Horizon Zero Dawn
That light. Milky peaches and pinks seem to bathe the world rather than simply illuminate it, while searing reds, yellows and blues assault the screen every time you point the camera vaguely in the direction of the sun in what must be the most unapologetically overwrought lens-flare effect ever committed to a videogame. At night, limestone greys and damp-mossy greens dominate while ghostly, moonlit silhouettes are picked out in the rolling mist. It’s immediately obvious that Horizon Zero Dawn shares DNA with Guerrilla’s Killzone series via the Decima engine, which powers both, but the tech finds even greater potency in this new, more naturalistic setting.
And what a setting. Horizon’s post-apocalyptic wilderness is sprawling but intricate, taking in vast deserts, dense forests, ruined cities, and snow-covered mountains. It’s an extraordinary landscape that evokes aspects of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Last Of Us, Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, and even Red Dead Redemption, but it never quite feels like somewhere you’ve visited before.
Much of this is down to the herds of indigenous robotic dinosaurs that call the wilds their own. Broadheads graze while raptor-like Watchers patrol like particularly vicious shepherds, lights from their heads illuminating the unfamiliar flora underfoot. Hulking Tramplers, which congregate in desert areas, destroy rock formations and trees when charging at you. Scrappers scavenge from fallen beasts and other machinery, flinging energy projectiles at you when you get too close. And the sight of a Tallneck – a cross between a giraffe and the Starship Enterprise – cutting through the mist is nothing short of majestic.
These sentient machines – or at least their ancestors – were created by humans thousands of years ago and appear to be tightly bound to whatever caused the world to collapse. But in among the ruins of one civilisation, another has sprung up, constructing settlements and forts from wood, cloth and recovered metal to guard against the mechanical apex predators that prowl beyond their rudimentary walls. Protagonist Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, is a matriarchal society (see Post Script) which shuns technology and appeals to magic and gods. This particular group of well-meaning Luddites is a little heavy-handed, and Aloy is branded as an outcast and shunned by the others even as a child. She lives with fellow outcast Rost – a man with a deep respect for the Nora’s traditions and rituals, despite his own rejection from the tribe – who trains her in the art of survival and piety. Headstrong Aloy, however, isn’t quite so zealous and holds little truck with any laws that forbid her to explore or learn about the world.
As a child she stumbles on a device created by The Old Ones entombed in the remains of one of the towering buildings they constructed. Called the Focus and worn in front of her ear, it gives her the power to scan environments and robots, picking out points of interest, vulnerable or volatile components, and even revealing the AI paths of creatures – a useful tool when it comes to making your way through a dangerous herd to get close enough to an animal for a silent takedown, or to reprogram it as a loyal mount. The Focus also allows Guerrilla to introduce a surprising element: investigations. Throughout the course of the game’s spiralling Machiavellian plot you’ll encounter crime scenes in which evidence must be gathered, and trails that must be picked up and followed to whatever revelation they lead. It’s a simple but robust addition in which LA Noire’s yellow evidence markers are replaced by an agitated mass of digital triangles, and it’s one that allows the studio to construct rich, localised stories from just a handful of components. Aloy is a keen detective, but she is much more at home hunting big game or clambering up rock faces out in the open. She’s beautifully animated, and there’s a weighty sense of connection to the world in all of her movements. Hunting requires you to get in close to your quarry without startling it and without attracting the attention of any watchers, which will immediately pounce on you. Aloy can target specific components of creatures with her bow or go in for the kill with her staff. Strong and weak melee attacks are complemented by critical hits that can be launched while standing next to a stunned machine, and you can even turn some creatures against their companions once you’ve learnt how to override their systems.
Fighting the more aggressive strains of machines is exhilarating, and successfully defeating larger robots requires you to make full use of Aloy’s available tools. You can use the Focus to reveal elemental vulnerabilities and highlight weak spots in yellow. Clicking R3 while aiming the bow will slow time for a few seconds, allowing you to focus on disabling shields, dislodging armour panels or removing a machine’s offensive capabilities. And you can place traps and explosives in the field, while a slingshot weapon allows you to hurl various elemental grenades. There are also two types of Caster: Rope and Trip. The first of these allows you to temporarily tether enemies to the ground, and if enough lines are attached you can topple them and move in for a couple of critical strikes before retreating back to a safe distance. The Tripcaster, meanwhile, can be used to lay electrified tripwires that stumble and stun enemies.
You switch between these various tools by holding L1 to open the weapon-selection wheel – doing so also slows time to a crawl – and if you have the necessary ingredients you can craft ammo for each of your weapons from here, even in the heat of battle. In some situations, environmental hazards can be used to your
The Focus device allows the studio to construct rich, localised stories from just a handful of components
advantage – shooting out the supports of precariously balanced piles of logs, for example – while human and robot enemies will fight each other, too.
There’s also a selection of cobbled-together guns, including the Rattler – a short-range hybrid of shotgun and machine gun – and a firework-flinging hand cannon called the Firespitter. You can bring overridden steeds into battle with you, too, and mounts can do damage with some painful-looking front and rear kicks, but they’re fragile in the face of larger enemies.
Many of the quest missions see you going into battle with allies by your side, though stealth still plays an important role – in every case you’re given the chance to enter situations alone first, sneaking through long grass to pick off as many robots, bandits or enemy tribe members as you can before the alarm is raised and all hell breaks loose. Human-on-human combat isn’t as enjoyable as tackling the machines, since there isn’t as much dynamism involved, but once Aloy is levelled up enough you can cut swathes through groups of enemies in a way that’s satisfying, if not particularly engaging.
Character design throughout is exquisite, however. Decorated with animal furs, found tech, dreadlocks, blue face paint, and Aztec-flavoured jewellery, each new individual is a pleasure to encounter. Visually, at least: while the main characters are, for the most part, wellperformed, the quality of voice acting drops off steeply once you start dabbling in the game’s deep pool of side missions and distractions.
Sidequests present themselves regularly as you encounter all manner of stricken individuals throughout the world, but there are also random events such as rescuing people from a bandit or robot attacks, or opportunities to ambush bandit-hunting parties. Despite the size of the world, Guerrilla has resisted the temptation to make these events too frequent and in dozens of hours of play we’ve seen very little repetition. Bandit camps can be found around the world, and clearing them will see locals move into the settlement once the area is cleaned up. Hunting Grounds missions set specific challenges – dislodge ten Blaze canisters as quickly as possible, for example – and help Aloy to accelerate the acquisition of new skills. Tallneck quests set vertiginous platforming challenges in which you must first figure out how to climb onto the towering beasts, and then scale them to acquire their data. Corrupted Zones, meanwhile, must be cleared of virusinfected robots. Aloy is never short of things to do and, blissfully, there are no arbitrary collectables to hunt.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an enormous, ambitious curveball from the studio behind the promising but perennially flawed Killzone series. In Aloy, the game introduces an enchanting protagonist and sets her on a remarkable adventure that steers clear of rote sci-fi. It takes place in one of the most beguiling game worlds in recent memory, and the whole thing is paced with the kind of deep, grin-inducing combat befitting a dedicated brawler. While the dialogue doesn’t always strike the right tone, and some ill-judged boss battles later on can feel more like a slog rather than pleasure, Guerrilla’s vision for an open-world action RPG never imposes on your time or runs out of fresh ideas. Horizon emerges as a graceful, intoxicating and often surprising adventure.
Horizon’s world features colossal tracts of land, which are home to roaming herds of robots, natural resources, wandering traders and bandits, and more besides. Despite all this open space, you’re never far from something to do