Ever since it was first unveiled at E3 2015, Horizon Zero Dawn has been a thrilling concept, an impossibly beautiful future world that is ruled by an animalistic machine race, with humanity reduced to a Stone Age-esque existence of tribes whose best defences are arrows and spears. However, there were also major question marks about whether the final article could ever live up to the potential; the Amsterdam studio behind Horizon, Guerrilla Games, has exclusively made Killzone games for over a decade, and to say they faced a major challenge is an epic understatement. The team was shifting from first-person to third-person, linear to open world, shooter to RPG and, for the first time, crafting a narrative that required a genuine emotional connection. From the outside looking in, it was hard to decide whether this was bravery or madness.
Perhaps this explains why, although it was first unveiled in 2015, Horizon has actually been in development since 2011, when the studio looked internally for new concepts after the release of Killzone 3. From the 40 or so pitched, it chose the riskiest and set to work, with a team of 10-20 building prototypes and the full weight of the studio eventually thrown behind the project. Thankfully, all this hard work has paid off in spades, Horizon Zero Dawn is a masterpiece, a visually stunning, engrossing adventure with a captivating protagonist and slick, satisfying combat. Most importantly though, it feels genuinely new, the introduction of sci-fi elements into the natural settings that are typically fantasy territory producing a thrilling gameworld and a range of technological beasts providing a stern challenge that evolves as you progress.
It’s also one of the few AAA games to feature a strong female protagonist, throughout you’ll play as Aloy, a smart, confident outsider who’s used to fighting against the world and doesn’t take anyone’s shit, and it’s striking how many of the side missions feature her helping outmatched males. Horizon is therefore a feminist game in a beautifully straightforward sense, it’s not interested in talking about equality but simply presents Aloy as the equal or superior to any man in the game. Moreover, the senior figures in Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, are the matriarchs, suggesting a society that places women in far greater esteem than our own. The game doesn’t bash you over the head with these ideas, but each of them is a clear decision by the development team and a thinly veiled message to the rest of the industry, let’s grow up and stop making games based on the focus group wishes of adolescent boys.
Initially at least, Aloy’s search for her identity is the focus of the game’s story, for reasons unknown she was born as an outcast, shunned by the tribe and brought up in the wildlands by fellow outcast Rost, a gruff, bearded warrior who’s the closest thing she has to a father figure. The game opens with a couple of hours where you play as a roughly 10-year old Aloy and she’s a striking mix of enthusiasm and vulnerability, constantly pushing past her natural boundaries. With patience and discipline, Rost teaches the fundamentals that will guide you throughout the game, how to gather materials, craft arrows, hide in the long grass, and then take your foe down with a well-placed arrow. What happens next is pivotal, running away from a bunch of bullies, Aloy falls headlong down a hole and, unable to climb out, quickly decides to press on in the hope of finding an exit. As she progresses through the cave system, her surroundings shift from natural to technological, someone has built stairs into the rock and strange lights illuminate the walls and she finally comes across a mummified body with a strange metal triangle on its skull. Overcoming her initial fears, Aloy picks it up and attaches it to her temple, it plunges her into a world of lights and, for the first time, technology is portrayed not as an antagonistic force but a tool that can be interacted with. Instantly, everything changes, the strange metal doors can be unlocked, hovering over a glowing light plays a holographic video message from an absent father to his son (touchingly, Aloy replays this a few times, showing her desperate yearning for real affection) and her world is cast in an entirely new light. It’s a remarkable sequence, calling to mind Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole and Neo taking the blue pill, an origin sequence that fundamentally changes both Aloy and the game itself.
Having escaped the cave with the aid of Rost, Aloy quickly learns that the strange metal triangle (which she christens the Focus) is far more than a mere trinket, she can now track the machines that populate the pastoral idyll that she calls home and view their patrol routes. Having established these gameplay fundamentals, we quickly leave the child Aloy behind (possibly too quickly, it would have been nice to have a few more hours to soak up the gameworld and further develop her relationship with Rost) and jump forward ten years or so to her preparations for The Proving, a rite of passage ritual that may just reveal a bit more about exactly who she is. To say much more would ruin a fantastic plot, but it focuses on the intertwined concerns of Aloy’s identity and just how the machines took control, with Aloy traversing an enormous gameworld full of quests, tribes and dangers. Throughout, the game is fantastically written (Fallout: New Vegas scribe John Gonzalez handled the story) and acted (the voice cast includes videogame stalwart Ashly Burch as Aloy and The Wire’s Lance Reddick), with every NPC quest giver being a genuinely engaging presence whose conversation reveals more about the world.
