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Horizon Zero Dawn review: a greatest hits collection of open-world games

Prehistoric meets futuristic

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Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn takes place so far in the future that the Earth is virtually unrecognizable. At times both futuristic and prehistoric, it’s a land beset by robotic animals — sinewy, chrome things resembling everything from horses to dinosaurs — where humans defend themselves with spears and bows. The anachronistic humans and beasts clash in fascinating ways, raising numerous questions about how the world got into this state, why machines have largely replaced wildlife, and what happened to the civilization that came before. These mysteries kept me pushing on through the game for dozens of hours.

But while Horizon’s setting feels exciting and new, actually playing it is a startlingly familiar experience. As I explored Horizon’s massive landscape of fauna growing atop a previous civilization, I was reminded of the other games upon which Horizon builds. Everything from the combat to the missions to the map you use to find your way echoes another blockbuster of the genre. Horizon is, in practically every way, the video game as mash-up. Different settings clash, while gameplay elements cribbed from other titles are jammed together. It has survival elements culled from Far Cry, with story and missions reminiscent of The Witcher. The role-playing features call to mind everything from Diablo to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Remarkably, the developers at Guerrilla Games have managed to blend all of these aspects of the experience into a cohesive whole, that culminates in one of the best open-world games I’ve ever played. It’s akin to a greatest hits collection for the genre. And what ties it all together is the one thing that is truly new: that world.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon is set at an unclear point in the distant future — what developer Guerrilla describes as a “post post-apocalypse” — and stars a young orphan named Aloy. With no biological parents to speak of, Aloy is branded an outcast from the time she’s a infant, forced to live outside and apart from a superstitious tribe with her adopted father. The tribe, known as the Nora, largely shun the technology of the “old ones,” and hold a deep regard for mothers and mother figures who serve as governors, soothsayers, clerics, and judges. The Nora are an insular group. Pretty much the diametric opposite of the curious and restless Aloy.

Aloy’s curiosity in the world that came before is piqued from a young age. At six, she stumbles onto a derelict cavern below ground and discovers an electronic earpiece called a Focus. Sort of a cross between a Bluetooth headset and an augmented reality display, the Focus lets Aloy see parts of the world that others can’t and instills a strong belief that there is more to life than her technology-averse people chose to believe.

‘Horizon’ is a slow burn

Aloy’s quest is split into two sides, which ultimately intersect. There’s the personal: she needs to know where she came from and who her mother was. When Aloy ultimately leaves her village, she’s pulled unwittingly — as in most grand adventures — into a larger quest to save the world from a nefarious evil. The entwinement of the two paths inspires her to uncover the mysteries of Horizon’s far-future world and how it came to be.

Horizon is a slow burn. It doesn’t have a bombastic opening as in many action games. You begin with Aloy as a baby, before jumping forward to her struggles as a six-year-old, and ultimately landing on her quiet life as a young adult outcast. Horizon gradually and confidently reveals itself. From the picturesque opening glimpse at a world overrun by nature, to the eventual revelation of how it came to be, Horizon’s scope constantly proves itself to be bigger than you initially think.

The land itself is immense made to feel larger by a variety of biomes. It’s a place where herds of robotic horses graze alongside roads, and the remnants of a long-gone futuristic society deep beneath the ground are waiting to be trespassed. It’s a dangerous place filled with violent mechanical creatures, old-world ruins, and strange new civilizations. The worldbuilding is a particular highlight. Each city has its own architecture, like the impressive towering arches of the metropolis-like Meridian, or the more practical tents and cabins of the northern hunting tribes. People have unique fashions, and fight over different faiths. By the end of the game I could tell a hunter’s tribe simply by their haircut.

Horizon Zero Dawn

But much of what you’ll actually be doing will feel familiar if you’ve played an open-world game before. Aloy can gather resources from plants, animals, and robots, to craft new medicines and weapons, much like in Far Cry Primal. She rides through gorgeous landscapes on horseback and is an expert tracker (thanks in part to her Focus) just like The Witcher’s Geralt. As I marveled at some of the towering robotic creatures found later in the game, I couldn’t help but think of my time playing Xenoblade Chronicles X. Meanwhile, slowly stalking through enemy camps and turning enemies into allies reminded me of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. And the interactive dialog wheels feel like a lighter version of something found in a BioWare game, while the plentiful loot and gear you’ll gather call to mind action-RPGs like Torchlight or Diablo.

