From the distinctively redheaded heroine to the open post-robocalyptic world and the simple fact that this is Guerrilla Games making something other than Killzone, there have been plenty of reasons to be excited for Horizon Zero Dawn. For anyone who grew up with an affinity for Zoids, dinosaurs and science fiction in general, this game ticks an awful lot of boxes.
It’s a good thing, then, that hunting robots out in the wild is the game at its best. There’s a tension in every one of these fights, and you need to plan your first moves, hide in long red tipped grass, set traps, dodge incoming attacks, turning the tables on monsters that are far larger and more powerful than you. You’re given primitive looking weapons, with a bow and arrow, slingshot, tethers and tripwires, but each can use elemental ammunition, letting you exploit whatever weaknesses that robot has.
The robots are dotted across the open world landscape, with a few shades of Far Cry to the way they roam the hills doing whatever they’re programmed to do, be it dig with drill-like antlers into the ground, graze on the grass, look for humans, or whatever. Herds of the more placid robots are just as likely to run away and stare at you from a distance if startled, as they are to charge at you and kick with their powerful legs. Meanwhile the larger, more clearly predatory robots will simply start attacking, turning the tables on you in an instant.
The size and danger they pose to you grows as you venture deeper into the game, and if you’re not careful and keep an eye on your health, you can die in a matter of seconds, sending you back to the last autosave or campfire save point you triggered. That can set you back quite some way if you’ve been caught in a long and tricky fight.
What’s quite unusual is that the tools and weapons at your disposal don’t change all that much as you progress. You can actually buy the top tier of weaponry fairly early on if you save up enough metal shards and are lucky enough to retrieve the specific components from certain beasts you’ve slain. There’s skills to unlock, and better gear does hold certain advantages, but the primary progression comes more from learning how to better use what you have at your disposal. The game teaches you the basics, but you still have to figure a lot out for yourself.
The Snapmaw, for example, is a crocodile-like creature, best attacked from afar, aiming simple fire arrows to trigger the exposed canisters and its forehead. Meanwhile, the Corruptor takes on a more unnatural form in contrast to many of the other robots, and it took me until just the final throes of the main story to realise how best to knock it over and dash in for a critical strike with my spear. However, even the largest robots rarely come alone, often in twos or threes, and with Watchers often scouting around or with other groups not too far away.
At the heart of all of this is Aloy, our redheaded heroine. An outcast at birth, practically as soon as she comes of age and acceptance into the Nora, she is forced to take on the burden of venturing out from their idyllic Shire-like Embrace and into the wider world, with other tribes and clashing cultures that have sprung up since the fall of civilisation and the rise of the machines.
Aloy herself takes time to warm to. Yes, she has an eye catching visual design, but she’s so single minded, so serious, always muttering to herself about what she’s doing and why. She gains more personality during cutscenes and as she interacts more with the supporting cast – they too take some time to grow on you – but she reverts to being a blank slate a little too often. It’s not helped that talking to basic quest givers and picking options for more information gives you fairly wooden conversations. The camera changes focus quite dynamically, but the participants feel like they’re only moving from waist and up, while Aloy is stuck with an ever-so-slightly pained expression throughout.
Perhaps that look comes from the initially rather confusing world she’s so unceremoniously thrust into. What’s the difference between the Carja and the Shadow Carja? How do the Oresam figure into all of this? Are any of these the bad guys? It takes quite a long time for some of the key players to really be made clear, beyond the simple fact that there’s an existential threat. Despite so much of the game’s initial pitch focussing on the robotic threats in the open world, there’s more than a few human enemies to tackle, beyond simple tribal rivalries.
With the robots and technology seen as an ancient threat, the Nora shun all technology, but while other tribes embrace it, even exploit it. The Focus that Aloy wears, a little ear-mounted personal computer, becomes a key part in helping you survive the world. It can highlight and tag enemies, temporarily mark weak points, elemental strengths and weaknesses, and as the story starts to delve into the past and how the world came to be the way it is – a tale that initially appears simple, but takes a few dark and twisted turns – it’s Aloy’s link back to those days.
Sadly, some of the game’s set piece design also feels like a link to the past. Guerrilla take their core robot hunting stealth action gameplay and tried to build set pieces around it, but it loses that spark in the process. The human AI is just as dumb and regimented as the most basic robots, just with the addition of actively investigating a fallen comrade, which simply plays into your hands as soon as you unlock the ability to perform stealth kills. Later fights feel better and perhaps a little more inventive, but are never as natural and fluid as those in the open world when you can simply run for the hills when a fight isn’t going your way.
By contrast, the boss fights against some of the biggest and most challenging robots are often exhilarating. One or two don’t quite hit the mark, but when you know that there’s no backing down or running away to hide and have to stand and fight, it puts a different slant on the game’s combat and forces you to be able to think on your feet.
This game is truly gorgeous. It looks great on the original PlayStation 4, but this is also the first of Sony’s exclusives to really take advantage of the PlayStation 4 Pro, 4K and HDR at its release. I was constantly dipping into the game’s photo mode whenever the scenery looked particularly picturesque, the horizon flared at dawn, or the way the moonlight shimmered on the water as I rode my Strider through a stream. The open world ranges from green hills to forests, snowcapped mountains, desert canyons with castle-like Carja outposts, and everything between. On top of that, the weather shifts, even so far as to shroud the land in fog or turn the desert into a windy dustbowl.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a bit of a slow burn, but there’s more to Guerrilla Games’ latest than just its staggeringly pretty graphics. The story surprises as it takes several twists and turns and explores the past, but the game’s beating heart is with its excellently tense and engaging robotic monster hunting.