Open-world games have come to define the current era of Triple-A gaming. It’s almost as if, like the wave of first person shooters that defined the late 90s/early 2000s, these kinds of games showcase everything a game is currently capable of; in today’s case, simulating a believable, breathing world while offering context specific to your task as a character. In the earlier half of the PS3/Xbox 360, the demand for games like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher was beginning to escalate.
Fast-forward to the new console generation, and not only have these aforementioned franchises transcended the generational jump, but these types of games have come into their own as the dominant genre of AAA gaming today (See: Watch Dogs 2, Metal Gear Solid V, Fallout 4, the Skyrim Remaster, etc.). With their prolific Killzone franchise, it seems Guerrilla Games have made this same generational transition, from their confident, FPS roots to their new open-world IP, Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Beyond the Horizon.
The Killzone games were always good looking for their time, especially Shadow Fall, an excellent graphical showcase of what the PS4’s launch titles were capable of. It’s no surprise then that Horizon: Zero Dawn is visually breathtaking, perhaps more so than any current console game.
Complementing gorgeous graphics is Horizon’s setting, a post-apocalyptic techno-tribal age where humans co-exist with armoured, robotic megafauna. The environments on show range from blistering arctic tundra to scorching desert within minutes of travel, with remnants of the setting’s science-fiction past peppering the landscape, like the titanic husk of a colossal machine draped over a mountain range, or the ancient, cyber-ruin of an age long passed. It not only makes for a dazzling sandbox in which to unleash the player, but it accentuates the drive to uncover the various mysteries behind Horizon’s setting.
This intrigue goes hand in hand with Horizon’s central character, Aloy, whose main objective over the course of the game is to uncover the secrets of her past, secrets intrinsically tied to the current state of the world. Aloy, albeit outcast, is also part of the Nora, a solitary, matriarchal tribe tucked deep within a snowy mountain range. The Nora treat the existence of technology with a deep reverence, their dogma centralised around a technological deity they call “All-Mother.” The game quickly establishes the existence of other tribes, and a wider world of races and civilisations. These tribal conflicts and politics serve as the story’s other, less engaging, point of focus.
On a macro-scale, Horizon’s story and world-building are phenomenal. Over the course of the game, Guerrilla continually anchors Horizon’s exceedingly interesting setting with mythology that grounds the setting with alarming believability. Additionally, as Horizon’s playable character, Aloy’s arc throughout her journey serves up some great characterisation for a game protagonist.
On the other side of that coin is Horizon’s dialogue. The broader the focus of the current task at hand, the brighter the story shines. The narrative’s broad strokes serve the plot and setting fantastically, especially regarding context, but basic character interaction often teeters between informative and bland, with characters often coming across as walking codex entries. Horizon’s side quests are a frequent perpetrator of this. At times, the writing feels so functional, so concerned with contextualising your actions as a character; sending you from point A to point B, that it’s often devoid of much personality. In other recent games with dialogue options, I found myself listening to the performances and dialogue, despite reading the subtitles in advance. In Horizon, exhausting characters’ dialogue almost felt like a chore during certain interactions. But despite its dialogue, Horizon boasts subtle, expressive facial animation and, overall, great voice-acting, that often elevates the dialogue enough to sit through.
The world is your oyster.
As far as gameplay goes, Horizon excels. Using the familiar structure of a narrative based open world game (like the titles mentioned in the first few paragraphs), the game throws absolutely everything at you at once, instead of trickling it out. After the opening few hours, you’re left to explore wherever the wind blows you. You can go uncover every section of the fog-covered map by climbing a Horizon-flavoured, Far Cry 3 radio tower style platforming puzzle. You can build your arsenal by finding merchants and hunting various animals and armoured beasts. The general freedom Horizon gives the player is pretty overwhelming to begin with, but the game is also designed to funnel you through it, ascribing specific levels to missions, if you prefer the progressive approach.
Rage against the machine.
Perhaps Horizon’s best aspect, though, more so than the world, or the freedom to explore it, is the enemy design, specifically the machines (human enemies, though a rarer encounter, are vastly less interesting). The combat in Horizon is fairly simple in that it’s ostensibly a third-person shooter. But when you combine the random, rapid movements of robotic megafauna, with a few incredibly diverse and interesting weapons, you get a combat system that is at once strategic, and chaotically improvisational.
For instance, one time I decided to take on the Horizon equivalent of a T-Rex, a Thunderjaw, who, at first, is one of the most daunting enemies you’ll encounter. However, the game also rewards those who come prepared: First, I set up some electric tripwires. The enemy strikes, tripping the traps in its path, freezing it to the spot with a paralysing shock. The Thunderjaw’s head comes crashing down, landing on his chest, exposing its massive rear-end. Strafing around the machine, I lob some frosted sling bombs to slow its movement, and decrease its defence. I switch to Aloy’s X-ray-vision, exposing, fuel canisters under the Thunderjaw’s behind. I shoot some Tear arrows that stick to the machine, creating a seismic blast, flinging the Thunderjaw’s under-armour off. I draw three high-velocity arrows at once, before releasing right at the sweet spot, delivering massive amounts of damage to the beast, finally bringing it down.
The moment-to-moment gameplay, at its best, boils down to quick thinking, keen sharpshooting and a smart combination of Aloy’s arsenal. Every machine has certain weak spots, different elemental weaknesses and move sets. It’s up to you to distinguish and capitalise on these differences. It makes for some incredibly unique third-person action.
Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like Guerrilla Games’ answer to the current-gen open world game. It does bear familiar tropes, like crafting, side-quests, bandit camps and points of elevation that open-up the map. But it comes into its own thanks to the unique combat, bar-raising visuals and a well-conceived central mystery that sustained my interest the entire way through my roughly-50 hours with the game. On to the platinum trophy!