Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Introduction

Background: Dutch developer Guerilla Games released Horizon Zero Dawn on February 28, 2017. They used their proprietary game engine Decima, which will also be used to make the hotly anticipated Death Stranding. Horizon Zero Dawn has been very well-reviewed overall: it has an 89/100 on Metacritic and earned “Best Original Game” from the Game Critics Awards. Prior to the release of Horizon, Guerilla was best known for its series of Killzone games.

The TL;DR Version of this Review: I love Horizon Zero Dawn a lot! I rarely find a game that ticks off every box on my checklist of “things I want in a game.” From the riveting story, to the fun and engaging gameplay, to the expansive and detailed world, Horizon Zero Dawn not only met but exceeded all of the expectations I built for it. I was so excited when it was shown at E3 last year, I ordered the Collectors Edition. Buying in to the hype on an unknown game early on can be risky (you can find plenty of articles on why not to preorder games during E3), but I’m so happy that I did; it was worth the wait and the excitement. You can still pick up the Collectors edition from Amazon if you want – at double the price they were originally going for last June!

Check out some pictures of the Collectors Edition below:

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At the time I’m writing this review, my game completion is at 78.76% and I have 64% of trophies. I played on the “normal” difficulty setting. I’ve put about 70 hours into it, and I have completed the main story and collected all the special collectibles with plenty of content such as errands and side quests left. I played at a leisurely pace by most standards; Horizon is one of those games where individual play time will vary greatly depending on how you’re playing, and how interested you are in completion.

In May, Guerilla released a fun free update for Photo Mode. You can change time of day, brightness, exposure, camera angle, and all sorts of settings on your current scene. You can even pose Aloy, or take her out of the picture. Throw a filter on it! I had a lot of fun using this feature to take the screenshots for this article.

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This is a long review due to how much I had to say about the game, and I’ve broken it up into the following sections if you’d like to jump around:

This review will contain some spoilers, but I’ve stuck the most important spoilers in a labeled portion of the “Story” section, so if you’re planning on playing Horizon but haven’t yet, just skip that part!

Story

Amongst the wreckage of skyscrapers and city streets that once formed our world, primitive human civilizations have bloomed. It’s a prehistoric human existence, a simpler time when humans and animals shared the land – with one major twist. The beasts of this land, which the humans hunt and rely on for supplies, are made of metal and machinery rather than flesh and bone. A diverse menagerie of these robotic creatures inhabit the world, each with their own unique abilities, components, and weaknesses. You’ll spend a lot of time while exploring contending with these creatures: either avoiding them or hunting them for parts.

When I play open world games like Horizon, I tend to wander around completing side quests rather than focusing on the main quest. I enjoy game worlds and don’t want to leave them, so I don’t focus on the path that will quickly end the game. However, that was NOT the case with Horizon. I was driven to complete the main story quest. Why? Because the story is AMAZING! I was blown away by the compelling and original story. I don’t know when I lost faith in open world games, but I don’t expect to care about the main story anymore. With games like Fallout and Skyrim – games I love! – I usually think of the main story quests as the ones to be completed when you have to, or when you run out of side quests. (When I mention Fallout in this review, just assume I’m lumping 3 and 4 together and speaking of those two, specifically.) The story of Horizon Zero Dawn is like an edge-of-your-seat book and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Aloy was an interesting protagonist because I actually didn’t find her that likable, despite the fact that I really liked playing as her. Perhaps it’s not that she’s unlikable, but she’s not like me – lately I’m used to playing games where you customize your character to be like you, or something like Breath of the Wild, where the character you play as is voiceless and therefore doesn’t have a strong personality to clash with your self perceptions. Especially in the dialogues, Aloy is blunt and mean, with a clipped and dry tone. Even when given personality-driven dialogue options, which doesn’t happen too often, I still didn’t mesh with the way she talked to people. But that’s how Aloy is – a fiery redhead who you wouldn’t want to mess with, who has to carve out a place for herself in this world she doesn’t quite belong in, someone who grew up motherless in a society where mothers are valued above all.

