Horizon: Zero Dawn - Review


Taking a break from the sci-fi shooter genre, developer Guerilla Games returns with a brand new IP all the while exploring a new game genre - the open-world adventure.
With Horizon: Zero Dawn, Guerilla Games made quite an impact at E3 2015. Most notably with a very distinct and creative art style that features numerous mechanical animals in a dystopian future, Horizon visually didn't look like your everyday open world game.
Yet after more and more walkthroughs and gameplay footage arrived that showed that the game indeed took quite a few inspirations from other notable adventure games, the question is whether Horizon: Zero Dawn manages to bring enough new own ideas to the table that prevent it from feeling like a carbon copy...


Taking place in an unspecified future on Earth, Horizon: Zero Dawn introduces a world in which primitive human tribes live in a world infested with mechanical animals (or "machines") from a time long gone. There, the player is placed into the shoes of Aloy - a girl placed into the care of an outcast named Rost, who, as an outcast herself, embarks on a journey to find out where she came from. During this quest, Aloy encounters enemy tribes who possess the power to corrupt machines and control them. Seemingly wanting to take over the other tribes, Aloy has to find out what ancient technology is responsible for that, where she came from and how to stop this threat.

The game features a very cinematic presentation that is top notch.

First and foremost, credit has to be given to Horizon: Zero Dawn's effort to tell a very cinematic albeit not very groundbreaking story.
Right from the get-go it is very obvious that Guerilla Games really stepped up their game when telling Aloy's story. With that said, Horizon has a remarkably entertaining way of telling its story in a very cinematic fashion. Especially the beginning and the finale of Horizon's story mark the strongest parts in a narrative that unfortunately has some distinct pacing issues. As it is typical for open world games, Horizon: Zero Dawn features multiple sub-plots that go along with the main plot itself. The thing is that Horizon's story is always at its most interesting and most investing when its focussed on the plot of Aloy fighting the corrupted machines and wanting to find out about her past and how the machine world came to be. However, the middle part of Horizon tends to get needlessly distracted with multiple side-activities, sub-plots and missions that ultimately feel like narrative filler - making for quite a few (at least storywise) boring parts in an otherwise nicely told and revelation-heavy story.
Sure enough, Horizon's story takes advantage of multiple well known tropes, like the prodigy saving the world and man vs. machine, yet it's presented in a refreshing enough way, to make it all feel satisfying enough in the end.

Aloy's story is nothing too new but servicably entertaining enough.


Core Gameplay Mechanics - "A Little Bit of This and a Little Bit of That"

Horizon: Zero Dawn's core gameplay mechanics are both a very strong positive and a big negative all at the same time.
"How is that possible?" you may ask. Well, the reason for that is that Horizon: Zero Dawn never really delivers anything in terms of gameplay that hasn't been done anywhere else before.
While there certainly isn't any need for every new game to reinvent the wheel again and again, the ways in which you recognize that each aspect of the game is basically taken from another successful franchise and simply combined with another one makes Horizon: Zero Dawn oftentimes lack a certain needed novelty factor.

Climbable towers to unlock map sections are of course also present.

Therefore, Horizon's gameplay as a whole can be easily just described as a compilation of gameplay elements from Tomb Raider, Far Cry, Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum.
From the wild life hunting, resource gathering and campfires from Tomb Raider, over the enemy camp infiltrations from Far Cry all the way to some detective-like investigation missions like in the Arkham games, it's all of course great fun considering that those are all elements that are all for good reason taken as inspirations. But one can't deny that during the parts in which Horizon's story itself or the cinematic presentation doesn't really grip you, the gameplay alone oftentimes has a hard time to keep you going since you exactly know what awaits you each time as you go along.

Mission designs as well aren't really anything too surprising and mostly focus on the different gameplay aspects that the game already borrows from other notable popular games. While there are indeed some more cinematic missions whose presentation and atmosphere alone keep you entertained, no mission really demands anything too new from you that can't be considered "the standard" nowadays.

The locations are nicely varied but the missions mostly feel quite a bit uneventful.

Enemies & Weapons - "Mecha-Godzillas"

Where Horizon's own gameplay personality itself shines through though is especially when traversing the landscapes and fighting or hunting mechanical animals. While it may sound like nothing too special at first, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that never becomes too easy. Though there of course are plenty of ways to level up your character and buy new and better gear, fending off predators in the wild (most notably when it's an entire group of predators) is always a challenge. This is thanks to each machine animal type having specific and varied weakspots as well as different lethal ways to attack you - both in close combat as well as ranged combat. Knowing how to approach each animal, what its attacks are and whether it is more wise to avoid or confront it is a constant when traveling through Horizon's world.

