“Hunt robot dinosaurs with a bow and arrow as a neolithic badass who looks like a stunt double for Game of Thrones’ Ygritte.” That was essentially the message we got from Horizon Zero Dawn when the game was revealed in E3 2015. We’re happy to confirm that, almost two years later, the game lives up to that promise — bringing down great mechanical beasts is just as thrilling as it looks.
Moreover, that exhilarating action is couched in a beautifully-realized world and satisfying RPG story that feels both epic and the personal in the telling. While many of the game’s supporting mechanics and systems may feel somewhat rote among the heavily-populated genre of open-world action RPGs, its solid execution, compelling world-building, and the thrilling hunt at its core make up for its lack of innovation. Developer Guerrilla Games, best known for the PlayStation exclusive Killzone series, has almost exclusively produced first-person shooters until now, so in branching out they used a strong foundation of known mechanics to build a game with real heart and vision.
Horizon takes places thousands of years after the fall of modern civilization. Nature has reclaimed our crumbling cities. Humanity now holds on in the form of primitive upstart civilizations that have lost touch with the past’s knowledge, while much of the world is dominated by autonomous animal-shaped robots.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s core action is visceral, dynamic, and thrilling.
You play as Aloy, a young brave of the Nora tribe – a group of matriarchal hunters who live in a sacred mountain valley and worship the All-Mother. The Nora treat any ancient technology as highly taboo, so when Aloy was found as a baby near an ancient site, the Matriarchs gave her to an exiled warrior named Rost to raise as an outcast in their own territory. Aloy coming of age coincides with a mysterious uptick in the aggression of the great machines, and events transpire that send her on a quest out into the larger world. Fallout: New Vegas writer John Gonzalez wrote the script, and his sense of warmth and humor shows throughout the writing and the world’s many characters.
The consistently gorgeous environments spans verdant valleys, snowy forests and mountains, as well as wide-open desert and jungle areas. Its dramatic vistas are enhanced by powerful, dynamic weather systems. One trip through a forest may see warm rays of dusk sun slanting through the branches, whereas the next time it could be dark and obscured by foreboding mist. No matter where you go, exploring the game’s vibrant environments is a consistent pleasure.
Despite the open geography, the story is very linear within each given quest. There are a handful of opportunities to make narrative choices throughout the game, but these have relatively little effect on the overall story and there is only one ending. Quests quickly fall into a familiar rhythm of talk to a person, go to a place, scan for evidence, follow a trail, fight someone/something, return for your reward. The same could be said of a lot of great games, however, so it’s far from a major criticism.
The game’s intelligent world building also applies to the cultures and characters that populate the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. The Carja are like the Aztecs with a bit of Byzantine style ruled by a sun king out of a walled medieval city atop a jungle mesa. A recent civil war caused the Shadow Carja to flee into the desert, sticking with the old ways of slavery and human sacrifice. The Oseram are tinkers and smiths, clad in leather — dwarves in all but stature. Lastly the Bantu are a shamanistic mountain tribe, even more reclusive than the Nora. These cultures are all smartly and thoroughly realized, and through the game you’ll come to recognize their signature styles and mores, which gives the game a marvelous sense of place and history.
The wide range of cultures and characters make the game feel refreshingly diverse, prominently featuring women and people of color incidentally in non-conventional roles throughout. Beyond just virtual casting, there is a recurring motif throughout the story and side quests of women resisting oppressive, patriarchal roles to strike out and lead the lives they want. It’s far from didactic and really shouldn’t offend the anti-SJW crowd, but it’s nevertheless great to see a mainstream game be causally progressive in that way.