Much as it is with movies, it’s increasingly rare these days for a wholly original video game — one that’s not a sequel, prequel, spin-off or remake/remastering of an existing game — to find recognition in a market overflowing with familiar, tried-and-true rehashes of popular products. Horizon Zero Dawn, the latest Action-RPG from PlayStation-exclusive developer Guerrilla Games, is one such rarity, a wholly original game that deserves the highest praise for its gorgeous, meticulously-realised world and ambitious story, dealing with such themes as creation and artificial intelligence, even if much of its gameplay is admittedly derivative of many open-world games before it.
Players take on the role of Aloy, a young-but-talented huntress from an isolated, primitive tribe of humans, a splinter group of the survivors that saw machines take over the world after an event that wiped out human civilisation thousands of years ago. The remaining humans have now gathered into what amounts to prehistoric clans and tribes, hunting and gathering with spears, bows and arrows.
Due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding her birth, Aloy is considered by her tribe to be an outcast, forbidden from even interacting with members of the tribe by law. Certain revelations early in the game force Aloy to become the sole hope of her tribe, however, as they send her out into the world to find answers that will save her people. This brings her into contact with much of the outside world, with its varied peoples and cultures, and eventually to the uncovering of the events leading to humanity’s downfall, one that revolves around themes like creation and artificial intelligence, as well as the moral implications of unfettered progress. It’s riveting science fiction, wrapped in a unique futuristic-stone-age setting, that’ll definitely linger in your thoughts long after the credits roll.
Much like the player, Aloy’s solitary upbringing means that she will be experiencing the larger world of Horizon Zero Dawn for the first time. This makes her a perfect proxy for the players in this context, mirroring the players’ wonder, excitement and even fear when coming across unfamiliar machines, as they guide her through the deserts, mountains, forests and ruins of humanity’s past. It’s definitely a plus that everything looks so beautiful and organic, as you’ll be trekking on foot through much of the game’s vast open-world. The excellent draw-distance — referring to the in-game distance that can be rendered at any point in the game — does a wonderful job conveying the massive scale of the game’s geography, complete with robots of all shapes and sizes going about their business in the distance. All of this works to create a world that genuinely feels alive, one that exists even when you’re elsewhere in the game doing other things.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s loop of exploration and hunting/gathering will remind gamers of past open-world features like Ubisoft’s Farcry or Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider franchise. Much of the game outside of the story missions revolves around travelling to places and collecting resources in the world in order to keep upgrading Aloy’s repertoire of hunting tools to ever-higher levels of deadliness and efficiency. Things like the size of your quiver or your resources bag can be continually expanded with the in-game crafting system, which generally involves collecting herbs and stones in the wild as well as hunting down and killing all manners of organic and mechanical wildlife.
Hunting these robotic beasts for their cabling and data-cores is made relentlessly enjoyable thanks to two things: the robots’ behaviours themselves, as well as the wide range of weaponry available to Aloy, which makes every encounter a flexible test of fore-planning as much as skill. Tools like the Tripcaster, which allows you to lay down all manner of explosive tripwire traps, or the Ropecaster, which allows you to anchor machines in place, work together to exploit the machines’ behaviour in different ways, and each fight depends on bringing the right combination of weapons, arrows and traps to best exploit the specific behaviours of each of the 26 types of machine.
That’s not to say the robots will go down without a fight, even after you’ve hunted dozens of their kind before. Many of their attacks remain devastating even with upgrades, and many of the larger ones — like the T.rex-like Thunderjaw — require constant attention and quick thinking in order to take down. Each machine has a list of “weakpoints” on its body, which can usually be destroyed by shooting them repeatedly with Aloy’s arrows. Some machines will even require you to knock off some of their armour plates before they reveal their weakpoints to you, so each fight becomes a constant frenzy of jumping and dodging, laying down traps to slow down the machine’s onslaught, all the while taking advantage of any openings to land precise strikes on various specific points.
To give you an example of the combat’s flexibility, you can use a Ropecaster to tie down the nimble, tiger-like Ravager, shoot its laser cannon off its back, and use said cannon to reduce it to scraps. Or shoot off the armour plating protecting its volatile power source before igniting it with a fire arrow. Or stealthily peppering its surroundings with mines and traps in order to kill it without it even being aware of you. It’s all possible, thanks to the game’s flexibility in allowing you to tackle situations however way you want.
There is much left to say about Horizon Zero Dawn, a game that is truly a sum of its many parts. While the individual gameplay mechanics themselves are nothing new in the broadest sense, as even the mechanic of knocking off parts from larger enemies can be found in games like Monster Hunter before it, other elements such as the unique world and its finely-crafted environments and people work together to elevate it into an experience that is quite beyond its otherwise unremarkable foundations. It’s certainly one of the better PlayStation-exclusive titles out there, and people who own a PlayStation console shouldn’t pass up a rare gem like this.