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Horizon Zero Dawn Review -- Tribal Girl Versus Robot Dinosaurs

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The post-apocalyptic world has become a fairly common setting across various fictional mediums. Whether it is caused by biological weapons, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, or the growing and crushing spread of mega-corporations and garbage, there are countless narratives which tell the story of humans (or an adorable robot in that last case) trying to survive and rebuild after some world-ending cataclysm. Horizon Zero Dawn is another entry in this genre, but there’s something distinct and unique that sets it apart from all its compatriots -- the presence of giant robot dinosaurs that roam the world.

At its core, Horizon Zero Dawn follows the story of Aloy, a strong and determined tribal girl with a fiery personality which perfectly matches her burning red hair. The game opens with a newborn Aloy outcast from her tribe at birth for an unexplained reason. Not accepting that decision, Aloy dedicates her youth to train for a tribal custom called the Proving with the goal of becoming accepted back into her tribe and learning the circumstances of her birth. What starts as a typical coming-of-age story, albeit set in a strange setting, quickly changes gears, and what unfolds after the game’s first few hours is a completely different story. Aloy ventures out into the world to learn about herself and the world. While Guerrilla Games has crafted a beautiful world and intriguing setting, what really drives the game is Aloy. Aloy is smart and incredibly sharp, and, without a doubt, she is one of the most compelling new characters I’ve encountered in recent memory. From the way that she moves as she runs and climbs over the terrain, to the random quips she throws out during combat and conversation, almost everything about her stands out in a positive way. One of my favorite moments which best exemplifies Aloy occurred during one of the game’s main story missions. Aloy pulls up a map of the Earth and one of her allies remarks, with a definite air of superiority, that the Earth is round, not flat like she think. Aloy quickly retorts to explain why she knows the Earth isn’t flat, leaving her companion stumbling for words. It is a brilliant and perfect example of what makes Aloy amazing.

That example should give you a sense of how far in the future Horizon Zero Dawn takes place. Unlike many other stories which pick up either immediately or soon after the end of the world, Horizon occurs an indeterminate, but seemingly large, number of years in the future. In the aftermath of an unknown cataclysm, wildlife has taken over the world while human society has regressed into primitive tribes. I won’t spoil any of this, but Horizon actually does a brilliant job explaining the circumstances that produced its setting over the course of its story. Of course, from the beginning, players know something is amiss given the disparity between the level of human advancement and the highly advanced technological animals which prowl the wilds. Horizon isn’t just a story about Aloy, however, as it also serves to craft a new and intriguing world for players to explore. While the main campaign focuses on Aloy, through side-quests, both major and minor, players get to learn about this new and beautiful world. Players get to experience a number of diverse climates across Aloy’s travels. From snowy mountains, to wooded jungles, to sweltering deserts, and even abandoned facilities from before the collapse of humanity, Horizon offers a number of different environments for players to explore. It’s honestly somewhat surprising how beautiful the game looks given that Guerrilla Games’ is most well-known for their drab and dreary first-person shooters, the Killzone franchise.

Another departure for Guerrilla Games is that Horizon Zero Dawn is a third-person open-world action-adventure game. Aloy is thrust into a new world filled with ancient ruins, random relics from a forgotten era, and a burgeoning society. To be honest, I was surprised at the world and exploration aspect of Horizon. First-person shooters and open-world games are very different genres, but Guerrilla Games has made the transition seem easy. Whether it is quests or collectables which help provide additional information regarding the circumstances that preceded Aloy’s adventure, the world invites players to explore. Like many other open-world games, Horizon relies on maps and towers (of which, this game wins the award for the coolest towers) to provide players with a sense of what’s out there, but leaves the actual exploration up to players. Early on, Aloy acquires a piece of technology from the old world called the Focus. This provides game-play elements for players, but also dispenses critical information to Aloy during her journey. I do have some issues with how easily Aloy is able to adapt to technology so quickly without any previous experience, but I understand the necessity of this game-play element.

In addition to exploration, Guerrilla Games has also crafted a combat system that is a stark departure from the Killzone franchise. Throughout the game, Aloy battles human opponents and around two-dozen unique robot species with different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Some of them are large and powerful, others rely on stealth and traps, and still others rely on speed and numbers. To combat these opponents, Aloy is given a diverse arsenal of weapons with a variety of functions. For instance, Aloy can use one weapon to lay a trap to take down an unsuspecting foe, use another weapon to tangle it up to ensure it stays down, switch to a third to pick off critical components before it gets up, and use a fourth to deal damage once it has been hobbled. Early on I only relied on one or two weapons, but one of the best parts about Horizon is the way that it encourages players to learn and become more adept at combat, becoming more competent hunters as Aloy’s journey progresses. Aloy also uses a spear for close-range combat which also provides one of her best abilities, hijacking. Fairly early, Aloy gains the ability to hack into her robotic opponents to turn them into her allies. While most are used for combat, some can become mounts to ferry Aloy across Horizon’s vast landscape. That said, it is more than a little disappointing that most machines are locked to a specific area. I understand that it would be incredibly over-powered to have a giant robotic T-rex following me around everywhere, but it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t also be incredibly awesome.

As incredible and fun as Horizon Zero Dawn is, that's not to say it does not have its share of flaws. Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing Horizon -- so much so that it is one of the few games I bothered to get a platinum trophy and I already have the upcoming expansion, The Frozen Wilds, preordered. That said, compared to a lot of other open-world games, Horizon feels fairly short and the map feels constrained, especially as the story progresses and you’re given a better scope of the world. I think the whole game only took me around forty hours which is low for an open-world game, but doubly so given the fact that I did not really use fast-travel till really late in the game (fast-traveling requires a limited consumable -- yes, there is an item that allows for unlimited fast-travel, but I didn’t realize that till far too late..). However, all that aside, arguably, Horizon’s biggest weakness is its release date -- a few days before Breath of the Wild, a similar open-world game, set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with technology, which, in many ways, redefined the open-world genre. It’s not that Horizon is bad, it’s just that it is so easy to compare it to Breath of the Wild which did many of the same things, but better.

If you forced me to describe Horizon Zero Dawn in a single, concise sentence, I would go with: tribal girl versus robot dinosaurs. Let’s be honest, the premise is ridiculous and awesome at the same time. However, as great as that description is, it leaves out much of makes Horizon truly stand out. If you instead asked me to describe the single thing that makes Horizon great, my answer would be simple: Aloy. I said earlier that Aloy is a phenomenal character and her story, the way that she interacts with characters, and the way that she deals with adversity form the heart and soul of Horizon. On its own, Horizon Zero Dawn is a good open-world game with a fun combat system, unique premise, and mysterious and enticing story. Yes, it has its flaws and weaknesses, but it is still a very good game. However, add Aloy to that mix and you’ve got a great game that I cannot recommend strongly enough.

...being smart will count for nothing if you don’t make the world a better place. You have to use your smarts to count for something, to serve life, not death. ~Elisabet Sobeck

All images owned by Guerrilla Games.