I’ve been a huge fan of open-world games ever since I first came home with The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind back in 2002. I’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours trekking through the wastelands of various Fallout and Elder Scrolls installments, and more recently completed a playthrough of The Witcher 3. When I first heard about Horizon: Zero Dawn, it was pretty difficult to avoid buying into the hype that had built since the title was announced last fall.
The game released as a Playstation 4 exclusive Feb. 28. Less than an hour into my journey, I was already blown away. Not only did Horizon manage to successfully follow up a terrific game like The Witcher, but it’s very possible it’s even better.
The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have regressed back into tribal systems and are no longer the dominant species on Earth. It’s been 1,000 years since the fall of modern man, and the world is now infested by absurdly aggressive “machines,” as they’re called in game, though they are effectively robot dinosaurs.
The hero, a young woman named Aloy, is one of the most exciting video game protagonists in recent memory. As the game opens, Aloy is introduced as an orphan outcast by her birth tribe due to her lack of parents. This cruel fate is imposed upon her due to her tribe’s primitive religious beliefs — they see the mother as sacred — and as an orphan she’s seen as a potential threat to their way of life. She is more or less adopted by another outcast named Rost. Under Rost’s tutelage, she becomes highly skilled in the art of survival, particularly in her use of a bow.
After a few hours of learning how the game works, the story hits a point where Aloy is free to roam the game’s massive world at her leisure, and exploration is by far the most enjoyable part of the game. The various cities and climates I discovered were breathtaking, to say the least, and one of the game’s biggest draws comes from its remarkable visual appeal and its attention to minute details.
In addition, Horizon’s physics system feels more natural than almost any game I’ve played before it. Everything flows incredibly well. Aloy is nimble and lighter than most male protagonists in similar games, and playing her feels that way. She can traverse most of the map by climbing rock faces, sliding through patches of tall grass or by hopping onto the handful of zip lines that seem oddly plentiful in a world of so much uncertainty.
The combat system is polished and feels remarkably fresh for even the most experienced sandbox gamers. Though your primary weapon is a bow, there are plenty of specialty arrow types that can shock, freeze or otherwise disable the enemy machines.
Additionally, Aloy can purchase several alternate weapons, such as a rope caster to temporarily tie down larger machines and allow her to get critical hits off before they can break free. The tripwire caster sets up electric traps Aloy can place before engaging the enemy head on. Weapons can also be modified and upgraded as the game progresses.
At first, taking down foes is a matter of learning how each individual machine is uniquely suited to kill you, as well as detecting its strengths and weaknesses. You can scan each machine and pinpoint a component on its body that is weak to a certain weapon or ammunition type in order to gain an edge in combat. Stealth is also very important, and situations almost require Aloy to remain hidden or else be mauled by a ferocious pack of sci-fi velociraptors. In this regard, the game can also feel very similar to an Assassin’s Creed title in that a mastery of stealth and in-game physics will make or break the player’s experience.
At higher levels, Aloy can take down lower level machines without much worry, but unlike Skyrim, which I found to be a bit too focused on appealing to casual gamers, even the “easy” battles can end in humiliating defeat. No single encounter is ever the same, and it can be incredibly thrilling to execute a perfect assault on an unsuspecting herd of prehistoric monsters — just don’t get too cocky.
Once the machines are taken down, Aloy can approach their remains and scrap various materials to sell to merchants or craft ammo or other resources. At higher difficulties, it’s nearly impossible to progress without constantly making sure you craft or buy enough ammo, weapons, armor and traps to get you by in the event that you are ambushed by an unseen mechanical behemoth.
The story is also incredibly strong and well written. There’s an immense sense of curiosity at every turn that I found lacking in similar titles, such as Fallout 4. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Fallout 4, but in my opinion Horizon’s story is simply much more engaging and thoughtful. Not only did I feel myself wanting to complete the game’s story mode, but I was also driven to complete side quests along the way in order to gain a fuller understanding of the world and its inhabitants. I didn’t simply want to complete the game to complete it, I wanted to complete the story to see how Aloy would respond to certain situations and how she would mold her influence over the world as a whole. Plus, there are a handful of twists along the way that can leave the player itching to keep playing in order to unlock additional secrets.
There’s not much to dislike about this title, but more casual gamers may be put off by Horizon’s dedication to self-discovery. There’s less hand holding than there was in a game like Skyrim, and most situations involve a process of trial and error. You will die, many times, but I found these deaths encouraging above all else. Each failure made me want to become more efficient in my approach, and as a result the game became more enjoyable as it went on. My own play through was on hard mode, and although I found it to be a decent starting point there were still times where I had considered moving up to the hardest difficulty. Humans are pathetically beatable, for example, when compared to the machines that make up the majority of Aloy’s overall body count. A small criticism, perhaps, but I should add that it in no way discouraged me from playing for another hour — or several.
Overall, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a fresh take on a familiar open world format. It incorporates standard RPG elements like skill tree leveling, crafting, resource management and player choice, and improves them by adding a well-polished combat system, an extremely likeable female protagonist, and a familiar, yet innovative, world and story that feel new in a genre that has only recently begun to reach its full potential. The visuals are stunning, and Guerrilla games has very likely created the most graphically impressive console game on the market to date.
Open world RPG veterans will be surprised to find Horizon is a much different game than many had expected. Though I enjoyed my playthroughs of Skyrim, Fallout 4, The Witcher 3 and other similar titles, I would be lying if I said the world and characters of Horizon didn’t provide that rare sense of wonder I first felt when I ventured into the vast, addictively bizarre land of Morrowind more than fifteen years ago.
I’m looking forward to seeing the future impact Horizon will have on the open world RPG genre. If nothing else, the Guerrilla team has proved that there is room for new IPs to enter the market alongside beloved juggernauts like Fallout, and push the genre in a direction that will ultimately improve the RPG experience as a whole for the foreseeable future.