Horizon Zero Dawn Review – Post-Apocalypse Phenomenon (PS4)

It has been a long time since Guerrilla Games has done anything outside of their revered franchise, Killzone. Horizon Zero Dawn surprised almost everyone with its announcement at E3 2014, and is finally almost in gamers’ hands worldwide. So, does Guerrilla Games still know how to make a third-person console game, almost 13 years after Shellshock: Nam ’67?

An Intriguing Setting

Earth, 3XXX. The exact date and time is not known, because the world ended several centuries ago. In this land, humanity exists as a loose collection of tribes. Each have their own set of customs, beliefs, enemies, and allies. All live as we imagine our own ancestors did, perhaps a millennium or more ago. Yet machines also live among the rest of life, intriguing and incredibly powerful creations whose very reason for existing is not known by any human currently alive.

You play as Aloy, a girl who is born in mysterious circumstances to the Nora tribe, a forest-dwelling people ruled by matriarchs. While one elder sees you as a blessing from the All-Mother, the God of her people, the other elders see you as an omen, and thus, you are shunned. Only by winning a contest called The Proving can you be allowed back into the Nora society, if that is something you want.

Horizon Zero Dawn’s story is surprisingly very compelling. A strong start sees you thrust into the wide world, with a whole host of side quests to complete, characters to meet, and things to collect and unlock. The main campaign has a bit of a lull in its second quarter or so, but the numerous side quests are more than entertaining enough to see you through to when Aloy’s story takes off. When I say it takes off, I mean it really takes off. There’s a certain revelation in the game that gives purpose, and a reason for existing, to all the robots in the world. It’s an inventive idea, created with flaws inherent in anything created by humans. In other words, the plot device tying together the robots and high technology of the past is not a simple deus ex machina, and genuinely makes sense in this world. The timescales of what is created is a little unbelievable, but humans are capable of incredible things when placed in intense situations. There are a couple of over-the-top deaths in the game, but these rather cheesy moments are quickly forgotten when the grander plot begins to reveal itself.

Decisions, Decisions

Interactions with certain NPCs also involve branching dialog, though there is only one ending to the game. Some of your choices do involve life-or-death decisions, however, so they naturally have some weight on at least a few individuals. The final battle does include certain characters depending on how helpful you were to them, which is a nice extra for those who choose to venture off the beaten path and help those in need on their way to greatness.

Guerrilla Games gave Horizon Zero Dawn the open-world treatment, but for those of you looking for a more linear experience, you can find it here. Using the fast travel ability enables you to jump from checkpoint to checkpoint, staying on the path to your next objective, leveling up by killing enemies (human and robot alike) along the way to level up. This might not be recommended on the Normal or higher difficulty setting, however.

This developer tends to make challenging games. Horizon Zero Dawn serves to continue in that tradition. On Normal, no robot encounter is a gimme. Tall, loud, menacing, and tough, even the lowly Watcher, a scout-type robot, can put up a good fight against an under-equipped hunter. The game also doesn’t hold your hand – while a basic tutorial tells you the controls, you’re on your own when it comes to figuring out the best way to take down enemies. This can be done through stealth, brute force, or a mixture of the two.

Upgrade Everything

You have at your disposal a nice arsenal of weapons with which to bring death down upon your enemies. Since humanity is still recovering from the apocalypse, technology is still primitive compared to today’s weaponry. But armed with a bow that can fire elemental arrows, a sling full of explosives, and a Tripcaster to lay down trip wires, Aloy doesn’t mess around. Strategy can involve throwing rocks or whistling to get an enemy’s attention, and then luring them into some tall grass to kill them quietly. However, tougher enemies may require a trap or two, to whittle their health down to more manageable levels. There is a lot of variety in the ways in which you can take down enemies, which will no doubt be to the delight of gamers of all types.

Aloy can also upgrade her abilities in three different areas, to cater to your individual play style. Every time you level up, you earn a skill point, and can spend these to unlock new abilities. There’s something here for everyone, including stealth, combat, and defensive capabilities. You’ll have almost everything unlocked by the end of the game’s main campaign, freeing you to complete your missions however you see fit. Yet you’re never so overpowered that the game ever really becomes easy, unless, of course, you are actually playing on Easy.

