I like Horizon Zero Dawn much more than anything else Guerrilla Games has done. This game, for me, is miles better than the Killzone franchise.
Sony’s trying hard to push Aloy, the hero of Horizon, to the forefront as their next big character. They should. This game has its misgivings, but the massive product it becomes towers over these issues. Horizon Zero Dawn is a fun, challenging, scary, open world adventure that coalesces modern game design well.
That’s it, though. A lot of Horizon Zero Dawn feels borrowed. It’s easy to compare this game to Skyrim, Far Cry and Dragon Age. The gathering, hunting, material-crafting and base-clearing feels like it’s ripped from Far Cry. The side quests and errands pile up high enough to completely distract players from the sometimes forgettable main storyline like Skyrim. The character interactions feel like a page out of Bioware’s design notebook for Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Guerrilla gets away with borrowing and iteration because of what they add to the experience. The setting, machines, characters, difficult open spaces and “dungeons” are more than enough to let Horizon Zero Dawn stand out.
Doesn’t hurt that it’s a beauty, either. You will see a mix of Sony-prepared screenshots and stuff from our game in this review. The shots we took from Sony also came from a launch PS4. We played on a launch PS4, too, not the PS4 pro. Keep that in mind.
Get lost in the open world
Okay, friends, no spoilers. I’ll give you the brief setup in as non-specific a way as I can manage. You play Aloy, a banished human from the Nora tribe. The world is all tribal because humanity has crumbled and massive machines have risen in their wake. I’m talking machines like dinosaurs that will absolutely destroy you.
The Nora tribe lives in a protected part of the world that keeps its machines from being too vicious. You’ll leave that part and enter the massive world around you as the story unfolds. It’s beautiful, hosts all sorts of environments and is littered with sidequests and things to explore.
As I got out into the open world away from the village of the Nora, I felt buried with choice and challenge. The machines beyond the gates can be brutal. They scale well enough in difficulty based on your level, but it’s hard at first. This game won’t let you straight up mainline its quests. Each has a level recommendation, and I found them pretty spot-on.
It’s never so bad that every time you hit your next story quest you encounter a wall of difficulty. It happens early on, though, and you will definitely need to branch out and try the game’s side quests. Good thing they’re normally fun and move through unique spots.
Like the Cauldrons. You can override machines in this game, eventually. And you learn how to override and mount of temporarily tame beasts of all manner by beating Cauldrons. These are small, dungeon-like spaces that seemingly take place in the heart of the machine production spaces. They culminate in a semi-boss encounter, and they reward players with experience, crafting materials and more.
You need these crafting materials. Always. Always, always, always be gathering crafting materials. Shoot that fox, don’t ignore it. Upgrade your pouches, upgrade your satchel, keep gathering crap in order to make weapons and traps. Because, let me tell you, you’re going to find yourself in scenarios where you feel trapped and overwhelmed. Those scenarios will be solved by your ability to craft traps and ammo to bring down extremely capable machines. You’ll need to be quick and methodical at the same time. And, if you aren’t deliberate with the tougher machines, you will die.
Fall in love with distraction, death and this game
You’re going to die a lot, by the way. I did. Not so much in the Cauldrons or interiors. Curiosity is what killed me. I’d see a massive beast in the open world and take a crack at bringing it down. It normally goes well, until that jerk makes enough to noise to attract its neighbors. It’s rough bringing down a crocodile-like machine until ice firing birds and velociraptor-like Watchers come in halfway through. It goes from rough to damn near impossible.
If I could offer players one piece of advice for Horizon Zero Dawn before they start playing, it’s this: Take your time. Especially in the beginning. There are a lot of (sometimes confusing) systems and stories at work in this game. Right from the moment you take control of Aloy, there are massive world-building hints and moments that deserve your attention. Explore them. Explore everything. This isn’t the type of game to reward players with huge chests and loot drops. It rewards players with moments of wonder and triumph. When you bring down that massive, horrific machine that could kill you in a couple of hits, it feels great. Especially when you plan it from the bushes and strike.
You will get good at this game. It’ll take time, but you’ll get to the point where you’ll know which weapons work best in given circumstances. That, I suppose, is the core of Horizon Zero Dawn. Aloy must learn where she came from, you must learn how to survive. This isn’t Dark Souls hard; that’s not what I’m saying. It is, however, the most positively overwhelming open world game I’ve played in years. This genre is often too easy. Not Horizon Zero Dawn.
It can be frustrating, and it can at times feel more laborious than fun, but that all comes as it sets itself up for glory.
When Horizon Zero Dawn shines, it’s the best game on the PS4. Not one of the best. The best. No question. When tense, terrifying moments turn into loud, deliberate battles and you feel like a genius, it’s perfect. There are moments, though, where it feels like it leans too hard on open world convention set in place by other games. I’m not having fun clearing out bandit camps anymore, devs. That stopped being fun back with Far Cry 4.
This is a good game, though some of that goodness is hidden in the wilderness. Sometimes, that wilderness can be tedious. Other times, it’s something you want to get completely lost in. As you make your 2,000-meter trek to the next objective, you’ll surely get distracted. Those distractions are when this game sings loudest, and I loved it for that.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Horizon Zero Dawn for review from Sony.