Horizon Zero Dawn is a PlayStation 4-exclusive open world action-roleplaying game by Guerrilla Games, who previously spent almost a decade developing the Killzone series of linear first-person shooters. The switch to a new IP and new genres began in 2011, as documented by Noclip recently.
As an action-roleplaying game, it is driven mainly by the action while the roleplaying takes the backseat and provides some directions. Set in a post-apocalyptic scenario where robots managed to override their programming and decimate most of humankind, it is the story of Aloy, a fiery redhead who handles bows and arrows as deftly as inhumanly possible.
Aloy is an outcast from the Nora, a matriarchal tribe living apart from the new world’s nascent civilisations and tribes. She is raised and protected by Rost, another outcast, who acts as her guardian and father figure since childhood. At the conclusion of the first act, Aloy is able to venture beyond the Nora’s walled territory and explore the new world.
Gameplay revolves around destroying and scavenging parts from a wide array of animal-like machines, some as small as dogs and horses and others as huge as dinosaurs. Horizon is first and foremost an action game precisely because of the way its combat gameplay was designed: as a modular, dynamic process, as opposed to the usual health bars design.
As such, most machines cannot be destroyed by simply having their health bars drained by Aloy with the many types of projectiles she can craft, or her spear, which she can use to whack or stab machines with. Each machine has components whose strengths and weaknesses are identified through the Focus: an immersive interface system used by Aloy.
Once machines are identified and catalogued, Aloy has to attack their components with arrows or bombs matching their equivalent weaknesses (fire, ice, shock, tearing), destroying them first in order to destroy the machines. It may be possible to ignore the components in the lowest difficulties, but the machines become arrow-sponges, taking longer to destroy.
This ingenious combat design, made possible by a finely-tuned third-person archery gameplay, is very much unique among both action and roleplaying games, possibly because the opponents are mostly machines and so the modular design makes much more sense than it would with humans and monsters.
There are also other weapons that enhance and expand the scope of possibilities in combat such as bomb slings and wire-shooting contraptions (Ropecaster and Tripcaster, specifically) that allow you to set traps such as electrified or explosive wires along the path of machines, or tie them down, enabling tactics that enrich combat beyond archery.
Combat will occupy the vast majority of the time spent in the game, but the main storyline is quite long; a real odyssey amidst the ruins of the old world as Aloy seeks to discover her origins, which are, not coincidentally, very closely intertwined with the origins of the new world in which she came to be.
As a T-rated game, Horizon lacks a certain brutality that would make its post-apocalyptic worldbuilding more mature and believable; a sense of life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” that any post-apocalyptic society would inevitably degenerate into; a warts-and-all portrayal of tribalism and anarcho-primitivism.
Instead, we meet a collection of cartoonish tribes whose garments and adornments suffer from rather poor taste in character design. The Nora, the Carja, the Oseram, the Banuk: all of them wear machine parts on their heads and bodies to look like either great warriors, wise elders or noble gentry, like the ancient noble savages wore feathers and skins.
And it is not just the eyesore; this post-apocalyptic kitsch pervades the various worldviews of the tribes as they are shown as simultaneously wise yet superstitious savages. It soon becomes inconsistent and jarring in dialogues, which rarely manage to hook the player into caring about their personalities and backstories.
When they do, there is not much room for nuance or grey areas, as the characters you meet are either boring goody-two-shoes or one-dimensional bad guys. While the antagonist Helis has a well-written monologue when he captures Alloy, it is not particularly nuanced. Not that it descends into caricature as post-apocalyptic villains tend to, but it still lacks nuance.
The few instances for some exploration of nuance are somewhat botched by the absolute poverty of roleplaying interactions or choices, which come down to literally “brains, brawn or heart” in a few central dialogue interactions. There are no skills or stats that could affect dialogue, no branching interactions, nothing but expo dumps upon expo dumps.
Horizon would have been a better game if it simply focused more on fleshing out its characters and making them fit the world organically instead of forcing the worldbuilding upon the characters. It is odd that John Gonzalez did not manage this as narrative director, as he obviously has more than enough talent based on his role as lead writer in Fallout: New Vegas. This is likely due to the emphasis on action over roleplaying.
While this criticism of the worldbuilding and roleplaying elements is somewhat subjective, the plotline behind the robot apocalypse is generally well-written and researched, though inconsistent if you start examining the finer details behind everything, but we can’t get into that without unleashing the spoilers.
The UI is clean and functional, but there is a serious issue with checkpoints and saves. When you start a battle you might need to switch or modify a particular bow, sling, or any other weapon that increases your chances. It is very annoying having to switch or modify them again every time you die in some battles.
The open world of Horizon is not particularly innovative, drawing many comparisons to Far Cry, with the bell or radio towers replaced by Tallnecks, the biggest robots in the game, which cannot be attacked, only climbed and overridden to reveal the current map area and its many points of interest.
Visually, however, the open world is strikingly beautiful, with vast panoramas full of colour, a variety of vegetations and climates, and particularly stunning horizons (wordplay intended). The vegetation is lush, with beautiful and realistic trees and bushes; all of nature seems to come alive in the screen, showcasing Guerrilla’s cutting-edge Decima engine.
Animation is excellent in general, particularly of machines and their animal-like movements and charges. However, facial animation can be uneven, especially in side quests, as if the animators focused heavily on the main quests and just phoned it in for the side quests. And though there was some improvement in The Frozen Wilds, they could do even better.
AI is also excellent, especially when you try to stalk the machines from a hard to reach spot, as they find a way to stay out of your reach, or even a way to get to you somehow. The AI also matches the machine animation, making it much harder to aim at the components, which can be frustrating, but definitely adds to the challenge.
Side quests in the base game are highly uneven. Some are fun at best, but most of them are not exactly memorable or interesting. A few manage to venture beyond the investigation and tracking mechanics to deliver something fresh, but, overall, they follow a rigid structure of fetching something, finding someone, killing machines, and so on ad nauseam.
The Frozen Wilds as a whole suffers from the same problems in narrative and worldbuilding as the base game. The Banuk are presented as noble savages, warriors and shamans, hardened survivors in a harsh glacial climate, but the writing lacks the brutality mentioned earlier, which makes all of the characters and tribes seem cartoonish and unconvincing.
There is a major plot hole in the main quest of The Frozen Wilds, which involves the shaman Ourea knowing or being aware of locations that only Aloy managed to open or traverse through. She does say the locations have changed since her last visit, but even so, it doesn’t fit in with the way the quest is designed.
In spite of mostly tedious collectathons, there are also several points of interest such as the Cauldrons and the Bandit Camps that make it so Horizon is well worth its price in terms of content and playtime. While the story lacks variety through roleplaying, there is some replay value in the action, though it may become a tad repetitive.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a great action game that tried its hand at roleplaying and came up short. Guerrilla might have achieved the perfect balance between gameplay and story, but its T-rated, immature worldbuilding, one-dimensional characters and barebones roleplaying tip the scales in favour of its unique and finely-tuned modular combat gameplay, which is more than enough to make it a great game in spite of all other shortcomings.
- Unique modular combat gameplay
- Visually stunning world
- Vast open world full of content
- T-rated, immature worldbuilding
- Mostly one-dimensional characters
- Extremely poor roleplaying system
- No replay value in terms of narrative outcomes