Horizon: Zero Dawn Review

By Mike Sousa on February 28, 2017

Guerrilla Games is mostly known for their work on the Killzone franchise. At E3 2014, Guerrilla Games decided to take a leap to a new genre with the announcement of Horizon Zero Dawn, an open world action-RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world. The announcement trailer featured stunning visuals and an exciting battle against a machine that looked like a dinosaur. Horizon Zero Dawn looked promising, and after playing through the game, I can tell you that all the hype wasn’t for nothing as the game delivers an enthralling story with an exciting and clever battle system and a gorgeous world.

Horizon Zero Dawn takes players to a distant future where advanced civilization is long gone and the remaining humans live in tribes scattered across the land. You play as Aloy, a girl who was outcast from the Nora tribe since birth and was raised by another outcast named Rost. In order to find more about herself, Aloy decides to participate in a contest called “The Proving”. The winner of this event gets granted any wish, such as being allowed back into the Nora society, which Alloy would take advantage to learn more about herself. Without spoiling more of the (early) story, certain events that take place during “The Proving” lead Aloy to set off on an adventure to learn more about herself, the machines and the world. It’s an interesting setting and story with a few twists as you progress through it, one that will keep players occupied for at least 20 hours even they choose to ignore all sidequests and exploration the game has to offer, and just go straight for the story missions.

Once you set out on your adventure, you will not only be presented with stunning landscapes and scenery, but also with dangers at every corner with enemy humans and deadly machines. But what makes this world feel even more alive is the fact that these machines act like real animals in the sense that each has their own role in ecosystem, which means that each will have its own specific behavior. For example, Watchers are always checking what’s around them and if they find an enemy they will warn the other machines, while machines like Grazers and Scrappers just like standing still in one place and digging. Each machine also reacts differently when faced with danger. Some machines like Striders and Scrappers will pretty much ignore you as long as you don’t attack them or get too close, while other machines like the Thunderjaws or Stalkers will attack you on sight.

Whether you are facing small or fearsome enemies, you will have to approach each situation carefully, as you will easily die if you just “charge in guns blazing”. The gameplay in Horizon Zero Dawn offers a mix of stealth and action. You can hide in the grass and silently take out small enemies that come closer to you or use your bow and arrows to aim at an enemy’s weak spot and hopefully take it out in one shot. Of course, stronger enemies can’t be defeated with stealth or a well-aimed arrow alone, and in these situations you will have to engage in combat.

Early on in the game you will receive a Focus, a small device that highlights machines, people, resources, among other things. This device is especially helpful to form your plan of attack, as the Focus also highlights the enemy’s weak points, shows the element to which they are weaker, and reveals their tracks across the field allowing you to know where they will be in a few moments. Knowing your enemy’s track will be gives you the opportunity to hide near where an enemy will be to silently take it out or set traps in its path.

Aloy has a vast arsenal of weapons at her disposal to take down enemies. In addition to traps and her bow, Alloy also has at her disposal a Rattler, a Ropecaster, a Tripcaster and a Sling. The Rattler is a weapon that fires multiple projectiles with each shot, making it a very useful weapon when you are in close range and need to deal a lot of damage to the enemy. The Ropecaster is used to tie down machines and immobilize them, which gives you an advantage when facing against large or flying enemies. Then there’s the Tripcaster, which creates traps that detonate when the tripwire connecting two anchor points is broken, and the Sling that basically fires elemental bombs that deal damage to every enemy in range. Planning ahead and using all these weapons in the most efficient way will be the difference between victory and defeat.

In addition, you also have at your disposal the Override ability. By approaching a machine unnoticed you can Override it and have it fight at your side temporarily or permanently if you unlock a certain ability in the skill tree, something I will expand in a bit. You can only override certain machines when you first unlock this ability, but you will be able to do so to all other machines by exploring cauldrons and discover all the secrets within. Cauldrons can be found across the land, which is nice incentive for players to explore this huge open world.

There’s also some RPG elements involved, as you probably noticed me talking about elements and weaknesses. There’s three main elements in the game: fire, ice and lightning. In addition to being used to exploit an opponent’s weakness, using elemental weapons can also be used in other ways to assist you in combat. When you attack enemies with weapons with fire element, you will not only deal fire damage to enemies but you can also ignite them, which will cause fire damage over time and may cause certain components of the machines to explode. Using ice weapons can freeze enemies and reduce their mobility, while lighting weapons can paralyze them and give you the chance to deal critical hits up close. As you can see, Horizon Zero Dawn offers you a lot of options and ways to defeat your opponents.

As you explore the world, you will pick all kinds of resources, which can vary from berries and herbs that can be used to heal your wounds, to wood and branches to make your arrows. Machines also drop components, such as wires and blaze, to make ammo for your weapons, but more importantly, they can also drop special items that can be used to modify your weapons. These can be used to make weapons deal more elemental damage, detach components from machines more easily, among other things.

As you level up or complete certain quests, you will earn skill points. There are thirty six skills that you can unlock, and while some don’t really add much from a gameplay perspective, others will be a great help in several occasions. For example, I mentioned before that there’s a skill that allows you to override a machine and have it always fight at your side until it dies instead of only temporarily. Other examples, which are very useful for stealth, include the ability to perform a silent strike on an enemy below and the ability to shoot arrows while walking on a tightrope.

Horizon Zero Dawn wouldn’t be an open-world action RPG without sidequests and other activities. The game also features several side missions, providing players with a good diversion from the main storyline. Not only is the story behind most side missions interesting and provides some compelling character arcs for non-key characters, you will also get experience and items, and sometimes more details on the game’s overall setting and world. The only downside to this is that the mission structure in general to be bit repetitive at times, although all the other gameplay aspects make up for it. In addition to side missions, there’s also Cauldrons to explore and bandit camps to liberate. For those that like challenges, you can test your skills at corrupted zones, which feature machines far more aggressive and stronger than the common ones, and at hunting grounds with timed challenges.

Visually, Horizon Zero Dawn is without a doubt one of the most beautiful games I ever played, easily standing on same level with games such as Uncharted 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider, among others. Everything from scenery to machines and character models is incredibly detailed. The meticulously crafted open world environments feel even more alive thanks to all the detail on sunlight and shadows, day and night cycles, an impressive weather system, and machines that act like real animals. The soundtrack also helps here, with sounds specific for each environment, such birds chirping in the forest or water flowing in a river. While the game’s overall presentation deserves a lot of praise, it’s also here where I can point out some minor flaws. While lip-sync is fine for Aloy and other important characters during cutscenes, the same can’t be said for minor characters, something you will surely notice in some side missions. I also ran into a few bugs and glitches, like machines getting inside rocks or a room changing from light to dark just by adjusting the camera angle, but overall, these are minor issues and won’t ruin the experience.

Final Thoughts

Horizon Zero Dawn is without a doubt an amazing game, and one action RPG experience that everyone should give a chance. With a lengthy and entertaining campaign, an engaging battle system that offers a perfect balance of stealth and action, loads of sidequests, and an enormous and stunning world, Horizon Zero Dawn is a great addition to the library of PS4 exclusives and serious candidate for Game of the Year.

Horizon: Zero Dawn was reviewed using a digital copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment America. You can find additional information about Gaming Union's ethics policy here.
Lengthy and enjoyable campaign, with lots side missions and challenges.
Gameplay offers a balanced mix of stealth and action, and an engaging combat system.
Amazing presentation with gorgeous graphics and an enormous and detailed open world.
Mission structure feels a bit repetitive at times.
NPCs don’t get much detail.
Occasional bugs and glitches.
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