Raging against the machines is great fun, but Horizon Zero Dawn suffers from weak writing and derivative questing.
The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is full of promise. From mountainous tribal villages to clusters of long-decayed skyscrapers, through to mechanical caverns measureless to man, the environment of Guerrilla Games’ open-world adventure is one that urges exploration. What you find along the way won’t always be happy to see you – the hills are alive with the sound of robots.
It’s a promise that isn’t quite reached, however. For all of Horizon Zero Dawn’s environmental beauty, the game is ultimately pulled down a few rungs by shoddy writing and gameplay that can – at its worse – feel unsatisfyingly derivative. It’s a pity, because the game has so much going for it, particularly the broad-strokes story of new civilisations built on our own ruins.
The game sees you taking control of Aloy, a talented hunter who starts out as an outcast but soon finds herself tasked with battling warring tribes, saving her society, and uncovering the mysteries surrounding the sentient robots that are turning increasingly aggressive. Ashly Burch’s voice work as Aloy is ripe with believable pathos and a pleasing vein of understated sarcasm, although the character doesn’t have much beyond earnest saviour tropes to work with. Her self-assurance is persuasive, however, and this drive to succeed is a suitable engine to push the player through Horizon’s world.
What you’ll be doing along the journey borrows heavily from open-world stalwarts, namely The Witcher 3 and the Far Cry series. A main quest draws you along the map, but there are lengthy side quests, shorter errands, hunting challenges, vantage points and bandit outposts, among others.
Many of these involve sizing up an encampment, using your Focus ability to mark enemy movements. Many others involve investigating scenes, again using Focus, and then following tracks to another location. This technique was one of the more tiresomely repetitive in The Witcher 3, and it’s doubly tiresome here, when the character motivations tend towards the tedious and forgettable.
While some aspects of Horizon’s moment-to-moment execution are fumbled, others are outstanding. Pretty much every clash with a robot is a memorable encounter, thanks in part to the individual character given to each machine. These packs of dinosaur- and animal-aping creatures are a superb contrast to the natural vistas, especially at night when their presence becomes a haze of alien-blue light. From the sinewy Watchers to the fire-spitting Bellowback, each robot is a unique challenge, with their own characterful animations implying intimidating strengths and hidden vulnerabilities.
Combat against these opponents is hard – a few hits are all that’s needed to kill Aloy, and there is a degree of Dark Souls in the emphasis on rolling out of range. That said, the game wants you to think tactfully about how you tackle each situation before engaging. Long grass acts as cover, and Focus lets you overlay enemy paths on the ground. Combine this with tools such as tripwires and bombs, and Guerrilla Games lives up to its namesake.
Survival becomes a thrilling game of split-second arrow shots
When the best-laid plans inevitably collapse, and you’re toe-to-toe with a snaring Sawtooth, survival becomes a thrilling game of rolling, skidding and split-second arrow shots. Aloy has a varied toolset across her bows, and switching between ammo type to bring down a metal giant in a ball of flames is an immensely satisfying experience – one that will often leave you clutching your heart with only a fraction of health left in your reserves.
In terms of story, Horizon’s overarching tale of post-post-apocalyptic survival and self-sufficient machines is a pulpy delight, rich with mystery and questions about what happened in the past. The audio and data logs you find throughout the world offer glimpses of near-future dystopias, neatly allowing the game to touch on contemporary issues such as the ownership of data and the ethics of autonomous warfare. What a shame, then, that this is let down by weak dialogue and a scarcity of nuanced characters. The game’s facial animations are also poor – kept well within uncanny valley – and some of the voice acting outside of Aloy suffers from odd pacing choices.
All this can be forgiven when you stand on a mountain edge, bruised and battered after taking down a robot horde, looking out over the landscape. Horizon Zero Dawn is a strong contender for the most visually stunning title on the PS4, and not only because of its 4K HDR support on the PS4 Pro.
Added resolution is one thing, but more importantly is that this is a game with a clear and distinct aesthetic – one that is enormously pleasing to trace, from tribal settlements to overgrown ruins to hyper-technological caverns. Coupled with the emphasis on light stealth, Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that wants you to take your time journeying through its world.
Horizon Zero Dawn succeeds in establishing a world with personality. The fact that the robots have a larger share of this personality, rather than their human counterparts, is both a testament to the strength of Guerrilla Games’ combat design, and a telling sign of the game’s narrative weaknesses. Aloy has the scope to be a compelling character, but her story needs more than derivative quest structures and ankle-deep writing to do justice to the rich world she inhabits.