Open-world games get a lot of flack. The genre is popular for offering massive and beautiful worlds, but that scale can come at the expense of story. And at first glance, it's easy to mistake Horizon Zero Dawn for another of those seemingly empty games.
But after four hours spent demoing the opening segments of the game, I can say that it’s a surprisingly story-driven game that feels more like a more fleshed-out Rise of the Tomb Raider than a reskinned Assassins Creed. Furthermore, while the Tomb Raider reboots offered what can be described at best as half-hearted attempts at an open world with a few disconnected areas and side quests, Horizon Zero Dawn goes much farther in giving a living world to explore, harvest resources, and survive in, but yet still one where where the story feels like an important and natural part of the experience.
You play as Aloy, a young woman living in the wreckage of some mysterious disaster that's catapulted mankind back to the days of animal skin outfits and bows. But technology isn't totally absent from Horizon Zero Dawn. The remnants of mankind have left behind a variety of breeds of mechanical beasts, which Aloy hunts and harvests for valuable parts and scrap to fashion technologically infused weapons and armor. And the mixture of Neolithic aesthetics with Aloy's futuristic scavenged technology helps give Horizon Zero Dawn a distinct style.
Aloy and her adopted father Rost live as outcasts from the Nora tribe, who are forbidden to speak with or interact with the two exiles. What Aloy and Rost each did to become outcasts is one of the questions the game will presumably explore, along with the larger mystery of the calamity that befell humanity, and why the robotic animals remain. Additionally, based on the trailers, it seems like the meat of the story will deal with the spread of a villainous cult that is corrupting the machine creatures to its own ends.
Even with its open-world nature, Horizon offers surprisingly deep combat, with battles that offer a pleasant challenge. The mechanical creatures are vastly more powerful than you, at least at the outset, and tend to group up as herds and work together. Running in guns (er, arrows) blazing is usually a fast way to get stomped to death by a cybernetic horse or to cause the group of robotic deer you were hoping to hunt to stampede away in a panic. A stealthy, strategic approach to fighting is typically the way to go. Fortunately, Horizon Zero Dawn has equipped Aloy with a plethora of traps, weapons, and abilities to help level the playing field.
For example, in one encounter, I was faced with a large, fire-spitting beast accompanied by several velociraptor-like Watchers. With nowhere to hide, I spent several futile runs trying to overwhelm it with sheer force before trying a different, more tactical approach. Instead of running in blindly, I peppered the area with shock traps before starting the encounter that tripped up the larger machine and gave me time to eliminate the smaller Watchers. Then I pinned the fire-spewing robot to the ground with a rope launcher and dispatched it with a series of well-placed strikes from my makeshift spear. Like any good RPG, there are a variety of different weapons with different abilities and uses, which can be further upgraded with additional modifications that increase damage or add elemental effects.
Another important ability that Aloy gains early on is the Override device, which allows her to hack the wild machines you encounter. While some will simply fight alongside you in combat as powerful allies, others — like the Strider, a horse-like robot — become rideable steeds that can be summoned as needed to quickly traverse terrain (although the controls for riding aren’t great). Aloy can also unlock new abilities through a fairly standard RPG skill table that should be familiar to anyone who's played games like Shadow of Mordor or the recent Tomb Raider reboots.
Visually, the game looks spectacular. I demoed the first few hours of Horizon on a PlayStation 4 Pro, and developer Guerrilla Games is clearly taking advantage of the power of Sony's latest console, with stunning snow-capped landscapes and seas of waving grass rendered in stunning 4K and HDR. (I also had the chance to see footage from the 1080p version of the game, which looks nice, too, if not quite as good as it does on the Pro.) The vibrant colors are also a welcome change from the dreary, gray world of Guerrilla’s Killzone series.
Despite the amount of time I’ve spent with Horizon Zero Dawn, it still feels like I've only scratched the surface. Horizon certainly makes a great first impression, but it’s also possible that may not hold up throughout the game — while four hours may seem like a lot, given the size and scope of Horizon, it remains to be seen whether or not the story elements stay strong or whether the stealth-based combat grows stale over time. That said, for now I'm eager to dive back in, uncover secrets, and most importantly, ride over the next hill to see what strange mechanical beasts I'll encounter next.
Horizon Zero Dawn launches on PS4 on February 28th.