For days, I’ve spent my time trying to describe Horizon: Zero Dawn in any way that wasn’t just shouting “robot dinosaurs!” over and over. Games writing often relies on certain key phrases and terms; a common language among enthusiasts to help best explain a game. Horizon bucks that trend and does so with glee. Every assumption, every cliche, every bit and piece of Horizon that you touch while playing goes beyond what you’d expect in any other game. Horizon isn’t reinventing the wheel; it’s refining it.
You play as Aloy, a young woman who has been raised as an orphan and cast out of her tribal society. While her adopted father Rost does his best to raise the adventurous youth, she questions why she’s an separated, leading to the grander story. Aloy wasn’t born in her tribe, she was found. From there you follow along as Aloy grows up, trains to hunt and survive, and ventures on a journey to discover more about where she came from and the world around her. Her world is our world, Earth, which has long since reverted to a lush, green planet with the advanced technologies of our future long overgrown. The only remains of the once advanced human society are animal and dinosaur-like robots. These robots can range from vicious hunters, to peaceful grazers, or watchful protectors, each roaming the planet as their real-life counterparts once did.
The underlying science fiction story that divulges as you play kept pushing me forward. I was scanning every extra piece of information scattered around and listening to the different audio logs to get a better feeling of setting. What starts as just some abandoned buildings and overgrown street lights opens up through the main quest. You’ll explore laboratories and manufacturing plants, trying to put it all together and slowly getting a clear enough picture until the final few missions start dropping bombs.
Aloy must explore and survive in this world as she learns what happened to humanity before it collapsed, and how it relates to her. Answers are doled out, but they also create more questions, pushing you along to explore more arid deserts, dense jungle, and snow covered mountains, even if they are hiding more dangerous robots. The story is a wonderful mix of science fiction and tribal society survival. While there are quite a few exposition dumps, I never felt bored or uninterested. Each story mission left me wanting to know more and to piece together every little detail of what happened to Earth and to Aloy.
In the meantime, you’ll also solve a few problems with side quests. Some are simple fetch quests, some want you to explore and figure out mysteries, and others will lead you to much deeper stories. One particular quest is introduced not long after meeting Erend, a brash and cocky member from a warrior-focused tribe. His story leads to some dark places, and forces Erend to reexamine how he lives his life. You really come to sympathize with Erend, watching him struggle with the weight of responsibility the world has placed on him. I went from wanting to ignore Erend altogether, to savoring the moments he brought to the game; a great mix of levity and weight. Not every side quest can measure up to Erend’s tale, but the few that do, do so well.
Side quests aren’t the only activity to be found, there are also smaller activities to accomplish. There are mysterious caves called Cauldrons that, once completed, let you take over more and more robots to do your bidding. Areas of “evil” robots called Corrupted zones and bandit camps need clearing out and conquering. Hunting challenges can earn you unique weapons if you complete them under a certain amount of time. Finally, there are four types of collectibles hidden around the world, waiting to be found and turned in for more unique items. It was nice to have the occasional hidden object littered around the map as I explored, but they aren’t too different than collectibles in other open-world games.
Horizon’s biggest accomplishment is in the bigger picture. Almost every system and piece is woven together into the overall design. The time you spend running between quests lets you enjoy the beautiful world you’re in. And you get into smaller fights, hammering in the basics of combat before the quest you’re on pits you against something a bit deadlier. Aloy’s story puts her in a unique position as an outsider of tribal society, making her questions about how the cultures around her work, match my own. Every chunk of Horizon feels baked into another.
Horizon does a poor job showing you what’s really possible in combat, unfortunately. You’re taught the basics like how to be stealthy, set traps, and how to use your wits rather than dishing out pure damage to take down your enemies. However, every robot is different, and the weapons they give you to start off your journey won’t be enough. You initially have a bow for damage and elemental effects, a ropecaster for tying down and immobilizing enemies, and a tripcaster, which sets wire traps for enemies to trigger. As you explore the world, merchants will have newer versions of these weapons that fire different sets of ammo, each with their own unique effects and damage. It wasn’t until a dozen hours in when I bought my Shadow Sharpshot Bow that I really became a threat. It could rip off enemy components, pieces that often contained hefty weapons or defenses, and deal out massive damage once the enemy was exposed.
Each robot-dino forced me to react with different strategies. The simple Watchers, designed after small raptors, are vulnerable to an arrow show in the eye, so I’d always wait in the tall grass until my opportunity opened up. In contrast, Sawtooths or Stalkers would often come in close to attack, regularly meeting my melee weapon, which can knock off armor and stuns them for a few moments. The most dangerous challenges were the bigger, meaner robots, who required a lengthy battle and plenty of planning. These badass robots always felt like a triumph every time you take one down.
You aren’t just taking robots down for the fun of it. You’re leveling up, earning experience, and unlocking new skills that help you customize your approach to battle. In addition, each robot drops a variety of parts. These parts all contribute to crafting things like more arrows, traps, healing potions, extra inventory space, and fast travel packs. I never felt like I specifically needed to hunt down new parts for arrows until the later stages of the story. Towards the end of the game I constantly ran short of wire, a key component for my Sharpshooter Bow, and this would severely stunt my ability to damage enemies.
Running out of crafting materials at inopportune moments is one of a handful of small issues I had with Horizon. Another small issue, for instance, the stealth attack button, which deals extra damage when hidden, is also the basic melee attack button. This led to a moment or two where I took a step too far out of the tall grass and blew my stealthy approach. The facial animations and some of the voice acting feel stiff at times. While the world you traverse is absolutely gorgeous, running around the world can take forever, especially when you’re crashing into robot nest after robot nest. You can hack into, override, and gallop along with a robot buddy, but as soon as you hop off they’ll usually leave you behind. The fast travel system in Horizon uses an item, meaning you can run out, and will have to find more materials to craft another. This does force you to explore the vast map in more detail, but it gets annoying towards the later stages of the game.
All these issues don’t detract from Horizon’s strength: Taking the systems and cliches other games have made popular, and doing them better. Quickly crafting arrows never feels like it slows down combat, and the battle system is complex but not over-complicated. The world is a bit too big, but stunning at every moment. Aloy’s story reinforces the curiosity of the player and the deep story that plays out. For some, Horizon may just be another open world game, or another Skyrim-like, but that’s an oversimplification. Horizon is something special, an exceedingly well made game that everyone should experience. It’s a leap above every experience before it, an evolutionary step for all games that want to accomplish open-world excellence.