Horizon offers a perfect amount of open-world content paired with exceptional combat.
Despite convincing myself I was “burned out” and “done” with massive open-world games, I unsurprisingly jumped on the opportunity to buy Horizon Zero Dawn for its modest sale price of $10 during Sony’s last Black Friday sale. After a comfortable 65 hours of playtime with Horizon, I am glad that I was able to make one more exception for myself.
Yes, Horizon is open-world. Yes, it is massive. Nonetheless, it is far from overwhelmingly massive; unlike other big name open-world titles like Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, and The Witcher 3, it understands how not to overstay its welcome. I know I was asking for it by breaking this “no more open-worlds!” promise to myself, but I truly expected to get overly absorbed in Horizon for several months. By the time I hit the 15-hour mark, I was able to clearly understand that, sure, I was certainly absorbed, but I’ll be done within a month and be able to move on to the next game. This modest grandiosity of Horizon is something I really appreciate about it, since so many games nowadays are all about having the biggest maps with the most stuff to do. Horizon didn’t jump on that bandwagon, and it is so much better for it.
Horizon essentially has two storylines going on. They don’t necessarily parallel each other, but rather one is the cause, and the other the effect. The present day is centuries in the future, and is the main storyline. The secondary storyline takes place in a future nearer to our time period, all of which is revealed through voice and video recordings. This is all seen through the eyes of Aloy, a young woman who was outcast from the Nora tribe. Raised by another Nora outcast, Aloy’s way of life is significantly more isolated from what is considered normal by the Nora people. Ignored, feared and bullied when she encounters other Nora, the young Aloy doesn’t understand why she is hated by the others and why she must stay away. One day, she finds a device that clips onto her ear and reveals information and images that cannot be seen by the naked eye. This is her first link to the “Old Ones,” though it is far from her last. Once she has grown up, Aloy takes part in the Nora ritual “The Proving.” A test of physical and mental endurance for young Nora, The Proving does not exactly go as planned and serves as a gripping way to finally kick off the fascinating storyline in Horizon.
The two major plots in Horizon are fantastically woven, and Aloy serves as the heart of both of them. It is hard for me to decide which I liked more: the present day storyline with Aloy, or the past storyline with the Old Ones. On the one hand, I loved how Aloy’s time period shows how life has made a comeback since an apparent extinction of most species – humans included. The people are tribal, they have ridiculous laws, weird clothing and hairstyles, and are loyally bound to imaginary gods, which is ironically reflective of ancient civilizations of our real world. The most intriguing thing about this future is that most animals are nonexistent, and instead we see animalistic machines roaming the land, constantly threatening the people’s well-being.
On the other hand, Aloy’s Focus reveals what happened in the past, slowly piecing together how she and her people came to be in the first place. The technological and scientific advances of the past are far over the heads of Aloy and her people, and it is interesting to slowly have all our questions answered as Aloy delves into ruins, discovers historical logs and recordings, and witnesses conversations as if they are happening in real time—all because she discovered this strange Focus. Both sides of the storyline are great, but in the end I suppose I’d prefer Aloy’s time period, because advancement of the historical storyline requires the gameplay to come to a complete halt so I can listen to a recording or watch a video, unmoving. In fact, there are very few bothersome aspects to Horizon, but the fact that I must constantly be stopping the gameplay’s momentum in order to witness more of the story is perhaps the game’s biggest flaw. Nevertheless, as the secrets were unraveled and the twists hit me like an Oseram Cannon, I became more and more invested in Aloy’s story and was extremely satisfied with its conclusion.
