Let me start this review with a big fat spoiler: Horizon Zero Dawn has one of the most beautiful worlds and world-lore ever conceived. The period that the authors cover is mind-blowing. Never has an apocalypse, the events that lead up to it, and what happened afterward been stretched so far apart as in Horizon Zero Dawn. It is called a post-post-apocalypse scenario for a reason.
There, I said it. Feels good. I had this one on my chest for a very long time while I was procrastinating instead of crafting this review as promised in My Year in Video Gaming 2021 story.
(Takes a deep breath <inhales> … <exhales> and starts from the beginning.)
As I start writing this review, February the 6th, 2022, Horizon Forbidden West is just around the corner. Five years earlier, also in February, Guerilla Games released a completely new franchise that became an immediate success. It was one of those games that are said to exist only on PlayStation – a narrative-driven single-player adventure with an incredible focus on detail, quality, and polish. My kind of jam. But there was a slight wrinkle, though. As a PC player that had no intention of purchasing any type of console, and Sony not yet being in the business of also releasing their flagship titles on PC meant there was no point in waiting for a port. What does a ravenous gamer do in such a situation? He carefully presses CTRL and sneaks into a dark corner, hiding and unable to be seen by other PC players. He then shamefully turns to a trusted YouTuber and watches the spectacle in absolute awe and with envious contempt for himself.
About five years later, the former greedy PC gamer has now turned to consoles for his fix. Consequently, it was about time to experience Horizon Zero Dawn for myself. I have raved about this masterpiece to my sister, and she ended up buying it but then sat on the PlayStation while it gathered dust. To satiate my hunger, one day, I grabbed my PS4 Pro in one hand, my sister in the other, tossed both in the trunk of my car, drove home, and we ended up enjoying the game together. Good things come to those who wait, and I have waited long.
(No PlayStations have been hurt in this depiction of events.)
Let me dive into the details in my usual manner and tell you what I liked about Horizon Zero Dawn and what elements were not so optimal.
The Nerdy Bits
As I have done in the past, I kindly refer you to the excellent coverage by the folks at Digital Foundry. John Linneman has created two great videos covering Horizon’s technology in a way that I simply cannot. His knowledge about rendering techniques, their utilization in games, and capturing them for explanation in a video is an art form of its own. He has produced one video covering the original release of 2017 and one focusing on the Frozen Wilds expansion. The latter is particularly fascinating as it contains some interesting insights into the game’s motor, the Decima engine, that you never get to see as a player. Alex Battaglia covered the 2020 PC port of Horizon Zero Dawn in two videos for all you PC gamers out there.
In his videos, everything that John Linneman mentioned still holds true, even in 2022. The level of detail in the world, the fauna, and on characters is incredible. Just look at Aloy’s hair. And then there are the machines, be it small, medium, big, or supersize. The art and design team created convincing resemblances of real animals and dinosaurs and gave them unique visual features to distinguish them from each other. Some are aggressive predators, and others flee at the sight of danger. And then you will encounter some predators that prey on other predator’s predators – for breakfast. They exist for one reason only, spreading fear and bombing their enemies out of existence. Combating these war machines is one of the most challenging challenges you are challenged with. The sheer size alone can be intimidating, and Horizon manages to convey the sense of scale exceptionally well. Standing next to a Thunderjaw will make you feel small and insignificant.
But it is not only about the look – which is fantastic. Animation work is superb, too, especially Aloy and how she reacts to the environment. Her movement is so gracious and fluid. The same is true for machines. There is no stuttering or abrupt changes in direction that make it look comical. It all just blends nicely together. Horizon’s engine is a marvel of technology, despite the hardware it is running on. There is a good reason why Hideo Kojima selected it for Death Stranding. Not everything is perfect, though, as you can imagine from a five-year-old game. A minor gripe is the rendering of human skin. It is flat with only little detail. Do not mistake this for “ugly” because that is far from it. Compared to the otherwise astounding visuals, it merely lags a bit behind. The rendering of water and the totally busted lip-sync of side characters in conversations is somewhat more glaring. Conversations themselves are also a bit of a sore spot, as the characters express only little emotion. The camera awkwardly changes from person to person as they speak and mainly only shows the upper body and head. In contrast to that, the main story-mission-cutscenes are very good, however. As uninspiring as conversations may be presented, Horizon delivers cinematic shots when it counts.
