Horizon Zero Dawn is a large game. Much more enormous than I anticipated. Having purchased the game the day it came out like everyone else, I’ve elected to get my thoughts from my first couple of days down before a full review.
From the start, I found myself hooked by the setting. Everything about it from the mish-mash of tribal and pre-modern aesthetics of the various human factions to the ancient ruins of what was once humanity at its most advanced, now overtaken by rust, wind, flora and fauna. Most intriguing is the layer just beneath this natural beauty, the slumbering specter of some still-working ancient technology. This is seen in the world at large through the “machines,” various robotic animals that roam the land, some docile until provoked, others actively aggressive towards humans. The old world is also glimpsed with more subtlety and mystery in the underground bunkers and facilities peppered throughout the game. Here one can find text and audio logs that paint a gradual but eerie picture of civilization at its most advanced but also most flawed.
We discover and explore this rich, mysterious setting through Aloy, who begins the game as a child outcast from her mother’s tribe for an undisclosed reason. She is trained by a fellow outcast and surrogate father in the ways of survival and hunting, and is forbidden from exploring the ancient ruins of humanity. She finds herself there anyway, coming across a still-functioning gadget that grants her an altered-reality view and acts as her “detective vision” or “witcher sense,” for tracking and investigation of mysteries both natural and man-made. The game takes Clarke’s “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” mantra and sprints away with it, with some tribes treating technology as taboo and cursed while others embrace and utilize it to varying degrees. This colors their various reactions to Aloy’s reliance on the information and advantages she gains from her unique piece of equipment and is a nice diegetic reason for all of the video-gamey stuff she can do and see.
The faces and names that fill out these tribes are varied in appearance and temperament, and are almost universally a delight to behold. Aloy stands out as a refreshingly hopeful and wholesome protagonist. She’s a fierce warrior to be sure, but at her core she’s a young woman seeking belonging and purpose, doing her best to do well by her fellow humans along the way. Her vocal performance is as high quality as the rest of the cast at least, if not better, but it’s her gameplay animations that really endear her for me. The way she skips and springs into her movement animations, runs her hands gently over tall grass if you walk slow enough or stop in a field, or looks up at the sky in wonder as she catches snowflakes on her outstretched hand really sell her as a human being, more than just a player avatar.
The rest of the cast come from a variety of tribes and factions, from the warlike reformed slavers the Carja to the matriarchal and heavily spiritual Nora, Aloy’s nominal “home” tribe, Horizon takes the opportunity afforded by this “post-post-apocalypse” to tread some unique ground in both its themes and visual aesthetic. I’ve seen warriors clad in everything from furs and leather to knight and samurai armor, even hulking cultists in machine-plate armor lugging big guns; each faction comes as a surprise and really distinguishes itself.
Character interactions are mostly linear with some optional clarifications or questions in a dialogue wheel, but once in a while conversations allow Aloy to make a choice from three options; a peaceful, friendly choice, a clever, subversive or snarky route or a confrontational or accusatory approach. It is not quite clear yet how much these choices affect beyond immediate response, and there have not been that many. I’m sure they will become more numerous and perhaps more important as I get closer to the heavily populated zones.
Away from civilization and conversations, roaming the world and engaging in exploration, resource gathering and combat feels most closely analogous to Far Cry crossed with Witcher 3, with more of the latter than the former. Far Cry’s influence is mostly felt in the crafting (more on that in a bit) and the skill tree, which is broken into three branches, one for stealth and melee, one for ranged and one for crafting. I’ve favored the crafting tree early on, getting all the way to fourth and final sub-branch quickly to gain the ability to swap weapon mods without destroying the one being removed.
Witcher’s influence is felt in the gorgeous lighting and environmental visuals, as well as the combat. The machines are the stars of the show when it comes to fights, and each variant (of which there are easily over a dozen so far) has their own behaviors and weak spots. Reading their entries in the notebook and figuring out how best to fight them feels very much like preparing for a monster hunt in Witcher, with the added complication that Aloy often has to contend with multiple drastically different variants of machine in one encounter, not just a single monster like Geralt.
The biggest hurdle to get over is that there is no real “workhorse” ranged weapon that is your basic damage dealer – for raw damage, the game forces you get close with Aloy’s spear. The closest to a standard shooter here is the hunter bow, with an average rate of fire and more arrow types than other bows as you upgrade to better versions, but many later machines simply have too much health for its middling damage to put a dent in. Stealth is practically required, at least to recon and plan. Setting traps is essential, as is strategically removing armor and hitting weak spots and breakable components ASAP – the more you break, the fewer abilities any given machine can bring to bear against you, and the more damage you deal to unarmored spots. Even this is a tactical choice, however, as some machines are better left plinking with easily-dodged projectiles at a distance while you deal with their buddies; blast off its gun too hastily and you may find it closing the distance to pummel you instead. And pummel you they will.
Attacks hit hard in Horizon – even at level 22 on normal difficulty with some pretty good armor, Aloy loses sometimes as much as half of her health bar per hit. It really emphasizes preparedness through crafting and trap placement. Crafting affects damn near everything, with the ability to build every one of your ammo types for current weapons on the fly (even through the quick-select wheel, which is extremely handy) as well as potions, traps and expansions for your various storage pouches and holsters, all through one menu. Interestingly, the currency of the world, “metal shards,” are also used for many of the crafting recipes, which can create a dilemma if you’re not careful to watch your resources; build too many arrows without paying attention and you may literally be shooting all of your money away.
The game is not without some fairly minor issues that should nonetheless be addressed. I’ve noticed many times the weather changing rather abruptly, going from a bright sunny day to a low-visiblity rainstorm or snowstorm in an instant. Lip synching for some conversations has been plain awful, though this seems to happen mostly on side content. I’ve had several missions do a post-cutscene teleport that put me in direct danger with very little time to react, a major hatred of mine especially when I had a plan in place already that is now ruined. The dialogue can be a bit exposition heavy, and I’ve found myself skipping over some repeated information a couple of times. The human enemies are far less entertaining to combat, and fall into the familiar rhythm of “isolate with stealth and distractions and kill one by one” routine that other games have done so much better. By itself this is not a big deal, but next to the extremely fun and strategic machine fights this just feels that much worse.
None of this comes close to dissuading me, of course. Horizon Zero Dawn is an engaging world of conflict and discovery, and I can’t wait to dive back in before bringing you my full review.