Horizon Zero Dawn review

Game Info
Platform PS4
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer Guerrilla Games
Release Date Feb 28, 2017

Horizon Zero Dawn feels, in some ways, like a refutation of developer Guerrilla Games' nearly 20-year history.

Since being founded in 2000, this Amsterdam-based studio has stuck almost entirely to a single series: the drab sci-fi shooter franchise Killzone. The successes and failures of individual entries in that franchise have varied — 2009's Killzone 2 was arguably a high point, while PlayStation 4 launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall was a disappointment — but regardless, Killzone has never really seemed to catch on in the gaming zeitgeist compared to popular competitors like Halo and Call of Duty.

It seemed like Guerrilla Games might be trapped churning out Killzone games forever until the surprise announcement of Horizon Zero Dawn at E3 2015. Here was something stunningly different from the moody, dark shooter heritage of this team: a gorgeous, colorful, third-person open-world game that focused on tracking and hunting massive robotic beasts. Could they really do this?

The answer is yes. Horizon Zero Dawn is a refreshing change of pace for Guerrilla Games. While playing it, I couldn't shake the feeling that this game was made by people excited to be working on it, and that excitement was contagious.

It is post-post-post-apocalypse

Horizon Zero Dawn is a post-apocalyptic game, but not of the variety we've seen lots of in games like Fallout 4 and The Last of Us. It is post-post-post-apocalypse: hundreds if not thousands of years after whatever catastrophe befell society. In this strange, barely familiar world, the massive skyscrapers and technology of our modern civilization have been abandoned. What humans remain form tribes, hunting with bows and spears and living a life shaped around an earth-based, shamanistic religion.

These human tribes also have to contend with another force for survival: the machines, giant robots that resemble dinosaurs and other animals. These terrifying opponents were left behind by the Ancient Ones, before the old world ended, and little is known about them other than that they're equipped with weaponry and power that humans of the new world simply can't compete with.

It's in this vision of the future that players take control of Aloy, a talented young huntress cast out from her tribe and desperately seeking answers about where she came from. Though she is in many ways the traditional video game protagonist — brisk in speech, unstoppable in power, ready and willing to go along with whatever quest she is given — she provides a perfect pair of curious eyes to slowly reveal the mysteries of this world.

Those mysteries are a driving force in Horizon Zero Dawn, so I'll only say that the game surprised me in numerous ways. It's darker than I expected in its imagining of what ended civilization, but it's also more hopeful regarding humanity's chances at continued existence. Aloy herself is largely a tool accomplishing the needs of the game, but Horizon's cast of characters was strong enough to earn my investment.

Horizon Zero Dawn screenshot

That cast includes characters like the drunken warrior Erend, the new-to-the-throne and progressive-minded Sun King Avad and the mysterious, omniscient Sylens. It's a cast whose progress through the story I was eager to witness, and the political maneuvering of the world of Horizon weaves myriad opportunities for intrigue both in this game and the future. Horizon Zero Dawn answers the vast majority of the questions it presents. It leaves characters with arcs that feel completed but also a bear sense of continuity, of possible direction for the future. It builds in the potential for sequels and spinoffs, but in a smart, natural way, without the need for frustrating cliffhangers or unresolved plot threads.

(OK, there's one tiny thread left over in the post-credits stinger, but I found the game's handling of this tease more clever than cynical.)

Aloy herself may not be an incredibly deep character, but she grounds Horizon's gameplay via a wide array of combat abilities that grows as the game progresses. Through both crafting new weapons and items and learning new skills via leveling up, Aloy grows from an above-average hunter to a woman revered across the land as an unstoppable machine killer. While she's up against technological nightmares, Aloy embraces technology in a way other members of her tribe do not.

The bigger the robot, the more of a struggle the fight is
Horizon Zero Dawn screenshot

Early in her life, she discovers a strange item called a "focus" that allows her to scan the environment and see trails left by people. Aloy uses the focus quite a bit in quests and story moments, but it's also a key to combat. The focus allows you to see the weak points on your robot enemies, which means even if you're using a bow and arrow or slingshot against them, you can target the exact points that will do the most damage.

