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Horizon Zero Dawn Review – IGN

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A beautiful open world peppered with mechanical monsters that make for exhilarating fights.

There’s something about being dropped into a brand new game world and finding it to be dense with deeply considered lore, terrifyingly aggressive creatures, and tantalizing questions that leaves an indelible mark on the memory. Horizon Zero Dawn is one of those games, and it carves out a unique identity within the popular action-roleplaying genre. Coupled with wonderfully flexible combat and a story that touches on unexpectedly profound themes, I found it hard to tear myself away from Horizon even after I’d finished its main campaign some 40 odd hours later. 

Horizon’s premise is a big mystery that begs to be solved.

A sense of urgency is established from the get-go, as Horizon’s premise is a big mystery that begs to be solved. The questions raised by protagonist Aloy and the primitive, feral machine-infested open world she inhabits kept me guessing throughout: what’s at the centre of it all? Although Horizon suffers from occasionally corny dialogue that belies its smarts, the broader ideas it prods at – the nature of creation, for example – are remarkably ambitious.

Aloy’s personality helped me care about her journey on a more personal level. Nimbly voiced by Ashly Burch (known for her performance as Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina), she’s a charming character to watch and play as because of the wry wit that tempers her big-hearted heroism; some of my favourite smaller moments came from Aloy’s sarcastic interactions with other characters who didn’t get the joke. Though you have some say on the way she responds to situations in the interests of dialogue flavour, she remains largely a well-intentioned character, which is in step with Horizon’s broader story.

Fighting Machines

There’s much more flexibility to be found once Aloy’s out in the big wide world. Horizon’s combat is its most compelling feature, thanks to the variety found within 26 distinct species of animal-like machines that roam its great far-future expanse. These beasts have several weak points that can be scanned using Aloy’s Focus (a lore-friendly device that gives you Witcher-like heightened senses), and hitting different points can have different results that change the way a fight plays out. 

Horizon’s combat is its most compelling feature.

Send a piercing arrow into the bulging ‘cargo sac’ of a giant fire-spewing Bellowback, for example, and you’ll set off a massive explosion. Down a flying, ice-shooting Glinthawk by destroying the armoured sac on its chest to temporarily freeze the bird, or shoot the cannon off the back of a tiger-like Ravager and pick it up to blast a T-Rex-esque Thunderjaw, who you only just noticed approaching from the corner of your eye during the fight. It’s breathless stuff, and there are no hand-holding tutorials telling you how to best approach the beasts, which makes for more rewarding wins.

After I learned how to fight competently, Horizon continually made me feel like a ridiculously accomplished warrior without sacrificing the vital sense that every major battle could easily result in my death, in large part thanks to the ferocity of the machines themselves. Though they patrol on set routes, even the ‘herbivores’ will immediately attack when you’re spotted, and will continue to scan for you if you manage to find a hiding place.

On the offense, these robotic beasts are authentically animalistic. Snapmaws – enormous, mechanical alligators – will swipe with their tails and spew ice blasts from their mouths, while tiger-like Ravagers will charge at you with alarming speed for a full body slam up close. Dodging their attacks requires constant use of Aloy’s roll move, all the while using the quick on-the-fly crafting system to build ammo specifically to counter the threat.  

Her upgradable bows feel great to use thanks to her Concentration skill that slows down time.

For Aloy’s part, her arsenal is largely tricked-out ‘primitive’ weaponry. Her upgradable bows and elemental-infused arrows – your primary weapon – feel great to use thanks to her Concentration skill that slows down time, allowing for dead-eye aiming. She also has access to a handful of more elaborate devices like the Ropecaster, which shoots out ropes to immobilize enemies, or the Tripcaster, a weapon that creates explosive tripwire traps at a range. Though these more creative weapons sound great in theory, in practice they’re annoyingly slow and fiddly when you’re up against multiple threats, and I found the most challenging machines were too fast and too powerful to use them in a genuinely effective way. Fun to play around with on weaker enemies during more casual hunts, then, but far from crucial when you’re up against a wall.

Not that Horizon encourages you just to blindly wander into every fight and start shooting. A lot of the machines roam in packs, with larger beasts flanked by velociraptor-like sentry bots called Watchers, so if you’re not careful you can be outnumbered and devoured within seconds. To counter this, there’s generally a silent path to take: hiding in swatches of tall red grass and drawing machines in gives you a chance for a stealth kill, and if by some misfortune you’re spotted, Aloy’s Concentration skill is vital in helping you land an arrow right in that Watcher’s prying eye before you make a quick escape. It’s a shame luring specific machines away from their packs is so time-consuming, though; often simple hunts for a single animal evolve into massive fights against several types.

