Horizon: Zero Dawn is a Playstation 4 exclusive courtesy of Guerilla, a team perhaps most noted for its futuristic first-person shooter Killzone. Here, they tackle a third-person open world game set in a post-apocalyptic earth. With its sentient mechanical fauna roaming the lands, it's perhaps one of the most original stories in gaming to come along in some time.
The game's protagonist, Aloy, has a mysterious past that forms one of the games major plot points, and she manages to feel like a fully formed character as you unravel the adventure alongside her. She’s part Lara Croft, part Katniss Everdeen, with a little more coolness that comes from growing up in a world patrolled by robotic wildlife. She’s strong, independent, wry, and above all else, likeable. This is probably just as well, as you’ll be spending a lot of time in her world. This is a big game.
With Horizon, Guerilla has somehow managed to construct a huge open world that is restrained and shows respect towards its players. Too many games, like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and the recent Tomb Raider games, mistake repetitive content - be it side missions, climbing towers to unveil more of the map, or collectibles - for quality offerings when in reality it’s no more than padding. Take a look at the map of the most recent Far Cry game, and you’ll notice it’s absolutely peppered with filler, with more ‘points of interest’ than Redditch needle museum.
Horizon still comes packaged with the standard tropes of the open world genre, but it’s a much more curated affair, with a variety of side missions and justified story reasons for existing beyond simply extending the playtime count. Yes, there’s collectibles too, but far fewer than you would expect in a game of this size, and they flesh out the game’s backstory. There are also towers here, which need to be navigated to fill out the world map, but considering they’re effectively huge mobile robot dinosaurs, they provide a refreshing change from anything you’ve had to climb in the past. There’s also very few of them.
One of the real sparks of originality in Horizon is its setting. We’ve seen hundreds of post-apocalyptic games, but none have looked like this (with the exception of last generation’s all but forgotten Enslaved: Odyssey to the West). As it’s been some time since the undoing of civilisation, things have moved on. Lush greenery covers cities and towns, and wildlife, both organic and robotic, thrives. Humanity has reverted back to a primitive tribal state, with factors in conflict with each other. You’ll be taking on human enemies as well as metal ones in this game.
The stars of the game though are undoubtedly the mechanised beasts, which look like a mash-up between Eighties cartoon Zoids and a prog rock album cover. There’s a moment of awe when you first stumble across a new creature in Horizon, and it feels like it’s delivering on the promise that No Man’s Sky failed to keep, by dropping you into a strange and unknown world and showing you things you don’t immediately understand. As well as taking them down, you can also tame and ride these animals.
Combat is an integral aspect of Horizon, and when you’re first let loose in the plains against herds of robotic creatures, you will struggle, and you will die. The ‘animals’ hit hard and they hit fast, especially when several gang up on you at once. Luckily, stealth is just as much of a viable approach as tackling enemies head on, and the game encourages you to experiment with your style. As you progress the number of options available to you open up, with skill and weapon upgrades coming thick and fast and extending your repertoire. The fighting always feels fluid, and Alloy is responsive and mobile. When you hit that timing window perfectly, narrowly avoiding robotic jaws before turning to deliver the final blow, you feel untouchable.
Graphically, the game is among one of the most impressive on the Playstation 4, which for a title of this scope is quite an achievement. If you’re playing on the more powerful PS4 Pro then you’ll notice a performance boost from the extra hardware, but owners of the original PS4 needn’t worry, the game still looks stunning and runs smoothly on the original console. Couple this with the fantastic art direction, and you’re left with a game where almost any frame could be used on the back of the box. There’s a robust photo mode too, allowing you to manipulate your favourite moment to capture the perfect scene, if that’s your bag.
You’ll need to take down the game’s creatures to salvage parts for your crafting - an integral part of Horizon. Some players don’t enjoy this aspect of modern games, so be warned up front, there’s no getting away from crafting in this game, with everything from ammo to armour improvements relying on parts. Even the game’s fast travel system, a blessing in a game this size, requires some resources before you can move on. The interface is easy to navigate, and parts are easy to come by, so it never really poses too many problems, but it’s not for everyone.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is clearly a labour of love from Guerilla, and the whole experience feels slick and well polished. Through a combination of gorgeous graphics and artstyle, compelling gameplay and original premise, it easily joins the elite of must-own PS4 games.