Fighting the machines in Horizon Zero Dawn — especially the larger ones — is a thrilling, exhausting experience, one that improves over time as Aloy buys and crafts more tools, opening up more options to take the beasts down. At the beginning, I used my bow and arrow for everything, even when it was just slowly chipping away small bits of damage; by the end, I was smoothly and swiftly switching between shooting fire arrows at flammable fuel tanks, tossing shock traps on the ground to stun robots, and lobbing ice bombs that could freeze enemies in place and open them up to further damage.

Horizon encourages you to use the widest possible variety of options at your disposal, as well. The bigger the robot, the more of a struggle the fight is. Aloy's tasks aren't difficult, exactly. Rather, larger robots just have a lot of health, and they're big and imposing, and they can take out a good chunk of your health bar with one stomp or laser blast. You need to approach fights prepared, with a backpack full of resources so you can craft more ammo or potions on the fly. The only times I got frustrated were when I stubbornly stuck to one tactic with a harder enemy instead of varying my techniques. But when I actually used everything I could to bring down the biggest robots, it was immensely satisfying.

Horizon Zero Dawn screenshot Horizon made the act of running from location to location a huge part of the fun

Combat is only one part of a cycle in Horizon Zero Dawn: You stock up on supplies to take down a foe, you fight that enemy, then you harvest its metal insides and use those parts to craft new weapons and armor and more supplies for taking on the next giant machine you come across. It's a tried-and-true formula, something popularized in series like Monster Hunter, but it's never been pulled off with the AAA polish and approachability that's on display here. If "approachability" reads to you as "less depth," you're not wrong, but it's a trade-off that works to Horizon's advantage.

Horizon's gorgeously crafted world is another element in its favor, but first you have to get over its one visual shortcoming: the character models. Aloy and her rotating cast of companions look nice enough in action, but during lengthy dialogue sequences, characters are static and unnerving in a way that skirts the uncanny valley. The world itself, however, is just plain beautiful. From witnessing a crimson sunset across a mountain range to seeing the land naturally shift from a desert to a lush jungle, Horizon made the act of running from location to location within its world a huge part of the fun.

In fact, you'll run into robots far more during these long stretches of exploring than you will during story quests, and these encounters make for some of the most memorable moments in the game. For example, there were the numerous times that I took out a whole herd of grazers (robots that look like deer) completely using stealth, just to build up supplies. Or the epic confrontation I had with two robot sandworms, where I managed to just barely defeat them with all of my potions and resources drained, only for a flock of glinthawks (a sort-of machine pterodactyl that shoots ice) to swoop down and feast on the worm's corpses until they noticed me. I didn't survive that one.

Honestly, the only notably mundane moments in Horizon are the points where the game makes you fight against other humans, which happens just a little too often during the main quest. Where each type of robot requires unique strategies and a strong sense of your surroundings to succeed, fights against humans feel like far less interesting resource and skill checks. Can you quickly aim at enemies' heads to bring them down in one or two arrows, rather than the dozen or so body shots necessary? And if not, do you have enough health potions to survive as the opposing humans pelt you with arrows? Then you're all good; not much else to it.

Wrap Up:

Horizon Zero Dawn feels like a storied developer finally finding its voice

Those duller moments are a footnote, however, and they did little to slow down the game's momentum and my interest in it. Horizon Zero Dawn thrums with the energy of a creative team finally allowed to explore something new. It builds on elements of open-world and loot-and-craft gameplay that we've seen before, but it does so within a context, a setting and a style that feel fresh. Horizon Zero Dawn discovers a stronger sense of its own personality in one game than Killzone ever managed across half a dozen. Guerrilla Games has long been developing some of the most buzzed-about games in the industry; with Horizon, it feels like it has finally found its own voice, one worthy of all that buzz.

Horizon Zero Dawn was reviewed using final "retail" downloadable PS4 code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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