When Guerrilla Games launched Killzone Shadow Fall with the PS4, it was evident they were capable of so much more than their long-held series facilitated. Shadow Fall’s spirited colour palette, broad mechanics and curious narrative felt restrained by the solidified conventions of Killzone while trying to pull the series out of the enclosed space it occupied in previous generations. Nothing could have been better for Guerrilla than a fresh slate with which to nourish these new ideas and abandon the rusted shackles of Killzone. This fresh slate is Horizon Zero Dawn.
As a self-confessed attempt at instigating a new flagship PlayStation franchise, Zero Dawn bears the weight of constructing a world worth coming back to. So often in video games do sequels realise the potential their inaugural release failed to, and I’d expected the same to be true for Horizon. As it turns out, Zero Dawn isn’t just mechanically and systematically complete. Its world, characters and lore trump that of the entire Killzone series in way of intrigue, likeability and narrative potential by a tremendous margin.
In a distant future, animalistic machines wander the overgrown ruins of our fallen civilisation. Human societies have developed into tribes and factions, fearful and ignorant of the long extinct ‘Metal World’. Aloy; an Outcast of the Nora tribe, has lived her whole life in exile for reasons untold. She seeks to find answers. While some of the expository dialogue building this premise is executed with heavy hands, the setting is quickly and neatly established. As soon as the game opens up, the beautiful forests and snow-capped mountains of the Nora Sacred Lands invite exploration, and Aloy has plenty of reason to do so.
Horizon is an action RPG, mostly playing around 3rd person shooting, exploration and stealth. Machines act as Aloy’s most regular adversary, providing an extensive catalogue of challenges and encouraging deviation in her approach. While the curious Watchers will go down in a single strike or well-placed arrow, alerting them to your location may invite the attacks of their more dangerous kin. Stealth becomes an important aspect of encounters, taking out the weaker beasts before tackling the stronger head-on. Larger foes, however, require foresight, strategy and precision to conquer. Placing traps, tying down monolithic attackers and preparing suitable weapons are invaluable skills in the consistently challenging and rewarding conflict. There’s no easy way out. Hide behind a tree or rock, and machines will destroy it. Fire arrows recklessly at an enemy and chances are they’ll shrug off the damage. Enter a battle short on crafting materials; chances are you’ll run out of ammunition. Fail, and you’ll have to head back from the last campfire you passed. Still, combat is never unfair or unreasonable; it only requires a thoughtful approach.
Most machines are covered in dozens of armour panels, components and weapons. Every battle becomes a tactical execution, varying entirely based on approach. Take off some armour plating, and Aloy can get a clear shot on the machine’s body, taking advantage of any elemental weaknesses it might have. Land the right type of shot on the right component can disable certain attacks or movements, rendering a machine vulnerable. Even dislodging a machine’s weapon and using it against them is possible, achievable and rewarding. It’s up to the player to choose which parts to target, which type of projectile to use, and in which order to strike them. The specificity of targets on these opponents provides a refreshing depth to a genre that often feels like a bland default. Where success in so many third-person shooters reflects nothing more than landing enough shots on a target without taking the same, Horizon’s combat almost feels like a high-stakes, fast-paced real-time strategy skirmish.
Taking on the human foes of Horizon is a very different story. These infrequent encounters are comparatively empowering, providing targets that can be quickly disposed of with a single headshot or silent strike from tall grass. On their own, these situations could have been dry and disengaging, but in the context of Horizon, break up the tension. After a few scuffs with gargantuan, complex adversaries, it’s nice to triumph in a less imposing and taxing situation. Marking targets ala Metal Gear Solid V and drawing attention by throwing stones helps add flavour to these less impressive scenarios, and keeps clearing out baddies satisfying.
Levelling up and unlocking new abilities via the concise yet appealing skill tree is a constant motivation. Crafting increases to carrying capacities for ammo, traps, potions and the like ties gathering and hunting into the character progression to equally encouraging extents. Dealing with traders throughout the land is necessary to keep up-to-date with the best gear, and trading some of your bounty for more useful resources goes a long way. The economy of Horizon Zero Dawn is ever-present, with every arrow Aloy shoots and each Ridgewood Plant she harvests. The consequences of wasting ammo or poor inventory management can be considerable, and it makes planning successfully all the more rewarding.
On top of her primary journey, Aloy can tackle a bunch of side missions, errands, and a banquet of auxiliary objectives. Several flavours of collectible, bandit camps to be reclaimed, areas overrun by corrupted machines to be cleared and dungeon-like ‘Cauldrons’ to explore make the structured missions of Horizon the tip of the spear. While errands usually come down to a fetch quest or a walk from one point to another, multiple side missions escalate to critical events, having consequences on the larger world. The beauty of said missions, though, is how they direct exploration. The locations of mission initiations and goals interweave in such a manner that every corner of the map is presented to the player naturally. Each task leads the horse to water, and lets it decide whether or not to drink. The expansive world feels accessible and exciting from end to end.
Main missions bring Aloy to more segmented environments, uncovering the mysteries of her own history and that of the Metal World through audio logs and journal entries while the world around her reveals itself through distinct and contradictory archaeology and aesthetics. The BioShock-style storytelling doesn’t always resonate irrevocably, but it’s strongest points are convincing and colour the story of Horizon’s world in satisfying and comprehensive ways. Guerrilla go to great lengths to justify the rich lore they’ve created, and do so in a commendably believable fashion.
Everything in Horizon Zero Dawn is driven by Aloy as an interesting and likeable protagonist. Her logical scepticism in a world of faith and spirituality directs the plot towards its intriguing depths, while her pension to be helpful helps paint the long list of individuals she crosses paths with. Much of Aloy’s effectiveness as a character, along with dozens of great side characters, is credited to strong performances and excellent visual design. I developed memorable connections with and appreciations of more than a few characters over my time with Zero Dawn – a big part of what made being inside Horizon’s world such a joy.
It adds so much that these characters look real, distinct, and reflective of their personalities. I’ve never been so convinced by the variety of non-player-character faces and bodies. In Horizon, anyone might have crooked teeth, hairy shoulders, or any number of minuscule yet immediately noticeable features. Everybody is immediately recognisable and tangibly flawed. Nobody looks to be carved out of stone. Humans look like humans, not like the overly amended approximations that are standard. While a few voice performances here are lacking, so many great characters are comprehensively built that I can’t imagine forgetting anytime soon.
These design strengths carry into those of the machines and the broad landscapes they inhabit. The way each machine looks is communicative of their strengths, weaknesses and combat aptitude. The towering Thunderjaw’s rigid metallic scales and variety of mounted cannons incite fear, while the innocent Grazers’ panic at the first sign of conflict is endearing. The aesthetic of Horizon is consistent across its map’s breadth while offering such a broad variety of tones and palettes. Lively forests, snowy mountains, dusty deserts and murky swamps create such different atmospheres, yet sit together so naturally. The quickly accessible photo mode offers a robust way to capture these beautiful creatures and landscapes, as I found myself doing so often.
Horizon Zero Dawn is an amazing first entry in what is bound to become a significant video game franchise. To establish such a rich fiction filled with interesting and nuanced characters, settings, cultures and politics is no small feat. To commit to combat mechanics built around specific and precise attacks is equally commendable. The huge environment of Horizon is full of things to do but never intimidating to keep track of, while its conflict is challenging, thoughtful and rewarding.