Horizon Zero Dawn is a remarkable achievement, but that may not seem readily apparent. A simple list of features or bullet points would easily be misunderstood as a ordinary open-world character action game, fine but forgettable. Its vaguely generic title doesn't do it any favors in this respect. However, Horizon is more than the sum of its parts. When each piece is this well-tuned and harmonious, it would be like dismissing a symphony as a collection of instruments.
Making a Plan
Take a broad overview of the moment-to-moment gameplay. It's a pastiche of various elements from other games, ranging from Tomb Raider's bow combat to the open world stealth of Metal Gear Solid 5 to the the deep crafting hooks of recent Far Cry. In moments, it actually felt very similar to the excellent Rise of the Tomb Raider, as my Aloy sneaked around an enemy camp, quietly picking off hostile enemies one by one.
Horizon's combat adds an extra layer of preparation and planning atop that foundation. I was hardly ever successful charging into a bandit camp head-first, and only moderately so trying to sneak around unprepared. The enemies were consistently too numerous and too tough to take such a foolhardy approach. Instead, coming upon a combat encounter requires some degree of focus and careful planning. Aloy's ability to scan and mark enemies, to watch patterns and even track certain paths, made for a much deeper experience. By employing a multitude of traps and gadgets, I always felt empowered to make a plan and execute on it.
Battles against machines are even more strategic, but hectic in a way that requires a high degree of skill as well. Each type of machine has its own attack patterns, and weak points that are vulnerable to different types of weapons. While it's wise to spend a few minutes studying your target the first time you encounter a new robot, that will only get you so far. To really hold my own against a swarm of machines, I needed to make every shot count and quickly juggle different weapon types. It can feel frenzied, but always rewarding.
Playing a Role
Those rewards also come literally, in the form of loot. This was pitched as an RPG of sorts, and while I'm not sure I quite understand stretching the term that far, Horizon does center itself around random drops and crafting. Materials can be used to make more traps or craft ammunition on the fly, while rarer materials are vital for trading. This being reminiscent of early civilization, trading isn't entirely handled with one universal currency system. Vendors accept shards as currency, but for better weapons and armor, they also require animal skins, fatty meats, or even particular robot components. Every battle comes with rewards, and the menu lets you easily set a task to find a specific item, feeding the loot loop.
Machines frequently drop modifications for weapons and armor, giving passive stat boosts to certain types of damage, or to elemental resistances. Better equipment comes with more slots, and weapons, outfits, and mods come in the traditional green-blue-purple rarity varieties. It was slightly frustrating being unable to swap out mods without purchasing a fairly expensive high-level ability on the skill tree, since it meant I was either stuck with early mods or actively discouraged from equipping them until I could afford the higher-level skill.
All of this takes place in a gorgeous open world, with environmental depth and a staggering amount of land to explore. Even on my standard PlayStation 4, without the upgrades of the Pro, it looked absolutely fantastic throughout. I can't remember the last time an open world actually impressed me with a day-night cycle, but seeing the sun rise and set over these vistas was always something to behold. I was also struck by the faces, which have eyes so believable and real it's almost haunting.
Exploring the world granted plenty of longevity and variety. While the puzzle-solving was trifling to the point that it could be entirely removable, the rest of the variety was nicely paced and easy to jump into. A typical session may involve running a quest or two, visiting the Hunting Grounds, searching for a loot drop, or finding my way to a new settlement. Every square inch of this world is crafted and engaging.
Culture and Curiosity
The other half of its posture as an RPG is the depth and attention paid to its story. Maybe more than any other single element, this is where Horizon Zero Dawn excels. The premise is simple enough. A young outcast in a post-apocalyptic future sets out to learn about her own personal origin, and along the way discovers hidden truths about the world around her and the one that came before. Horizon makes no mystery of the fact that the world we know has collapsed–we're referred to from the beginning as "the Old Ones." But Aloy, the heroine, is much more concerned about her own life, and within that framework, Guerrilla weaves a rich tapestry.
The world is vibrant and intimately detailed. Each culture has its own beliefs and traditions, and each character is a product of their upbringing. Aloy, as an outcast, is less faithful to the traditions of her Nora people, which gives her a skepticism when encountering their articles of faith. Many of the best plot points come from subverting our expectations, relying on our own understanding of the natural world and how it's incongruous with this religion. Nonetheless, it's easy to see how a religion would build around not repeating the mistakes of the Old Ones, and how that belief would lead to conflict with tribes less devoted to luddism.
But more than cultural disagreements, Horizon often dives into the nature of interpersonal conflict as well. Each of a dozen or so major characters have strong, uncompromising perspectives. The dialogue comes from where most of the best dialogue does, when these personalities clash with equally valid points. I found myself frequently sympathizing and understanding where each participant was coming from, even during heated arguments.
At the center of all this is Aloy, whose occasional dialogue prompts don't undermine her as a fully realized character. She's skeptical, determined, curious, and unabashedly willful. As her journey unfolded slowly, the central mysteries surrounding herself and what happened to the world are unwrapped in meticulous layers. I was constantly fed enough intriguing information to feel like I'd reached a significant step closer, but more questions kept lingering to the very end. That left me as curious to learn more as Aloy was, helping ground me in the narrative as an active participant.
Ultimately, that's what Horizon Zero Dawn is about: scientific curiousity, compassion, faith, and humanity. It tackles heady issues with the subtlety of probing questions and character study, never forcing a trite message or lesson.
When I began Horizon Zero Dawn, I was anxious it wouldn't be able to maintain itself for thirty-plus hours. I'm thrilled that fear was unfounded. The play was constantly rich and rewarding, and the mysteries constantly unfolding. I'm left not just feeling satisfied the entire time, but wanting more. This one is something special.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 download code provided by the publisher. Horizon Zero Dawn will be available in retail and digital stores on February 28, for $59.99. The game is rated T.