Imagine stumbling upon an object or place from our ancient past. Intentionally or otherwise, you unearth a piece of history that no one has seen for centuries. Regardless of your views on archaeology, being the first person to wander an unknown tomb, to hold a relic in the palm of your hand, would be a wonderful moment.
Now imagine your discovery is both 1000 years old and from the 21st Century.
For me, this was the initial appeal of Horizon Zero Dawn. Don’t get me wrong, shooting arrows at robot dinosaurs also had me hooked. As an Historian and a fan of all things science fiction, a video game world where we are the ancient, mysterious history garnered my interest. I was also curious to dive into a video game that was set after the post-apocalypse (post-post-apocalypse?). The world of HZD has had its calamity, and has developed a new civilisation. Of course, things are about to go wrong again... otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a video game...
How the Game was Played
This being a first review, I’ve been thinking about how I want to lay out my thoughts. I thought it might be a good idea to give you an idea of the conditions the game was played in. This wasn’t a hasty blitz over a weekend to meet a deadline, as most professional reviewers have to commit to:
- HZD was played over the course of about three months.
- This was the game I played once my daughter was born, either during the evenings after she was upstairs asleep, or during our very early morning cuddles, when the only place she wanted to sleep was on my chest.
- No stone was left un-turned. I completed the story and every side venture, earned the Platinum Trophy (another reason it took a while to complete).
If you boil down Horizon Zero Dawn down to a core element, then its a game about firing a bow at robots and bandits. In an open-world environment, this not only has to be satisfying, but has to stay fun for a long time. This central mechanic not only achieves this, but finds numerous ways to become more enjoyable as the game goes on.
Most robot monsters can’t be taken down with a single arrow. Precision shots cause extra damage, less accurate arrows knock off metal chunks, revealing vulnerable joints underneath. This means that even a lazy/frantic/poorly-timed shot can be gratifying, and if a rogue robot overruns your position you can gleefully fire into them as you duck and weave.
Variety in game-play is achieved more by new ammunition rather than new weapons. Aside from a few trap weapons and slingshots, the game contains different bows that use different ammunition. Some arrows shred armour off like pastry, whilst others make light work of squishy, human targets. Some arrows create traps, whilst other cause madness amidst the mechanical monstrosities.
One of my favourite parts of the combat are the elemental arrows - fire, ice and shock. Many machines have the ability to breath fire or spit ice, courtesy of large canisters wedged into their hull. A precision shot with the appropriate elemental arrows causes an overload, leading to a sizeable, satisfying blast of flame or lightning that hopefully impacts nearby enemies. The more powerful the foe, the more weak spots they have and the more elemental eruptions you can exploit.
One of the toughest aspects to maintain in a sandbox game is the narrative. The main missions might create an interesting storyline, but if you’re like me and try to complete as many side ventures as possible before taking on the story, it can be hard to keep the thread from fraying. Layout of a story in an open-world can make a big difference.
I was quite pleased with how HZD delivers its narrative. The bulk of the story seems to be loaded into the ends of the game. The scene is set and the stakes well established before the free-roam reigns are removed, the revelations and plot twists are reserved for the final missions. It felt like a story laid out with an open world in mind; whether you surge straight onto the finale or amble around every side quest.
It helps that the story and setting are equally fascinating. This isn’t another edition to the Post-Apocalyptic pile; HZD is very much a Post-Post Apocalyptic affair, with equal time dedicated to the ‘what went wrong’ as there is to the ‘what is going wrong now’. As the mysterious threat of the present is steadily revealed, Aloy explores the ancient history of our future selves.
Alongside cutscenes and dialogue trees, Horizon Zero Dawn tells its story through text and audio files. This is an ever-popular staple of modern games - to offer extra information that a player can choose to read if they are enjoying the game lore - but I feel this game justifies the story mechanic more than most. You are often exploring grass and vine coated ruins of the old world, and the dialogue you find drops hints and history of the way things were. Much of it is extraneous, but it almost always fleshes out the fictional history between the world today and Aloy’s present, and some drop hints and foreshadowing related to the finale.
In an open world or sandbox, the Side Quest is key. It’s all well and good building an expansive landscape for the main story to live in, but without things to do in that space it’s a waste. This can leave the world feeling very empty.
This is an area that Horizon does quite well, but it’s not the strongest part of the game. The combat is, in my opinion, the main driving force of the game, but many of the extra adventures involve climbing to a high place. It’s entertaining enough, especially the slow-motion leaps between rocky outcroppings, but there’s something about this exploration that felt a little tame. In part, I think it’s because the route to most summits is so clearly laid out with near-patronising levels of yellow rope; it’s hard to feel like a daring rock-climber when it’s so very apparent that others have made the climb first and taken the time to mark it out.
Wherever you go on the map, there are metal beasts to dismember, and all of them have useful resources. I very rarely circled around a possible encounter, especially in the earlier stages of the game. Every fight was an opportunity to try an new arrow or trap. I enjoy the combat immensely, as I’ve said. However, several side quests involve killing corrupted machines. It’s part of the overall story and its another reason to smash some dinosaurs, but the actual encounters don’t offer anything above and beyond what you can do in the wider world. Not terrible, but nothing special.
I clearly enjoyed this game, but I will always endeavour to balance my reviews. So I’m digging deep, nitpicking, in order to address the less-than-okay within Horizon Zero Dawn.
First , the actual villain. No spoilers here, just a vague summary. For the longest time, the true enemy lurks behind the strange events plaguing the world, remaining a mystery. By the time their true identity and appearance are revealed, we also have a good grasp of their motivations and desires. The two do not line up in my opinion. The voice chosen for the antagonist is grim and doom-ridden, the dialogue is that of something fiendishly evil. They are the ‘bad guy’, so it makes sense that they seem menacing, but I found it jarring given my understanding of the reasons for their end goals. I would’ve preferred something more... benevolent and reasonable. I think that would have enhanced their scary intent way more than dialing their villain voice up to 11.
The villain’s goons are also lacking. The story of HZD has a great protagonist, fascinating lore and unveils its mysteries effectively, but the human henchmen are quite underwhelming. Their entire motivation seems to be “we’re crazy fanatics” largely devoid of personality. The game doesn’t really need them to be more than they are, but as I say... nitpicking.
Overall, Horizon Zero Dawn is a great game at its core. When your bow is out, the game is at its best. The combat mechanics are solid, versatile and immensely rewarding. The story is fascinating and the lore is wonderfully thought-provoking. The setting feels ‘lived in’ and alive.
The more time you spend in the open world, the more the game drifts from something special towards the more generic aspects you would expect from an open-world game. The villains might be two dimensional, but HZD really isn’t about them. It’s about a warrior with a mysterious origin and a world trying to avoid a second collapse. And metal dinosaurs.
Thank You For Reading
My first review. I’m sure there are ways I can improve my technique over time. It certainly feels as though there is so much more I could have talked about. Either way it was fun picking apart a game this way, and I’ll definitely be doing it again.
If you agree or disagree with what I’ve said, and wish to add your own opinions, leave a comment below.
Written by Rufus Scott.