Horizon Zero Dawn is not a game that does things by half.
Announced back in 2015 it showed us a brave new concept: A world where humans are no longer the dominant force on the planet. Instead machines rule, roaming the land as giant mechanical beasts while humans eek out a tribal existence among the ruins.
It was a post-apocalypse unlike any we’d seen before and it was one that made bold promises about both its scale and quality.
So now that it’s finally here, does the game live up to its almost insurmountable hype?
For starters we’ll focus on the premise.
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The game is set several hundred years in the future, where humans are now paying the price for creating artificial sentient life. The once great cities that dominated the skyline are now rust-coloured skeletons.
Instead the world is inhabited by machines who have evolved into the familiar forms of Earth’s animals. These machines live out their lives in a multitude of forms: As grazers who collect the planet’s natural resources, fierce predators or as great wandering observers.
Now firmly in the minority humans exist in tribes, carving out an existence through hunting.
Among all this is you, Aloy, a huntress who has been cast out from her tribe with no knowledge of who she is or where she came from.
It is finding the answers to these questions that drive Aloy’s story and it’s the uncovering of the answers that will function as the glue that holds Horizon’s storyline together.
Finding out about your past might not be the most original storyline (it’s categorically not) but when placed into a premise as original as this it becomes a powerful driving force for moving forward throughout the game.
We won’t go into much more detail than this simply because there isn’t much more we can say without ruining the premise. Needless to say the game’s plot and its myriad of sub-plots are more than up to the task of competing with the vast world within which it is set.
The game’s plot delivers real emotional heft when it needs do, creating a bond between you and Aloy that so often games fail to achieve.
While some of the minor character dialogue can feel stilted it’s still at the very least snapping at the heels of the Witcher, and believe us when we say that’s high praise.
Then there’s the view.
Playing Horizon Zero Dawn on a 4K TV using the PlayStation 4 Pro is a real stop-and-stare experience.
Very few games achieve a visual punch like this - The Last of Us, BioShock and Firewatch have all done it and they’ve all accomplished it in different ways.
Horizon’s world takes your breath away through its sheer size.
Set inside a deep valley surrounded on all sides by vast mountain ranges it is a game of truly breathtaking scale.
From the gargantuan mountain of Mother’s Earth, where what seems to be the city-sized skeleton of a long-dead machine lies atop it, to the endless plains that fall away at its feet this is a world that just commands the screen.
Its developers Guerrilla Games are clearly aware of this as they’ve rather handily included a “Photo Mode”. It’s something that we can see gamers rinsing senseless as they try to find the perfect background for their smartphone.
The visuals continue to impress right down the smallest details. The weather’s effect on the landscape deserves a particular mention. Long grass sways gently in the wind, becoming a fierce wave of colour whenever a thunderstorm rolls in.
Seeing a thunderstorm in a game is one thing, seeing its acute effect on every single aspect of the world makes it real, tangible. From rain bouncing off rocks to the way in which Aloy has to fight to stay upright.
Now we’re quite aware that this review has been pretty gushing so far and so it’s here that we say Horizon, like all games, is not without its flaws.
For some inexplicable reason, the motion capture on its characters is oddly unpredictable.
Sometimes Aloy’s facial expressions will perfectly match the words she’s saying while other moments look almost puppet-like. It’s a frustrating break from the immersion.
Next lets touch on the gameplay. Fighting the machines is an exhilarating, and often daunting, prospect.
They’re the dominant species for a reason, and so as one single human up against what can be entire herds of machines it’s important to understand the limitations of your abilities.
Only through making full use of Aloy’s entire arsenal will you have a hope in hell of getting through a fight in one piece.
Of course it makes perfect sense, if you expect to be able to down a metal giant the size of an elephant with nothing but a few arrows then you’re in for a shock.
We won’t pretend that the machines are vastly intelligent, they’re not. Instead it’s the ingenuity of their arsenal that makes them so tough. For example Striders are weak skinned but get caught in one of their charges and you’ll be running for the hills.
Watchers meanwhile are small, pesky and almost velociraptor in nature, hunting in packs and using their speed and numbers to overwhelm you.
If the action does get disappointing it’s usually when you’re pitted against your fellow humans and sadly this is something you will do a lot of in Horizon.
It is in this regard that Horizon suffers from the same AI mechanics that drive so many other games. A lot of your time will be spent hiding, luring human enemies over and then silently removing them in the hope that no-one else notices.
These shortcomings are then compounded when you’re finally given the chance to control the machines yourself. While enemies are able to order their machines to guard them, patrol bases and even attack you at will, your effect on them will sadly be nowhere near as profound.
Instead your abilities extend to using the more passive machines as mounted modes of transport (we’ll admit that one is a blessing) or turning the predators into wild homing missiles that’ll attack the first thing they see.
This would be useful if you could then call them back, or exert even a small measure of the control that your foes have. Instead corrupting machines simply becomes a convenient way of pacifying them rather than converting them into useful allies.
So Horizon isn’t perfect, but while it lacks in some areas it completely dominates in others.
It is a game of profound beauty, not since Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed 2 have we seen an open-world game that so perfectly captures an environment and then breathes life into it.
The moment you drop in, you feel as though you have some belonging. Red Dead Redemption nailed this technique by making sure that no one journey would ever be the same - throwing in little events that made the world feel alive.
Horizon does it through the grass, the mountains and the rivers.
Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it hasn’t revolutionised open-world titles. Instead like Wolfenstein: The New Order before it, Guerrilla have succeeded by taking the simple stuff and just making sure they’ve absolutely nailed it.
That Horizon bares the weight of its own hype is a testament to the calibre of game that it is. It has been a long time since a world has come along that’s as difficult to leave as this.
Who should buy Horizon Zero Dawn
If you love open-world single-player games that will demand vast quantities of your time then get stuck in. As we said before, Guerrilla Games have created nothing short of their own personal Eden and they’ve invited us to visit.
Who shouldn’t play Horizon Zero Dawn
Conversely people who find open-world games daunting, even boring. This is truly a single-player experience so if you’re hoping for some online multiplayer hybrid then we’re going to leave you disappointed. This also isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, Horizon doesn’t necessarily do anything different to what we’ve had before so if you’re expecting something experimental we would level those expectations.