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Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide

It’s a wide world of distractions — let us help you find your way

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Horizon Zero Dawn does a fantastic job of easing you into its grand adventure, but it’s still easy to get distracted in the blizzard of side quests and shiny items that fill its post-post-apocalyptic world. You’ll eventually sort through your ever-expanding to-do list and get much better at inventory management, but we’re here to help you through your first few hours to get you there quicker.


Table of contents


What is all that stuff on my HUD?

Everything about your HUD in Horizon Zero Dawn is probably familiar to you if you’ve played any other action RPG, but there’s just a lot of information being presented here, so let’s break it down.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Horizon Zero Dawn’s HUD is familiar, and full of information.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon
  1. Health and medicine pouch. In the top left, you’ll see your health bar and medicine pouch — with your current health in red with how full your medicine pouch is beneath that in green. This mechanic takes a second to understand — you can refill your health from your medicine pouch and you refill your medicine pouch by collecting medicinal plants. There are potions that will refill your health, but only foraging plants will refill your medicine pouch.
  2. Current quest. If you have an active quest (or side quest or errand or job or … look: there’s a lot to do in Horizon Zero Dawn), information will appear here about that quest, your next step(s), and its current status.
  3. Compass. It’s mostly just a compass, but you will see icons for nearby points of interest as well.
  4. Stealth icon. It’s pretty straightforward — an open eye means you’re visible and a closed eye means you’re hidden. The parentheses around the eye indicate how much noise you’re making. If you played any Skyrim, you know how this works.
  5. Level and XP. The gauge fills as you earn experience until you level up.
  6. Quest waypoint. If you have an active quest, you’ll see an icon indicating where you need to go next.
  7. Resources. There’s stuff to pick up in Horizon Zero Dawn everywhere. Things you can pick up will be flagged with their own icons — different types of materials have different icons and the color of the icon indicates the rarity of the material. The icon will turn red if you’re out of room in your inventory for that type of material.
  8. Resource history. Above your item shortcuts in the bottom left, there’s history of the stuff you’ve recently picked up. You can usually ignore it, but it’s nice to have because you’re going to be picking up stuff constantly and you’ll stop paying attention. This is a nice reminder.
  9. Item shortcuts. The item shortcuts in the bottom left corner work a little different than you’re probably used to. Up on the D-pad will always use your medicine pouch. Left and right cycle through your other items — things like potions and traps. Pressing down will use whatever is in the middle at the time.
  10. Weapon. Across the screen in the bottom right is your currently equipped weapon and how much ammunition you have for it.

How do I level up?

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Earning enough XP to level up gives you rewards — and no paperwork to do.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Horizon Zero Dawn has a lot of the hallmarks of any other action role-playing game — experience points, damage types, skill trees, and so on — but the vast majority of the RPG paperwork takes place behind the scenes. You earn XP by completing quests (and side quests and errands and hunting ground trials and so on) and hunting (both animals and machines), then that XP turns into levels.

That said, the short answer to “How do I level up in Horizon Zero Dawn?” is “Don’t worry about it.”

When you hit the required XP, your level goes up, your max HP increases, and you earn a skill point automatically. The only thing you have to worry about is spending your skill points.

Which skills should I buy first?

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
The four skill trees.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

There are three categories of skills in Horizon Zero Dawn’s main game — prowler, brave and forager — and one more added by The Frozen Wild DLC — traveler. Generally, prowler skills tend to be sneaky, brave skills focus on hitting things with other things, forager skills focus on finding things, and traveler skills focus on gathering resources.

There’s nothing mutually exclusive about these categories, and there are useful (and important) skills in each. And that’s a problem. When you want every single skill, it’s hard to decide where to start, but that’s what we’re here for. Here’s how to spend your first seven points.

