Note: There will be spoilers to events that occur in the first few hours, one major one in particular, however there won’t be any from later on in the game.
In an age where the video game market is saturated with open world games, it’s hard for developers to craft and carve out a fresh perspective on the genre. So when loading up Horizon Zero Dawn recently, I was pleasantly surprised at the ways that developer Guerrilla Games used to create such a beautiful and rich, yet hostile world. Traversing arid deserts, snowy mountains whilst hiding from or fighting expertly crafted machines is a truly a joy. With a story that plays on the possible realities of artificial intelligence, it kept me intrigued to find out the mysteries of its narrative. However, some repetitive side content, frustrating camera and a protagonist that often suffers from poor writing stops this game from truly innovating the open world formula.
The story begins by establishing the protagonist Aloy as an outcast in her tribe. She is raised by a fellow outcast called Rost, who fall intents and purposes is her adoptive father. After a brief segment playing Aloy as a child, that aids to show the bond that her and Rost share and how the tribe treats the outcasts. It skips ahead to when she comes of age and this is where the real game starts to kick off, as we are introduced more to the combat, the world and main plot. After a major event takes place, where a group of people called the Shadow-Carja attack, Aloy is sent out into the world to unravel the mysterious as to who were the attackers, what are they after and why the machines roaming the land are increasing in number and becoming more hostile.
Overall, it’s an intriguing plot, that is executed well more often than not throughout the 30-40 hours I spent finishing the main game. The world and its people are detailed and full of depth, I particularly liked the idea that as humanity was almost made extinct because of the machines, the survivors have regressed into more primitive and religious people. Although at times it borders the line of unbelievable, the back story/lore is good enough that it does raise concerns and parallels with our own reality. As we become more technologically advanced, is there the risk of machines becoming self-aware and dangerous? The story wraps up with a satisfying conclusion whilst also posing more questions and ideas for future instalments. One issue I had with its storytelling is its reliance on written journals, logs, audio logs to flesh out the world and its lore. There was simply too many that if I genuinely took the time to read and listen to everything, it would severely hamper the pacing. I read a few here and there, but I was not going to read hundreds of words worth of backstory every few minutes at times.
While the story is indeed important, the protagonist needs to be interesting enough and feel like a real person for the player to empathise with. Aloy doesn’t do a great job of that. There were a few times I genuinely hated her and many more that left me feeling bored or raise my eyes as to how plain she is. It’s frustrating as I do feel she has so much potential to become such an iconic character as there were also plenty of moments where she made me like her and empathise with her personal story and her situation.
In the first few hours we see the death of Rost, her only father figure and the only person she had any real contact with her entire life, die. You’d think that Aloy would be distraught, particularly in the immediate aftermath, but she wasn’t. I was waiting for the initial outburst of emotion, but it never really came, then after she only ever mentions it in passing. She witnesses his death, immediately gets over it and strolls out into the world as if nothing really happened. I was crying and more upset it seemed than Aloy, and I only knew Rost for an hour or so. It just completely dehumanizes the character, and its a shame that clearly poor writing can ruin moments like this that would otherwise be a defining moment. It’s worth mentioning that the supporting cast of characters are all in all great, and some arguably more likeable and memorable than Aloy.
The open world and the combat is where Horizon Zero Dawn really shines. It is easily one of the best looking games of the generation, boasting grand vistas, expansive open plains, dense forests, imposing mountains and futuristic interior areas. Even on the base PS4 it is incredibly beautiful. Facial animations on the other hand other than the main characters aren’t the best, often sporting blank expressions and dead cold eyes. However its nothing too bad and doesn’t really take you out of the experience. Traversal is mostly easy and fun, as you can either do it the old fashioned way or hack and tack control over certain machines to mount, speeding up the process. Fast travel is also an option for greater distances.
Combat is easily satisfying, as Aloy sports a number of bow and crossbow-like weapons that all serve their own unique functions. Your main weapon of choice is the bow that utilises different ammunition for various effects. There is also a bow that uses elemental ammunitions such as fire, frost and electrifying arrows to name a few. The Tripcaster is a crossbow that allows you to lay tripwires down that cause damage and elemental effects when both human and machine enemies walk in their path. Aloy is very agile and is relatively easy to control and maneuverer around the field to get out of harms way, however she has a tendency to get caught on small obstacles on the ground that can get quite frustrating. It can lead to an annoying one hit kill by the strongest enemies if you aren’t careful, this is often caused by the incredibly frustrating camera.
The camera remains incredibly close to Aloy causing her to take up half the screen and make you blind to a lot of the surrounding ground and basically leads to poor spatial awareness. This is even more of an issue when inside interior areas such as the Cauldrons. These are dark claustrophobic locations that improve Aloy’s machine overriding abilities. But you must face one of the games many larger and stronger machines. Both the dark and the terrible camera can lead to many frustrating segments of Aloy getting stuck on the terrain and then crushing deaths because of it. If the camera was more pulled out, then this wouldn’t be much of an issue. It’s lucky that many of the places that you will fight are more open so this doesn’t make it a constant problem, but it still happens frequently enough to cause frustration.
The design and detail on the plethora of machines is astounding, every one feels unique and will require differing techniques in order to conquer your foes. Using frost arrows to slow the enemy down while focusing on specific body parts that can be shot off to both deal more damage and to get important resources for crafting new weapons and armour. Fighting and finding out the different weaknesses and methods of tackling these colossal beasts is incredibly fun for the first half of the game. However, I will say that later on, it does start to become repetitive and a bit of a chore to keep fighting them. This is because the bigger machines can often take a good 10-15 minutes to take down, especially if they are accompanied by smaller machines. At one point I played through two side missions in a row where it required me to kill a ThunderJaw in both. Although, because the combat is genuine fun and engaging, it never feels boring, but it definitely does make fighting these machines less fresh and enjoyable.
Speaking of side missions, they are definitely some of the better designed, in terms of story fulfilment at least. Yes, the game falls back on the tropes of open world design such as fetch quests, but many of the stories/narratives written in these quests are honestly engaging and memorable, such as helping the hunter-like guild track and kill a legendary machine, to find out what really happened to a women assumed dead, or discover the realities of a doomed love story. Like I mentioned earlier, some of the quests by luck can end up making you fight the same machine one quest after another, but this happens rarely. Also, the side quests can often be where Aloy shows some of her better aspects. She can have very dry wit, empathetic and understanding of other peoples issues and does show her more fun side, it’s just a shame that this isn’t consistent.
Overall, Horizon Zero Dawn is beautiful game that tells a compelling narrative of how humanity fought back against near extinction and the mysteries surrounding how machines took over the planet. The dynamic combat is a real asset that helps pull along the weaker aspects of the game, despite the dodgy and often incompetent camera. Aloy definitely wont go down as one of the best or memorable female protagonists, but there is clear potential there. Perhaps with better writing in a future instalment can fix that, but she still carries the game well enough and with a good supporting cast of characters to play off of, this becomes less of an issue particularly as she clearly grows as a character in the later stages. Despite its flaws, Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most unique and fresh takes on its genre in recent years and was a joy to play.
-Detailed world and lore -Aloy isn’t a very strong protagonist
-Fun and engaging combat -Frustrating Camera
-Incredible graphics -Machines can get repetive to fight in second half
-Interesting side quests
Score = 8.5/10
Thank you for reading my very first review, although Horizon Zero Dawn has been out for a while, I have only just got round to play it and it’s a game i’ve wanted to write my own take on. Please like this if you enjoyed it and i’d love too hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you want to see more of my content, then please subscribe below as well as this really helps me out.