Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

 Earth is ours no more.

Console: PlayStation 4 game played on a PlayStation 5.

The 2nd-to-last PlayStation game I snagged up during the 2021 Black Friday sales was the Netherland based studio Guerrilla Games’ very own AAA game: Horizon Zero Dawn. A post-apocalyptic world where humanity is back to stone/bronze-age levels while highly advanced robot beasts roam the land. 

With the sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, on store shelves, I felt that now was the time for me to experience the game and learn more about it. OK, the 'perfect' time would've been earlier to have this review ready before the release of the sequel but I didn't plan that far ahead. D’oh!  

 

Anyways, let's dive in!

 

Aloy, cast out from the Nora tribe at birth and ever curious about her mysterious origins, is told by Rost, a fellow outcast and the man who raised her, that if she wins the Proving, a ceremony competition, she can ask the tribe’s leaders for answers. Aloy ends up winning the Proving, but the Nora are attacked by masked cultists immediately after.

 

This attack leads Aloy on a quest across the lands to not only learn the reason for the attack but to find out more about where she truly came from. Along the way, Aloy uncovers how the civilization of ‘The Old Ones’ fell and comes face to face with a threat that endangers the whole world. 

 

The story of Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD) is a darn compelling one. The world, the lore and Aloy’s personal journey combine to create a narrative of success.  

 

Aloy is a much better protagonist than I thought she would be given the genre. She’s a very well-written character who has a lot of depth. A character you can easily connect with and pull you into the game’s emotions making the feels hit that much harder. She’s also, just like Geralt in the Witcher 3, is a character that’s a perfect fit for the game. Her inquisitiveness fits well with the exploration and freedom the game offers you without breaking player immersion. 

Ashley Burch´s strong performance as Aloy helps tremendously in bringing the character to life. Lance Reddick, who I think you know best as the concierge of the Continental in John Wick, also does an excellent job as the methodical Sylens. The rest of the vocal performances are good though they do lean more towards ´passable´ than ´believable´ at times. 

Aloy herself is a big reason why the narrative of this game clicked with me and, I think, will click with you as well.


A lot of attention has been put into the world. The post-apocalyptic setting goes beyond the tried-and-true dessert trope and sees a more varied bio-sphere. Mother Nature is back in full swing, leading to a varied bio-sphere full of plains, jungles etc. If not for the clearly visible remnants of the old world such as the metal frame of skyscrapers and a football stadium and the machines, you wouldn’t initially think it was a post-apocalyptic world. Neat.

The focus on the human element is noteworthy. The cultures and societal influences the ´Old world´ has had on this new civilization, both big and small, are thought-provoking. From the whole ´technology is seen as magic´ trope too far more interesting aspects. How humans mystify and objectify things they don’t understand, for example.

Time to go into the gameplay. HZD is, again, open-world. You can freely explore, doing everything from stalking and hunting the machines to finding collectables to helping out the people through tons of side-quests. The open-world nature of the game is both a strength and a weakness, depending on what you seek in an open-world game. 

The sense of exploration and discovery, especially the farther you get into the game and the better your understanding of the world becomes, is excellent. The side-quests are plentiful and varied and the collectables, loot and gear are fun to collect. The combat, which I’ll dive into more later, is satisfying. You can use skill points to invest in Aloy’s skill tree and tailor her to your playstyle. In short: the game does everything an open world should do and it does it well. 

The potential weakness lies in how much you like the open-world formula. HZD offer very little innovation. I don’t think that a game not innovating on its formula is a bad thing but with the uptick in the genre we’ve seen lately I can understand that people are growing tired of it. That annoyances with certain aspects like, for instance, a map that is so cluttered with icons it becomes difficult to read become more than just an annoyance.

HZD doesn’t really innovate doesn’t mean it doesn’t put its own spin on things. The ‘towers’ for example have been turned into walking machines. You still have to climb them so the fact that they don’t stand still adds an extra layer to the proceeding.


The game’s combat is very satisfying. Aloy is a hunter and the game does an excellent job of making you truly feel like one. Running in bow blazing, even if you are double the level of the machine, is not going to work out well for you. To take them down, you have to be smart about it. Use the game's stealth mechanics to sneak up on a machine for a surprise attack or try and take them over. Use your bows to snipe from afar and lay bare weak spots. Plant traps such as bombs in a machine’s set path etc. 

The only issue here is the melee combat. It’s sluggish, slow and difficult to aim. When fighting big machines this is passable but when engaging human targets is more of a hassle than its worth. Better stick with your bow and stealth tactics here as much as possible. 

The most interesting gameplay, and UI, element is your Focus. This little device not only provides a narrative justification for Aloy´s ability to interact with Old Ones' technology. It seamlessly marries the divide between UI elements with the narrative, the game's world. With the ability to scan for data, reveal the path of machines and X-ray it’s the best tool in your arsenal.

A little look at the focus scanning your environment, showing you some animals you otherwise would not have spotted from your vantage point.


Time to wrap this review up. Performance-wise, the game runs like butter on the PS5. High fidelity models and textures and the earlier mentioned world design add up to a very good looking game. My only nit-pick here is the character models. Their movement is stiff and their facial animations leave something to be desired. 

The music is composed by Joris de Man, The Flight, Niels van der Leest, and Jonathan Williams, with vocals by Julie Elven. It uses experimental instrumentation to create a score that combines different styles of music to create the score. Cellos and guitars (amongst others) created the tribal music while synthesizers and such were used for tracks about the machines. An interesting mix that, thanks to the games world and the skill of artists involved, works wonders. 

Conclusion

Horizon Zero Dawn is a darn good game. A well-crafted AAA open-world game that is thoroughly enjoyable with its well-written narrative and breath-taking world. It’s not the most innovative game in the open-world genre but hey, nothing is perfect. This game is worth checking out if you haven’t already. For just 20,- SRP you can get the definitive edition, including some extra goodies and The Frozen Wilds expansion so you really don’t have to spend a lot of cash if you want to give the game a go. 

Now, if you’d excuse me, I have to dig my teeth into said expansion. And finally, finish Triangle Strategy but that’s a whole other story. 

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