I’m smitten with Horizon: Zero Dawn, a video game that hits the best notes of the “explore, kill, and collect” genre without becoming too leadened by busywork. It has a script on par with a fun sci-fi matinee, arguably the most polished visuals on a home console, and combat that amounts to more than shooting hundreds of dudes in the face. But I do wish I’d known more about the game’s idiosyncrasies before I played.
Despite a lengthy tutorial prologue, many of Horizon’s most useful tips and tools are buried in the game’s opaque menus or mentioned offhand in text blurbs that appear on loading screens. I think my time with the game would have been better with a handful of pointers.
These are the lessons I learned in my playthrough, free of any major story spoilers. I’ve ordered the tips as they’re needed in the game’s timeline, so don’t feel pressured to remember every note at once. Think of this as a tour guide, something to take on your journey, directing you in interesting and useful directions.
Commercials sell Horizon as if it’s Assassin’s Creed with guns, explosions, and robot dinosaurs, but the game is slower than that marketing suggests. A three-hour-long prologue introduces Aloy; her father figure Rost; the politics of her tribe, the Nora; and the fundamentals of how to collect materials, hunt beasts, and craft ammunition and upgrades. The intro is leisurely for good reason: it needs to establish a narrative foundation enough to withstand innumerable sequels. Which brings me to my one big note...
Recalibrate your expectations
This isn’t a traditional action game. It likes to think through its ideas, and spend time with its characters.
And when the game does switch its emphasis from words to action, the combat doesn’t regurgitate the traditional formula of swapping between increasingly powerful guns. Much of the game’s weaponry is designed to suppress rather the damage. The ropecaster lasso beats and pins them to the ground. A slingshot fires ice and electricity projectiles that stun and freeze on impact.
If anything, the game punishes a guns-blazing attitude. The player is often outmatched and underpowered, and so the best path to victory involves scouting a battlefield, stealthily picking off weaker targets, and taking advantage of the weaknesses of the bigger beasts. It’s a more strategic and thoughtful game than it leads on.
Play how you like
That said, you can choose to play as a brutal murder machine. If you find one method for downing a humongous rob-hawk to be tedious, try another. Maybe you should tie it to the ground. Maybe you should unlock the power to turn into an ally. Or maybe you should just pelt it with a half-dozen flaming wars. Even if your hunting methods seem to work well, there’s often a reward in questioning your strategic assumptions. How I approached a scrimmage at the end of the game was totally different than how I started it.
Free sample box at every trader
A number of helpful and sometimes free items are buried in the menus at trader stations. For example, under the “treasure box” window, every trader offers one free sample box. When you’re low on supplies in the first few hours, these freebies are lifesavers.
Use the map to locate quests
The game lets you select one quest and one waypoint at a time. On one hand, I’m glad it doesn’t let me litter the screen with icons egging me on in every direction. On the other hand, it’s a pain to walk a few miles, only to realize you passed a few side quest objectives on the way. The trick is to check your map before a long trip. All quests are marked on the map with diamond icons. Rather than select one long route to a main quest, I’d tie together a few sub-routes connecting secondary tasks.
Regularly stop at campfires to save your game
Horizon’s interface is vague about when it auto-saves. The one method for manually saving is visiting campfires. There are dozens of camps on the map, usually a short run from anywhere you need to go. To be safe, stop by a fire and tap the triangle button to force a quick save.
Fast travel to camp fires
Traveling on foot is useful for gathering resources and locating hidden item caches, but sometimes you’ll want to cut to the chase. Once you’ve discover a camp fire (it will appear as green on the map) you can fast travel to the location. To fast travel, simply open the map menu, select a discovered campfire, and hold R2. Each fast travel requires a fast travel token. I’ll get to the more sustainable solution in a moment.
Each beast is made of different components, many of which have their own weakness and some of which can be removed entirely. Approach a collection of enemies in a crouch stance, hide in the weeds, and use the focus to mark enemies, gauge weakness, and plan the attack. For example...
