Robotic dinosaurs being hunted by a badass with a bow and arrow. Need I say more? Turns out, yes, for a valid review for Horizon: Zero Dawn, I do.
What Is It?
Horizon: Zero Dawn follows the journey of a young woman named Aloy in a future world that juxtaposes primitive lifestyles against highly advanced machines looking to end any human in sight.
Aloy has lived a majority of her life as an outcast under the fatherly guidance of fellow outcast Rost. The details of her birth are mysterious but warranted her to be raised by this outcast. She learns how to survive while struggling with being a social pariah. Official tribes of the world are legally banished from speaking to outcasts, which certainly plays a role in your personal development.
In order to overcome her outcast status, she participates and wins The Proving, an event led by the Nora tribe that allows the winner to be a highly respected member of their tribe and be given a single gift of anything they want.
Aloy desires to know the circumstances of her birth, but naturally, everything goes to hell. Soon enough, she’s not only a member of the tribe but tasked with searching for the answers of why the machines are becoming increasingly violent. As a skilled warrior and hunter, she’s swept up into a much larger mystery of who she is, what her role in the world is, and how the world got to its current state. But ultimately, what exactly is Horizon?
Why Should I Care?
Robot dinosaurs! That’s effectively what sold me on the game. Also, something about a badass woman with bows and arrows but wasn’t Lara Croft and some amazing visual landscapes.
Clearly, I did my best research before the game. Yet as everything unfolded, I found myself more and more wrapped up in Horizon. In all, the game makes it very easy for you to care. With so many moving parts, it’s easiest for me to take you through why it excels in a linear enough oath, starting with Aloy herself.
I loved this character. Aloy was incredibly strong and tough with a big empathetic streak. For all the incredible things that she does throughout the game (single-handedly taking down giant machines, uniting tribes, etc.), she still comes across as a fairly believable character that you can connect with. She’s written with a humble quality within her that never flirts with being obnoxious. Aloy is so much better than everyone because she demands respect and success through objective actions and thoughts. She cuts through most in the best ways, whether it’s snarking a pervert away or respectfully bringing about a high level way of looking at situations. Yet, she does struggle with creating a personal story for herself, so it brings the occasional conflicts that serve the story and character in beneficial ways. I think the only throwaway element I found with her was the game’s attitude dialogue tree. At times, you can choose a Positive, Super Objective, or Condescending response to another character, but nothing ever seemed to change how they or the world, in general, would look at you. So you wouldn’t become some paragon or renegade, but luckily it’s included so little in the game, it’s of almost no consequence.
Much of the time I spent playing Horizon made me feel like I was playing another game–but in a good way. The game mixes several distinct methods in such a near-perfect way: action, hunting, stealth, and detective work. On a more specific level, it was like elements of The Witcher 3, the recent Tomb Raider series, Assassin’s Creed, and the Batman Arkham series. With nearly any situation I was presented, I felt all the styles from those games were going to be available in order for me to be successful, with others favoring certain types of situations over others. Sneak attacks? Likely going to work. Traps? Sure. Blaze of glory? Sometimes. All of the above? Often. All the combat styles transition so smoothly that I never felt like the game had an identity crisis; it serves each style very well.
The weapon mechanics flowed just as well, as using the bow and arrow system was phenomenal. Each main weapon type (bow, sharpshooter bow, sling, trap setter) had several versions of each, which added another layer of strategy to fighting machines. It wasn’t even impossible to level up (I ended up at Level 41) or get advanced weapons; everything was so fairly balanced. It never felt too cheap either. It carries heavy RPG tones without the turn-based action combat.
The primary mechanical downfall was the camera, which was far too tight in many circumstances. The wide, sweeping landscapes never presented a problem (they’re gorgeous, by the way), but inside buildings or small areas? I felt the camera actively working against me, as I couldn’t see my enemies a fair amount of the time. It was far too close on Aloy.
Speaking of those enemies, let’s get back to those robot dinosaurs! Somewhat unfortunately, they weren’t all dinosaurs. That was an easy misconception on my part, though there are certainly a few that are effectively dinosaurs. The coolest ones, no less, are a T-Rex and an inaccurate velociraptor. But how do you make a raptor ever cooler? Make it a machine that turns invisible, whips its tail like crazy, drops bombs, and call it a Stalker. Oh, and make it incredibly challenging for a good payoff when you kill it. Many of the other machines are giant versions of real-life counterparts, such as crocodiles, hawks, chickens, bulls, and horses. You can see the visual similarities in some wonderful designs.
There are plenty of ways to take down enemies, as touched upon with the game styles, and each has a log of what type of weapons work well against them or what works in the machine’s favor instead. The environment is a fun factor in many cases, as there were times where I could allow machines to fight each other through overriding (hacking) them, tricking other human enemies to engage in battle, or in rarer cases, actually destroy the environment. Attacking machines was certainly more varied than humans, who demanded more stealth, but even machines out in the wild were susceptible to plenty of stealth attacks (sorry not sorry, Chargers). Such hunting and side quests can prove to be incredibly beneficial to your main story. One particular side quest gives you perhaps the most clutch armor in all the game for the final missions. So, pseudo-spoiler, take care of the Ancient Armory quest. You’re welcome. In the end, no matter what type of major battle you get yourself into, there is at least a noticeable sense of relief and satisfaction, especially the more difficult it is. I can’t tell you how many breaths I let out taking down Deathbringers or Stormbirds.
With all that activity, it’s easy to mess around at times and suddenly find yourself at 20 hours without having completed much of the main story but still feel accomplished. At times, it can feel detrimental to the game. There were some sidequests that certainly didn’t need to take me a tenth of the way across a map to battle some crazy flying machines (Glinthawks) just to track down a fruit thief. Insult to injury? Getting called a savage. While excessive and danger close to filler, it never quite got there. Thankfully, too, considering how important that experience can pay off at the end.
Finally, the story. There are enough twists in the game that I don’t want to expand on too much more of what I’ve already covered. But Horizon never included the insufferable amount of twists that some media properties do. It never felt like they were throwing twists for the sake of twists. They were subtle, yet substantial, that it never let you settle too much into where you thought the story may have been going. For example, I thought there were some heavy shades of The Matrix coming in, but it went in a different direction which I loved. Even with so much to do, the game never really loses its focus. I loved how characters kept you in check for what the purpose of it all was, but even Aloy was able to do the same.
What Makes It Worth My Time and Money?
There was a point while playing through Horizon: Zero Dawn where I questioned how much longer I needed to be at social events because, you know, time in Aloy’s shoes. Or, rather, I skipped out on events entirely so I can play the game. Other times, it was that “well, I could do just one more quest…” feeling. Early on, that’s how I knew this game was worth it. It sucks you in for all the right reasons but won’t overly dominate your life like some other games can (I didn’t cancel that many plans, thank you).
The solid mix of so many styles into one cohesive unit, led by an awesomely written protagonist, creates one of the most enjoyable releases in the market right now. Horizon: Zero Dawn was absolutely worth any of the pre-release hype it generated. So, get out there and shoot a fire-laced arrow into a machine’s backside. Trust me, it’s super fun.