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Although Aloy is such a strong character, you will come across dialogue choices during important conversations that determine the attitude with which Aloy responds. You get three options accompanied by an icon – a fist, a heart, or a brain – that represents strength/force, compassion, or intelligence. However, it’s unclear in what ways these choices affect the game, if at all. There aren’t multiple endings to the game, so always picking “fist” won’t result in a noticeable change versus always choosing “heart” – the choice just affects a small portion of a dialogue immediately after your choice. If they don’t affect the story, then the choices shouldn’t be given as though they are different branches, because it’s confusing and takes away from Aloy’s presence as a character. Is she a character we’re playing, or are we supposed to feel like we’re in the driver’s seat as players? It’s a weird and frustrating disconnect that ultimately feels to me like a game feature that wasn’t fully realized.

One last warning: MAIN STORY SPOILERS BELOW! Skip this section if you don’t want spoilers, and go right on down to Gameplay.

The story of Horizon Zero Dawn begins hundreds of years before you enter the game: in the near future of our world, the 2060s, AIs created by an irresponsible corporation malfunctioned, and their robots began to destroy the planet. A team of scientists and engineers led by Dr. Elisabet Sobeck raced against time to save humanity, and Aloy lives in the world that they saved, among the ruins of their old technology. You’re somewhere near Denver, though since the timelines diverge in the future of our world, there aren’t necessarily any recognizable Colorado landmarks.

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Beautiful scenery!

Aloy is a highly skilled hunter and survivalist with an insatiable curiosity about the Old Ones who built the metal world. Due to the questionable circumstances of her birth, Aloy began her life as an outcast of the Nora, a tribe of mother-goddess-worshipping hunters. During her childhood explorations, she finds an electronic device used by the Old Ones called a “focus,” which allows her to see data in the world that’s hidden from the naked eye. As an adult, she is able to earn full membership to the Nora through a ritual called “The Proving.” Right after she does, the tribe is attacked by an unknown foreign enemy. Now, as a specially blessed envoy of the Nora called a Seeker, Aloy must journey out of the sacred Nora lands to forbidden territory in order to investigate the threat to the Nora, as well as to investigate her own history.

There are some other societies to interact with outside of the Nora lands, including the Carja, the Oseram, and the Banuk. Each is a different take on early human societies: the Banuk are a spiritual, isolated arctic people who practice colorful cliff painting and revere the machines; the Oseram are into forging metal, making weapons and armor, and overall remind me of ancient Romans; and the sun worship and history of mass human sacrifice by the Carja inevitably begs comparisons to the ancient Aztecs. While solving inter-tribe conflicts, Aloy also begins to explore wrecked research facilities of the Old Ones, and in doing so she finds holograms that reveal the events of the past.

My rave review of the story is primarily about the elements that deal with Aloy’s discovery about the truth of the past. I wasn’t as intrigued by the present-time conflicts between the warring city states. It was still interesting and well written, but that type of story line is more commonly explored in media. (See: the aforementioned Skyrim and Fallout, plus a variety of other sources from A Song of Ice and Fire to world history textbooks.) However, it is interesting to see the cultures that developed in the world of Horizon – almost prehistoric, but incorporating the debris of our old world. It’s fascinating to see our precious technology reduced to trinkets and decorations, to see our simplest inventions marveled at by people who don’t have any knowledge of our current world.

The holograms deliver the most gripping stories of the game. People who were around during Earth’s downfall come alive and walk around the scene as they did hundreds of years ago, and we get to see conversations and events that precipitated the disaster. By ferreting out the data of the past, Aloy learns about the origin of the machines, the reason for the downfall of the Old Ones, and even the mystery of her own motherless birth – she’s actually a clone of the great Dr. Sobeck, her spawning a failsafe triggered by the all-powerful guardian AI: GAIA.

Meanwhile, an evil society broken from the Carja called the Eclipse has been resurrecting the bad machines of the past and causing the other machines roaming the world to become corrupted. While the good machines will leave people alone if left alone, much like wild animals, the corrupted machines are particularly hostile. Aloy also has to stop this corruption because the corrupted machines are making the world extremely unsafe for humans.

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You can tell a machine is corrupted by the glowing red tendrils that infiltrate its body.

The most emotional twist of the story is when you discover that the geniuses of the past that you’ve been learning about, all the people who worked so hard to save the world – they didn’t. Our world as we know it was reduced to ruin, and the world that we traipse around in as Aloy is a rebuilt world, a product of GAIA, who the team built in order to resurrect life after it had been purged from Earth. Little by little, you learn their fate and you realize that they died not knowing what their work would eventually produce.

With such a unique, detailed, engaging, surprising, and emotional story, Horizon Zero Dawn has earned my respect for engaging and original game writing.

