Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed)

The video game market is currently super saturated with open world games. It’s the buzz word of the week, the game design du-jour, the thing that every game tries to do even if it doesn’t really fit their concept. So when a new open world game releases it has to answer the imposing question of “what makes you different from all the rest?” Horizon: Zero Dawn has a very simple answer: ROBOT DINOSAURS… I mean narrative… its answer is narrative.

Horizon takes place in what I would call a post-post-apocalyptic world. The apocalypse has come and gone, and the dark ages of death and despair have already passed. Mankind has started to rebuild itself, forging new civilizations around the crumbled ruins of old. However, the many thousands of years it has taken humanity to get back up on its feet have also allowed intelligent machinery to evolve inhibited. As a result, the land is now populated with machine life very similar to the biological life from times long past. This means robot horses, robot tigers, and yes, even robot dinosaurs.

Mankind has changed from a productive society to a scavenging one. Why build your computers central processing unit when you can harvest one from a fresh kill? You take control of Aloy, an outcast orphan from the matriarchal tribe of Nora. Aloy finds a focus, a sort of Google Glass style personal computer in ruins when she is young, and decides to use its power, along with her superb hunting skills to prove her worth to the tribe. Unfortunately her home is attacked before she gets a chance to prove herself, which catapults Aloy into a new adventure of figuring out who the attackers were, why they wanted her dead, and what happened to our world so long ago to create this new machine world.

Horizon’s world is the main attraction here. I wouldn’t call it one of the bigger open worlds, but I will say it’s one of the higher quality ones. Any schmuck can create a gigantic world and put nothing in it. Horizon’s slightly smaller world, on the other hand, is stuffed to the brim with content. Aside from the main quest there are sub-events in the main quest, side quests, hunting grounds, “corrupted zones” you need to clear of machine life, crafting quests and “errands,” bandit camps, ancient ruins to explore, and much, much more. If that’s not enough for you, you can actually create your own quests in the menu. Need to get a few extra parts for a new bow? Just set that as your quest and you’ll actually see places where you can scavenge those parts light up on the mini-map.

And scavenge you will. A good majority of the game is spent scavenging for parts. You’ll hunt mechanical beasts for wire and chips, hunt biological prey for food, pluck berries that can heal you, and chop down wood to make arrows. Anything that you can’t craft you can trade for “metal scrap” which is both a currency and a major crafting part in ammunition. Horizon is an obsessive’s simultaneous dream and nightmare. There is always something more to pick up off the ground, one more robot to fight and pick apart, one more supply crate to open.

In fact, there’s so much to do in Horizon that I’d say it was overwhelming, if it weren’t for the absolutely genius map design. While it’s true that it’s relatively normal to have 15+ quests open at the same time, Horizon’s main quest does a fantastic job of putting side-quests directly in your path. Simply traveling to the next story relevant location will take you through bandit camps and ancient ruins to allow you to knock your side-quests off the list. In fact, you would have to actively avoid completing side-quests in order to keep them incomplete. This is how open-world gameplay should be designed, a natural flow from one task to the next, not and endless slog from one side of the map to the other.

Horizon’s formula isn’t even all that innovative. We have seen basically everything that Horizon does before in some other game. Metro did the “currency as crafting/weapon item” thing, Far Cry did the stealth hunting thing, and there are any number of other open world games that had decent map design, but pulling all of these things together with Horizon’s interesting sci-fi/survival wilderness landscape is  a treat. We have never seen a setting like this before and unraveling every new mystery about machine life and Aloy’s origin is a treat. This is one of those games that you can easily lose yourself in because you want to just see one more bit of story, uncover just one more secret.

Part of the reason why this entire package works so well, is the development team perfectly tied the narrative into the mechanics. Bows and arrows and sling shots are the weapons du-jour, but they are capable of firing explosive ammunition because of the fuel canisters you harvest from robot life. Guns are incredibly rare, and ammo refills are non-existent. When you find a firearm you’ll fire it until its empty and then throw it away. There is this feeling of a strange combination of primitive technology fused with the remnants of a world far more technologically advanced than our own. No weapon or item is thrown into the game just because it’s cool. They all have a place and purpose.

While the game is well put together, it’s not perfect. There are plenty of nit-picky complaints I could make about the game. For example:

  • Save points don’t heal you, but reloading from your current save does. So it forces the player to do this stupid save and reload dance every time you save the game, just to get the free heal.
  • Story is a little awkwardly dispersed throughout the quests. Some major plot elements are tucked away in sidequests while some main quests amount to little more than “kill some things and talk to a guy.”
  • You have to craft fast travel packs, which does actually take you a long way out of the way from the main story’s path. You can circumvent this by purchasing an unlimited fast travel pack, but the game doesn’t tell you about it and its tucked far away in a corner of the shop menu that you may have never thought to look in.
  • The game similarly shoves tutorials into corners of the menu, and level locks these tutorials far past the point where they are useful. For example, one of the weapons you can purchase at the beginning of the game marks its tutorial as a level 18 quest, yikes!
  • There are numerous graphical problems and glitches between shadow pop in, jittering character models, and semi-loaded textures.

While all of these are rightfully nit-picks, they don’t really interferers with the game as a whole. The only serious issue is the game’s ludicrous wall of a difficulty curve. You’ll happily be going about your way, slaying every robot bird and horse that comes your way, and then you’ll find your first robot tiger and get absolutely wrecked. You’ll grind and grind and grind until robot tigers are nothing, and then you’ll run up against a giant fire-breathing robot frog and get similarly wrecked.  Each new robot feels like a desperate fight for your life and you never quite feel like you are properly equipped for the situation.

Quests also have their difficulty hopelessly mislabeled. There was a story quest I was put into that put me up against two giant robot spiders and a fistful of bandits. The game said I was 5 levels over the recommended level and I would die immediately upon entering their camp, no matter how stealthy I was. I only managed to get through that mission by luring the enemies to the border of their A.I. pathing and taking them out from a safe distance.

But while getting trampled to death unexpectedly by robot antelope is enough to get you to turn your PS4 off in frustration, the absolute mystery of Horizon’s world keeps pulling you back in. While Aloy’s tribal plot is quickly dropped in lieu of a grander planet saving adventure every new question keeps you playing. Part of this is because of the amazing voice acting job of Ashly Burch, of Life is Strange, Borderlands 2, and Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’ fame. She sells Aloy’s personality as a rebellious adventurer looking for something more so well. You immediately empathize with Aloy’s quest and you want to see it come to an end, no matter how many robotic… I don’t know… emus you have to kill.

I’ll admit, I’m usually not a big fan of the open world formula. Why would I want to kill 5 wolves when I could be on an epic quest to save the world? But Horizon didn’t make me choose. Everything it had me do funneled me toward the end of the game, one hunt at a time. If it’s enough to get an open world skeptic like me to enjoy it, fans of the genre will love it. You should pick up Horizon if only for the unique world it lets you play in.