Not lagging behind is the audio presentation. I so enjoy a good audio experience, and Horizon shines on that front. Whether it is ambient sounds, the actions you perform with your heroine, or determining a machine’s location through positional audio leveraging a multi-channel setup. A Thunderjaw in the vicinity generates such a threatening stomping sound that instinctively lets you make a wide berth. All pieces of the puzzle fall into place and dramatically augment the visuals. Not to mention the excellent voice acting. Ashly Burch as Aloy (also known for Tiny Tina in Borderlands), Lance Reddick as Sylens (whom I recognize from the Fringe TV series), and all other actors really bring characters to life. It is so supportive of forming a bond with Aloy, Rost, and Erend and antagonizing the story’s foes. Ashly Burch’s voice is so pleasant, which seems impossible considering the amount of insanity in Tiny Tina’s screaming and shouting. I love it – and I do not say that often.
The last bit I want to mention about the technology is how input handling affects gameplay. First of all, Horizon Zero Dawn is, without a doubt, the smoothest 30 fps game I have played so far. Besides the motion blur that contributes to this effect, the controls are as snappy as they can be. Compared to the 2013 Tomb Raider game I have played at the same time, Horizon feels like a revelation. It is like a high-quality, high-speed shooter in a 30 fps third-person action game. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. After a while, the camera centers on Aloy, but it never takes control away from you. If you want to look around while running forward, it is easy to do so. It is almost like strafing in a shooter, only that the camera centers back behind Aloy after a while of no movement of the right stick. Try that in Tomb Raider. Or aiming.
So I have established that Horizon Zero Dawn looks and sounds great and has one of the most intriguing post-apocalyptic stories ever written. Does it also play great? How dull is the Open World?
As I have become Open World-weary over time, I can say that Horizon is about the perfect size. It is big enough to create an illusion of a vast world with different biomes and small enough not to overwhelm you as a player. The biggest issue in games like this is uninspired filler content, like catching flying paper in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Or the often cited fetch quests for characters who deliver a contrived speech to make you go from A to B and back to A because they seem too lazy, too stupid, or both. You, as a player, are on a critical mission, and someone wants you to get some apples or something. I find that insulting. Horizon is definitely better than that, but not perfect. If I recall correctly, there are a few such quests, but I never felt being used or that my time was constantly wasted. The writing of the NPCs and their needs usually makes you empathize with them. Guerilla tried to create engaging motives for players to accept a quest (not that you can reject it once you talk to a person). Another positive is the amount of side content. You will find plenty to do, but you will not be overwhelmed. It feels like just the right quantity to distract you from the main path from time to time and to level up some more.
What can get somewhat repetitive is how the Focus gameplay mechanic is used for investigating and tracking. You can compare it to Geralt’s Witcher senses. It is a solid mechanic that blends nicely with the device’s functionality and is well incorporated into quests. Sometimes it is a bit overused, though. But it also gives Aloy another character trait: being deliberate in her actions and not a one-dimensional bow-wielding fighter. She uses her intellect as much as her athletic and fighting skills. Which is a pretty good segue to how you can approach many missions. You have two options: the careful, stealth approach and the other being a full-on frontal assault. Throughout the world and in enemy camps, Aloy has ample opportunity to hide in tall grass. This way, she can lure enemies, human and machine alike, close to her for a silent takedown. The only drawback is that she cannot move bodies and, therefore, it may attract other enemies to investigate – which can be a good or a bad thing, of course. In most situations, it is preferable to go the quiet route. I cannot recall if the game has missions where this is an absolute must. I like the option to either sneak or fight, and I like the additional tension that a Sam Fisher tactic brings. It also awards more experience. Sometimes a battle is inevitable because the mission design mandates open combat or because Aloy is not strong enough to take out an enemy silently.
Combat against machines is one of the highlights in Horizon Zero Dawn. Every machine has strengths and weaknesses, and a combination of a couple of weapons or ammunition is usually required to be effective. If you do not complete the tutorial missions that come with new weapons, it is up to you to experiment with how to use the new gear and its ammo. I never touch tasks like that, and looking back, it might have saved me some time and frustration. I had to find out through YouTube guides that frozen foes take more damage, for example. Or that there is an arrow type that does not do direct damage but removes machine parts, which hurts the machine when the piece comes off.
Machine parts can be resources for trade or weapons during a battle. When you manage to shoot off a Ravager’s cannon, you can pick it up and have a very powerful dispute settler in your hands. In one particular situation, I used a Ropecaster to tie down two Ravagers to safely remove their cannons before destroying both machines. I then lured two corrupted Rockbreakers close to a riverbank where I could attack them from the other side using the Ravager cannons. This can be one of the most challenging encounters, and my example shows the flexibility of Horizon’s combat system. Even if you don’t use the weapons yourself, once it is off the machine, it cannot use it against you anymore. You hurt your enemy twofold: removing (one of) its means of attacking Aloy and removing the part also deals damage.