Mechanically, the closest comparison to Horizon is probably The Witcher 3, as action RPGs, the two share several features including a quest structure, dynamic melee combat where evasion is vital, a massive and natural gameworld, a skill tree, a crafting system and an inventory full of weapons, armour and potions. Aloy can also use her Focus to track footprints, moments that can’t help but bring to mind Geralt’s Witcher senses. However, while there certainly are similarities, Horizon is no copy, most notably it’s a far leaner game (with the skill tree and crafting system stripped down into easily understandable categories) and avoids the overwhelming complexity favoured by so many RPGs. The combat feels better too and is characterised by a speed and fluidity that few games can match, with Aloy able to use both ranged weapons (like bows and slings) and light/heavy spear attacks to take down her mechanical foes. Once you’ve unlocked the silent strike skill, stealth also becomes a viable option, and indeed sometimes feels like the only option, with Aloy sprinting between clumps of long grass and silently taking out weaker enemies in sequences that inevitably feel a bit like Assassin’s Creed. Most thrillingly, you’ll eventually unlock the ability to override some of your enemies, having them fight for you instead of against you, and it’s enormous fun hacking a hulking mechanical monster and then watching the carnage play out from a safe distance. Some creatures can also be ridden, and it’s a thrilling feeling charging through the gameworld on a robotic horse or buffalo, taking out enemies as you go.
It’s worth focusing on those enemies for a second as they’re a key part of just what makes Horizon Zero Dawn such a thrilling proposition. Almost every corner of the animal kingdom is represented in this mechanical menagerie, including the Glinthawks that fire blasts of ice, the sabretooth tiger-like Sawtooth that simply charges at Aloy with snapping metal jaws, and the fearsome Corruptor that attacks with both a grenade launcher and a spike launcher. Later on, the animal kingdom is left behind entirely, with the machines instead resembling huge mechanical dinosaurs. Not all machines are simply fought, with the towering Tallnecks (think giraffes with vast satellite dishes for heads) climbed and overridden to reveal the in-game map, the hackneyed Assassin’s Creed mechanic given a thrilling twist, here the towers are moving. When in combat against this varied and dangerous army, you’ll need more than fast reflexes and a steady aim, you’ll need to be smart and use Aloy’s Focus to reveal weak points on enemies and target attacks to remove dangerous appendages (like the aforementioned grenade launcher) one by one.
While it boasts an engrossing narrative, thrilling combat and systems that interlock perfectly, Horizon’s true headline act is its visuals, it’s quite simply one of the most beautiful games on the PS4, perhaps reflecting the fact that the original pitch was made by Guerrilla Games’ art director. Freed of any need to conform to a recognisable geographic reality, Aloy’s world is full of the most dramatic contrasts, and she runs from verdant forests to snowy peaks, rocky canyons to moonlight dappled forests, from makeshift settlements of a few tents to a fully-fledged walled city. Each of these environments look stunning, with trees blowing in the wind, sunsets turning the sky various shades of pink and red, snowy scenes featuring individual flakes of snow. It’s a true visual showcase for the PS4 and should get Kojima fans very excited indeed, as Death Stranding is going to use the same Decima engine.
What’s most remarkable about Horizon Zero Dawn is just how little is wrong with it, there’s the odd graphical glitch and some of the UI could be streamlined, but these niggles pale in comparison with the excellence displayed in pretty much every important area of game development. The gameworld is vast and varied, the voice acting is excellent, the story is full of interesting characters and fascinating lore, the combat is multifaceted and satisfying, the graphics are stunning and Aloy is one of the most remarkable videogame protagonists in history. On top of all this, it feels remarkably, thrillingly new, the collision of machine and nature genuinely innovative in an era where game development is obsessed with the safe choice. Instead, Guerilla Games took a massive risk, leapt out of their comfort zone, toiled for six years and produced an unforgettable masterpiece. Miss it, and you really will be missing out.
Developer: Guerilla Games
Release Date: 28th February 2017 (NA); 1st March 2017 (EU)