Alternatively, Aloy doesn’t have to do all the work herself, as she’ll discover how to override the machines’ brains in the field while exploring her world (to tell you how would ruin a wonderful surprise). Overriding has different effects depending on the machine – some become docile mounts, for example, while others will fight on your behalf, killing their own kind. As you upgrade your skill tree, these overrides can last for longer, which allows you to essentially build up a small army of loyal, vicious steeds. Watching them wreak havoc on the field from a place of safety is smugly satisfying.

The Big, Big Wide World

You don’t just fight machines in Horizon. While not as engaging as their mechanical counterparts, there are human targets too – many of whom populate the bandit camps peppered throughout this massive open world. Though you’re free to take them on as you please, I found it’s best to take a stealthy approach through the tall grass and pick off these heavily armed NPCs one by one. That’s a largely satisfying approach, aside from the fact that, like in other half-stealth games like Uncharted 4 or Watch Dogs 2, you can’t hide bodies. It’s a design decision that sticks in my craw when an NPC’s curiosity piques after he or she spots someone sprawled on the ground with an arrow sticking out of its chest from a mile away.

Clearing these enemy camps is one of the many incidental side activities scattered across Horizon, a variety which also includes digging in ancient bunkers for clues from the past, tracking machines through dedicated hunting grounds, and climbing to the top of a giant brontosaurus-like Tallneck to unlock more of the map. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in other games of this ilk – the Tallneck is basically a walking Far Cry tower – but thanks to the promise of XP and loot that you can trade for currency to buy better weapons, it’s all very compulsive.

Horizon’s ‘post-post apocalyptic’ landscape itself is beautiful and terrifying.

On top of that, Horizon’s ‘post-post apocalyptic’ landscape itself is beautiful and terrifying, so journeying through it in search of things to do between main quests – not that you ever have to go too far – is usually a reward of its own. Snowy vistas, autumnal forests, and vast deserts are stunningly realised, even capped at 30 frames per second as it is. (That’s true on PlayStation 4 Pro as well, where it runs in a stunning 4K mode.) Frozen mountain peaks or the calcified remains of a skyscraper make for eerie, quiet jaunts, made more unnerving by the Lost World-esque horror that sits in Horizon’s underbelly. One of the most thrilling moments in my playthrough was when I got lost early on, skirted too close to the water’s edge, and accidentally walked across the giant tail of a half-submerged Snapmaw before sprinting to safety with sweaty palms. Being killed in Horizon isn’t Dark Souls-style punishing, but as you save via spread out ‘campfires’, the threat of death also equals the threat of losing some progress. It’s enough to make these moments of terrifying discovery into Horizon’s ‘water cooler moments’ – the ones you look back on and shiver.

Aloy moves about the world with near Uncharted-like ease, too. Developer Guerrilla have done a great job at making her base movements – such as climbing, rolling, rappelling down cliff faces – fluid and responsive. Though I noticed the occasional pop-in and judder, Horizon’s visuals keep up with Aloy, and impressively, I didn’t notice any significant glitches in its massive open world.

The Human Element

Elsewhere, settlements and camps form a rag-tag civilization. Humans of this world have been reduced back to a tribal state, and each tribe has its own identity shaped by historical victories and grievances and various theories on the nature of their strange existence, devoid of a sense of their true history. Guerrilla has done an enormous amount of seductive world-building here, and I spent a great deal of time just wandering around settlements listening to elders tell elaborate tales of gods to children or seeking stories of misplaced vengeance in the crowds. 

Main missions cleverly weave current-day politics into a quest to solve the mysteries of the old world.

It’s at these settlements that you’ll be given your missions, both the urgent, high-stakes main quests and the side-quests that pop up as little exclamation marks on you map. While the latter are as lengthy as the main missions, they do  quickly fall into regular fetch-quest patterns: go and find this thing, kill some things, return, collect reward. Though these make for a great excuse to destroy more machines and there is the occasional compelling storyline, I would have liked a little more originality to keep them from blurring together into one, and better rewards for completion in the late game, where XP ceases to matter next to the search for frustratingly scarce useful weapon mods. Main missions, on the other hand, cleverly weave current-day politics into a quest to solve the mysteries of the old world. I found myself switching between chasing the ghosts of the past in the deep, lonely bunkers of lost technology and solving the murder of a tribal leader, using my focus ability to track bloodstains and trace clues before facing off against a tribe of cultists in a climactic battle. Horizon encourages you to chase your own story, but help others a little on the way too. Its ultimate reveal – prior to a frenzied, heart-in-the-throat finale – is smart and provocative, and a great pay off to the journey.

The Verdict

Across a vast and beautiful open world, Horizon Zero Dawn juggles many moving parts with polish and finesse. Its main activity – combat – is extremely satisfying thanks to the varied design and behaviors of machine-creatures that roam its lands, each of which needs to be taken down with careful consideration. Though side questing could have been more imaginative, its missions are compelling thanks to a central mystery that led me down a deep rabbit hole to a genuinely surprising – and moving – conclusion.

Editors’ Choice

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