Horizon Zero Dawn Review – A Worthwhile Scifi Adventure?

Pretty sunrise in Horizon Zero Dawn
Chase Gamwell 2017-04-22

Note: When I first started playing Horizon, the screen had a tendency to feel…cluttered. Luckily, there’s a dynamic HUD option that will only show information pertinent to the player’s current actions. I’d strongly suggest making this change. It goes a long way in scaling back the HUD and increasing immersion. It’s also worth noting that all gameplay screens shown in this article were taken with the dynamic HUD option enabled.

I preordered Horizon Zero Dawn

At a time where putting so much faith in an unreleased title is near taboo, I decided to take a chance. After being burned by so many titles in the past, Horizon was no guarantee. But every indication was that the game would be unique.

The initial tech demo presented at E3 2015 was enough to pique my interest, but after the brief debut, more wasn’t shown of the game until E3 2016. By that time, I had nearly forgotten the the title, but the idea still seemed fresh. Though, the February release date was still a long way off.

In the interim, the fall of 2016 was a rousing disappointment. A slew of AAA sequels dropped, but none were exciting enough to warrant more than a passing look. Past that, Final Fantasy XV occupied most of my winter months. But ever in the background was the looming possibility of Horizon. And I impatiently counted the days to February 28.

I never planned on preordering it, but a special edition was announced a few weeks before the game released. I had thought myself past the point of caring about 9” figurines, hard-cover art booklets, and tin cases, but I couldn’t resist the call. Weeks later, I was the proud owner of Horizon Zero Dawn. And a fantastic figurine of the game’s main character – Aloy (A-loi).

9" Aloy statue included in the Horizon Zero Dawn Collectors Edition

So, was the preorder worth it? Was it money well spent? Or, did I get burned by another AAA dud?

Slow Burn

Aloy overlooking some plains in Horizon Zero Dawn

Games like Skyrim place the onus of discovery on the player. They can choose to learn about what has come before, or forego the history and lore of the world. This allows the worth of the game’s history to be defined by the player. While there is a certain measure of achievement in this, the lore can easily take a back seat to more pressing world events.

Horizon, however, spends its earliest moments grounding the player in the world they are to be set loose in.

The game starts with a drawn-out tutorial that dangles glimpses of freedom in front of the player. But it never really delivers on those whispers of promise. Instead, exposition and gameplay are woven together effortlessly to build a solid foundation for an ever more intriguing world. For a brief moment, this might feel like handholding or herding, but the game has its reasons.

At some point, Horizon deems the player competent and everything that comes after is discretionary. Tutorials are neatly filed away in the quest log, never out of reach, but it’s clear that the game would prefer that the player take a more organic approach to learning.

And there is much to learn.

Primal

A Stormbird swooping towards Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn

The first lesson that Horizon teaches is that the world is brutal and unforgiving.

I relished the first few moments of freedom that the game allowed me. Drunk on the prospect of exploration, I struck out into the wilderness, took in its sights, and gawked at the meticulously rendered robotic beasts that calmly roamed the countryside.

But as docile as the robotic animals seemed, a single glimpse of Aloy would turn them hostile.  I tried to fight back with bow and spear, but blunders and missteps quickly led to death. It became clear that, for all of its beauty, Horizon’s world was more than a pretty plaything. It challenged me to best the generally docile creatures that silently taunted me for my failures. And it ignited in me the desire to best the world that had so thoroughly schooled me in its strict set of rules.

There was only one way to do that: forge a path forward.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Horizon Zero Dawn's skill tree

Horizon’s idea of progression should appeal to just about everyone. Guerrilla Games seem to have taken a “kitchen sink” approach when deciding what to add into the game. There’s a skill tree with options that range the gamut from familiar to new and unique, a variety of weapons and armor to choose from (with a range of rarity dictated by the type of scrap needed to purchase it), equipment modification, and a crafting system.

None of these are groundbreaking, but together they give the player a decent amount of wiggle room to customize playstyle to personal preference. I tailored mine to stealth and long range, but a myriad of other options are possible.

Systemic Woes…

I found most of the systems rewarding, but a few did leave much to be desired. The skill tree, for instance, seems poorly organized. In some cases, I felt forced to buy skills I didn’t care about in order to reach others that were integral to my playstyle. Eventually, there came a point where I was simply spending the additional points I had been slowly accumulating.

Crafting also has some rough spots.

Most crafting requires common resource drops that are available throughout the game world – via hunting or simple collection. But, in order to increase the carrying capacity of consumables, the player is required to collect less-common items (bones and skin) from live animals. Unfortunately, the drop rate for these specific items is extremely low. While I understand that there has to be a limiting factor to progression, this didn’t feel like the right way to to go about it. I played Horizon for about 52 hours and I’m sure more than a few of those went into hunting live animals for their bones and skin. And the fact that I rarely found bones or skin on animals that I shot with just a bow was insanely frustrating (and it makes me wonder how most of the animals managed to survive in such a hostile world without bones or skin).

Combat

All of the above systems serve only one real purpose – to prepare Aloy to face all manner of hostile robotic creatures wandering Horizon’s world.

Battle requires a fine balance of every tool at Aloy’s disposal. The bow is a powerful weapon in its own right, but there are plenty of others that can also be used to great effect. The Ropecaster, for instance, allows Aloy to tie enemies to the ground, immobilizing them. Other weapons, like the Sling, can be used to apply a variety of elemental effects to robotic adversaries

Traps can also be employed to further harrow angry robotic rivals as they stomp across the battlefield.

