Title: Horizon: Zero Dawn
Alternative title: Horizon, HZD, Horizon Zero Dawn
Developers: Guerrilla Games
Genre: Action role-playing, Stealth
Format: PS4 (reviewed)
Release: February 28, 2017
“There’s so much more to discover before the world ends.”
―????, Horizon: Zero Dawn
New intellectual properties always become somewhat of a rarity once a medium catches on the train; people prefer to stick to what they know, sequels and reboots are done in the dozens due to established fan bases or critical praise, safe clones of popular classics that miss the entire point of their inspirations, and lousy piles of cliches that attempt to cash on well-tried tropes. The same definitely goes for the gaming industry, perhaps even moreso than its non-interactive counterparts.
Horizon: Zero Dawn came out as a massive surprise upon its announcement in 2015; a brand-new IP from the often forgotten (but highly capable) Guerrilla Games? In a generation known for its exhausting amount of bland sequels and half-baked remasters, Horizon was a stand-out, if not for its highly-polished sandbox gameplay that gave Ubisoft a run for its money, then definitely for its stunning world design and visual uniqueness.
Hype was there in all of its glory for Horizon, building up as a strong contender for GOTY 2017. So, was the hype justified? Yes, yes it is.
Story & Setting
A thousand years into the future, our civilization and society are in ruins, little more than dusty relics of a forgotten past. The land is ruled by strange and increasingly hostile mechanical beasts known only as Machines (truly, what an original name), and what is left of humanity is now scattered as fearful, isolated tribes. Those mostly superstitious tribes remember their ancestors vaguely as the “Old Ones,” and many of them prohibit usage of their technology.
Aloy is a young woman living as an Outcast of the Nora tribe, known for their strict rules and banishing policies. Having been shunned by the tribe for the mysterious circumstances of her birth, Aloy sets on a journey to discover her origins, and find out the secrets behind the Machines’ existence and behavior.
And ho, does she find it…
At its very heart, Horizon is a story about finding one’s identity and role within the world and life’s timeline.
It’s a coming-to-age story in its purest form, featuring a young, lonely and initially reluctant hero riding towards unknown territories as she explores the areas around here and the ones within, witnessing the beautiful if dangerous nature, and the contrast technology poses.
The world of Horizon is a vast, deceptively beautiful but highly unpredictable and merciless place. A lot of gaming settings can take several sequels to fully flesh out their culture and history, but Horizon does it with one game, presenting a gorgeous setting with its own unique set of history, mystery, culture, society, architecture and people.
Each tribe has its own often-displayed faith and lifestyle, while the land is littered with secrets and tons of uniquely memorable villages and areas with their own story and personality. Horizon does a wonderful job at world-building, providing a one-of-a-kind setting that few rival its depth.
The setting, however, is nothing but backdrop to the actual story of Aloy, our avatar in interacting it. Aloy’s story starts small but quickly gets to involve wide-scale massacres, mutiny conspiracies and forgotten past secrets as Aloy realizes that with or without technology, humanity is still dangerous in itself. Despite the growing narrative and new subplots, the game manages to keep most focus on Aloy and her development.
Aloy herself is a great character. She is strong, wise, and determined, but also gentle and kind, while also possessing a sarcastic tongue and dry sense of humor at the same time. Her tendency to help the weak and poor is not set aside by her desire to uncover Earth’s mysteries, and even during harsh times, she manages to pull herself together. She is a strong and charismatic character, and a wonderful lead that puts many other open-world protagonists to shame.
She also gets to have several reply options in both main and side quests, which, while not affecting the overall arc that much, are pleasantly consistent with Aloy’s character.
The story is not always consistently good, and gets bogged down by several hammed lines and performances, but for the most part it is of high quality and remains very engaging and absorbing as more and more bits of humanity’s life pre-apocalypse are unfold. Just when you think that you learnt a big “holy shit” part, the game throws another one at you – a bigger, more shocking twist and revelation. While the whole concept may look a bit cartoonish on paper, the masterful execution of the script and its ideas is worth admiring.
Supporting characters are often likable and are of multiple cultures, mindsets and personalities. Very few of them ever feel poorly developed, one-dimensional or shallow, and many of them are touched by Aloy’s bravery and kindness. Each and every one of them has a story to tell, a fear in heart, and scars to hide, and that reminded me a lot of The Witcher 3’s writing.
Unfortunately, the handful of villains and antagonists throughout the game gets a rather disappointing characterization; many getting regressed to evil sadists, fanatic priests and insane killers, even after their backstories and motivations are explored. There are a few that stand out among them, such as a bitter, lonely terrorist who lost his family years ago, but sadly he gets little importance within the story.
And the main antagonists are the biggest victims of this. They don’t get that much of care from the plot until it demands a powerful enemy for Aloy. And their criminally short screen-time doesn’t help their case. Especially when one of them is voiced by the godly Crispin Freeman!