Even aside from the main story, the world is filled with interesting side stories that flesh out the world both past and present, and you can discover them as you explore. See the next section for some details!

Gameplay

Quests & Goals

Along with the main quest that propels you through the story, and side quests that give you a richer experience of the world, there are many other tasks for you to complete. Characters give you simple errands like finding missing relatives, bandit camps need to be cleared out, and zones of corrupted machines need to be eliminated. Along the way there are also some special pickups to find, which I loved because they contained additional unique stories to uncover:

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  • Banuk figures: Usually placed up on a cliff or mountain and indicated with colorful markings, each figure contains a portion of the tragic story about a Banuk artist from the past.
  • Vantage points: Data points stuck into the ground throughout the environment. Activating them reveals the landscape as it was before the world was destroyed, plays a short audio clip, and contains a text file that reveals a portion of the story about an engineer that lived in the old world right when it was ending.
  • Metal flowers: Found throughout the world within suspiciously unnatural triangles of wildflowers, each one contains a poem.
  • Ancient vessels: These don’t actually contain stories, but they are mugs with different decorations from the old world.

Even though these side stories don’t affect the main plot, they enrich the world and make it feel more real. Uncovering the side stories was one of my favorite parts of the game. Plus, once you have a complete set of these four main collectibles, you can trade the set to a specialty merchant in Meridian in exchange for a special prize box. If you have trouble locating all of collectibles, you can purchase maps from merchants that reveal the locations on the map.

Unfortunately, the dialogue scenes with characters to deliver quest or errand information are painfully stiff and halt the action. I found myself losing interest even when the information being delivered was interesting. With the main quest you don’t have this problem because usually you are engaging with dynamic information delivery such as a hologram or audio tape, during which you can move Aloy around, or a full cut scene. But with side quest characters, the conversations are just a mechanical back and forth where the view of the characters doesn’t change and you have to click through the different conversation branches.

You can easily track your progress on the various tasks, which I enjoy because I like to have a clear picture of where I stand on completion status. The hardest tasks to complete are the weapon tutorials because they have to be active in order to achieve them – this means if you are doing another task but use your weapon and forget to switch to the tutorial quest, it won’t count! Therefore, though I am certainly proficient in all weapon types, I still haven’t completed most of the tutorials! (If you do focus on doing the weapons tutorials, it’s an easy way to get lots of XP.)

Technology

Aloy has two key pieces of technology that she uses: the focus she finds as a child, and the lance which she modifies to act as an override tool. I love the contrast between the primitive lifestyles of the characters with the advanced technology and machines that they sometimes use.

  • Focus: Aloy’s focus allows her to track paths, locate signals, and identify components and weaknesses on machines. When you go into focus mode you walk really slowly, which is probably to prevent the player from constantly going around in focus mode. (Kind of like the special hearing mode Joel can use in The Last of Us.) It’s super helpful, especially when tracking the paths of machines so you can set traps for them.
  • Lance/Override tool: Aloy modifies her lance so that it can override machine technology when she jams it into certain ports. By doing so, she can open doors or make machines friendly. Check out the cauldrons around the environment and override the cores found within to gain the ability to override different types of machines. I like to override machines and make them fight for me! Plus, once overridden, certain machine species can be mounted and ridden around.

Map

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When you first start, the map is mostly obscured by clouds so you can’t see any of the details. As you explore, the clouds will lift so you can see the markers. Alternatively, by locating and overriding the Tallnecks, you can reveal large portions of the map even if you don’t walk directly over those areas. My map, which you can see above, has been completely uncovered, and since I’ve found all of the collectibles you can see their locations on the map. As you can see from some of the cauldrons I haven’t completed, when you have yet to complete them they show up on your map as blue; once you’re done, they turn green. After you discover a campfire, it will turn green and you can fast travel to it at any time. Machine zones are indicated with special icons so if you are looking for a specific component, you can go hunting for the species that carry it.

The map looks really big, but when you’re actually walking around it doesn’t take long to get from one place to another. In fact, it feels nicely walkable (or rideable, if you’re on a machine mount!). One feature I loved was the cost of fast traveling. In order to fast travel, you have to use a “Fast Travel Pack,” an item which you can either buy or craft. Because fast traveling was not free, I was more likely to walk wherever I needed to go, even if it meant retracing my steps through familiar territory. Later in the game there is a “Golden Fast Travel Pack” you can purchase which gives you unlimited fast traveling. When you’ve been most places and are just trying for completion, it’s nice to be able to easily fast travel. However, earlier in the game, walking everywhere helps to foster a sense of connection to the environment, and facilitates seamless acquisition of both fighting skills and crafting resources.

