Horizon Zero Dawn Review

It's a new dawn, it's a new day.

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.

What’s Good:

  • Excellently tense and dangerous robot hunting
  • A broad and imaginative robotic bestiary
  • The story grows into something special
  • Simply gorgeous graphics

What’s Bad:

  • Aloy lacks character for much of the game
  • Set pieces don’t compare to the freedom of open world play

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.

Score: 8/10

21 Comments

  1. It’s interesting you mentioned ‘the story surprises’. I’ve haven’t been able to figure out what the story actually is and whether it’s any good, not by this review or much of the pre-release footage.

    Is the game more about exploration, quests, crafting, and core gameplay or is there also a strong story to focus the game.

    Also how big and complex would you say the open world is?

    Sorry I know you’ve alluded to these things in the review, but there doesn’t seem to be a definite answer in there.

    • Sure. I was deliberately vague because I know people are wary of spoilers. So let’s try again… also without spoilers.

      The story is about Aloy uncovering her past, getting involved with the conflicts of the world as it is, and also digging into the story of how the world came to be how it is. As I said, it’s a slow burn, but by halfway through I was gripped, especially by the story of how the old civilisation fell.

      There’s that narrative quest line running through, but you can splinter off and do side quests, there’s hunter challenges in some places as well, clear bandit camps, and so on. Crafting is fairly minimal, but you might find yourself having to hunt a particular robot or animal if you’re after a specific weapon or piece of clothing. It’s really all about the core gameplay and growing story for me, though.

      The world is pretty big, made to feel bigger by having to get around on foot or on the back of a robot. It’s not massively complex though, akin to a Far Cry game, I’d say, right down to having this game’s equivalent to Ubisoft towers.

      • Thanks for clarifying Tef. Nice review, I enjoyed the video review too but it would’ve been good to see some of the cinematics! I can appreciate you wanting to steer clear of spoilers, it’s a shame some people are so fussy because I always want to know what you at TSA think of the story and I feel like I miss out because you’re often too wary. You can’t really win eh :)

        Good to hear the story did eventually grip you, I’m really looking forward to this arriving now. Oh and it turns out Bruce Willis was dead all along!

  2. “..this game ticks and awful lot of boxes.”

    Yeah, I’m that guy..

  3. Not going lie, didn’t have much hope in this game when I heard guerilla was making a whole full single player game. I just thought it will be stunning but full story wise, I mean killzone is trrrible story wise but the MP is literally the best thing about Guerilla.

    Well I’m glad this is well received all over

    • Sadly, it appears it’s not being well received all over. A certain internet hate group has decided already that it’s shit, because reasons. Women, probably.

      All the reviews are part of some conspiracy.

      Not that they’ve actually played it of course, because it’s not been released yet. But that doesn’t stop them. They’re probably sat there refreshing Metacritic until it lets them give it a score of zero. Because obviously using a calendar to work out when the game releases and they can do that is far too challenging for them.

      If it really is as good as the reviews say, it’s going to end up with something in the high 80s, and then the user score will be dragged down to 50 or so by gamergate muppets.

      Personally, it’s looking good and it’s possibly next on my list, just after “massive external drive, since 2TB is obviously not enough”.

      • I’ve seen one bad review so far, everything else is 8-10 so not sure what you are on about? Currently sat at 88 on Metacritic.

        Edit: Oh you are on about user scores. No one pays attention to them.

      • The user scores are sometimes useful. If the critic and user scores agree, a game scoring 80something is probably quite good.

        But if the user scores are weirdly low, that often means you’ll either really hate the game despite all the critic reviews, or you’ll find it’s much more than “quite good” and probably be obsessed with it for weeks.

        Look at the 71 critic and 4.5 user score last year for No Man’s Sky. There’s a few of us here that think it deserves much more than 4.5 and more than that 71 too.

        And if it ends up with a score way below a 5, like 1.something, it’s quite fun to spot the obvious trolls who have all given it a 0 for whatever nonsense reason they managed to invent to decide it was rubbish. Usually “women”.

  4. Roll on Friday.

    Also there had better be a Helghast helmet somewhere in the ruins to be discovered. Just for lols.

  5. Sounds better than I expected.

    Killzone usually bored me and this game didn’t look like it had room for an interesting story.

    Still unsure if it’s a game for me though. I rarely play open world games to completion unless they’re literally top drawer.

  6. Bought a pro specifically for this game, I’m already hyped for it.

    Thanks for the review, TSA giving an 8 tells me I’ll enjoy it.

  7. Ah, this is great news. IGN gave it a 9.3. Metacritic has it hovering around 88, as TC mentions.

    The thing, for me, is whether the PS4 Pro version (at 1080p) looks better (or has a far better frame-rate). Any news on that?

    • Its day one patch will be adding the bits and bobs for Pro to have improved visuals at 1080p, as it currently runs without any advantages. If you reaaaaally want, we can maybe put together a quick comparison video? Alas, 4K and HDR capture are still beyond us, but we can do 1080p!

      • Ooo, that’d be nothing short of wonderful but YouTube might easily ruin the differences. Hmm… actually, if it’s Level of Detail, pop-in (or lack thereof) and frame-rate, a comparison video would be superb. Even if it’s just for 60 seconds or so. Then again, fella, I’ll take your word for it if you try it out and just give me a shout on Skype/Twitter/etc. :)

      • I’ll save you the bother.

        It looks a bit better on a Pro.

        For future reference, please use this advice for all PS4 vs PS4 Pro comparisons. Why the smegging smeg people bother making videos is beyond me, the only one I’ve seen a marked difference with is Fallout 4 which increases the draw distance dramatically.

      • Mainly because people like me often want to get the better version if it’s worth it. My gaming PC hits most games for six (with regards to spec) and now we have a PlayStation option which can potentially do the same.

        However, I appreciate the game is already glorious looking so the difference might not be as pronounced.

    • I saw the game running on what I believe was the PS Pro set up at the EGX show a few months ago in Birmingham. I didn’t notice anything specifically better about the graphics if it were on PS Pro and HDR, but then they also didn’t have a standard PS4 running it side by side for comparison.

      That said, the game looks stunning anyway. :-)

  8. Great review, i’m eager to pick it up but really need to finish a few of my existing games first.

  9. Argos are selling a PS4 Pro bundled with Horizon Zero Dawn for £350 – Mine should be arriving tomorrow, just got to get a decent 60″ 4k TV now, still holding out for a price cut because I’m not paying over a grand! Roll on April.

    Incidentally, GAME are selling the PS4 Pro (on its own – console only) for £467!!! Whats the hell?!!!

  10. I’m almost 30 hours into the game. I’ve done 9 main quest missions so the story still feels quite young. I want to see how it all pans out but I end up running around after collectibles 90% of the time with a mix of side missions. I should be bored by now but I’m still having a great time with it.

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