The open-endedness of Horizon Zero Dawn’s world means that outside of the game’s first hour or two, you are free to do whatever you want. I would estimate that a 100% completion of the game could take around 30-40 hours, possibly more, with the main campaign taking up at least half of your time spent. The game plays a little bit like an MMO, with the ability to switch between active quests at any time, and a good selection of merchants to trade with. You can mount various robots, and unlock the ability to mount and override more as you explore the game’s Cauldrons, which are where robots are created.

A Beautiful Creation

As you adventure around the world, you will no doubt pick up all kinds of resources, which vary from berries and herbs which can be placed into a satchel to heal you later, to parts off of fallen robots (some of whom you didn’t even kill), with which you can craft new upgrades for your inventory or trade with merchants back in town. Crafting options include larger carrying capacity for your various weapons, and modification of your outfits and weapons with one to three upgrades each, depending on the rarity of the outfit or weapon you have acquired. It’s a fairly robust system that lets you tinker with creating the weapon of your dreams, such as a Shadow Carja Hunter Bow that shoots flaming arrows that also inflict freeze damage. Carrying more than one outfit can also be a boon, since some outfits offer better protection against certain types of damage. So if you know you are going to head into the mountains, you’ll likely want to switch to an outfit that protects against freeze damage, as but one example.

As of this writing, Horizon Zero Dawn can safely be called the best-looking game, period. Whether you’re traversing the forest home of the Nora tribe, gritting your teeth in the desert of the Carja, shivering in the peaks of Pitchcliff, or treading lightly in the swampland, every environment you encounter is meticulously crafted. Playing on a PS4 Pro hooked up to a 4K HDR television, Horizon Zero Dawn’s beauty can leave you wordless. I often loathed using the game’s fast travel option, since I so often wanted to just take the scenic route and really take all the lush scenery in. To top things off, the game maintains a high framerate throughout the game, stuttering only marginally at the busier town sections of the world, and never during battle. The world is also massive – think The Witcher 3 – and full of secrets to explore, such as herds of robots to track, Tallneck robots to climb (serving as information hubs similar to viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed, but far, far more badass), old ruins to go spelunking in, and much, much more.

Audio design is also masterful in Horizon Zero Dawn. Every area has separate ambient audio constantly running, such as birds chirping in the forest, rabbits rustling in the leaves, Longlegs scrounging around for metal and resources…Yes, since robots are ever-present, they, too, become a part of the environment’s ambient noise, though their grinding of gears is not something you ever really get used to. Every interaction with other people is fully voiced, lending to the believability of the world. To top things off, there is also a soundtrack, which plays rather lightly in the background but can add emotion to the world.

Unexpectedly Awesome

Emotion is something best reserved for the story of games, but occasionally, something strikes me unexpectedly while playing something as wonderful as this. I was well into the game at this point, when I stumbled upon a trio of Scrappers, these large cat-like robots that were pretty fierce at my then-current level. Rather than take on all three of them at once, I huddled into some nearby tall grass, and lured one over to me by firing specialized ammo which removed some of the robot’s components. I was merciless in my assault, and had its health down to below half before it even ran over to me. With less than one-tenth of its health left, I fired what should have been the kill shot, but missed by a few meters. The robot was then able to stand up, but it was then that I noticed something. It was limping. Its front right “paw” no longer functioned correctly, and sparks were flying left and right out of its appendages. I drew my bow, but hesitated. The machine turned to look at me, and let out what I perceived as a hurt whimper. I then put it out of its misery. Now, I may have been anthropomorphizing that last bit, but the animations of these robots is so convincing, I actually felt empathy towards a simulated form of life, within the confines of a video game.

Horizon Zero Dawn is an early contender for game of the year. Guerrilla Games has outdone themselves, in astounding fashion. This is a glorious game, the result of a team of masterful artisans who not only had a story that they wished to tell, but a world that was living inside of them which they wanted to share with us all. Now, we get to play inside their creation, and it is a breathtaking experience to behold. A massive, open world filled with equally massive, terrifying robots, juxtaposed against the beauty of the Earth, nature fighting back the darkness as it tends to do. Horizon Zero Dawn is the kind of game you play to get lost in, and can be enjoyed by players of all types. This could be the beginning of a stellar franchise, and there is something for everyone here. If you own a PS4, you owe it to yourself to give Horizon Zero Dawn a go.

Review code for Horizon Zero Dawn provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.

  • Jaw-dropping presentation
  • Countless things to see and do
  • Enjoyable narrative
  • You eventually have no new robots to discover...