Horizon Zero Dawn is an original title that comes to us from Amsterdam-based Guerrilla Games, of all studios. Yeah, the guys who up until now have only made the Killzone franchise for the PlayStation consoles… and Shellshock: Nam ’67 before that – you know? Scripted shooters, basically. So it might have seemed quite ambitious for a studio with only this kind of experience to suddenly have a go at creating a huge, open world, RPG-ish game in which the player has a degree of freedom.
It’s always a risk creating a new franchise and hoping that people like the idea enough to buy it – but I think the concept of a red-haired heroine with tribal weapons fighting robot T-rexes in what appeared to be a post-apocalyptic Earth got everyone’s attention right from the very first teaser trailers. After all, which other open-world game lets you fight robot T-rexes with laser cannons in their mouths? Besides Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, I mean. So it’s fair to say the pitch had us hooked. All the game would have to do is deliver on that tantalising concept.
So does it? Yes, in most ways it does. In terms of sandbox gameplay, Horizon Zero Dawn is nothing new, smacking a bit of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry and other modern titles, but it’s the combat against the machine enemies and the intriguing setting and story that make it stand out. There are a few niggles I can and most certainly will bring up, but on the whole, Horizon Zero Dawn is everything I’d hoped for.
Upon booting the game up, you’re treated to an intro showing a man named Rost bringing a baby girl to a sacred, tribal site for a naming ceremony (which they apparently ripped straight out of The Lion King, amusingly), and after starting the game, we’re put in control of the girl, named Aloy, when she’s a child. We learn that she’s an orphan in the care of Rost, and that both of them are outcasts, forbidden from contact with their tribe. This section is used as a tutorial and introducing the bizarre world to us, as well as establishing Aloy’s quest to find out who she is and why she was shunned, which is the driving force behind the events of the game.
Discovering why there are mechanical dinosaurs, and other animals, running amok in a post-apocalyptic world, and why human civilisation has regressed to a tribal level, is probably a huge part of the appeal of the game – and while the story is well-told and compelling, if you’re even remotely into sci-fi, you can (and probably already have) made some rough guesses that will probably be confirmed. We’ve seen this kind of story before. Different in the details, perhaps, but familiar. Although the story does do that annoying thing where, when Aloy asks elders some important questions, they patronisingly tell her “now is not the time”. Well, why the hell not? How would you know when “the time” is? If I were Aloy, I would plonk my arse down on the ground right there, cross my legs, fold my arms and refuse to move until they told me. I fail to see how more information cannot help. Idiots.
Anyway, after going through the tutorials and a slightly linear bit in the beginning, Aloy is left to her own devices in the game world. There’s the main quest, tons of side quests, side activities, skill trees, crafting, resource gathering and collectibles – standard sandbox stuff. Whatever you do, you’re guaranteed to come up against mechanical creatures at some point, ranging from small deer- and horse-like ones to the aforementioned T-rexes and giant, lightning-shooting birds.
This is where Horizon Zero Dawn really shines: combat against the machine enemies. You can’t just pepper them with arrows until they stop moving (well, maybe the weaker enemies you can), not even on the lower difficulty settings. You have to scan them, learn their weak points, use the right kinds of elemental weapons, arrows, tools and traps if you want to take them down efficiently before they trample you into salsa. This is especially true of the huge enemies, like the Snapmaws, Thunderjaws, Thunder Birds and the Rock Crushers, where not only are they almost impervious externally – but their vulnerable components are tucked away inside or underneath them, meaning you have to find ways to expose and damage those critical components. It’s great fun.
Combat against the game’s human enemies, by comparison, is one of the game’s major downers. To be fair, human enemies were always going to overshadowed in a game where you fight robot dinosaurs – but making them dumb as dogshit didn’t help. It’s easy to clear out an enemy base by hiding in the long grass, whistling to get their attention one by one and then shivving them in the bollocks as they wade gormlessly into the pile of corpses to see what that sound was. Even the elite guys carrying the dangerous heavy weapons are so stupid they’re not much of a threat.
Another niggle of mine is this quick-use item system: D-pad up is hard-coded to the slow heal from your medicine pouch, while D-pad down is used for every other item, which you cycle through with D-pad left and right. Imagine trying to desperately cycle through fifteen useable items looking for your quick heal potions while you’re being trampled by a herd of Behemoths. I think they could have come up with a better system is my point.
Another bother of mine is the dialogue choices. When you get to choose Aloy’s response in dialogue, you get three options: the angry response, the kind-hearted response and the intelligent response. My problem is that, near as I can tell, they don’t have much effect beyond making the dialogue play out mildly differently. I don’t know if they change anything in the long run, because I only had time for one play-through, but I somehow doubt it.
But those minor gripes didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s also a damn good looking game that runs smoothly, even on a standard PS4 (I don’t have a PS4 Pro). Apparently the engine for the game, Guerrilla’s Decima engine, is the one Hideo Kojima settled on for Death Stranding after his tour of the world’s game studios following the whole Konami debacle.