My map may look cluttered, but one very useful feature is the ability to select or deselect map markers; for example, say you wanted to look for a specific machine on the map. For instance, I wanted to find a Thunderjaw to photograph for this review!

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First, I zoomed out, and selected only the machine map markers. Once I found a Thunderjaw, I zoomed in closer and selected campfires, so I could see where I could fast travel to to get there. Nice!

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It’s also helpful if you are looking for bandit camps or cauldrons that you haven’t finished yet.

Combat

One thing that really stood out to me about Horizon is how masterfully handled the difficulty curve felt, especially for an open game world. The balance of the game design allowed for a very smooth and natural growth from barely being able to take on a Sawtooth to easily dispatching Ravagers, from not even approaching larger enemies like Tramplers to feeling confident enough to take on a whole herd. Through the ability tree upgrades (see below for more details), increased grades of weapons and armors, and expanding the health bar, Aloy slowly but surely grows from a budding brave to a skilled and confident warrior. I also liked how the main quests would force me to take down a huge machine that I wouldn’t have approached, so that it gave me the courage to kill the enemies when I would encounter them in the field.

While there are some boss-type enemies involved in the main quest (you actually have to defeat them to proceed, and you can’t just run away from them if you run out of health or ammo), the regular machine opponents are more like resources than traditional enemies. They infinitely spawn in their favored environments (marked on the map with special icons), so it’s up to you whether you practice taking out enormous Thunderjaws or quickly dispatch some Watchers and Scrappers to acquire resources. In general, the machines are easy to sneak around or sprint away from if you don’t feel like fighting, but they’re always there for you if you do want to take them on – you can adjust how much combat there is in your gameplay experience.

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Human enemies, on the other hand, seem to be a non-renewable resource. Once you take out a bandit camp, it converts into a friendly settlement and you never see those bandits again. I’ve had some random bandit encounters on the road, but I’m not sure how often (if ever) the bandits re-spawn in the environment without camps to go back to. (As of writing this article, I haven’t cleared out all the bandit camps yet.) The easiest way to take out human enemies is simply to snipe them from afar – their friends are slow to catch on, and you can pretty much take out an entire camp in secrecy. (The phrase, “Must have been the wind!” comes to mind…) In general, the machine enemies are more difficult to defeat than the human enemies, and also take more strategy since you can take advantage of their weaknesses.

Upgrades & Customization

As I’ve mentioned in sections above, there are a number of ways to customize your gameplay experience while playing Horizon, such as choosing how often to fight machines in the field, and choosing how many side quests or errands you do. My number one recommendation for all types of gamers who want the the best gameplay experience is to customize your HUD. The default display is unnecessarily crowded, constantly displaying your quest details and blocking your view of the exquisite scenery. Hide as much of it as you want, and simply brushing the touchpad will bring up the hidden details.

As Aloy defeats enemies and completes quests, she gains XP and skill points. The skill points can be used in a branching tree with escalating levels across different skill sets (hunter, prowler, etc.)

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The top tier costs one skill point, the next two, and the bottom two rows of skills cost three points each. I found it quite easy to acquire the skills I wanted and was able to do so quickly. The most useful skills are the ones that allow you to nock multiple arrows so you get extra firepower with each shot. I also really liked the skill that allowed you to pick up trip wires and traps if your enemies don’t set them off. For reference, if you’ve played it, the skill tree in HZD is very similar to the skill tree in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

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Each weapon is available from merchants in different levels – no modifier, Carja, and Shadow. (For example: War Bow, Carja War Bow, and Shadow War Bow.) Not every weapon is available at every trader, but generally once you get to Meridian all the traders past that point will have all the weapons. The higher the level, the stronger the weapon, and the more modifications you’ll be able to add – one slot for the lowest level, two slots for Carja weapons, and three slots for Shadow weapons.