"Maybe if I don't move, it won't see me."

Mechanical animals are everywhere and most of the time will directly attack you when spotting you. Although it is nice that the game thus emphasizes the need to approach many situations in a stealthy way by taking advantage of hiding in high gras or behind objects, it sometimes can actually feel overdone and boarderline unfair at times when even supposedly peaceful horse and deer-like machines attack you for 90% of the time when spotting you. In the worst cases the wild life in Horizon can actually feel ridiculously unfair towards you when a gang of deers AND sabretooth machines attack you from all sides at once yet ignore each other completely. In those instances, the immersion of being in a vivid self-contained world with an own self-aware wilderness can break apart when noticing that the machines in many instances simply ignore each other but in most instances always attack you no matter what.

At times, the mechanical wild life in Horizon can feel a bit overly dangerous.

Nevertheless, Horizon: Zero Dawn offers you a nice arsenal of varied weapons to approach the animals, hunt them or just defend yourself against them.
From different sets of arrows, over bombs and traps, to ropecasters that can tie down animals temporarily for you to get a critical strike on them, once again each animal type is best tackled with a specific approach and weapon if you want to do it succesfully and get out of the confrontation alive. The weapon variety and variety of animals is what really breathes necessary novelty and life into Horizon's otherwise very been-there-done-that gameplay design. It nicely encourages experimentation and makes each encounter varied enough to keep you on your toes. However, forcing players to always craft a backpack to fast travel to certain places across the map, feels  unnecessarily restrictive and annoying.

Different enemies ask for different approaches.


Aside from the generally very cinematic presentation of the game's biggest moments, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a masterpiece of art design.
While the game might lack an own personality in terms of gameplay, it makes up for that to quite an extent with its sheer gorgeous art design. Even though the mechanical animals in the game all lack any actual real eyes or skin, they are designed in such a way that you can always make out what animal each of them is supposed to represent. Especially by having each machine move very smoothly and organically, it is at many moments easy to forget that you are actually fighting robots and not real animals.
On top of that, the game's high production values also carry over to the human characters which are nicely and carefully animated so that facial expressions during emotional scenes are very realistically pulled off. Also, it doesn't hurt that the game's open world is not only restricted to forests and snowy mountains but also desert landscapes and jungle environments as well.


Soundwise, it's most probably the voice acting that comes off as the most prominent element here.
The voice actors all across the board do a terrific job in breathing life into the game's characters.
Regarding the soundtrack, it is definitely very competently done and feels epic and emotional enough, yet the game nevertheless lacks somewhat of a distinct theme that gets stuck in your head - making the soundtrack a good one, yet somewhat easily forgettable nevertheless.

Visually speaking, Horizon is one of the most creative games of this generation.

The Verdict

All in all, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a good game that despite its very creative art design and high production values is an open world game that generally plays it all very safe - for better and for worse.
While boasting a nicely entertaining story lead by a very likable heroine, it's Horizon's good yet anything but innovative gameplay design that will either grip you right from the start or have you bored after only a short time. With only the mechanical animals and their varied characteristics giving the game somewhat of an own personality, everything else in Horizon: Zero Dawn is heavily borrowed from other notable game franchises. From the hunting and climbing from Tomb Raider, over the camp infiltration from Far Cry, to the investigation missions from the Batman Arkham games, 90% of what you will do in Horizon: Zero Dawn is most likely something you experienced multiple times already. Sure enough all those "copied" aspects in Horizon are still very nicely pulled off and make for a nice experience that sort of combines the "best of the best" that adventure games have to offer nowadays, yet without too many own new ideas, one can't deny that even with all those gorgeous visuals and creatures, Horizon mostly just feels too standard for its own good.

Horizon: Zero Dawn as a whole still is a perfectly servicable, well told, beautiful looking and simply good game. With that said, players who don't necessarily expect anything innovative from it (aside from hunting machine animals) can savely dive into the game right now. However, anybody else hoping for more than a good but standard open world adventure game, should definitely wait for a price drop.

 Final Verdict: 7 out of 10 

Status: Good

Big thanks goes out to Sony Computer Entertainment and Toll PR
for providing a review copy of the game.

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