It’s around ten hours in when you’re sliding along, loosing arrows into the glowing red eyes of Watchers, that you realise how much you’ve taken Horizon Zero Dawn for granted. It’s difficult not to do, since it feels so naturally effortless to play. Admittedly, part of that charm comes from the great games it has unabashedly cribbed from, and still managed to improve on. The folks at Crystal Dynamics must have raised a few eyebrows when they played it, given how similar many of the mechanics are to Tomb Raider. But Horizon has carved out a divergent path, marrying a technologically enhanced future with the brittle, decaying rot of the past, and set it in a glorious green wilderness. It shouldn’t work. Yet it does, brilliantly.
Like Father, Like Daughter
There was natural trepidation coming into the game. Before the launch, we thought it was just another open-world adventure, looking gorgeous but sparse, and no doubt rife with busywork to fill the monotonous hours. Guerrilla Games held their cards close to their chest for most of the build-up, and the gamble paid off. What we’re presented with is a refreshing tale of a matriarchal society, where it seems only people of note have a name of more than one syllable (at least, in the Nora tribe).
Emerging from the wilderness - in a tundra-based homage to The Lion King - is Aloy, a spirited red-headed Nora girl whose surrogate father - Rast - has brought her up through her childhood years. Rast is an outcast, for reasons that are not revealed until later on, and Aloy is tainted by proxy. Unable to legally communicate with any of the Nora tribe from which Rast was expelled, the pair of them grow older together in a cinematic montage which frequently had our jaws hitting the floor.
Rast and Aloy’s relationship works so well, not only thanks to the voice-acting (which is excellent throughout the game) but because it’s believable. As we are taught along with Aloy how to hunt, climb, track and scavenge, we feel ourselves growing alongside a determined young woman. And when the time comes for her to strike out on her own to ask the matriarchs what happened to her mother, we feel genuinely heartbroken that she’s leaving Rast behind. This isn’t the type of bland narrative one normally finds in a game of this size. Here, there is genuine heart.
A Whole New World
Horizon reveals its secrets slowly and, aside from the visuals, the first few hours may leave you wondering what the fuss is about. However, when Aloy reaches the Ninja Warrior-style challenge of The Proving as a grown woman, ready to find out about her past, the game shifts gear abruptly. A huge open world is revealed, filled with massive, mechanical beasts and glorious landscapes. The realisation of the vastness of the wilderness hits you as much as Aloy - this is a big, big game, filled with danger. You’ll stumble into areas that you aren’t ready for and pay the price. But exploration does yield rewards - whether it’s a quest to help an injured man find his lost daughter, a bandit camp that needs clearing out, or a vantage point that affords sweeping views of the game world. Yes, there are nods to Assassin’s Creed, but watching Aloy shimmy up rocks with the confidence of a mountain goat and the agility of an Olympian never gets boring.
And it’s not just pretty, but beautiful. The dappled sunlight in the forests showcases volumetric effects like we’ve never seen. The moonlit nights cast shadows on the valley, lit up by the neon blue of the machines you’re hunting. The stunning sunsets blaze with pinks, oranges and purples. The full day/night cycle throws every kind of weather at you - wind, sun, rain, fog and snow - and Aloy comments on it all, throwing out asides about the day brightening up, or the damp making her cold. And we’re right there with her - we’re not exaggerating when we say it’s one of the best-looking console games we’ve ever seen.
We mentioned earlier that Horizon felt similar in many respects to the recent Tomb Raider games, and that comparison is inescapable. Saving at campfires, zip-lining between areas, scaling cliff faces and even the upgrade tree split into Prowler, Brave and Forager bear a passing resemblance to Lara’s latest adventure. You’ll hunt animals, discover secret areas, and be tasked with locating an absolute mountain of collectibles. Audiobooks, datalogs, relics, flora, and a lot, lot more are waiting for those who have the patience to find them. Completists will find hundreds of hours of gameplay here. Where the game distinguishes itself from its brethren is in the mechanics. Everything feels so much more natural, from the smooth, athletic ascent up climbable areas, to the bow mechanics that offer more accurate and satisfying results than we got with Ms. Croft. We loved what Crystal Dynamics released, but Horizon offers a far more streamlined experience.
While you might want to stealth your way around, it’ll only help for so long. The mecha-fauna roaming the plains are diverse, and range from smaller scouting creatures, to larger robot variations on longhorns and vultures, all the way up to incredible, mammoth-sized Thunderjaws. And there’s nothing that quite compares to seeing a Tallneck for the first time, gracefully wandering around ruins.
Aloy has a range of tools to aid her in taking down these beasts, including tripwire traps, ropecasters for tying down foes, sling-thrown bombs, proximity mines and a variety of arrows. These are complemented by a melee spear for when you need to close quarters. There are only two attacks for the spear - heavy and light - and whether you’re knocking component parts from animals to make them less of a threat, or fully upending them in order to take them down with a finishing blow, the experience is weighty and satisfying. The defences they use are wide-ranging, and while roll-dodging might work on a Snapmaw’s icy blast, it won’t help you against a Corruptor leaping on you. As you progress, you’ll also be able to override them with your spear, forcing them to fight for you, and in some cases even providing you with a mechanical mount to ride around - which is as cool as it sounds.
