Jumping into a new world is one of the most enjoyable aspects of open world video games. Unlike books, where the author has to introduce and describe things to you, or a movie or TV show where they show you what they want when they want to help tell their story, open world video games often just drop you in and let you explore and see what you want; you explore and reveal the world at your own pace, which gives the player a great sense of control and partnership with the creators that other story telling mediums really can’t do. Horizon Zero Dawn does all that in a particularly masterful way that hooks the player into the world and characters and propels you well into the end of the game.
Set on a post-apocalyptic future Earth, Horizon tells the story of Aloy, an outcast young woman since birth of the Nora tribe, a Mother Earth, matriarchal society that is clearly inspired by broad understandings of Native American cultures. I know there is some controversy about the games use of the term ‘brave’ and whether or not the game appropriates that aspect of native culture or not, but I am not nearly educated enough to really discuss that. You can read more about it here. Raised by her adopted father Rost, Aloy earns her way into the tribe just as things go horribly wrong for the Nora and she must set out into the larger world and solve a growing list of mysteries about both herself and what happened to the ancient people that led to their destruction. Aloy will go on to help kings, save children, and uncover what the great civilization (our civilization for lack of a better descriptor) did to unleash an unstoppable horde or robots upon themselves.
The larger world is a world full of tribes, bandits, vaguely Aztec-ian civilizations and most importantly, robots; lots and lots of robots. Robots that look and act like animals but that also want to kill Aloy. Not that most of them stand a good chance, because by the end of the game, Aloy is a walking arsenal with an almost infinite number of ways to defeat anybody who wants to mess with her. Honestly, it has not been since the Arkham Batman games that I have felt such a strong sense of variety and deadliness in a main character. The combat starts and revolves around the bow, but that bow evolves and gives you a variety of arrowheads that do different things to enemies, and beyond that you acquire a variety of weapons that all have specific uses and abilities to help tear down enemies, knock them down or slow them down, all so you can shoot them for more damage or survive long enough to do so. For example, slings lob grenades that either freeze or set enemies on fire, which in turn effects their movement or actions as they engage you. The tripcaster sets up a trip wire that either shocks enemies or sets them on fire, as well as hopefully knocking them down. You can even hack the robots to have them fight on your side for a time; charging into battle with a giant Thunderjaw at your side is a pretty great feeling. While the whole world looks pretty great, the machines take the cake as some of the coolest and most intricately designed things I have seen in a video game ever. Watching them walk, stalk and fight is extremely cool on its own; riding and fighting them makes it all the more fun and exciting. The game has a photo mode where you can take nature photos of the animals and robots that is very cool and oddly entertaining.
While the combat is full of variety and different combinations, it all revolves around the bow, like I said. The variety and complexity of the combat are, at their core, ways to provide you with better chances to shoot your enemies and it feels fun and exciting and new each time; the combat loop may end at the same place every time, but the way you begin and sustain the loop can change with every encounter. This feeling is helped by the fact that if you don’t prepare, any robot will take you down pretty quickly; even the most basic Watcher robot hits extremely hard. This strong sense of danger combined with how adaptive Aloy can be creates a really fun, really rewarding combat system that sits at the heart of the game. I haven’t had this level of fun just playing a game in a long time.
The story and lore, while not something that revolutionary, is still very well done. The lore especially offers a really great twist on how and why the robots killed everybody. The game slowly feeds you hints and reveals about what happened in the middle of the 21st century and it’s really, really gripping. The story of Fero Automated Solutions, Elisabet Sobeck and Project Zero Dawn is a mature, complicated backstory that adds a lot of emotional weight to the story, as well as imminent danger since the unstoppable Fero robots are coming back. I often find that the lore of a video game is much more interesting than the actual story of the player and characters running around on the map. The lore is allowed to be outlandish, weird and complicated in a way that the story often is not and I often enjoy watching characters interact with lore more than their own story. Watching, via holographic playbacks, Sobeck formulate and execute Project Zero Dawn was sad, heroic and profound in a way that Aloy’s story just couldn’t quite pull off. Not that her story isn’t great, because it is, but just for very different reasons. I especially enjoyed the development of GAIA; the positive use of an AI is not all that often found in currant sci-fi storytelling and I really enjoyed it here.
That being said, Aloy is a great protagonist and I hope we get more of her. Her voice actor, Ashly Burch, does a great job of bringing her to life and the writers do a superb job developing her character; if handled correctly, she could be the next great Sony character that makes a PS4 worth owing. Her resentment towards her tribe, her anger and desire to know who her mother is, and the way she interacts with the large group of people she encounters is well thought out, deliberate and rewarding. It was very cliqued to have everybody she had helped come back at the end and fight for her, but it was also very emotionally rewarding and made me smile to see all these friends come back for her.
I have very few qualms with Horizon. There is a mechanic that is supposed to generate quests for you to gather rare items to get some late game weapons and loot that I never got to work, but other than that, this is a pretty flawless action game that has wonderful gameplay, great stories and characters and a fascinating world that I can’t wait to get back to. I also find it an unexpectedly timely game, as society struggles to figure out how to coexist with nature and the uncertain future robotics and AI will play in the coming years. I really can’t recommend this game enough; I don’t often go back to playing games after I beat them, but I did with Horizon Zero Dawn. Go play it.