As fascinating and entertaining as these battles are, they also have a few issues. Almost all machines can cross a considerable distance towards Aloy in practically no time. You can see the wind-up to a jump that nearly every machine uses to bridge the gap and attack simultaneously, yet it is so hard to dodge. You might think you can get off one more shot. And then it hits you. Literally, it hits you because it jumped at you. It can get frustrating at times, especially in smaller areas with less space for movement where it is more difficult to gain the necessary distance for a couple of shots. Sometimes one machine is enough to get on your nerves, but oftentimes you are face to face with more than one.
One exceptionally maddening species was the flying type. Because you must constantly look at the sky, you can quickly lose track of where you are. This is particularly bad when you are on a narrow path in the mountains. One false step and Aloy falls. Down. To Death. But not only that, the camera is frequently blocked by trees or foliage or the ground because you constantly point your bow and arrow up to the sky.
(It is a secret weapon of the bird-machines to block your view.)
In many games, you can achieve a status where you, the player, control the battlefield. Fighting against larger machines makes this very difficult. Most of the time, you are the one reacting to the machine, not the other way around. Many encounters keep you on your toes, and they rarely play out the same way twice.
Let me also quickly mention the bad and limited close-quarter combat against human enemies. The game does not have any complex mechanics for situations like these, and all you end up doing is spamming the quick-attack button and maybe adding a heavy attack for fun.
Next to the deep and complex combat against machines (of which I forgot to mention the traps you can also place), there is the “survival” or crafting aspect in the game. I say that in quotes because it is not a full-blown survival experience. To upgrade some of the gear, Aloy must find and harvest components, collect plants, hunt animals, and learn a few particular skills pertinent to hunting. Only then can she gather the necessary skins and bones off of animals. This is engaging at first, but the closer I got to the end of the game, the less keen I was to search forests for the one animal that I needed to kill. And not every kill guarantees you find the resources you require. At some point, the story moved forward in such an exciting way that it felt beneath me to perform menial tasks like hunting. There is no way around that, unfortunately. You cannot buy animal hide or bones from merchants anywhere in the game. I was unable to upgrade some of Aloy’s gear to its max level as a result.
Story and Characters
Many of my reviews mention how much I enjoy a good story with likable and relatable characters. Horizon Zero Dawn almost knocked it out of the park. Aloy is incredible, and the story she ultimately uncovers is mind-blowingly good. It all starts very small, giving the player a short rundown of the tribal culture, what machines are, and how to collect resources for healing. It is Aloy’s origin story until everything gets so much more significant. There are so many details to remember that I simply cannot recount them here, nor would I want to. IGN published a video in preparation for Horizon Forbidden West that summarizes the story of Zero Dawn. In her quest to learn who Aloy’s mother is, she uncovers the origin of the machines, what created them, and why. I think this is such a fascinating and complex story that stands out among all the other end-of-the-world apocalypse scenarios in existence.
A tale like this draws me to a game and can push aside all other content not crucial for the primary mission. In video games like this, the gameplay loop becomes secondary, no matter how great, and I only want to move forward to learn more about what happens next, see the main character react to the events, deal with them, and evolve through the experiences. Horizon does all that. Guerilla Games did everything right when it comes to the narrative aspects. The story is insanely great, and it is perceived by following the adventures of a good set of people, with Aloy in the lead. She is such a fantastic character. She has a strong will and determination to achieve her goal, but at the same time, she is a friendly, warm, and helpful person.
(Unless you piss her off. Then she can also be pretty mean and sarcastic.)
Aloy isn’t your blind follower of beliefs. Being raised as an outsider, she questions the status quo, is curious, and even goes against tribal customs when she thinks they are narrow-minded, limiting her in her quest for answers, for the truth.
When you start a story mission, be sure to set aside a lot of time. It is not uncommon for main quests to easily take an hour or longer, depending on how much you run through the locations or try to enjoy the atmosphere, look at things, and move at a slower, careful pace as if you were in that location yourself. I’d say that about half of the main story content is about the discovery and exploration of old facilities to gather knowledge and uncover the past. If played deliberately, it is very easy to immerse yourself in this sort of gameplay. You might consider it dull walking through empty spaces and looking for audio logs or codex entries. But given how great the backstory is, the prospect of learning more about what happened makes it incredibly worthwhile. And do not forget the locations themselves. I am a sucker for old castles or ruins, big and small, for whatever reason that is. As such, I enjoyed exploring overgrown and derelict skyscrapers or bunkers. It is a nice change of pace from running around in the Open World. Most of the time, you are on your own with no enemies to interrupt the moment.
