The core concept of Horizon: Zero Dawn is incredibly smart and the premise feels almost entirely original until you really get to the meat of the story 30+ hours later. You have a post-apocalyptic Earth, specifically Colorado, where the plot of Terminator has played out to the point of the inevitable (and very real) end of human existence has been set in stone. What the game doesn’t tell you until much later is that you’re an exact genetic clone of a scientist who proposed and implemented a program that would re-seed the Earth with life, reprogram the machines to terraform the destroyed planet and regain it’s vital atmosphere. Safeguards would reset the efforts to restore the Earth if anything went wrong. Well, something went wrong within one of the program’s AI checks and balances. As that clone, an outcast from a religious tribe named Aloy, you slowly learn that you’re both talented and gifted in combat, death-defying traversal and broader comprehension of technology.
The implications of this type of tribal science-fiction plot were not lost upon me, but within the scope of a video game the story was only a revelation at its peak descriptive points… which are told through bland holographic logs. For such a beautiful game the fanfare surrounding its biggest, grandest story points is surprisingly lacking. But you won’t be spending 30-50 hours watching movies or listening to audio logs, you’ll be immersed in one of the most beautiful and simply presented open-world third person action RPG games of all time. Dialogue is presented much like the first couple Mass Effect games with somewhat stiff conversations that feature straightforward and frank dialogue. The writing shows very little personality apart from moments of snark or zealotry but it also never loses the plot.
The gameplay is a hybrid of more recent Tomb Raider / Rise of the Tomb Raider style third person bow shooting/mountain climbing traversal, Far Cry 3‘s open world jungle base liberation, crafting and progressive skill tree, as well as Mass Effect‘s very human sci-fi storytelling. You’re also able to use the ‘Focus’ as a sort of “detective mode” to solve most of the games quests. The end result feels almost like a modernized take on the classic Zelda formula, where one takes a Skyrim-like open world and creates region-specific combat encounters that offer the games only puzzle-like qualities.
Combat isn’t the main draw of the game but it is where the game allows you to freely experiment the most. You’re given four or five major weapon types that allow for some brilliant combinations of ranged and melee combat. I primarily focused on two bow types with elemental arrows as well as armor-breaking Tear arrows. Most of the mechanical animal enemy types have weak points that have specific elemental or damage-type sensitivities. Traps, bombs, and trip-wires offer the best options for speeding up larger enemy encounters. Crafting ammo on the spot and carefully planning each move felt a lot like The Last of Us as I progressed through the game, where I would have to both plan my encounters as well as think on the fly and use whatever resources I had in order to survive.
All things considered Horizon is a relatively easy open world game that rewards you with loot and combat options so readily that you’ll quickly learn each enemy type and dealing with them won’t be too hard of a challenge as long as you dodge carefully and equip the right ammo for most situations. The main challenge does lie in the combat but I think most players will be able to figure it out as they explore their options beyond basic arrows and trip-casters.
For an open world action RPG Horizon goes for quality over quantity in the quest department but it never fully offers the nuanced mastery that games like The Witcher III: Wild Hunt did. Your moral dilemmas should always lean towards the option that does not lead to death for your allies, as the last mission is much easier with your allies gathered at your side. The more Aloy acts with her heart, the sooner she captures the hearts and minds of the idiotic tribes of people that surround her. She certainly stops feeling like an outcast and more like a brutish justice keeper, a listless she-cop in the frosted jungle lands of post-future apocalypse Colorado. This is where the game loses a great deal of personality points for me: Aloy is simply boring, a robotic woman who is so infallible that she is the anti-Geralt in that her morality is so fixed that she isn’t human.
I had a really fun time beating Horizon: Zero Dawn. I took my time over the entirety of September and while I enjoyed the casual approach I’d taken to the game I felt it was way too easy of an experience. Modern games, let’s say anything after 2005, tend to completely hold your hand and point your way through the world. You’ll never miss any part of Horizon because there are markers on every part of the map, the quest markers are constant and well done, so apart from a few climbing sections there isn’t a lot to figure out. And honestly the climbing sections are generally danger free, so its a matter of Uncharted style climbing rather than the occasional button-mash of Tomb Raider. At times I’d wished I’d bought a Nintendo Switch and played Zelda instead of getting a PS4 Pro. I’m not entirely conflicted here, though, because Horizon is an amazing game that really shows its value in spades once you’ve beefed up your skill tree and combat options. Without the worry that you’ll be overwhelmed by powerful robot animals you’re able to soak in the true beauty of the world and it was honestly a terrarium of robot monsters that I had just enough time to enjoy to the fullest.