It’s with mutual bated breath that player and protagonist alike first cast their eyes on the iron rises and lush overgrowth of Horizon: Zero Dawn. For Aloy of the Nora, the fire-haired warrior of bow and spear, the stagnant remains born of her precursors pose answers to questions long pondered. And for the player at the helm, the topographical plot upon which Aloy seeks to tread glows incessantly with the flittering lights of a hundred points of interest. It’s a clear tell of the typical open world scape, but one that doesn’t characterise Horizon by way of a lack of ambition.

In fact, there are many instances of predefined open world fare that adorn the structure of Guerrilla Games’ new futurist epic. You’ll rid entire encampments of ill-willed bandits, discover waypoints in order to reveal the furthest corners of your map and run assorted errands for the luckless, hapless and generally helpless. Horizon is no reinvention of the open world formula, but it is a reinvigoration – a game that plies meaning to the marker-points, and instills the perfect blend of discovery, freedom and unabashed fun. And far more than just being a bookend to meaningless action, the central plot of Horizon strikes a perfect balance between its drip-fed revelations and its emboldening of the world’s meaning. Always present is the lure of the mystery, of how and when it all came to be. And always gratifying is unravelling more of the emotional threads of the game’s beating heart, Aloy.

Driven by a yearning for inclusion, Aloy’s independence stems from an upbringing beyond the embrace of her kin. An outcast for reasons unbeknownst to her, Aloy reciprocates her culture entirely as an outsider looking in – a girl draped in the colours of the Nora tribe, but shunned and silenced as a pariah. Those of other tribes greet her as a Nora with no qualms, even if she doesn’t particularly see herself as one. And it’s this identity as an exception that gives weight to the two grandest aspects of Aloy’s personality – the embittered posture with which she holds herself, and the more sympathetic side of her that flourishes in spite of her past. There’s little subtlety in Aloy’s archetypal mould as a protagonist, but what may be lacking in terms of her more typical application is more than made up for by her strength in purpose. We root for Aloy because we want to see her gain acceptance. And we sympathise with her every retaliatory barb because they’re justified.

And Aloy is just one of several prominent characters in Horizon plainly evocative of its many broad clans and castes. Missions in Horizon introduce you to many familiar personalities – the drunken soldier, the determined child, the harmonising cultist. The way in which each of them embody their own culture is a testament to the grandeur of the world that Guerrilla has created. It’s apparent in clothing, in architecture and in lexis. As exploration sees the piked wooden walls of the Nora tribe give way to the towering glided steel of the city of Meridian, the apocalypse that first razed the pre-existing civilisations of the world begins to seem at its most distant.

GROUNDED IS THE HUMAN ASPECT OF THE STORY, DESPITE ITS FANTASY

Forge-workers donned in iron-tipped kilts spit and curse in a distinctly metal tongue. Nobles of golden silks inflect with poise and ignorance. Tribe-folk fend for themselves out of fear of losing their independence. For just as much as the brickwork may speak to the lay of the present time, the citizenry of Horizon are equally indicative of the thoughtfulness that Guerrilla Games has plied to the building of an entirely different world. It’s a dizzying amalgamation of cultures and ideals, though one executed with the hardened conviction of a developer not letting a lack of experience in this particular genre falter any aspirations.

Homesteads and cities may occupy prominent swathes of the region, yet the majority of Horizon’s lands remain untouched, save for the flattening of dirt beneath the metal claws of roaming herds. In this, the uninhabited sprawls are each distinct and interesting in lieu of a human populace. Travelling between objectives in Horizon is tremendously enjoyable, particularly on account of the different challenges you’ll face wandering across every different biome. The snow-capped northern tundra regularly succumbs to ferocious blizzards, in which Aloy will be buffeted against its gales and left deprived of her sight. And the arid vistas of the south, while generally flatter and easier to navigate, are home to some of the most dangerous creatures that Horizon has to offer, creatures that can turn a simple jaunt from point a-to-b into a flustered fight for survival. A tender breeze can be just as satisfyingly well-suited to your skirmish with Snapmaws as much as a torrential hammering of rain or the more blustering winds of a nighttime storm. Be it in calm or fury, the lands of Horizon: Zero Dawn are unequivocally beautiful, a stout reiteration of the ethos of renewal at the game’s heart.

To appreciate the pristine condition of Horizon’s land reborn is to view it through the lens of the game’s photographic companion. To fight along its riverbanks and across its mountain rises, perhaps even more so. So dynamic is the lay of the land that variance between successive fights, even against similar machines, is inescapable. And in forging both an armoury of intuitive machines and dynamic weaponry in which to combat them, Guerrilla haven’t shirked from the absurdity of brawls against robotic dinosaurs, instead harnessing the chaos and embracing the fun.

