Open world games are no longer the rarity they once were. During their initial inception, they presented new and innovative ways to experience games but much of the allure has diminished as they have become commonplace. And while over the years technology has allowed open world games to grow, it seems that more and more have fallen victim to the pitfall of creating an unexceptional world devoid of compelling reasons to be explored. Horizon Zero Dawn, a PlayStation four exclusive from famed Kill Zone developer Gorilla games, not only avoids this pit but hurdles over it by providing an engrossing world shrouded in mystery that begs players to explore.
First and foremost, Horizon Zero Dawn features some of the best gameplay of this console generation, as it provides a constantly evolving challenge that never feels unbalanced. Every instance of combat must be approached methodically, as rushing blindly into a fight results in little more than death. Horizon unequivocally succeeds in making the player feel like a hunter, giving them the tools to adequately stalk their prey and the means to target and exploit enemy weaknesses. Utilizing these tools is Horizon’s protagonist, Aloy, a woman born of a future earth where metal machines roam the planet, and humanity has been forcibly returned to the stone age after the earth has suffered a mysterious cataclysmic event.
It isn’t until Aloy stumbles upon a 21st-century artifact called a Focus, a supercomputer that provides her with a vast wealth of knowledge, which sets her off on a journey to understand what happened to the world as well as uncovering the mystery of her own past. A mystery that will take the better part of 20 hours to complete, but there is easily upwards of 50 hours of content that will have the player exploring every inch of Horizon Zero Dawn’s sprawling world. Now a problem with a majority of open world games is that developers spend so much time on the technical logistics of making the world actually work that the emphasis on filling that world with compelling characters seems to fall by the wayside. Horizon avoids this by making the world very much a part of its story and by leaving so many questions unanswered early on, I felt more compelled to explore it. I would stop and explore every structure or cave I came across hoping to come across a text or audio log giving me any snippet of Horizon’s lore, though the most unique and story progressing set pieces occur during story missions.
Horizon Zero Dawn gives the player a staggering number of story and side quests, both of which require the player to trek to the farthest reaches of the game’s massive world. Horizon’s main story takes around 20 hours to reach it’s satisfying conclusion while undertaking the plethora of side quests and other activities available to add at least another 20-30 hours of gameplay. Sure, the side missions typically amount to little more than fetch quests that end in having to fight machines, and you know what? This never bothered me. With combat as tactical and satisfying as this, I sidestepped the fatigue generally associated with repetitive open world fetch quests. Every encounter feels new in some way, whether you’re facing a new type of machine or multiple types at a single time, forcing the player to quickly shift tactics depending on a particular machine’s weaknesses. This is where Aloy’s focus comes into play, as it allows her to identify weak points by revealing components on the machine that if targeted will inflict maximum damage. Aloy’s focus will also highlight a machine’s elemental weaknesses thereby assisting the player in planning their course of attack and giving them the means to quickly adapt.
Due to humanity’s technological shortcomings, Aloy utilizes a number of primitive weapons, such as bows and slings, for disposing of machines, but with a twist. These weapons utilize modified ammunition types such as fire, freeze, and shock, making Aloy an even more formidable huntress. Yet these tools are only as useful as a well thought out strategy. Early on I quickly discovered that haphazardly firing arrows or charging with Aloy’s staff would result in little else than death. While the difficulty may be constantly challenging due to fighting multiple machine types at once I never felt cheated. I always died as a result of poor planning, which inspired me to return to the proverbial drawing board and rethink my strategy.
Further aiding Aloy in combat are skill points that she earns from completing missions and leveling up, skill points which can be spent on unlocking abilities such as momentarily slowing down time to improve bow accuracy, silent takedowns, and tens of other abilities allowing her to become a more versatile huntress. These abilities allow the player to craft Aloy into the type of hunter that best meets their style of play. Being adaptable on the fly is made even more convenient by Aloy being able to craft ammo and other items on the go. By crafting items salvageable from the environment or from slain machines, not only makes the player feel as if they are a hunter living off the land, but it cuts down on the monotony of constantly visiting a town to restock on essentials. This crafting system places an additional emphasis on combat, as more advanced items require rare materials in order to be crafted, forcing the player to hunt down specific advanced machine types if they want to avoid shelling out large sums currency. This is yet another smart design choice by Guerilla Games as almost every element has been designed around combat, Horizon’s greatest strength by far.
Horizon Zero Dawn would have been successful even without it’s fully realized world filled with characters and set pieces that further compel the player to explore and care about it. Making the player care about an open world game is no easy feat, and making it more than just another bland sandbox shows how committed Gorilla Games is to this new franchise. And while this is an accomplishment worthy of the high praise the games received, it would be nothing without its stellar gameplay. Stalking, analyzing, and executing a strategy to take out machines was continuously satisfying and kept me continuously engaged for my 40 hours play through. Horizon is the quintessential Playstation console exclusive, as it provides a truly unique experience that delivers on all fronts. Horizon Zero Dawn is without a doubt one of the best games of the year, thus far.