At the same time, however, I can’t help but to be awed at the shockingly great and expertly developed “pre-apocalypse” characters and events, whose recordings and writings Aloy can recover during both story and side quests, unearthing many flawed, fearful people in the last days of their short lives, unaware of what to come. Not to mention what a wonderful world-building does it establish.
Without going to spoilers, I have to admit that with so much on its shoulders, Horizon manages to tie up many of its loose ends by the endgame to provide a satisfying conclusion that is both beautiful and slightly bittersweet… Mostly.
It’s just a shame that one particular scene is used as a cheap sequel hook that opens up a few more questions that, for the time being, will be left unanswered.
At the end of the day, though, Horizon is a beautifully-written and superbly executed story. It touches upon the danger of evolving technology beyond human control, the differences between humans, pursuing success against all hope, and portraying society living without its advancements. It’s a surprisingly thought-provoking game, and I can’t stop expressing my love for the whole concept.
Also, I kinda love the game’s opening cinematic scene. It’s so pretty. And reminds a bit of The Lion King…
Gameplay & Design
Horizon is a game that makes use of multiple open world tropes and ideas – a lot of them have became tired and repetitive rehashes that plague the genre in recent years – but rarely ever falls into their trap. Somewhat like Shadow of Mordor, Horizon is nothing new in particular, but almost everything it takes from other games is polished to remarkable stats and lead to an impressively cohesive title.
Combat and stealth mechanics are generally simple but very effective, turning Aloy into a deadly and nigh unstoppable hunter when in action. It feels like a solid evolution of the stealth game design first attempted in Killzone: Shadow Fall, but with more refined controls and better usage of environments for advantage.
This is also helped by a lethal arsenal of bows, rope-casters and slingshots, with Aloy having access to a ridiculously awesome variety of arrows and bombs, ranging from classic elemental projectiles such as fire and ice to some bizarrely devastating shots that can cause tearing a machine’s armor. Alongside an effective and surprisingly meaty skill tree that enhance Aloy’s different aspects in meaningful ways, one can become a literal force of nature.
With all those attributes under Aloy’s belt, it is time to hunt machines – the biggest thrill of the game.
Machines come in all sizes and shapes, based on different animals and creatures with a monstrous amount of row power to them. Early on Aloy gets to face smaller and weaker such as the raptor-like Watchers who introduce players to stealth gameplay and path tracking, before getting unto the biggest and most intimidating beasts such as the brutal Thunderjaw or the nigh difficult Thunderbird.
Their surprisingly realistic and feral AI is impressive, and even the smallest of them may pose a grave danger to Aloy and the player should they be provoked. Aloy’s old school health system make things harder and encourage a more tactical and strategic mind.
Encounters generally start slow and quiet before quickly escalating to explosive and enthralling “hunt or be hunted” segments, with every machine having its own strengths and weaknesses, so players are always encouraged to further upgrade, change and experiment with modifications and weapons. Against bigger enemies stealth is ditched in favor of brutally mowing them down with arrows and ropes, and being in constant move becomes a major factor of survival.
Human enemies provide a more traditional and by-the-book stealth design, and while those segments are far less remarkable than their mechanical equivalents, they are still entertaining and challenging. One minor disappointment with them is their generally less impressive and believable AI in comparison to the machines, but they still pose a danger and possess similar abilities to Aloy. Many of them also have machine partners of varying sizes and numbers that can turn the cup soar for the player.
Aloy’s melee attacks are slow moving but can be incredibly powerful, especially against bandits and Watchers, and the player may also upgrade them to include armor tearing and paralyzing strikes that knock medium-sized machines down. I’ve seen several complaints about melee combat being too slow, but I grudgingly like it; it showcases Guerrilla’s preference for combat management over swift and thoughtless blows, and that while Aloy’s direct means of short-ranged confrontation are more than strong, it’s not necessarily useful.
What I don’t really like, however, is the climbing and platforming elements.
This might be my biggest gripe with the entire game, but the climbing mechanics are not particularly reliable or enjoyable. Aloy can only leach unto certain, marked cliffs and rocks, and her greedy possession of them feels annoyingly sticky and wooden. The marked climbing spots also make for a strangely predictable level design, with them serving as inductions for climbing sections or collectibles in reach.
Horizon’s world is unbelievably immense in its sheer scale, but the sizable content it contains is remarkably polished and fleshed out. Apart from Aloy’s main, 18-hour story, players can also engage in multiple side quests and errands that allow the young huntress interact with the world and its array number of traditions and struggles. Many of them also use Aloy’s Focus (which is more or less that vision mode seen in most games nowadays) in a way that reminds me again of The Witcher 3’s monster contracts and mysteries.
