'Horizon Zero Dawn' Review: An Immersive, Open World Experience

  • Playstation 4
  • Action
  • Open World
  • RPG
NOTE: This article is a contribution and do not necessarily represent the views of Player One.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn Photo: Sony / Guerrilla

There weren’t nearly as many robot dinosaurs in Horizon Zero Dawn as we expected but a lack of prehistoric adversaries couldn’t begin to sour us on the PS4 exclusive. Guerrilla Games first foray into open world RPGs isn’t flawless but Horizon Zero Dawn lays an excellent foundation for the next great PlayStation franchise.

Horizon Zero Dawn follows Aloy, skilled hunter and outcast of the Nora tribe; a matriarchal society that can’t seem to decide whether it loves or loathes what’s left of the “Metal World.” Unlike most of the tribe’s outcasts, who were excommunicated after committing crimes, Aloy has been an outsider since birth. She’s also never met her biological parents and no one ever explained how she ended up in either situation (much less both). But you know how these things turn out. Big Bad Evil makes itself known and the former outcast is the only one who can save the day. After a long and arduous journey, fraught with adventure, exploration and peril, of course.

The game begins hundreds of years after the fall of modern civilization. What’s left of humanity is divided into small tribes and settlements, many of which take steps to limit their communication with outsiders. But mankind isn’t alone. Without billions of people consuming global resources, the world's flora and fauna have flourished, joined by an assortment of robotic reptiles, mammals and birds of prey. Your robotic adversaries come in a variety of shapes and sizes, most bigger and more powerful than Aloy, but each creature has its own weaknesses to learn and exploit.

Flying enemies can be pinned to the ground. Aloy’s spear can be used to peel away an enemy’s heaviest armor and elemental traps can also be used to level the playing field. Aloy’s mechanical adversaries aren’t her only problem either. She’ll also have to navigate the politics tribes she hadn’t even heard of, before leaving her village, and eliminate plenty of living enemies. Identifying effective strategies for each opponent, and mixed groups, is a core part of the Horizon experience.

Hunting animals, both living and robotic, is also the primary means by which Aloy can improve her arsenal. Players can harvest a variety of parts from Horizon Zero Dawn's bestiary, mechanical or living, and use those parts to create (or trade for) new equipment. Some scrap materials are also used to replenish Aloy’s ammunition.

Horizon Zero Dawn is surprisingly successful at straddling several genres. The game wears its RPG influences on its sleeve; conversations are frequent, quests are plentiful and a combination of side quests and collectibles offer a deeper understanding of Aloy’s world. But HZD’s action roots are equally strong. Its combat mechanics won’t win any awards for their complexity. But there are enough skills and weapons for players to have several options when dispatching an enemy or clearing out a bandit camp. Horizon even incorporates third-person stealth and investigative sequences that will be familiar to fans of the Batman: Arkham series.

Mystery plays a big role in Horizon Zero Dawn. There is so much Aloy doesn’t understand about her world, from her place in it to the origin of its robotic inhabitants, and the player’s actions will determine how much she (and they) have learned by the time the credits roll. That understanding doesn’t seem to have any impact on the game’s story. But Guerrilla’s ability to keep players in a state of bewilderment, for so many hours, is impressive to say the least. That sense of mystery, and a desire for answers about the world, is also excellent motivation to round up all of the data points, diaries and other collectables scattered throughout the game.

The degree to which Horizon Zero Dawn mimics its predecessors would be less forgivable if Guerrilla didn’t add its own variations to the formula and take steps to improve upon the ideas it borrows from other studios. Sometimes, they’re small quality-of-life improvements, like adding a distance indicator to the various tasks in Aloy’s quest log. Others are more substantial, like finding a way to incorporate small-scale dynamic events (like those popularized by Bethesda RPGs) without all the other jankiness of a new Fallout . Guerrilla even has its own take on the tomb exploration popularized by Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot.

Most players will finish Horizon in 25-30 hours but it’ll take another dozen (maybe two) to see everything. Fans shouldn’t expect anything on-par with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But this is definitely one of those cases where less is more. Rather than overload the map with filler, Guerrilla offers manageable quantities of the side quests and other activities available to Aloy in her down time. The result is a much stronger selection of content that many players will readily revisit.

Guerrilla’s version of open world exploration gets plenty right but it’s not perfect. The studio’s restraint, when writing quests and placing collectables, doesn’t save Horizon Zero Dawn from the map clutter that runs rampant throughout the genre. The problem is exacerbated by players’ inability to display specific sets of icons (like Cauldrons or Hunting Grounds). A proper camera lock also makes the Notable Omissions list. It’s not a huge issue during smaller encounters but the camera does occasionally feel like an extra enemy during the second half of the campaign.

In the same vein, the Horizon Zero Dawn team deserves plenty of credit for limiting the number of optional tasks available to players. But it doesn’t excuse all the retread ground in Aloy’s quest log. Much of the fetch quest content appears under the Errands tab but it would have been nice to see more variety on Aloy’s To Do list. Clearing out a bandit camp is a fun excuse to engage with Horizon ’s combat mechanics but it’s not exactly a brand new concept. The same goes for exploring Cauldrons or killing X number of enemies in a specific part of the map.

Horizon also asks players to spend an obnoxious amount of time covering long distances on foot. Aloy may be able to ride many of the robots wandering Earth’s surface but the time spent procuring a mount frequently offsets the increased travel speed. HZD’s post-apocalyptic setting provides easy justification for the lack of travel options; however, a good excuse doesn’t make the current system any less time-consuming or frustrating.

Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t redefine open world RPGs but it absolutely raises the bar for future additions to the genre. Few projects successfully weave all of their disparate parts together into something both unique and interesting. Guerilla managed to do both in its first non-FPS release while simultaneously incorporating many of those (still optional) parts into the core story. Those who don't enjoy open world games, and/or who prefer bite-sized versions like Far Cry: Blood Dragon, might still find HZD a bit overwhelming or grindy. But if you’ve ever had a taste for open world RPGs Horizon Zero Dawn is an easy recommendation.

Horizon Zero Dawn is in development for PlayStation 4. The game debuts Feb. 28, 2017.

Be sure to check back with iDigitalTimes and follow Scott on Twitter for more Horizon Zero Dawn news in 2017 and however long Guerrilla supports Horizon Zero Dawn after launch

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