It’s in these comparisons to popular role-playing games that the adventure is weakest. Horizon doesn’t do the best job of surfacing its more complex RPG elements. The skill tree — where you can unlock new abilities — is simple enough to use, but the gear and crafting system feel overly complicated at times. It’s easy to find yourself overburdened with items looted from machines or relic sites, unsure of whether to sell them, use them, or craft something with them. Horizon lets you customize weapons and clothing with items that give you better aim, increase projectile strength, or make you more resistant to fire, but puts little emphasis on this making it easy to ignore despite the fact that it can make combat exceedingly easier. The constant need for resources also leads to some pretty ridiculous scenarios. There were multiple times when I ignored a pressing objective so that I could gather some medicinal flowers or loot a few dozen corpses. These are the rare moments where it feels like you’re playing a game rather than exploring a place.

A refined version of what an open-world experience can be

That said, there are few visible seams revealing where and how these different elements were stitched together. Instead, Horizon ends up like a refined version of what an open-world experience can be. Virtually all of the aspects of the game serve the narrative and the gameplay. For being a mash-up, it feels cohesive and intentional. Aloy can hunt, gather resources, and craft new items because that’s what she was raised to do. She can learn new abilities and upgrade her gear because she has access to advanced technology. She explores every nook of the world around her because there are mysteries buried quite literally within every mountain.

Horizon is at its best when it gives you the freedom to use Aloy’s plentiful skills however you see fit. Aloy can learn to create traps and avoid direct combat for the most part, or she can create an obscenely powerful bow capable of firing three flaming arrows simultaneously. Eventually she can earn the ability to take control of certain robots to aid her in battle or travel. Figuring out which abilities to focus on, and how to utilize them, is one of the most satisfying parts of the game.

Where the game falters is when it gets away from this openness. At times you’re forced into battle with generic human soldiers, for instance, which can be especially frustrating if you’ve customized Aloy to focus on things like stealth or survival. The worst offenders are the boss battles, which are largely exhausting and tedious shootouts, and thankfully rare. Horizon unfortunately is at its most narrow as you approach the climax, which means that its final moments of combat are some of its worst. (A large-scale battle in the game’s final hours is easily the least enjoyable part of the game — though it’s at least followed by some explosive and lengthy story reveals.)

Horizon Zero Dawn

Thankfully Horizon’s plentiful missions rarely feel so restricting or straightforward. There aren’t many boring fetch quests to be found here — they’re dubbed “errands,” they’re optional, and they’re tucked into their own corner of the menu, should you prefer skipping them altogether. Even the side missions, filed under “side quests,” typically a chore in open-world games, are interesting and varied, both in terms of what you’re doing and why. They cover everything from hunting robots, to infiltrating enemy cities, to exploring long-forgotten ancient facilities. Over the course of an hour I used Aloy’s myriad abilities to both track a fruit thief and help a father deal with his troublesome teen daughter. Both proved to be much more interesting than they sound. It took me 37 hours to complete Horizon, and I only saw around 80 percent of what the world has to offer. (After the credits roll, you are able to go back to finish anything you missed along the way.)

Just exploring the world is a joy. Often you’ll stumble across areas overrun with corrupted robots that need to be cleared, or settlements overtaken by murderous bandits. A dozen hours into the game and I still got excited seeing the hazy blue glow of a herd of machines in the distance. It’s a game where watching the sunrise while riding on robo-horseback is as satisfying as taking down a huge robo-T. Rex.

Horizon is a game about a woman racing through an archaic future to save it from an advanced past. It tells a story both personal and epic, touching on everything Aloy’s birth to the future of the species, and how those things intersect. And it uses this setup to connect a vast and strange world that’s as dangerous as it is intriguing. At times it tries to do too much, but its ambition is refreshing, as is the fact that it somehow manages to pull almost all of its grand ideas off.

At the outset it may remind you of games you’ve played before, but — like the genre-blending world it takes place in — Horizon ultimately proves that combining the familiar can lead to something new.

Horizon Zero Dawn launches February 28th on PlayStation 4.