, this world has already recovered and been reclaimed by nature. Pockets of humanity have begun to repopulate using Native American tribal culture for their societal touchstone. Most excitingly though is not the expertly crafted cultures you meet throughout this world, but the giant robotic wildlife that now roam the land. Machines that graze and hunt as naturally as their real counterparts, now sadly lost to time and memory.
Enter Aloy, a feisty, strong-willed huntress in the making. Born as an outcast from her tribe the Nora, Aloy grows up in the wilds, ostracised from the community she so desperately wants to be a part of. Under the tutelage of father figure Rost, she must learn how to live in this hostile environment so that one day, when she comes of age, she can compete in The Proving. A long held tradition for young warriors of the tribe that, if won, could lead to answers about her past, why she was cast out and the role she is destined to fulfil.
“Controlling Aloy is a joy. slick, tight controls mean she can sprint, slide, hunt, and clamber her way around better than most of her peers.”
The narrative in Horizon Zero Dawn is gripping throughout, with many twists and turns you just won’t see coming. I found myself riveted by Aloy’s story, the mystery of this world and constantly being surprised by how confident and effortlessly it leads you through it. Along the way you will encounter other tribes with interesting characters that need Aloy’s help, resulting in some smart side quests that, thankfully don’t resort too often to a standard fetch quest structure. Frequently they will branch off in unexpected directions. Here is where the first of many similarities to The Witcher 3 shine through.
Both titles feature a rich and diverse world to explore and both subvert the idea of what an open world RPG should and can be. What I mean by this, is that they feature strong characters that rarely divulge in to cliche, they have well thought-out missions that tell interesting tales whilst uncovering more about the world and it’s history. The difference in Horizon Zero Dawn however, is that the world feels like it is hitting a sweet spot between frequently overwhelming, and not quite big enough. Whilst the landmass is vast with plenty of things to do and see, it is manageable.
Controlling Aloy is a joy. slick, tight controls mean she can sprint, slide, hunt, and clamber her way around better than most of her peers. You’ll recognise most of the mechanics from other franchises such as the Tomb Raider reboots, Far Cry and even Assassin’s Creed.
Crafting is simple and satisfying as if Aloy had her survival training under the watchful eye of Lara Croft. Medicine and potions are created from picking the right kind of flowers, as are ammunition types for her various and creative weapons that are available from merchants at each settlement. Mechanically it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but here everything just feels right.
For me, this didn’t bother me in the slightest, in fact I prefer a game to be aware of best practice and refine them so you don’t have to think about it. You can then just loose yourself in the story and the setting.
Speaking of those slick controls, if Guerrilla Games had gotten them wrong, then the best part of the game would have resulted in Horizon Zero Dawn being just merely good. The machines, and taking them down.
Each of the machines in this world are exquisitely designed and fill a unique purpose for the world. There are some 26 different species ranging from Striders, Grazers, Scrappers, Sawtooths and the terrifying Stormbird. Each one with it’s own characteristics from the world we are familiar with but given a Sci-Fi twist.
“The characteristics that Guerrilla have managed to put in to each species is something to behold. Grazers are skittish like a Deer and Sawtooths patrol around like a lion guarding it’s pride. Yet override any of them and things can change dramatically.”
You’ll come across a herd of Striders, the most docile of the machines, and you have the option to either hunt them down for valuable parts and resources or override one so that you have a trusty steed to make travelling across the land faster. Or, just override it and set it loose on the other machines and watch your very own version of Robot Wars play out! Combat is flexible and a ton of fun. Do you go in all arrows blazing or pick them off one-by-one from the tall grass, or even lay some traps ahead of time to lure that giant Thunderjaw to it’s demise.
Be mindful though that once a battle commences, the machines will communicate to each other to summon help in the form of other machines close by or the highly aggressive and agile Watchers. These nasty fellows are like a cross between a Velociraptor and a guard dog, frequently scanning the area for threats and investigating should one of the machines fall foul of an attack.
The characteristics that Guerrilla have managed to put in to each species is something to behold. Grazers are skittish like a Deer and Sawtooths patrol around like a lion guarding it’s pride. Yet override any of them and things can change dramatically.
On a technical level, Guerrilla Games have created arguably the best game engine I’ve ever seen before. This world has been rendered to such a high level of polish you often can’t believe what you’re seeing. Thickets of grass sway in the breeze, pockets of snow tumble from tree branches, time of day lighting can conjure searing sunsets or ghostly moonlight without ever breaking a sweat. And that’s not even factoring in any additional settings for those lucky enough to be playing in 4K HDR on PS4 Pro.
Guerilla Games have created something very special here. An exciting new protagonist in Aloy and a jaw dropping world with a rich lore and mysteries to uncover. All achieved on their very first attempt in a new genre.
It may not be perfect, there are some niggles here and there that could easily be fixed in the inevitable sequel. Namely a legend for the map view to allow you to turn on/off icon types and some character animations that are frequently wooden with bad lip syncing. But nothing that will hold this game back from being Playstation’s next big franchise.
Overall this game is incredible. An essential purchase for any PS4 owner and an important title for a developer that can now match their narrative and creative expertise to their technical mastery.