There was an interview I once watched with Johann Hegg, the lead singer from Swedish Death Metal outfit Amon Amarth. He was discussing the writing process for their concept album, Jomsviking. At one point in the interview, he mentioned how the band was initially worried the album was beginning to sound a bit too much like Iron Maiden. At some point, however, Hegg said that he stopped caring about that because Iron Maiden makes awesome music, and if their album sounds too much like them, well, it couldn’t really be a bad thing. Horizon Zero Dawn is the gaming equivalent of realizing that sounding too much like the legends—when done well—is just fine.
You don’t have to be entirely original to be “good”, and implementing elements, mechanics, and ideas from well-reviewed and popular franchises can make for a pretty fantastic total package. A little bit Red Dead Redemption, a touch of The Witcher, with a splash of Uncharted and Far Cry Primal, Guerrilla Games’ sprawling new post-apocalyptic RPG feels instantly familiar to a fan of any of the above games. Yet it carves out its own identity with a few cool concepts on top of the added bonus of simply being fun.
Oh, and it’s ridiculously gorgeous as well.
The player takes on the role of Aloy, a brave warrior from the Nora clan, as she navigates a futuristic world populated by warring factions of tribal humans and robot dinosaurs. The storyline is serviceable, and at times quite interesting, but unfortunately falls victim to the “been there, done that” feeling that pervades every aspect of Horizon Zero Dawn. Characters are fairly standard, and often times cliché stereotypes we’ve seen a million times before. However, the plot is engaging enough and the voice actors do a solid job with what they’ve been given. So while it’s nothing remarkable or unique, I still found myself curious to see what would happen next and even felt a smidge of concern for Aloy during her trials and tribulations.
Gameplay in Horizon is a mix of stealth, ranged and melee combat, and crafting. Each robot dinosaur players kill will yield crafting materials that can be used to make ammunition, potions, traps, and weapon upgrades. There are also plenty of plants and flowers to gather (if that’s your thing) and the more rare and difficult enemies will offer more uncommon materials. It’s not the deepest crafting system in the world, but is fluid and simple enough to maintain accessibility for newcomers to crafting systems, while still allowing for plenty of experimentation and collecting for veterans of the genre.
Players are able to upgrade Aloy’s skills in three distinct categories, each focusing on a different play-style approach. Prowler, Brave, and Forager have trees that cater to players who enjoy stealth, straight-up melee combat, and what is basically alchemy. There are no locks preventing players from mixing it up either, and being able to sneak better while also wielding extra strong spear attacks can be a lot of fun. Combat itself is a mix of ranged and melee, with multiple different bows/slings/traps to choose from on top of differing ammunition types.
However, the most fun aspect of the combat comes from taking advantage of the dynamic AI found in the wildlife. Early on in Horizon Zero Dawn, players gain the ability to “override” the programming of the mechanical beasts and turn an enemy into an ally. Using this approach to cause chaos in the herd, which then stampedes into some carefully placed traps is incredibly satisfying and tons of fun. This ability is also used to tame certain species and use them as mounts, which makes travel a bit more bearable.
On that note, Horizon Zero Dawn avoids the fan divide of fast travel in a rather clever way. Realizing that some players prefer a more realistic approach to traversing an open world, and others loathe having to spend half the game running from point A to Point B, players are able to craft fast travel packs, which allow them to instantly travel to any destination but keeps the more hardcore players happy by making them a finite resource. Picking and choosing when to use the fast travel pack involves a bit more thought and strategy than in other games, and that’s awesome.
Quests are stock RPG fare – expect to see a lot of the usual “kill/fetch” themes, including such classics as “clear the bandit camp” and “go to the woods and find out what happened to X”. One of my major gripes in this respect comes from a rather blatant rip-off of the “Witcher Senses” mechanic from The Witcher 3. Aloy has a piece of ancient technology that allows her to see an ARG version of the real world, which highlights things like important items, audio logs, and enemy weak points. It’s also used to track footprints and investigate important quest areas, but like Witcher Senses, basically boils down to “hold button and follow the purple”, which is lazy and boring gameplay and something this reviewer is not a fan of.
Visually, the game is stunning. While not quite on the level of Naughty Dog when it comes to player animations (will believable lip-syncing ever become reality?), the environments and lighting are gorgeous, draw distances are super impressive, and dips in frame-rate were pretty rare. It isn’t the fastest or smoothest game on the market, but I found myself pausing on more than one occasion to soak up the atmosphere as the sun peaked through some clouds and lit up a river valley full of cybernetic dinos. The lighting is fantastic, as are the wind and weather affects. For a game that aims to put players in the shoes of a semi-primitive warrior battling nature, Guerilla did a great job in making that world feel both beautiful and hostile.
Mind you, this review was done using a PlayStation 4 classic, and apparently it looks even better on a Pro playing through a 4K TV. If visual fidelity is your thing, this is not a game to miss purely for how pretty it is.
Horizon Zero Dawn is not a game-changer in any sense of the word. There is nothing entirely original in either its setting or gameplay mechanics. The crafting, combat, skill trees, quest formats etc. are all inspired by or influenced by other games. Climbing buildings and cliffs feels very Nathan Drake. Tracking, investigating and traveling the world is instantly familiar to anyone who has played the Witcher 3 or Red Dead Redemption. Even wandering amongst ruined bunkers listening to the last words of former residents is an experience very reminiscent of Fallout.
Yet none of this is ultimately a detriment to the game. Whatever your favourite game is, you will find elements of it in Horizon Zero Dawn. Controlling Aloy feels fluid and flowy, the environments are beautiful, the AI from the animals is fun to exploit and experiment with, crafting potions and traps is exactly what one would expect etc, but it all works, and it’s fun. Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t out to break the mould, but at the end of the day that doesn’t matter. Guerilla has made a sprawling, gorgeous, tight gameplay experience that anyone with a PlayStation should pick up.