  • Healer — row 1, column 8, 1 point. This skill speeds up transferring hit points from your medicine pouch to your health bar. We’re kind of lukewarm on the usefulness of this particular skill on its own, but it’s a requirement to unlock what is arguably the most valuable skill in the game, herbalist.
  • Herbalist — row 2, column 8, 2 points. After you buy the healer skill above, your next goal should be doubling the capacity of your medicine pouch. It’ll take two level’s worth of XP to have the points to spend, but it’s worth every minute it takes. Sure, there are health potions, but they’re not as effective as your medicine pouch. Your main source of healing is going to be your medicine pouch and expanding it makes it even better.
  • Silent strike — row 1, column 1, 1 point. This lets you attack from cover with a very strong attack that doesn’t expose you. (More specifically, it lets you attack an enemy that doesn’t see you, which allows you to sneak up behind something and stab it if you’re careful.) You’ll use it constantly, regardless of how stealthily you tend to play. Silent strikes take out low-level enemies with one hit and deal a lot of damage to everything else.
  • Concentration — row 1, column 4, 1 point. Throughout Horizon Zero Dawn, you’ll be trying to hit precise shots with your bow on targets that are small, far away and moving. Concentration gives you a few valuable seconds of bullet time.
  • Critical hit — row 1, column 5, 1 point. When an enemy — either human or machine — falls down, this skill lets you get up close and personal with your spear to deal some extra damage. There are a lot of cases where this skill is useful — you knock down enemies when you deal a lot of damage, tie them down with your ropecaster, hit them with enough shock ammo or with the knock down skill (row 3, column 6).
  • Lure call — row 1, column 7, 1 point. There’re two reasons this skill gets our recommendation. First, being able to get the attention of one target out of a group will always improve your odds of success — especially if you’re hidden when you call and combine the lure call with silent strike. Second, this is the first step down a branch of the skill tree that improves your override ability — something that you’ll be using extensively by the middle of the game.

What’s combat like?

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Ranged combat with the hunting bow.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon
Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
A critical hit with the spear.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Combat is all about shooting things with your bow from a distance or getting up close and stabbing things with your spear.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Using the focus to scan a machine, highlighting weak points and elemental weaknesses.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

In reality, it’s much more nuanced than that. Ranged weapons deal elemental damage — either by design or through modification — and, conveniently, enemies have weaknesses to certain types of elemental damage. Scanning an enemy with your focus will highlight weak points. This information will also be stored in your notebook where you can access it at any time.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Weapons and ammo and the types of elemental damage they deal.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon
Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Outfits protects against certain types of damage — shown under effects. Also, a lot of the outfits just look cool.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

The damage your weapons (and your ammo) deal falls into six categories — generic damage, tear (as in tearing through armor), fire, freeze, shock, and corruption — each of which has a handy icon.

Your armor provides protection against these same categories of damage, with a couple slight differences — there’s a distinction between melee and ranged damage, and there’s no tear protection. (Armor also has a stealth stat, but that’s not a type of damage.)

What kind of weapons can I get?

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
A mid-level ropecaster.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Now that you know about the types of damage, let’s talk about dealing it. You start Horizon Zero Dawn with just your spear and your bow, but you’ll soon find merchants where you can start buying a wide array of better and better weapons. You’ll meet your first merchant during the “Point of the spear” quest early in the game — within the first couple hours, depending on how distractible you are.

There are three tiers of weapons — the common ones that are good, Carja versions of the same weapons that are better, and finally Shadow versions are the best. We’ve got a guide to all of Aloy’s weapons here.

  • Spear. Your spear is your spear and there’s no changing that — not that you’d want to. There are no other spears to buy and you can’t sell the one you have. And that’s alright because you’ll come to love your spear. Later in the game, when you complete the A Secret Shared errand in The Frozen Wilds DLC, you’ll unlock one modification slot for your spear.
  • Hunting bow. Along with your spear, a hunting bow is your primary weapon. The ammo is cheap — and the components to make more plentiful — and the damage and reload time are well balanced.
  • War bow. A war bow is more of a specialty-arrow delivery system. War bow arrows deal elemental damage of various types (depending on which version you’re carrying) and are quick to reload, but deal less generic damage than a hunting bow.
  • Sharpshot bow. Sharpshot bows are slow to reload and have more expensive (in terms of components required) ammunition, but deal more damage. They also zoom in a little more while aiming for those long-distance shots.
  • Tripcaster. Your tripcaster lays down tripwires for an enemy to trigger. The first one you get will only deal shock damage, but later ones add in explosive (generic) and fire damage as well.
  • Ropecaster. Ropecasters fire bolts with ropes attached. When you hit a machine, you fire the other end of the rope into the ground, thereby anchoring the machine in place. We love the ropecaster.
  • Rattler. Think of a rattler as a crossbow-shotgun (A shotcrossgunbow? A crossshotbowgun? We’ll work on that) — it fires several low-accuracy bolts in a spread.
  • Sling. While it looks like a beefed-up slingshot, slings are Horizon Zero Dawn’s grenade launchers. These deal area damage of various elemental types (again, depending on which version you’re carrying).