The same basic rules apply for the outfits, which offer Light, Medium, or Heavy variations. They vary more on how many modification slots each one has. Modifications are looted from the corpses of machines or supply crates, or purchased from merchants. The highest level modifications are pretty hard to find. I struggled to find the best strategy for modifications; what I went with was to max out one quality for each item and switch frequently – for example, add high powered freeze resistance modifications to the already freeze resistant Banuk Ice Hunter outfit and then equip it whenever I fight Glinthawks, which spew frost attacks.

Outfits, unfortunately, limit the player to choosing full outfits – you can’t mix and match outfit components or change the colors. Also, of course, you can’t change your facial or body appearance at all due to the fact that you’re playing as Aloy, not a customized character. I thought some of the outfits were goofy looking, so I would regret if I got into a serious cut scene wearing the Banuk Ice Hunter headgear, but overall I thought the designs stemmed from really cool ideas about how primitive people would incorporate metal beasts into their attire.

Inventory

Carry capacity is always my first stop when upgrading. I love to collect resources, and I hate running out of space. Though I quickly upgraded my resource satchel to its largest size, I still ran out of space a lot. There are a lot of rare pickups, but not a lot to spend them on. For example, you need a Stalker heart to get the Shadow Heavy Armor. However, once you trade it in for the armor, there’s no reason to keep collecting more of them. But the difficult experience of getting it in the first place compelled me to keep collecting them, though eventually they had no purpose. I went through this process with all the hearts and lenses in the game, until I finally realized that what I was doing was foolish and sold them all. You need that space for resources that can be turned into ammo!

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There are two resources that I ran into trouble with: echo shells and blaze. Echo shells are used in tearblast arrows, which I love to use because they blast weapons off of enemies. (If you blast off a Ravager cannon, you can pick it up and turn it on them!) Blaze is used in a wide variety of incendiary weapons, including fire arrows, blast and flame tripwires, and bombs. (Blast tripwires are my favorite! They’re an easy way to do damage to big enemies.) Ultimately, if you’re not varying your battle techniques, it is possible to run out of even very common components. My huge mistake in this regard was keeping the rare items like hearts and lenses over common resources like blaze. The rare items sat uselessly taking up inventory space, while I quickly went through my slots of ammo resources

The complaints I once had about inventory management were addressed with an update that allows you to sort resources by their different attributes, and switch between how they’re sorted. It also made it clear which carry capacity upgrades are available, which are completed, and which require resources you don’t have at the moment – I used to waste a lot of time clicking through the carry capacity menu trying to figure out what I could, couldn’t, and needed to upgrade.

Graphics

The expansive and complex world of Horizon Zero Dawn calls for graphics that are nothing less than extraordinary – and the visuals do not disappoint. From the sweeping natural vistas of the mountain ranges, to the twisted and overgrown remains of skyscrapers, to the cramped and fractal-inspired machine cauldrons, the world comes alive in an intensely immersive way. The map feels larger than it really is since it’s packed with a variety of richly detailed and unique environments. You get to experience an icy mountaintop, wide grassy plains, a lush vegetative forest, and a desert area with stunning rock formations. I don’t know how accurate the map is compared to the actual landscape it’s based on, but even if it doesn’t replicate reality, it creates its own reality for the player.

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The delightfully diverse human inhabitants of Horizon Zero Dawn don vivid costumes and possess reasonably realistic faces. Occasionally I would catch a glitch where the mouths didn’t move in sync with the words, or the eyes would appear slightly off-focus, but overall I was impressed with the graphics on the humans. Since you often get stuck having lengthy conversations with people about errands they want you to run, it’s nice that the people actually look human. I was most impressed by the variety of looks in the world – the faces looked unique, so each character stood out in my mind as an individual person, rather than looking like the same models replicated over and over again.

Metal and robotic entities are easier to CGI than humans, so it goes without saying that the machines looked even better. They’re a really cool mixture of robot and animal, drawing inspiration from real life animals like bison, alligators, and birds. The hard metal of the machines against the natural environment contrasts beautifully, rather than clashing, creating a unique feel for the game.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed playing Horizon Zero Dawn! It’s an open world game that gives players the freedom to play in a way that meshes with their own style, while also providing a satisfying structure that enables you to systematically accomplish tasks. The world, story, and protagonist are well developed and unique. Even though this review is already absurdly long, I feel like I left out tons of thoughts. And that’s perhaps my favorite thing of all: Horizon Zero Dawn gave me a lot to think about. It manages to be both action-packed and smart, proving that you can have it both ways.

Thanks so much for reading!

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