“Freeze” stalls enemies and increases damage
If beast is vulnerable to freeze, a few icy arrows or snow grenades, followed by a volley of explosives or fire arrows can bring down midrange creatures.
“Tear” helps to steal weapons from machines
Most high-range creatures have heavy weaponry bolted to their sides and spine. A weapon with strong tear (represented by a shield icon) can knock weapons loose. Aloy can then grab the weaponry and use it against enemies. This method is stupidly useful — mounted weapons are the most powerful options in the game — and I can’t believe it took me 20 hours to catch on to the technique.
Completing missions and hunting beasts earn XP, XP increases Aloy’s level, and each level rewards points that can be spent on new skills. Like I said earlier, play the game however you prefer. I personally found this path to be useful.
Learn to fire multiple arrows ASAP
If you want to play stealth, you will need to neutralize human targets from a long range with a single attack. Most bow and arrow sets can’t kill with a single headshot. By firing two or three arrows at once, you eliminate all but the most powerful endgame foot soldiers. The upgrade applies to all arrow types, making arrows with fire, electricity, freeze, and tear (armor-busting) buffs far more useful.
Become a beast master
Once you reach the game’s central hub — a city name Meridian that is a flagrant collision of Game of Thrones’ King’s Landing and Braavos — your quest will span miles on terrain and be interrupted by packs of beasts. It takes too much time and is too dangerous to travel on foot. By this point, Aloy should be able to turn some creatures into rideable allies, but I often found myself in the middle of nowhere without a mount in sight. One unlockable ability allows you to call a good-natured mount with a tap of a button. The creature will also play a support role in combat. It’s not a great way to deal damage, but does serve as a useful distraction.
Take the hunter tests
Five hunter camps with three unique tests are scattered across the map. The game’s tutorials are optional and not particularly useful. Hunter tests provide examples of when and how you should use a weapon. Plus, each test awards bronze, silver, and gold medals. Collect 15 of any medal, and you unlock a weapon that outclasses everything sold by merchants.
Visit the cauldrons
I don’t want to spoil the cauldrons, so trust me when I say, visit them as soon as possible. They are, design-wise, like the tombs in Assassin’s Creed: large-scale, standalone platforming trials. But there’s so much more to them. They unlock some of the best abilities in the game, and they provide some of the best visual storytelling when it comes to the pre-apocalypse backstory.
The open world:
Once you reach Meridian, it’s time to find your own fun. The game divides its missions into main quests, side quests, and errands. I found the errands to be an optional grind for folks who would rather eat the rind than see food go to waste. That said, side quests offer substantial XP rewards, provide backstory that gives some weight to the final act, and sometimes unlock the best weapons and armor.
Purchase the unlimited fast travel tool
By the time you reach Meridian, merchants should be selling an unlimited fast travel tool. It’s hidden at the bottom of the items menu as a purple item, referencing its supposed rareness. You will fast travel regularly in the second half of the game, particularly when you want to exit Meridian which doesn’t allow mounts to enter, and is located high above most of the map.
Go on the big hunt
In Meridian, you will find the hunter’s lodge. A couple of the members will offer a series of hunting-related side quests. Do them. One, they flesh out the mythology of the land and the beasts. Two, they feature some of the best robots battles. Three, the rewards will be useful for Horizon’s final showdowns. I did these missions in tandem with the hinting test, which unintentionally created a Rocky-like montage in the middle of the game. It felt like I was learning the necessary skills to complete the story using the various combat techniques rather than brute-forcing my way to the finish line with health packs and hundreds of grenades.
Fire beats bird
Groups of birds can turn a small battle into a nightmarish headache. So remember this: fire takes down birds. Boost your fire arrows and you won't even need to worry about grounding the boogers. Fire will make them crash
This basic logic applies to all creatures. Experiment with your weapons, and don’t assume one method is best. Scan battle for weaknesses, switch modifications, kill robots.