Back when Horizon Zero Dawn first came out, it sort of flew under my radar. That’s not to say I hadn’t been following its development. On the contrary, I had been following it quite closely, and was pretty hyped up about it just from the marketing material alone. It had a pretty unique premise for a game: a far, far future, so far past today that civilization has receded to primitive technology, and people live among the wreckage of a society even beyond our own. Oh, and awesome robot dinosaurs roam the landscape, grazing on the grass, and each other, for some reason. You can take down these dinosaurs using a number of different tools that combine primitive technology with parts scavenged from said robot dinosaurs, creating interesting and cool-looking weapons. It’s right up my alley.
Unfortunately, it released alongside Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Now, I have no qualms with playing two games back to back, but BotW and Zero Dawn had enough similarities that I felt playing them back to back could only detract from both experiences, so I made the clear personal choice of prioritizing Zelda. Horizon went on sale a little while ago and, after having heard even more about it, I had to purchase and play it. Surprisingly, and perhaps controversially, I think I may have liked Horizon more than Breath of the Wild.
Ok, before you jump down my throat, I have to add that these two games are actually very, very different in their approach to an open world and to storytelling in general, so they’re kind of apples and oranges. I’ll try to get my comparisons between the two out of the way now, because I feel like comparing them, as I said earlier, only detracts from them both, but seeing as you control a character in a post-apocalyptic open world with a bow and arrow and a slow motion mechanic while fighting blue robots in both of them, comparisons are inevitable. I mean, seriously, you could pitch the basic concept of either game and they would sound nearly indistinguishable.
While on paper the games are similar, they differ greatly in their design philosophy. Breath of the Wild opts to forgo traditional storytelling in favor of a large, open ended adventure where you can tackle pretty much anything in any order you choose. The world is incredibly large, and the mechanics of the game are built so that Link and the player can get almost anywhere they want, if they are clever or skillful enough. Horizon, conversely, is a much more linear adventure, one that tries to tell a very cinematic story where all of the beats have to happen in a certain order. There are side quests you can tackle mostly in any order you want, but largely if you’re following the story you tend to run into side quests in a certain order; there’s also a leveling mechanic so, unless you’re pretty good at the game, side quests can only be tackled in a specific order anyway.
This leads me into what I personally appreciate about Horizon Zero Dawn. Despite it being an open world, it’s actually a pretty contained experience. The game borrows elements from games like Far Cry, with specific areas on the map marked where specific robots roam, and towers used to unlock maps. On paper that sounds tedious, but the team over at Guerilla Games exercised restraint when designing their map, be it on purpose or through necessity; there are only a total of five Tallnecks (tall, awe-inspiring robots that serve as this game’s towers), and each encounter with one feels unique and tailored for a slight challenge, rather than the copy-paste towers of Far Cry games. The world map itself is also not all that big as compared to other recent open world games like The Witcher 3 or Breath of the Wild, making it easier to traverse and fill in.
It’s this kind of restraint that I think makes Horizon so easy to continue playing. Open world bloat is a real thing these days. I still haven’t finished Zelda: Breath of the Wild (I’m sorry), but I blasted through Horizon over a few days. I know multiple people who got the platinum trophy for it, meaning they did practically everything you can do in the game. These were people who aren’t even achievement hunters; they were just that engrossed, and the game feels like there is just enough to do, not too much or too little. Open world games have become these massive, time consuming ordeals; it took me three concerted efforts to finish The Witcher 3, and the last push took a lot longer than I expected it to. It was nice to have an open world game that felt more contained and finisheable in one go.
It also really helps that the combat is incredibly fun and satisfying. It took me a little while to drop into the flow of gameplay; it largely revolves around memorizing and reading the movements of your enemies, similar to a Dark Souls or Monster Hunter game (although not nearly as obtuse or difficult as either of those games). Once I got into the flow, however, controlling your main character, Aloy (pronounced ey-loy), feels fun and intuitive. Most of the time. On top of that you have a wide range of weapons in your arsenal, all allowing for different types of gameplay depending on your style. Do you want to use your ropecaster to tie down your foes and deliver devastating critical blows? Do you want to hide in the shadows and cast traps for your enemies? Or do you want to simply go all-out combat and mess up robots with a bow and arrow? I went the last route, and combat was fun and tense, if a little easy. There’s also a somewhat satisfying upgrade system wherein you can unlock new abilities for Aloy, although many of them felt like they should have just been available from the get-go. Also, the human enemies feel like an afterthought; they are neither as smart, nor are they nearly as fun to fight as their robot counterparts.
All of this leads me into one of my major complaints about the game: although you are given a wide array of weapons, the game doesn’t do a very good job of introducing them or illustrating what makes them useful. On top of that, if you’re playing the game on normal difficulty, which is what I usually do, you’re never really forced to use any of those other weapons, or to understand the elemental strengths and weaknesses of armor and weapons, unless you really go looking. I breezed through most of the game with a basic bow, until I hit a mandatory boss that absolutely and repeatedly wrecked me because I didn’t have the right elemental resistances or the right type of arrows, or really anything strong enough to deal with it. I got through by the skin of my teeth, but I didn’t find the encounter very fun. Another minor complaint is the collectible resources, which feel a bit tedious, as my resources bag filled up too quickly even after multiple upgrades and the game was never clear enough about what could be sold that wouldn’t hinder my crafting, but it was mostly a minor annoyance more than anything.
Most of the larger encounters, though, are fun. Really fun. Finding and exploiting a giant robot’s weaknesses feels empowering, and it never really feels too easy. The best encounters in the game are the larger machines, which take careful positioning and timing and good aim to take down properly. Almost all of the machines are fun to take down, except the flying enemies, which I find infuriating; the game’s graphics, in this case, are too good, as when you try to aim up at the robobirds the camera gets lost in the grass and you can’t see anything happening above you. But oh, the graphics. This game is a technological marvel. Once you’ve loaded in, you’ll never see another loading screen and, despite the game being open world, it has Uncharted 4 levels of graphical fidelity. I cannot understate the magnitude of Guerilla Games’ achievement in that regard: it is robably the best looking game I have ever played, and on my base-PS4, no less. I can’t imagine how good it looks on a PS4 Pro.
Everything I’ve listed so far, though, pales in comparison to the excellent story. I can’t stress enough how good it is. Not only is Aloy a well-acted, well written character surrounded by cast of other well written characters, the story is just as well thought out and well written, and it goes to some big, unexpected places. It plays out like a big mystery, and it never feels like it’s going out of its way to leave questions unanswered; if they wanted to, they could leave the game as-is and not make any sequels and it would tell an emotional, satisfying and complete story. I’m glad, however, that we have DLC on the way, and that they have announced that this will be a core Sony franchise. My one worry is that we’ll lose some of the compact-ness that made this game so addicting and easy to binge, but time will tell.
So what’s the final verdict? There are some frustrating elements that hinder the overall experience, but not nearly enough that I won’t give this game a glowing recommendation. I couldn’t put the game down, and I know I’m not alone. The combination of graphics, fun gameplay, and an engrossing story mean that this is an absolute must play if you have the means. Even if the gameplay were garbage the story would make the price of admission worthwhile, but happily the gameplay is excellent almost across the board. Sometimes the climbing is wonky, and sometimes there’s a huge spike in difficulty, but none of these flaws hinder what is an epic, well written and impeccably designed game. If you can, go out and play Horizon Zero Dawn. In the meantime thanks for reading, and Stay Optimistic.