“Hunt robot dinosaurs with a bow and arrow as a neolithic badass who looks like a stunt double for Game of Thrones’ Ygritte.” That was essentially the message we got from Horizon Zero Dawn when the game was revealed in E3 2015. We’re happy to confirm that, almost two years later, the game lives up to that promise — bringing down great mechanical beasts is just as thrilling as it looks.
Moreover, that exhilarating action is couched in a beautifully-realized world and satisfying RPG story that feels both epic and the personal in the telling. While many of the game’s supporting mechanics and systems may feel somewhat rote among the heavily-populated genre of open-world action RPGs, its solid execution, compelling world-building, and the thrilling hunt at its core make up for its lack of innovation. Developer Guerrilla Games, best known for the PlayStation exclusive Killzone series, has almost exclusively produced first-person shooters until now, so in branching out they used a strong foundation of known mechanics to build a game with real heart and vision.
Horizon takes places thousands of years after the fall of modern civilization. Nature has reclaimed our crumbling cities. Humanity now holds on in the form of primitive upstart civilizations that have lost touch with the past’s knowledge, while much of the world is dominated by autonomous animal-shaped robots.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s core action is visceral, dynamic, and thrilling.
You play as Aloy, a young brave of the Nora tribe – a group of matriarchal hunters who live in a sacred mountain valley and worship the All-Mother. The Nora treat any ancient technology as highly taboo, so when Aloy was found as a baby near an ancient site, the Matriarchs gave her to an exiled warrior named Rost to raise as an outcast in their own territory. Aloy coming of age coincides with a mysterious uptick in the aggression of the great machines, and events transpire that send her on a quest out into the larger world. Fallout: New Vegas writer John Gonzalez wrote the script, and his sense of warmth and humor shows throughout the writing and the world’s many characters.
The consistently gorgeous environments spans verdant valleys, snowy forests and mountains, as well as wide-open desert and jungle areas. Its dramatic vistas are enhanced by powerful, dynamic weather systems. One trip through a forest may see warm rays of dusk sun slanting through the branches, whereas the next time it could be dark and obscured by foreboding mist. No matter where you go, exploring the game’s vibrant environments is a consistent pleasure.
Despite the open geography, the story is very linear within each given quest. There are a handful of opportunities to make narrative choices throughout the game, but these have relatively little effect on the overall story and there is only one ending. Quests quickly fall into a familiar rhythm of talk to a person, go to a place, scan for evidence, follow a trail, fight someone/something, return for your reward. The same could be said of a lot of great games, however, so it’s far from a major criticism.
The game’s intelligent world building also applies to the cultures and characters that populate the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. The Carja are like the Aztecs with a bit of Byzantine style ruled by a sun king out of a walled medieval city atop a jungle mesa. A recent civil war caused the Shadow Carja to flee into the desert, sticking with the old ways of slavery and human sacrifice. The Oseram are tinkers and smiths, clad in leather — dwarves in all but stature. Lastly the Bantu are a shamanistic mountain tribe, even more reclusive than the Nora. These cultures are all smartly and thoroughly realized, and through the game you’ll come to recognize their signature styles and mores, which gives the game a marvelous sense of place and history.
The wide range of cultures and characters make the game feel refreshingly diverse, prominently featuring women and people of color incidentally in non-conventional roles throughout. Beyond just virtual casting, there is a recurring motif throughout the story and side quests of women resisting oppressive, patriarchal roles to strike out and lead the lives they want. It’s far from didactic and really shouldn’t offend the anti-SJW crowd, but it’s nevertheless great to see a mainstream game be causally progressive in that way.
Thrill of the hunt
The world’s most compelling inhabitants are the machines. These fantastically designed monstrosities resemble real animals, both current and historical, such as bison or tyrannosaurus at a glance, but with scrappy mechanical accents; fluid canisters, armor plating, and the like.
Those visual elements aren’t just cosmetic. Whack the plating off a Ravager’s side with your spear and that flank becomes more vulnerable to attack. Shoot the disc launcher off a Thunderjaw’s back and you can pick it up to fire right back at it. Scanning a creature reveals not just general weaknesses or resistance to effects like electricity or fire, but how individual components respond. This gives them a much greater physicality than just abstracted health and armor stats. With an ever-growing array of tools like specialized bows, traps, and tripwires at your disposal, every encounter becomes a puzzle, and makes each fight feel more like hunting, rather than simple, mechanic-driven combat.
You need to hunt frequently, because you need resources to craft all that equipment, not to mention the healing items and ammo. Aloy’s crafting and skills systems are largely built from stock parts, but solidly-executed. Aloy’s skills (broadly divided into stealth, fighting, and foraging) are all appealingly useful, allowing you to hone your play style. The huge variety of resources and crafting components scavenged from hunting machines, as well as small animals, feeds an economy of crafting and selling parts that motivates and directs your hunting without becoming too tedious (though hoarders will need to own a bit of inventory management). The Quick Craft wheel, which allows you to restock ammo on the fly for any of your weapons while merely slowing down the action, keeps the time spent in menus down and the tempo up.
No matter where you go, exploring the game is a consistent pleasure.
Luckily, you aren’t going to mind hunting often, because Horizon Zero Dawn’s core action is visceral and dynamic. Sneaking through tall grass allows you to get the jump on your prey, which can be immensely satisfying to pull off. However, it’s often just as fun when things go sideways and you find yourself frantically rolling around shooting arrows and dropping traps in an improvisatory flow.
Unfortunately, the game also tasks you with fighting a fair amount of people with these same tools, which is not nearly as interesting. Sneaking through a bandit camps and picking people off with headshots has its appeal, but it isn’t anything you haven’t done in a thousand other games. The AI isn’t smart enough to make stealth a fully compelling option, and combat often devolves into drawn-out archery competitions. By comparison, these sections feel a bit flat relative to battling giant machines, though they hardly detract from the main course.
Like the game’s supporting mechanical systems, Aloy’s story is largely built from tested tropes, and its beats will sound familiar to RPG fans. Despite its well-trodden territory, the story rarely feels stale. Rather, it has tapped into that Joseph Campbell monomyth, sending Aloy on a classic hero’s journey. Games have always thrived on conjuring a strong sense of place, and the story of HZD works so well because it elegantly ties the tacit, fundamental question of how the world came to be, with Aloy’s personal journey to discover her own origins.
The colorful setting takes very familiar video game elements– the post-apocalypse, fighting giant robots, etc– but combines them in a way that feels fresh and earned. Hearkening back to the Asimov quote about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, the story neatly uses science fiction to spin a classic gods and monsters epic. It’s a clever trick that works throughout the whole game.Our Take
Horizon Zero Dawn is a slick, fun, and epic action RPG. While it may not do much to innovate within the genre, its exciting combat, combined with top-notch world-building, and exceptional production values more than make up for it.
Is there a better alternative?
There are great action RPGs of all stripes depending on what sorts of themes interest you, but nothing quite matches Horizon Zero Dawn’s tone.
How long will it last?
The main campaign takes about 30 hours, with plenty of additional content for completionists. As of this review, the developer has not announced plans to release any downloadable content.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Horizon Zero Dawn is a fun, well-made game with thrilling action and a compelling world.