As the game progresses, Aloy comes into possession of a greater arsenal. As it grows, deadlier weapons and more damaging traps allow her to face ever more daunting foes. Eventually, she even gains the ability to goad robots into fighting one another…

In general, combat is fun and engaging. Robots always pose a more immediate threat to Aloy during encounters. It’s at these times that combat is its most frenetic and rewarding. She also fights human opponents, but those encounters are seldom as rewarding (though stealthy execution of each enemy in a camp can be quite satisfying).

The Task At Hand

A new Aloy rose from the rubble of countless ruined machines, and I felt as ready as she to enter The Proving she had spent her entire life training for. You see, Aloy was exiled from the Nora tribe as a babe, entrusted to the care of another exile name Rost. As a young girl, Aloy couldn’t understand why she had been exiled from the Nora. And Rost had no answer for her. But he did tell her that if she were to win The Proving, she would be made a Brave of her people, and welcomed back into the fold.

The Proving is the first real mission of Horizon’s main quest and once it’s completed Aloy is suddenly part of a world changed.

From here, the story escalates.

I’m purposely being vague with regards to the story because it’s one that is extremely easy to spoil. Needless to say, it’s been awhile since I’ve been this enamored with a video game’s story. To me, it approaches the original Mass Effect in theater and scope.

I say this because the two games have a lot in common. Their stories start with an air of mystery that is slowly peeled back throughout the earlier portions of the game until a massive turn reveals something spectacular. Both games are also bolstered by fantastic female leads (if you never played Mass Effect as the female Shepard, you missed out on a far better version of the game).

Aloy is, undoubtedly, the star of Horizon. The way she deals with situations, and the way that she is able to stay grounded despite immensely stacked odds, is a wonder to watch. And it only gets better when she interacts with others.

The Needs of the Many

a quest NPC in Horizon Zero Dawn

Side quests in Horizon are a mixed bag. Some are lackluster affairs, while others are multi-part epics. But all have one thing in common: Aloy.

Her part in each of these small stories makes the journey worthwhile. The way she talks with minor characters or banters with them is a delight. And many of those characters wind up being far more fun than I expected. My only regret is that once the more involved stories are complete, the characters within tend to disappear. Often, I found myself wondering about where the characters were now and wishing that some of them played a somewhat larger role in the narrative. Or, at least, showed up from time to time as was appropriate.

A World Worth Fighting For

All of this is wrapped in one of the most beautiful worlds I’ve ever seen. Every one of Horizon’s regions is painstakingly crafted and achingly gorgeous. And Guerrilla games knows it. Included on the start menu is a “Photo Mode”. At any point during gameplay, this allows players to pause the game and take pictures. The tool is so robust, that it even allows the player to move and pan the camera, remove Aloy, and even change the time of day. The results are astounding (click on each image for the full-size version):

A wide angle shot of the sun setting and the moon rising in Horizon Zero Dawn

Aloy jumping from one ledge to another in Horizon Zero Dawn

A beautiful sunburst photo in Horizon Zero Dawn

Aloy running towards some mountains in Horizon Zero Dawn

Personal Best

Up until now, I’ve done my best to stay objective, but it’s been difficult. And that’s because I absolutely love Horizon Zero Dawn. The game has its faults, but there’s something so charming about it that I can’t help but forgive the small missteps. I’m amazed that the developer who made the Killzone series (Guerrilla Games) could make such a massive pivot to a game like this. It defies reason, but it’s also a triumph of sorts. Because we need more IP like Horizon. A lot more…

To put my gushing a bit more in perspective, consider this: I’ve played many games on Playstation, but I’ve never managed to complete a set of achievements. That is, until now. Horizon Zero Dawn was so worth the effort that it stands as my only Platinum trophy. Make of that what you will.

But, beyond that, I’m surprised at how much time I put into this game. 52 hours is plenty of time, but many of those were spent roaming around the world just looking at stuff. And while I spent an equally large amount of time completing Hunting Zones, or clearing Bandit Camps, none of those tasks ever began to feel repetitive. Or rote.

I think that’s part of the magic of Horizon Zero Dawn. There’s so much that’s different about the game that every single inch of it feels unique. And the more you delve into it, the more you’ll discover.

Treat Yo Self

Recently, I’ve been asked whether the PS4 is a system worth having. And while I’ve always felt that it is, there were never really any games that I could suggest as a definitive excuse for picking one up. Bloodborne is great, but an insanely difficult (and harrowing) experience that isn’t for everyone. Uncharted is fantastic as well, but a series that I’ve found is only really something that fans can appreciate (like Halo or Gears of War for Xbox). And as good as Persona 5 is already shaping up to be (picked up my copy last night!), that game definitely isn’t for everyone.

But Horizon is different. It’s worth the plunge.

If you have a PS4, you should already own the game. And if you don’t, it’s time to consider getting one.

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Comments

  • Pew Pew

    “and it makes me wonder how most of the animals managed to survive in such a hostile world without bones or skin.”

    I genuinely laughed out loud at this. Very nice review Gabe. Now if they could just release it on the PC that’d be great.

    April 22, 2017 at 9:38 am
  • Rolfski

    Is it better than Mass Effect: Andromeda? (Which is btw not a particularly memorable ME edition but still fun to play.)

    April 22, 2017 at 8:33 pm
    • elaqure Rolfski

      I haven’t actually played ME:A, but all indications point to the fact that it is. I think the biggest takeaway is that it is a very different kind of game. It’s much more similar to something like Assassin’s Creed than a Mass Effect title. Either way, I think the game is fantastic!

      April 22, 2017 at 9:56 pm
  • glepp

    How would you compare it to The Witcher 3, story and graphics wise? Also, does it require manual aiming?

    May 2, 2017 at 6:04 pm