Have I mentioned how much I love Horizon Zero Dawn’s story? The good thing about it: it all makes sense, and the ending answers almost everything to be satisfying and offers a few hints for its now-available successor.
- There are two types of codex entries; some are related to the main story, and others are additional world-lore. The latter is basically useless and not worth collecting. It speaks about workplace romances, about random encounters from way before the apocalypse. It does not add to the main story, and I also think it does not help immersion. What you read as a player is generic day-to-day stuff some of us experience for real. It would be more interesting if Aloy commented on what “she” had just found. For her, many of these small stories must seem foreign. This does not add to the game when viewed in isolation.
- There is one thing about Aloy’s looks that should be improved. Before you start ranting about a lonely nerd commenting on a virtual woman’s appearance, please hear me out. This is not about Aloy being pretty or attractive. It is not my place to judge. What I would like to see changed is Aloy’s physical appearance, making her more muscular. Look, I’m a fitness and strength training guy. I know how much power it takes to pull one’s body weight, and this is where I am coming from.
From the game’s prologue, we know how Aloy started training very young, and we know of her athletics from the actions she can perform on screen. I think she is too skinny for that. Now, she should not have the appearance of a bodybuilder. After all, she is an athlete, running, jumping, and climbing around. But to do all that, you need strong arms and legs. Look at this picture of Lara Croft from Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
For this game, the designers have added a bit more mass to Lara’s arms, shoulders, and legs, making it much more believable that she is actually capable of the climbing and jumping she does. I think that would also be appropriate for Aloy. After all, male heroes often have strong body types, so why shouldn’t female heroines?
(This image slightly exaggerates the additional muscularity, but it is an excellent showcase to make my point.)
- Horizon did not bother with tacky romancing just because you need that in an RPG. I like that and think it would have been out of place.
- Aloy continues to run after collecting resources, like picking a plant. Attention to detail.
Famous Last Words
Horizon Zero Dawn feels excellent. It is one of those games that makes you feel empty once you beat it and put down the controller. The game’s story and mechanics are so good that you want to go back in and do some stuff. When a game can evoke a feeling like that, the developers have done something very right. It is a good thing then that The Frozen Wilds is a solid expansion following in the giant footsteps of the base game. It lets you enjoy the game’s feel a bit more and adds another aspect to the story. Its only “downside” is the setting. Being located in the snowy mountains, it is tough to make out any details on-screen at nighttime with heavy snowfall. Visually this is extremely convincing. But it is also taxing since it requires a lot of concentration on the player’s part, like in a real snowstorm. Other than that, there is much to enjoy and more main-story to experience.
Am I excited for Forbidden West? Extremely! And that is despite now knowing its scope and the many additions I have not wished for. I did not ask for a bigger world, an arena, or other activities. It was inevitable, though, and I am, however, curious about the improved side missions and how the game puts a more significant focus on Aloy’s companions and their relationship with her. That is what interests me.
I hope there is still an Easy mode or even the Story setting. I often switched the difficulty to something more manageable to move the story forward quicker. That is what I meant earlier about the “gameplay loop becoming secondary”. I am confident that I get the urge to make things happen faster at some point. Games are getting so big, and there is so much to play out there that every additional 5 – 10 hours mean I could miss out on another title. It took me about 55 hours to get through Zero Dawn and The Frozen Wilds combined. Around 50% of that on Easy or Story difficulty. That is a pretty long time. And to get more than just the main story from Forbidden West will undoubtedly also take north of 50+ hours. After all, when you pay 70 or 80 bucks for a game, you don’t just rush the main story and ignore the rest. You expect a good ROI.
Will I buy Horizon Forbidden West soon, or will I wait? I am not yet sure.
(Future Robert here: I pulled the trigger today, February the 19th, and am installing now.)
I am, without a doubt, very eager to continue Aloy’s adventures. I have seen the first PS5 to PS4 Pro comparisons, and it is evident that even the last-gen consoles have astounding visuals. Compared to the PS5, though… I really prefer the PS5 looks 😅. Since I do not think I will be able to find one for its MSRP, and since I do not know how much trouble the PS5 gamepad will cause me with my RSI issues, I will probably stick with the PS4 Pro.
If you have not done so already, experience this masterpiece. If you plan on playing Forbidden West, I hope you have finished Zero Dawn first. From what I have heard so far, it is basically a requirement to understand the whole backstory.
Today is February the 20th, and it took exactly two weeks to write this 4000+ words piece. Since I started with a date, I might as well end it with one.
I hope you enjoyed my writing, and I appreciate you taking the time.