All of this takes place in a gorgeously designed open-world, where Mother Nature has once again taken over the landscape and the civilizations of our time period are mere shells of what once was. As Aloy’s journey expands into new territories, the beautiful scenery seamlessly transitions from quiet snowfall in peaks and valleys to scorching heat in brown and red deserts, from green canopies of dense forests to humid swamps with ancient architecture sunken down by their own weight. Peppered all across this map of natural wonder are rusted, weathered husks of skyscrapers, hospitals, stadiums, and neighborhoods. It goes without saying that Horizon is among the best looking games on the PS4, whether you’re looking at the bugs crawling up the tree trunks, or standing atop a frigid mountain peak watching the sunset over a landscape that stretches out as far as the eye can see. Aloy and other character models are incredibly detailed as well, emotionally expressive without overdoing it while at the same time moving realistically. Aloy’s travels through this land of unbelievable sights is supported by a soundtrack that is so appropriately subtle that it wouldn’t surprise me if some players never notice its beauty. Atmospheric and subdued, the fact that Horizon’s soundtrack doesn’t seek to overshadow any of the game’s other great features somehow makes it that much better.
Gameplay in Horizon is heavy but never overwhelming. Aloy feels great to control, and her acrobatic skillset only improves as you play more, although the climbing sections are occasionally troublesome. Exploring the landscape is amazing, and there is almost always something to discover or a quest waiting for you. Aloy’s Focus plays an important role, for better or worse, since it reveals hidden paths and items, while forcing Aloy’s movement speed to slow to a crawl. At first, quests were rather bland and “fetchy,” but as the game went on they became much more interesting. Certain characters from these quests are extremely memorable, such as Erend, Petra and Varl. My personal favorite is Nil: a lover of human-on-human violence with a silky-smooth way of speaking, Nil just kills the bad guys since nobody likes them anyway.
The large map holds many secret items and places that only the most devoted players will find. I didn’t bother with too many of the items (they don’t add much to the story), but certain places like the Cauldrons and Corrupted Zones are exciting to play through and very rewarding to complete. Furthermore, figuring out how to climb Tall Neck machines and reach Vantage Points was always worth the effort, and not just for the amazing views they offer.
But at the end of the day, most people will agree with me about Horizon’s best gameplay feature: the combat. It is complex, hard to learn, harder to master, thrilling, exhausting, and always satisfying. Where to begin? Although she has many options (including a spear), Aloy’s weapon of choice is the bow and arrow. Never before has it felt so good to fight enemies in such a way. Her Focus can reveal weaknesses in the numerous machines she must fight, and will she ever need it! These machines range from the Watcher, which lives up to its name, to the Sawtooth, which I’ll only mention because it is scary as hell yet pales in comparison to other machines. These machines are the most common enemies Aloy must face (humans are usually a pushover), and they are much smarter than you’d think. Their attacks and movements are unpredictable, they can communicate with each other, and they all have sturdy armor that keeps them protected. These machines are tough! Aloy will have to use a variety of weapons and ammos to exploit their few weaknesses, her own body to dodge, sneak and flee, and her surroundings to find cover and reload. Combat is hard in Horizon, and it is extremely fast-paced and so much fun. That feeling you get when the powerful music suddenly stops is so gratifying. There is nothing quite like looting a bunch of destroyed machines in beautiful silence after an intense 15-minute battle.
As Aloy progresses, she can learn new skills to make her life easier, both in the field and in combat. Everything from slowing down time while aiming, to increasing your inventory size, to even being able to ride hacked machines to make travel easier, there is never a “wrong” choice when deciding how to strengthen Aloy’s abilities. Even better than upgrading Aloy’s skillset is upgrading her weaponry. The amount of weapons and ammo types she can wield is so vast that it would be a mistake to get comfortable with just one or two loadouts. I had fun with many of these options, but I know I’m not alone when I say that the Tearblast Ammo was the most satisfying for me.
Horizon Zero Dawn deserves all the praise it has received. There are so many amazing aspects to it, like its modest yet hefty open-world, its gorgeous aesthetic, its intricate upgrade system, and its endearing storyline and protagonist. The phenomenal “Frozen Wilds” DLC is also very much worth the extra time. All of this has stuck with me since completing it, yet I cannot emphasize enough the adrenaline rush of its combat system. If for nothing else, play Horizon for that. Really though, when it comes to Horizon as a whole, you can’t go wrong no matter how you look at it.