Horizon Zero Dawn is a third-person open-world action game. It is available on PlayStation 4. Joseph Pugh conducted this review on a standard PlayStation 4 console on the Ultra Hard difficulty setting.
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Horizon Zero Dawn is a third-person action game set in a large and detailed open world. You play as Aloy, an outcast from birth searching for answers about her origin and uncovering the world’s mysteries in the process.
Horizon Zero Dawn has an interesting concept. Fill the world with giant robotic animals and tell the player to take them down with bows, arrows, and slingshots. Somehow the idea works out great instead of being a complete disaster. In fact, the combat against mechanical monstrosities is easily one of the game’s highest points.
You will spend your time traversing an open world, gaining levels, new skills, and gear while taking on a plethora of quests. The game and its world are gorgeous to look at and the robotic fauna are animated exceptionally well.
I played through on the highest difficulty, but the game features a wide range of settings from ultra-hard to easy. If you can’t get enough of it, the Complete Edition features The Frozen Wilds DLC.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s world is intriguing and makes you want to learn more about it. Yet how the story is told can make it crumble under its own ambition. The player loses any sense of connection with the characters early on. The world is technically post-apocalypse but the various tribes don’t know anything about the old world. The player, however, does.
This caused rifts for me. When a character assumes something spectacular about a piece of the old world, and I know that the piece in question is pretty mundane. I lost a bit of interest in them.
It’s difficult to not view the characters as silly primitives or have any kind of interest in the tribe’s cultures. The player knows any traditions, religious beliefs, and mysticism regarding the tribes is bogus with little need to dig into the how or why. The characters simply view old-world items as magical or divine and the player knows pretty much anything they believe is incorrect.
Another issue arises in how every character other than Aloy is handled. They are almost always in the background. They are there to speak to Aloy before and after a quest while doing very little to impact the story in any meaningful way. Again, Horizon Zero Dawn makes it difficult to care about the cast, aside from Aloy herself.
When interacting with other characters, Aloy is sometimes presented with a choice of dialogue options that can actually affect the outcome of those side stories which is neat. There is one point toward the end of the game where the side quests that Aloy completed play a small part in the ending quest. It isn’t huge, but I appreciated the nod.
However, once part of the mystery of the world is unveiled, it quickly switched from intriguing to absurd in my view. It takes a rather powerful suspension of disbelief to accept the events as they occurred in the way the game asks you to believe. And I’m saying that about a game where you kill robotic dinosaurs and animals with arrows and spears.
The core of Horizon is exploring the world and uncovering quests to complete. Quests generally lead you to some form of combat. Many of them will have you track clues in a kind of detective vision but you don’t do any solving. You just follow the bread crumbs clearly presented to you. It is silly and a waste of time.
As you explore you can collect all manner of resources from the plants, animals, and from destroyed machines. You use these to craft your various ammo types, potions, and traps. The machines are big and dangerous. I felt pretty insignificant in their shadows, especially early on.
This incentivizes you to use your head and plan your combat strategy to take on a foe that could crush you with relative ease. Horizon Zero Dawn shines the brightest here.
There is a large variety of machines in the game. Each one has its own attacks and behavior patterns but also strengths and weaknesses. The machines tend to have armor plating and components on different parts of their body depending on what the machines intended function was in the lore.
Simply firing arrows is ineffective, but you can target weak spots, blast off armor chunks and otherwise turn the machine’s imperfect designs against them. If a machine has blaze canisters, for example. You can deal more damage by shooting them, however, strike one with a fire arrow and it will detonate in a fiery blast.
While stealth and planning are some of Aloy’s most powerful weapons. She will eventually gain access to a wide variety of weapons and tools. You can set traps and tripwires, launch elemental grenades from a slingshot, and even tie-down foes with metal cables.
On ultra-hard at least, many standard encounters felt like mini-boss fights and they were always fun. The machine types are varied and boasted a variety of attacks including fire, ice, and lighting. Some have mounted weaponry that can be blasted off and used against them.
