It seems the video game industry is just content with shoving a plethora of open world games at us until we drown in them, and alongside a multitude of releases in the genre we have a brand new IP from the studio that brought us the Killzone series. While some open world games have been excellent and grandiose in design and others less so, Horizon: Zero Dawn thankfully manages to be a successful iteration for Guerilla and SONY. It at times falls into the common traps that open world games can fall into, but its amazing story, soundtrack and presentation make up for those shortcomings and easily allow it to be one of the year’s best games released so far and a serious Game of the Year Contender...if it didn’t release mere days before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and also that I happened to prioritize BotW before touching Horizon: Zero Dawn.
In Horizon: Zero Dawn, players take on the role of Aloy as she sets off on a quest to find out why machines across the land are becoming corrupted and pulling Skynet levels of betrayal and attacks. It just so happens that these machines are robotic dinosaur type creatures and are just as capable of sniffing you out as you are at hunting them down. Aloy is introduced to the player as a tenacious ball of fury coupled with intelligence and attitude at a young age and then the game fast forwards to her as a young adult. Her ferocity and eagerness to prove herself make her a welcome main character and a believable one at that too. Between dialogue interactions with NPCs and important side characters to how she talks out loud to herself during exploration and battle, Guerrilla Games ensures that you grow to care about who you play as and steps it up even further with having you care about the world she finds herself in.
A lot of the story unfolds through the multitude of side quests and dialogue exchanges with the characters who give you these quests, and most others are done via scans made from Aloy’s Focus gadget, a device that allows her to track people, enemies, find loot and exploit weaknesses in the giant robotic creatures that roam the land. Walking and exploring ruins of broken down apartment buildings and areas also allow her Focus to access audio logs and texts from the people who came before her thousands of years ago. This method of storytelling does a lot to cement just how different and vast the past world is compared to the game’s present. In those audio logs and text pieces you embrace and understand the somberness of the world before you, knowing full well that despite the people surviving alongside you, millions of others didn’t quite make it.
While the story is done through the human component of the game, the majority of the game’s combat focuses on dealing with robotic animals that thunder through the wilderness as you explore the land. Not content to just have you whack away and kill these beings out of defense, the game makes you hunt these creatures down. Aloy has a bunch of different skillsets and perks that you can mix and match to fit your own personal play style. You can set up perks so that you can play the long range hunter to take apart the game’s larger creatures, knocking off their weaponry to use it yourself later as you close in, or you can prioritize stealth and draw the beings towards you so that you can stealth strike them down for the count instantly. The choice is yours and the mechanics work in a way that the combat never feels dull. Unfortunately, the combat and at times even the exploration gets bogged down with Aloy’s terrible jumping mechanics and sluggish melee attacks. The creatures tend to be incredibly fast and reactive once they’ve flushed you out, and Aloy’s speed doesn’t quite match up with how they move. For the multitude of options the game gives you, it’s a shame that it almost feels forced that you need to go the stealth route or just flat out avoid the creatures altogether. Open world games should always prioritize player freedom not just from exploration but in game play as well, and Horizon: Zero Dawn loses some points in my book for its restrictive mechanics when it comes to combat and exploration. Thankfully as you progress through the Cauldrons, (dungeon-like areas where the creatures are manufactured) you’ll learn to override the robotic monstrosities bit by bit. The Override mechanic allows you to turn an enemy creature into a combat aid, having them attack other creatures on the battlefield making it easier for you to fight them or sneak through them.
Regardless, the game offers a large variety of things to do. The Tallneck creatures are basically the game’s towers on legs that you can climb and override to get the lay of the land. You’ll find side quests galore, errands to run and the previously mentioned Cauldron dungeon areas. You’ll even find ruins to explore that give you lore about the past and each little thing to do has some sort of collectible or reward to give you. In a typical open world adventure game trope, there are even bandit camps for you to take over. The best thing about all these is that every single one does something to build up the world around you, introducing you to all the cultures in the game’s tribes, the machines and their history and all aid in the game’s superb storytelling told through dialogue, scenery and a wonderful cast of characters.
Horizon: Zero Dawn manages to be another showcase of open world gaming done right. From its lush scenery, beautiful soundtrack and amazing characters from both main to side to even the lowly merchant. It builds a fantastic world for you to explore, it’s only downfall being a sluggish combat system that may hurt some gamer’s experience with this title. I give huge kudos to Guerrilla for pulling this off as it’s not easy to go from one specific genre to another and the move from First Person Shooter to Open World Adventure was definitely a large task for them. If Horizon: Zero Dawn is any indication for the studio and Horizon’s future, I’d say it is in great hands and eagerly await the expanded adventures into Aloy’s universe.