Horizon Zero Dawn
Ashly Burch, John Hopkins, JB Blanc, Lance Reddick
…doesn’t just give you a big map with lots of stuff on it, it offers you a world worth exploring.
In 2016 I began suffering from a condition the medical community have dubbed Open World Game Fatigue (OWGF). Whereas once I would explore every nook, cranny and other orifice in all the open world games I played, I was beginning to tire of the endless fetch quests and pointless busy work. The condition became acute during the release period of Mafia 3 – a game that forces you to piss fart about between main missions to an outrageous degree just to unlock the next bit of story! I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror and said: “Maybe you just don’t like open world games anymore, bro.” Then I sighed melodramatically and Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” played mournfully in the background. And somewhere, far off in the distance, a dog howled. It was quite a moment.
Cut to: this week and the long-awaited arrival of Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Game’s brand spanking new IP about a red-haired cavewoman fighting hordes of robotic dinosaurs in a massive post-apocalyptic landscape. Despite having completed the main story missions and a buttload of side quests, I find myself drawn back in to hunt yet another robot T-Rex or clear a bandit camp of undesirables. The love for open world gaming has returned, but why? What is it about Horizon Zero Dawn that succeeds where so many others fail? First, let’s take a step back and introduce our star.
Horizon Zero Dawn (henceforth known as HZD) is the much-anticipated PS4 exclusive from Guerrilla Games. Guerrilla have been quiet on the release front since 2013’s adequate-but-hardly-amazing Killzone Shadow Fall, and haven’t attempted a new IP since 2004’s Killzone. Nothing in the Dutch company’s history suggests that a sprawling, open world experience would be within their purview and yet here we are.
HZD tells the tale of Aloy, the aforementioned redhead, who is a skilled hunter and archer living in a matriarchal tribe at some far flung point in humanity’s future. A catastrophe has wiped out the majority of the human race and nature has retaken large sections of the world, leaving the ruins of the “Old Ones” (that’d be us) for those who remain and the robots. The humans now live in tribes, some peaceful some not, and technology is primitive and basic. There is a return to religion and superstition, and science is a barely-remembered dream.
So what was the catastrophe that ended life as we know it? How are there still humans left alive if said event was extinction-level? Oh and why are there friggin’ robot dinosaurs roaming the earth in herds, acting as both hunter and prey depending on their programming? Impressively all of these questions are answered in HZD’s 30-50 hour play time and answered well.
Aloy’s journey from a shunned member of her superstitious tribe to a lone wanderer to a fledgling heroine and beyond is a deeply satisfying narrative experience. Although the premise sounds goofy, HZD has a core of hard sci-fi running through it and the explanations for the world are both clever and thought-provoking. More than that though, HZD offers a world you’ll actively want to explore – a beautiful, often daunting landscape littered with dinobots to hunt, quests to complete, and ruins to investigate.
Aloy is a likeable, capable protagonist who has a dry sense of humour and an acerbic attitude toward those who attempt to do her wrong. You’ll occasionally meet up with people from other tribes and help them, but ultimately Aloy is a loner and the game works best when you’re stalking a particularly vicious dinosaur through the tall grass on a lonely field or infiltrating a camp of savage bandits and taking them out from the shadows. Character skills unlock as you progress and by the end of the game you’ll be able to shoot three arrows at a time, summon obedient dinosaurs to ride like robo-horsies and slow time to make that perfect arrow shot. Fighting human foes is adequate but taking on some of the tougher robotic enemies is sublime.
One side quest that stays with me is the hunt for a particularly vicious Thunderjaw (aka robotic T-Rex) called Redmaw. Sneaking through the woods, with freshly crafted ammo, I decided to set a number of traps around Redmaw’s terrain. I planted numerous fiery wire traps, explosive wire traps and a bunch of smaller traps all across the landscape. My reasoning was: if Redmaw caught a glimpse of me and charged, the toothy mongrel would soon be a burning husk and I the cackling victor. I popped my head out of the long grass and launched a volley of arrows. Redmaw turned around and blasted me with its disc launcher, killing me in one hit.
Over the next dozen or so attempts on Redmaw I began to learn from my mistakes. Now my first move was to knock the disc launcher off and destroy sections of Redmaw’s armour, giving me access to the sweet spot on its metallic hull. The traps I set hurt the beast, but if I was nearby I’d take fire damage too, so I’d have to lure the metal monstrosity into the killzone from a distance. The battle was long and hard and sweary but eventually I bested Redmaw. The satisfaction of the kill was immense and I felt like a genuinely bad arse robot hunting lady and not a hairy man letting out a yorp of primal glee from a lopsided couch.
That’s not to say HZD is without flaws, mind you. Melee combat is a little clunky and some of the voice acting is hit or miss, particularly in the first few hours. Plus while the quests and side quests are almost uniformly excellent, the tasks called “errands” are about as much fun as popping down to the shops for some milk. This is the kind of fetch quest nonsense that plagues open world games and it would have been nice if Guerrilla had focused on quality rather than quantity in those moments.
That said, the errands – and indeed the side quests – are totally optional. If you were to stick purely to story missions you’d still enjoy a hefty adventure. Plus it’s hard to argue with a game that gives you such a stunning-looking world. Honestly HZD may be the best looking video game of this current generation, looking utterly superb on my somewhat ancient telly and PS4 and giddily beautiful on a 4K monitor played on a PS4 Pro. I did experience a dozen or so instances of pop-in and texture loss during my playthrough but these kind of niggles are both brief and likely patched by the time you’re reading this.
Ultimately, HZD was a huge risk for Guerrilla Games; a new IP in a game genre they’ve never previously attempted. Happily, the risk paid off and Horizon Zero Dawn is an easy early contender for Game of the Year. More than that, though, if you too are feeling the effects of Open World Game Fatigue, HZD may just be the cure for that deadly affliction. Because Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t just give you a big map with lots of stuff on it, it offers you a world worth exploring.