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Horizon Zero Dawn hands-on

Guerrilla Games has created a beautiful, deadly open world

Horizon Zero Dawn
| Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a major departure for Guerrilla Games, the Dutch studio that has traded almost exclusively in shooters with the Killzone series. Unlike the cold, grim Killzone brand, Horizon is a lush, vibrant game set in a world recovering from a near extinction-level event.

It’s a game about a young woman and her relationship to her surrogate father; about her will to prove her bravery in service of uncovering at least one great mystery; and about a primitive people who fight to survive in a world inhabited by great mechanical beasts.

It is also a vast, open-world adventure that feels on par with the types of games Ubisoft has been making and refining over a decadelong period. And Guerrilla seems to have nailed the type of gameplay that will draw in fans of Far Cry, The Witcher, The Elder Scrolls and Watch Dogs on its first stab at the genre.

Horizon Zero Dawn’s opening hours give players control of a very young Aloy, introducing them to the defiant, capable protagonist. She learns hard truths about her and her adoptive father Rost’s role in this future-primitive society: They’re outcasts, surviving independent of — and shunned by — their nearby tribe.

In the game’s early hours, Guerrilla establishes an intriguing world, bursting with unknowns. Who is Aloy? What led to her and Rost becoming outcasts? Who are her parents? What happened to the world of humans, now mechanical beasts of burden and dinosaur-like robots?

Some of the answers to those questions start to become clearer just a half-dozen missions in. During our four-hour hands-on gameplay session — Sony jumped us forward into the game’s seventh main quest — we explored the world of Horizon, spoke with its inhabitants and took on a few side missions.

In that early mission, Aloy’s first task is taming a robotic creature with a device called the Override Tool. The tool lets her hack and assume control of the game’s machines, either to make them non-hostile or, in the case of the horse-like Striders, to turn them into something she can ride. The Override Tool can also be used on the game’s sauropod-like Longnecks, which feel akin to walking versions of the map-revealing towers in many Ubisoft games, to reveal new areas of interest.

That’s not the only hacking-style device Aloy has at her disposal. As a child, Aloy discovers a wearable piece of tech that lets her scan her world and the creatures that inhabit it. With it, she can uncover the weaknesses of her prey, and learn how they move and behave. Understanding machine behavior and discovering how to tame those beasts appears to be a major component of Horizon’s gameplay.

Combat is another. Aloy is equipped early on with both bow and spear, but she’ll purchase new weapons and traps from traders. Items like the Tie Rope and Ropecaster, which can pin machines to the ground and immobilize them, can be critical to survival in the Horizon’s intense combat encounters.

Engagements with the game’s machines, which often run in packs, can be approached in a variety of ways. Aloy can hide in the tall grass and stealthily pick off machines one by one, either by shooting critical components on their bodies, or with silent critical-strike takedowns. Or she can attack, run and hide, and track her prey and slowly pick away at it.

Combat can get intense. During one errand for a tribesman, Aloy goes on a rescue mission to track down a missing fellow Brave and must face a pair of Sawtooths, giant panther-like machines, in one-on-one combat. Sawtooths are relentless attackers, and this encounter offered my first panicked fight with two extremely deadly beasts. Aloy’s Ropecaster, a trapper tool that stuns enemies with an electric shock, can immobilize a Sawtooth, and give players a few seconds of respite in these moments. But the Sawtooth battle felt like a flurry of quickly fired arrows, desperate attempts at healing and last-second dodges to escape death by metal claws.

During a few particularly difficult encounters in the game’s tough Corruption Zones, I found it advantageous to pit machine against machine. In the middle of one quest step, I was lucky enough to find a pack of machines near a group of Corrupted Scrappers, infected cat-like beasts, and lured the latter over to the pack where they proceeded to slaughter each other.

Aloy will become more capable as she levels up, unlocking new skills that improve her hunting and foraging skills. Foraging for items, whether it be medicinal herbs, wood for arrows or scrap from the machines Aloy kills, is an ever-present gameplay component. There’s always something to acquire, to craft, to collect more of. You’ll always feel like you’re making some level of progress, no matter how small.

Horizon Zero Dawn skill tree

There’s no shortage of things to do early on in Horizon Zero Dawn. Players can amass a laundry list of quests and errands to take on, and those missions feel like they flow and overlap organically. There are cities and encampments to visit, as well as characters you’ll encounter in the wild who will ask Aloy for favors. These side quests all feel like a part of Aloy’s overall character growth, not simply distractions from your core mission.

Guerrilla Games has been known for pushing the graphical capabilities of PlayStation hardware, and Horizon Zero Dawn is easily its most impressive looking game to date. The game’s Decima engine — the recently branded tech that will also power Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding — churns out some stunning visuals. The game’s day-night cycle offers beautiful, moonlit nights and soft, warm sunrises. A dynamic weather system may mean, as in my case, a combat encounter that’s sunny in one instance features pouring rain in a second attempt. A built-in photo mode available whenever players pause the game will surely make for a flood of lovely screenshots. (Less appealing are some of the game’s dialogue-heavy cutscenes, which appear to have voice acting of wildly varying quality.)

Horizon Zero Dawn, which comes to PlayStation 4 on Feb. 28, looks to be a game where players will be able to lose themselves for dozens of hours: foraging for scrap and upgrading their gear, hunting down dozens of types of machines, and embarking on no shortage of quests and errands. While much of Horizon will appear familiar, if not downright rote, from a gameplay perspective, its beauty and its mysteries will help it stand out among its open-world ancestors.