Horizon Zero Dawn Review
Four years ago, a game captured my attention at E3 like no other before. This game displayed a dystopian world in which robot dinosaurs rule the planet and the last remnants of humankind would survive by taking down these machines piece by piece in unique and interesting ways. Made even more extraordinary was that this game would be developed by Guerilla Games, the studio behind the often maligned Killzone series, a series I’m hit and miss with. Cut to present day, Horizon Zero Dawn is still that game I’ve waited for but leaves just a little something to be desired.
Keeping spoilers to a minimum, Horizon Zero Dawn is set roughly hundreds of years into the future where machines, designed to look like our present day as well as prehistoric creatures, have multiplied and taken the Earth back from humanity. Humans no longer have any knowledge of the world that came before and convene together in tribes with a unifying belief that technology and magic are one and the same. One such tribe are the Nora, strict in their laws, but a proud and noble people who have outcasted a young girl named Aloy for reasons unknown. Growing up with no answers and no parents aside from a fellow outcaster-now guardian-named Rost, who teaches her how to hunt and fight, Aloy must fight to obtain answers for her exclusion from her tribe as well as what her existence might mean to the rest of the world.
After Johnathan Gonzalez was revealed to be the Narrative Director of Horizon Zero Dawn, there was cause for excitement. Fallout 3 never grabbed me although I enjoyed the combat and the post-apocalyptic world of Washington D.C., but it wasn’t until Fallout: New Vegas and Gonzalez’s involvement in the writing of that game where I fell in love with not only the world but its characters. Everyone I met in New Vegas had a unique story and wit about them that felt absent from 3. I expected the same from Horizon Zero Dawn with Mr. Gonzalez behind the wheel but there’s too much world-building in expository lines of dialogue than there should be, making each conversation more self-indulgent about the world itself than about the individual characters. It made me sad that I skipped through a number of conversations in the side quests because I could predict the outcome of each conversation. However, the main quest and mystery surrounding Aloy is beautifully woven together in a seam that’s both unpredictable and exciting. The character exchanges during those quests I gladly sat through as I was fully invested in uncovering the secrets of this post-apocalyptic Earth as well as Aloy’s resolve to find out who she truly is.
Speaking of Aloy, what a wonderful character. Aloy’s no nonsense attitude coupled with a naiive optimism about the world outside the region of the Nora is both inviting and relatable. Most of the characters are very complacent and apathetic, heard in some of the voice acting, but Ashley Burch as Aloy is sarcastic, brash, and affectionate. Aloy is a well rounded character and a welcome addition to the plethora of great video game protagonists.
Blending elements of Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, Horizon’s gameplay is a staple of third-person action games, and often elevates instead of revolutionizes. Aloy levels up, acquires new abilities, weapons, and armor; the usual, but what it does different in its combat is by focusing on specific body parts of enemies to take them down.
The gameplay relies heavily on ranged weapons such as bows and arrows as well as slings carrying bombs. Shooting feels good and precise aside from brief moments where arrows sometimes glitch through an enemy’s head but that’s rare. Melee combat is present and best used strictly for close encounters because of how little damage it does to big robots. There are environmental elements to some of the ammo types that allow the player to engage enemies in more strategic fashions, especially as Aloy uses a device called a “Focus” to analyze each foe’s strength, weakness, and specific body parts. These are the moments the game shines. For example, if Aloy finds a robot that is vulnerable to ice attacks, there are weapon options to exploit that weakness, resulting in ice attacks immobilizing them. Or if a gas canister on the back of an enemy is flammable, use a fire arrow to ignite it, setting them on fire. When fighting larger enemies like the T-Rex resembling robot called the Thunderjaw, things get more interesting. For something so large and devastating, Aloy could use a Ropecaster, which shoots cables, to hold the Thunderjaw down while removing components of the body and dealing considerable damage from a safe distance. Some parts that fall off of enemies can even be used against them.
The downside to engaging the larger enemies though is that they engulf the screen. With there being no hard lock-on, you have to manually maneuver the camera and due to how large a Thunderjaw might be, you’re constantly moving it around while trying to aim and shoot, making some combat situations rather frustrating.
There are stealth options that I used heavily but the enemy AI is predictable in that they don’t question why there is a stack of bodies near the same brush. Along with Aloy’s ability to whistle singular enemies into the same brush over and over, stealth combat is rather predictable and unvaried.
Controlling Aloy is taut and refined and her run slide is one of the best in any game. Going from running into the open and into cover using the slide never got old, even after forty hours. Her jump works hilariously well because there’s a rarely a surface you can’t jump your way up in some janky fashion but unfortunately, she can only climb specific surfaces the game allows you to like Uncharted or Tomb Raider. No Breath of the Wild here.
Horizon Zero Dawn is also a collect-a-thon but an interesting one as each new audio clip or written entry Aloy finds unveils more about the world. One downside to this is that there are specific areas in the game where there’s an info dump of what feels like ten audio clips in a row and standing around listening to each one becomes a chore real fast, even if I’m invested in the story.
Guerilla Games deserves to be commended for their first foray into a genre unexplored by the developer and how committed they are to Aloy’s story as well as the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. The combat feels great and Aloy’s story is worth discovering, they just need to work on what the characters mean to the world, not what the world means to the characters.