By pursuing a specific side activity you can even take control of machines and have them fight each other while gaining the ability to mount and ride some of the smaller ones.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes simple primitive weapons like bows and slings and turns them into interesting and fun tools to be used against foes that should be incomprehensibly powerful compared to you. Yet its execution feels right and believable
You do encounter and fight human enemies as well and the combat system is solid against them. You can still use stealth attacks, traps, and status effects. But they are far less interesting to fight than the mechanical beasts. It isn’t bad by any means, those encounters just pale in comparison to the machines.
Sadly the actual boss fights are very underwhelming. There are not many and they feel less exciting than standard encounters, which is a shame. While the open world is beautiful, it isn’t terribly interesting. You can fast travel by spending fast travel packs. But on ultra-hard at least, it’s more worthwhile to gather resources and hunt machines as you travel.
Horizon Zero Dawn could have benefited from a less static nature. Herds of machines sit in specific sites throughout the map. Almost like a respawning mob in an MMO title.
Not only does this feel lifeless but it makes the open-world predictable. You occasionally run into an event where someone is under attack, but it isn’t enough to salvage the fact that you are mostly just holding the stick moving from point to point with little excitement in-between. Unless you yourself choose to stop and hunt machines at their specific spawn sites.
However, the combat feels so good, and the machine animations and combat effects are so awesome, you will probably want to do exactly that anyway.
You gain experience while playing Horizon Zero Dawn and gain levels that grant you skill points. You may spend skill points in one of three skill trees that can grant you new abilities such as stealth attacks or slowing downtime while you aim. Or you can unlock passive bonuses such as making your melee attacks more powerful.
Impressively there aren’t really any filler skills. Each one has a noticeable impact on your gameplay and I often found myself deeply debating which ones to spend my points on first.
Machines also drop shards, the currency used across the various tribes. You can use these to buy new gear and items. Interestingly many new weapons require shards and a piece of a specific machine. It definitely adds an almost hunter’s feel to the world which is appropriate given the nature of the game.
You also acquire mods that can be slotted into weapons and armor that have effects such as increasing the amount of fire damage that is dealt, or ones that make Aloy harder to detect when sneaking.
Mundane animals such as turkeys and foxes must be hunted to craft bigger ammo packs while their meat can be used to make healing potions.
The progression system is solid and interesting, you almost always have something new to strive for until the late game. Higher tier weapons usually allow new ammo types in addition to simply being stronger and you can swap out armor types depending on the situation.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a title with really sweet highs and sour lows. The game is beautiful, the combat animations are slick and the combat itself is fantastic, especially against the machines. Yet its story, open-world, and questing system leave a lot to be desired. However, the game is most importantly, fun to play.
Its core gameplay loops of fighting machines and bandits while crafting and acquiring gear is a ton of fun and the fights never really feel repetitive. Patience, stealth, and planning are highly rewarded and are a nice calm before the inevitable storm as you engage the machines toe to toe.
Bringing down a massive Storm Bird from the air feels amazing, as does blasting off a disc launcher from a T-Rex like Thunder Jaw before pinning it to the ground and blasting with it with its own weapon. Equally satisfying is blowing up the fire sack of a Bellow Back catching several other machines in the fiery blast.
It’s a reverse power fantasy, the machines are far more dangerous than you. Yet you can gain the upper hand and win the same way humans have always survived in a world of predators stronger and faster than them. By being smarter and using tools and situations to your advantage.
The variety of well-animated machines and the combat system based around targeting different parts of them is incredibly well-executed and the selection of tools and ammo types is nice. The general combat and gameplay go a long way toward making up for the shortcomings of the game elsewhere.
Horizon Zero Dawn is lengthy with plenty of content. If you can’t get enough, you can start a new game + once you beat the game or take on The Frozen Wilds DLC. While nothing fundamentally changes in the DLC, it does add new machines to fight, more story, and the overall challenge is increased.
In the end, Horizon Zero Dawn is a great game that could have been even greater. If its inevitable sequel can improve on the failings of the first. It will be quite exciting indeed.
- Beautiful world and animations
- Fantastic combat system against the machines and a solid one against human foes
- Variety of weapons, traps, and tools
- Strong meaningful progression
- Lengthy with a lot of content
- Difficulty settings present
- Weak story execution makes it hard to care about the cast
- Open World is fairly static and uninteresting
- Quest design is very basic and “Detective” Mode during quests, is simply time padding
- Facial animation during dialogue scenes are awkward