Aloy can also participate in a variety of activities that include testing and sharpening her skills at the Hunting Grounds or bringing down murderous bandit camps with the affable Nil. And if you feel trigger happy, you can always hunt “corrupted” machines that have desecrated certain areas in the game world.
Regardless the activity, there is almost always something to do or hunt in Horizon, and for the more adventurous ones of us, there are plenty of clever collectibles to grab, like increasingly rotting mugs that the game transcript amusingly refer to as ancient and precious relics of our culture.
Cauldrons, ancient dungeon-like sections, are scattered across Horizon and have Aloy travel through their massive labyrinth locations to unlock more machines to take control over and use as allies. While more straightforward than most dungeons in similar games, Cauldrons offer testing and challenging players in unfamiliarly advanced spaces with satisfying rewards and lack of frustrating paddling.
And I somehow forgot to mention it, but you can take control over machines, AKA overriding them. While overridden, machines aid you against their former brethren for a limited time before either expiring or returning to normal. Overriding machines can very well tilt the the luck towards Aloy’s side, and patient players may even make a small brigade of machines beforehand.
Visuals & Sound
I think it is pretty much a given that Horizon is absolutely gorgeous-looking with a ridiculous attention to detail and beautiful presentation.
The world is not only pretty, but also surprisingly varied and vibrant, with environments ranging from massive snowy mountains to vast and desolate deserts, to lively forests that have taken over rusty constructions. Guerrilla once again shows their excellent art design and concepts mixing with impressive graphics that far outclass many of their peers.
Machines have unique and memorable designs with clever modifications to their natural sources with lethal or jaw-dropping ideas such as chainsaw-like horns or grazing mouths. Their animations are likewise smooth and lively, mimicking their real life counterparts in a very believable way and few goofy incidents. Just their sight of roaring or running can be pretty breathtaking.
Humans are a little less… lively.
I mean, characters move smoothly and a lot of them wear different suits of armor and clothes that give off an iconic vibe of tribal attires mixed with much more futuristic technological pieces. The problem is their faces… The Uncanny Valley go into near-full effect here and character expressions beyond Aloy and main/supporting characters can feel very plastic and robotic. Some particular characters may break some of the immersion here with their lifeless eyes and wooden movements, although the writing and otherwise memorable physical appearances manage to negate this downside a lot of times.
Voice acting is made of solid voice actors with Ashly Burch as Aloy, whose performances are genuinely believable and flexible, and shines brightly during sarcastic conversations and emotional confrontations. We also have J.B. Blancs with a fatherly touch and Lance Reddick in a cold and calculated tone. And of course we have Crispin Freeman as one of the game’s villains, with a sinister and feared performance that only the Freeman knows how to do. Overall, this is a great cast.
The music of Horizon is similarly solid, sometimes even brilliant. It can be beautifully haunting with gentle, quiet vocals during Aloy’s unearthing discoveries, a catchy, “authentic” tribal-influenced piece in the past time, and blazing with raging drums and dramatic tunes when conflict arises and machines turn to redlights. It’s an aural excellence that provide that much more atmosphere to Horizon’s richly packed world.
Oh, and sound effects are worthy of mention here, especially in regards to the machines’ glorious growls and roars, with each having a unique sound soaked with a mesmerizing, mechanical touch to it.
With all that said and done, I see Horizon as an exceptionally good game, even a great one, that does nothing absolutely new for the open world genre, but almost everything it attempts to include is done to astonishing amounts of polish. And considering it both Guerrilla’s first attempt at the genre, this achievement is even more noticeable and remarkable.
This is a studio that observed its peers closely and made notes of their successes and trials and failures, and with that knowledge that created what might be one of the greatest and most accomplished open world games of the generation.
Horizon’s world is amazingly detailed and richly packed, with tons and tons of content, lore and sights. The story is a pleasant surprise with a strong protagonist in Aloy and a careful treatment of its themes, and battling the machines is always challenging and fun. And not to go unmentioned, it is one damn beautiful game.
Just like The Last of Us was Naughty Dog’s golden title to transform the studio into one of the most acclaimed and skilled developers of the industry, so does Horizon to Guerrilla Games. The Killzone studio, who was always under the radar among critics and players, is finally being rewarded for their hard work and immense levels of imagination and talent. Horizon is a fantastic game.
- A great coming-of-age story with a memorable lead and an ever-evolving narrative with multiple intriguing secrets and mysteries
- Fantastic world-building with a beautiful setting possessing its own special kind of personality with wealthy amounts of lore and content
- Simple combat mechanics, fun weaponry and feral AI make machine encounters intense and unpredictable, best aspect of combat
- Antagonists are rather bland and forgettable
- Facial animations often fall unto the Uncanny Valley
- Clumsy and frustrating climbing mechanics
& The Ugly:
- What’s up with Sony’s studios and the weird wording choices for their own titles?