Not My Bag
Despite this, combat is arguably Horizon’s weakest aspect. It isn’t due to the battles themselves, though the occasionally erratic camera has a tendency to make things trickier for you. The issue lies with the interface. While melee never changes, switching ranged weapons requires you to select from a radial menu using a shoulder button, which is more cumbersome than you’d think - not least because when you do so the game slows down, rather than pauses. Since many enemies require you to use electricity, fire, or other elemental effects to stun them, switching easily between weapons is a must, but Horizon makes it trickier than it needs to be.
Furthermore, you can craft ammunition on-the-fly, which requires you to hold a shoulder and a face button - fine outside of combat, but mid-fight it’s another task which may lead to your death. Factor in the use of the D-pad for consumables like health and traps, and it adds up to an experience that can occasionally be frustrating, as you juggle between buttons whilst trying not to die. Experience does soften the hardship, as does improving Aloy’s skills to help her take down opponents more easily through multiple arrows, stronger melee attacks, and a variety of stealth hits. Over time, you’ll become accustomed to the combat’s quirks, but it’s a shame that the slight clunkiness impacts otherwise frenetic and satisfying encounters.
The other niggle which needs airing is inventory management. There is a separate satchel for each set of items: weapons, armour, potions, traps, resources and more, and managing them can be a chore, not least because the amount of loot that is available to scavenge is vast and your capacity is limited until you upgrade your satchels. The components needed to do so can be found by killing animals in the wild, but given loot drops are split by rarity, there’s no guarantee you’ll get what you need on your first kill, or your tenth.
Consequently, it becomes a bit of a grind to get your inventory into a state where you’re not constantly exchanging items out for better versions because you’ve run out of space. It doesn’t help that you’re unable to compare the loot you do pick up with what you’re carrying to see if it’s worth ditching or not. On the positive side, you’re able to create a job from your inventory screen for collecting required components, and then make it your active quest - a neat touch.
Let’s Go On An Adventure!
Not that you’ll need to add more quests, since there is a ton of activities, errands, side missions and tasks to complete. Aloy is equipped with a Focus - a device she found as a child - which provides a Batman-style detective mode to explore areas, highlight supply caches and collectibles, analyse enemies for weaknesses, and follow the tracks of your quarry. Many of the quests are meaty stories in which you’ll invest a few hours alone. The tale of Errend who is searching for his missing sister turns into a full-on mystery, as you unravel the reason behind her disappearance and the numerous plot twists on the way.
The amount of things to do may feel overwhelming as you uncover more of the game’s massive overland world. Cauldrons - huge, underground chambers of twisted metal and wires - offer the opportunity to learn more about the weaknesses of your mechanical foes and serve as huge standalone areas. Bandit camps veer more to the stealth side of Aloy’s skills, while corrupted zones are free-for-all rampages where you need to take out all machines within by any means possible. Additionally, hunter lodges provide interesting speed run tasks, and offer rewards for doing so. There’s such a wealth of content here, it would take pages to detail it all.
Of course, you could just head for the main storyline which follows Aloy’s investigation into the origin of the mechanoids and their subsequent corruption. It also showcases a vibrant society of clans, tribes and settlements, small and large, often at war with each other as much as the machines. What could have been a throwaway storyline has been crafted with care by veterans such as John Gonzalez (Fallout: New Vegas, Shadows of Mordor) and the impact is immediate. There are flashpoints of emotional choice in some conversations, where you can decide to act with your fist, your head, or your heart. In an early example, you’re confronted by a stone-throwing bully who is about to lob one at you. You can respond with a rock aimed at his head, knock the one out of his hand, or drop yours peacefully. These choices are often reflected later in the game, so aren’t frivolous.
Greater Than The Sum...
The later stages of the story don’t quite deliver quite the same emotional impact as the first ten hours, not least due to a generic big bad and human AI that fails to rival that of the machines. But the quality of Aloy’s voice-acting is superlative throughout, making her a female protagonist worthy of taking a seat next to Lara Croft. Her femininity is never made an issue of, her abilities rival (and often exceed) the likes of Nathan Drake, and the matriarchal backbone of the world is a wonderfully progressive thing to see in a videogame.
Even though it wears its influences on its sleeve, from Far Cry to Dragon: Age Inquisition, through to Tomb Raider and even Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, the end product is something which manages to transcend them all, and emerge as a cohesive and unique whole. It’s revitalised a genre of sandbox gaming that was threatening to eat itself, and it makes exploring thrilling and - more importantly - fun. And like the wonderful machines you’ll meet in the wilderness, the beauty of Horizon is derived from far more than its component parts.