Discovery is just a small part of it. Your first interaction will be with a Watcher – a curious little machine that arches its neck to peer across the way and scan for threats. Next, you’ll run into something bigger. A grazing elk, or a cybernetic horse. Learning their traits is important as you begin to define your own rules of engagement. It’s just as confidence begins to set in though that Horizon’s wilds will throw something entirely different in your path and ask you to poke at it with arrows in order to educate yourself on its weaknesses. And just as they keep getting bigger, they keep getting more ferocious too. An elk becomes a bull; a bull becomes an alligator; an alligator becomes a rhinoceros; a rhinoceros becomes a tyrannosaurus. Staggering is it seeing something that stands taller than the evening sun linger in the distance. And tantalising is the prospect of picking its bones for resources as you amble towards it with a quiver full of arrows.

BOWS, HOWEVER NICHE, ARE EACH PRACTICAL & PURPOSEFUL

No matter the size of the machines, all of them are made for the purpose of deconstruction at the hands of Aloy, her bow and her spear. Engineered as metal frames covered in armoured plates that conceal weak spots, the steel beasts of Horizon are built for breaking, and break they will against a torrent of stylised arrows and handcrafted explosives. To fell a creature is to chip away at it bit by bit, and to do so, Aloy has an impressive array of tools at her disposal. The more reserved approach lies in pre-fight preparation. You can place down traps and tether trip-wires between the trunks of trees. Loosing an arrow and luring the bots into your maze of explosives is a devilishly fun way of combatting unaware foes, but it only works if you have been afforded the luxury of time. If you’re spotted, then you have to think on your feet. The charging hoard makes quick work of the exposed hunter, and so it’s in situations that teeter on the brink of chaos, as Aloy stares down a pack of panther-like destroyers all braced to pounce, that the heart-pounding thrill of Horizon’s frenetic combat comes to the fore. Harvest arrows knocked in pairs of two remove specific plating components. Tearblast arrows emit a burst to shatter the rest. Fire arrows to scold the machine and set it into a state of fury. Hardened arrows to volley upon the exposed core as the burning monstrosity explodes in a hail of glimmering sparks and metal rain. The rhythm of the battle employs movement at its core – all the time you’re readying arrows and navigating the weapon wheel, you’re rolling past the swing of a razor-like tail or a gaping maw lined with churning cogs.

Every battle, however inconsequential, is spectacularly overblown and never uninteresting. And accentuating it all is magnificent sound design that gives each robot an identity beyond that of their wonderfully sculpted visage. The cry of a Glinthawk echoing across the plains tells you to keep your eyes focused on the clouds as you crawl through the glass below. And the sound of a chiseled arrow tip reverberating off the creaking carapace of a frozen Trampler remains remarkably distinguishable in its own right. Poignant still is the return of the soft strings as you peer over a field of smouldering carcasses, another victory well claimed.

There are several moments in Horizon that will likely drag you back into the throws of earlier contemporaries in the genre. Horizon does little for stealth mechanics, its patches of long grass allowing for even the most heavy-footed hunter to retain an almost infallible level of stealth. It does less for traversal in verticality, with many climbing sequences seeming only like blockades to progress. And its detective mechanics – tracking, stalking, accusing – not only occur a little too often, but also leave a lot to be desired. Though these are some of the pitfalls that Guerrilla have succumbed to, the uninspiring traits of an open-world scape rigid in its definition, the sum of Horizon’s whole is what sets it apart from the rest. It’s what Horizon should be championed for – originality in spite of reiteration, even if it isn’t perfect.

But perfection isn’t necessary when the story of Aloy is so well thought, acted and delivered. It’s easy to care for her, to rally with her as she seeks closure and clarity. In Aloy, Guerrilla Games have created a character that is neither superhuman nor infallibly intelligent. She makes mistakes. She’s vulnerable. And, in combat, there’s always a sense that the right combination of wrong choices may lead to her end.

A lone girl stemming a tide of robot dinosaurs is merely the premise. Horizon: Zero Dawn in its entirety is so much more. If Guerrilla Games were naive as to the type of game required to fill the open-world mould, then they haven’t shown it. Horizon is a game of remarkable craftsmanship and excessive fun. A silly idea shaped into a spectacular experience. And a joyous adventure delivered in its whole.


See also; My Horizon Journey in Pictures

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  • Matthew Thompson

    Great review. I’m still working through this. I love the combat. It can get really intense and I love the strategy involved with taking out certain body parts to disable attacks, get extra resources or snag a heavy weapon. The story is pretty neat, but I find myself in long stretches without moving it forward pretty often. Off doing other stuff in the world I guess. I am intrigued to find out more about Aloy though.

    • Glad you liked it!

      I spent a lot of time away from the main quest-line too. Some of the side quests are just so captivating that it was hard not to see them through to the end without deviating. Once the crux of the story dug its hooks in though, it was difficult to get them out. The game reveals things slowly, but it always feels well thought out. Aloy’s role in the story is excellent & the revelations surrounding her fantastic. I hope you enjoy seeing the game through to the end!