Which weapon is right for me?

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Mixing and matching weapons and attack styles is often the key to a successful hunt.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

All of them. Every weapon is useful in its own way and you’ll find yourself more successful if you mix and match the weapons you use — you might freeze a bellowback with grenades from your sling, then follow up with high tear damage sharpshot arrows to its cargo sac, then finish it off by tying it down with your ropecaster and stabbing it. There’s no simple answer about weapons.

But you’re going to have to pick and choose which to buy early on, so we recommend the ropecaster. It’s a close range weapon which is good for when your sniping goes sideways and you find yourself going hand-to-hand with a gigantic, angry machine. It pins down machines (though some big ones require a lot of shots), exposing them to critical hits which deal a lot of damage. Smart use of your ropecaster will let you defeat machines far more powerful than you.

How do I increase the size of my inventory?

Early on in Horizon Zero Dawn, you’re going to run out of room in some part (or all parts) of your inventory. Each type of thing that you pick up — weapons, armor, resources, modifications, potions, etc. — has a dedicated pouch in your inventory with a finite size. Your crafting menu will let you increase that size for each of those pouches, including your ammo stores.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Upgrading the resource satchel.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

We recommend upgrading your resource satchel as soon as you have the resources to do it — after you play through the tutorial levels. You’ll be able to easily afford at least the first expansion — if not the first two — within an hour of starting Horizon Zero Dawn.

After that, turn your attention to the weapons you use the most. You can cheaply increase the capacity of your quivers and your … whatever you call a quiver for a ropecaster early on.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
The very expensive last upgrade to the hunter bow quiver. (We have killed so many foxes looking for that fox skin.)
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Later upgrades are more — sometimes much more — expensive. Things like rat bones or fish skins are often required. These are very rare items that you can only get by hunting animals. These items are rare drops, so you’ll be doing a lot of hunting. These expensive upgrades are part of the reason you need to make sure to upgrade your resource satchel early — that extra room lets you pick up and keep everything. You never know what you might need later.

All of that said, don’t worry about expanding all of your various inventory pouches right away. There’s a vast world to explore with new and exciting resources to find and exploit. Don’t get hung up on improving your equipment while ignoring the main storyline quests — and it’s very, very easy to do this. We did it. Don’t be like us.

Which brings us to our next point …

What kinds of things are there to do?

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Your quest menu. You’ll be using this menu a lot to keep track of everything you’ve promised to do.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Like a to-do list hydra, every time you do anything in Horizon Zero Dawn, two more things will get added to your quests menu. That’s how it’ll feel anyway. There’s a constant stream of branching storylines, people asking for favors, optional trials, and collectibles. Every new place you visit brings you into contact with new people that need something from you.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
A pig. A pig stole this guy’s ring.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Look: Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world game. The side quests and errands are there for a reason, and you’d be missing out if you completely ignored them. And it’s exceedingly easy to get caught up finding every lost ring and hunting party the game throws at you. But maybe don’t.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Every quest has a level (its difficulty) and the distance to its location.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

Here’s our advice and rule of thumb: Compare your level to the level of the main story quest. If you find yourself with a character at a level 10 or so higher than the main quests, it’s time to take a break from rescuing kittens from trees (this isn’t a errand we’ve found yet, but we wouldn’t be surprised) and return to the main story. Obviously being a higher level than the quest will make it that much easier (and that’s a good thing), but the main storyline quests will lead you to new areas, introduce you to new people, and, importantly, help you find new merchants selling better stuff like new weapons and armor.

Horizon Zero Dawn beginner’s guide
Tallnecks are worth visiting if for no other reason than you get to hum the Jurassic Park theme song.
Image: Guerrilla Games/SCEA via Polygon

There are a couple non-main storyline quests that it’s perfectly acceptable to get distracted by (assuming your level is high enough to take them on).

  • Tallnecks. These brachiosaur-shaped (or giraffe-shaped) mobile observation platforms will fill in information on your map that will help you find even more shiny new stuff to distract you from the main story.
  • Cauldrons. This is a minor spoiler if you’re just starting out, but cauldrons are were you go to learn how to override new machines. Each cauldron will teach you how to control a few types of machine, and you’ll have to visit them all to be able to hack everything the game throws at you. Cauldrons are marked on your map with a blue tent-like symbol.