Horizon Zero Dawn is PlayStation’s best first-party exclusive since Naughty Dog’s exquisite, The Last of Us. Guerrilla Games have not only hit a mighty, if somewhat surprising, stride as a developer, but significantly bolstered an already dominant Sony within the console space – not to mention launched an IP which will, assumedly, be a cornerstone of PlayStation’s release strategy for years to come. In the aftermath of near universal critical acclaim and increasingly impressive sales figures, it’s easy to assume that Horizon was always a sure bet – but that wasn’t the case.
Prior to Horizon, Guerrilla were synonymous with their first-person shooter franchise, Killzone. Billed as a ‘Halo killer’ during the PS2/Xbox era, to say that Killzone was no match for Bungie’s budding cultural phenomenon would be a gross understatement. Hardware limitations and generic design elements relegated the game to footnote status, and you’ll struggle to find any favourable mention of it in modern-day retrospectives.
Despite this – Guerrilla persisted with multiple sequels and spin-offs across each iteration of PlayStation hardware, the clear highlight of which being the gorgeously brutal and moody – Killzone 2. This culminated in the PS4 launch title, Killzone Shadow Fall – a visually pleasing and mechanically sound shooter that worked as a competent, if uninspired, showpiece for the brand new hardware. Despite an overall positive response, the general industry feeling was that it was time for Guerrilla to try something new. With speculation rampant due to some intriguing staff hirings being leaked to the press – it seemed that Guerrilla agreed.
Enter Horizon. A luscious, green dystopia, populated by chrome robotic wildlife that seems oddly at home amongst the dense flora and fauna. Worryingly recognisable architecture punctuates the landscape, semi-digested by nature’s creeping growth, almost forgotten. Humans also inhabit this ecosystem, divided into tribal factions, each with distinct cultural traits and conflicting views regarding the cause of their peculiar existence.
Living on the fringe of one of these tribes is a girl named Aloy. Shunned by dogmatic societal elders, Aloy endures a secluded life, forbidden from entering tribal settlements or even interacting with those she encounters in the wilds. Her only companionship comes in the shape of a grizzly yet caring warrior who helps to hone her survival abilities, and also a strange device that she finds in the ancient, mechanical depths that form a seemingly endless labyrinth beneath the world’s surface.
I’d rather not give anything else away story-wise, but what I will say is that Horizon’s narrative is a multilayered, well constructed, and, at times, touching tale that does an extremely effective job of keeping the player engaged. It may not deliver the emotional highs and lows of Naughty Dog’s most recent offerings, but Horizon is a very different beast in terms of sheer scope and the writers deserve high praise for making the critical path feel so consistently alluring. It’s also worth noting that once the credits roll, Horizon’s story feels well and truly told. There’s no ‘Finish the fight’ type anti-climax to be found here.
Mechanically, the game borrows liberally from its open-world brethren. You’ll storm heavily defended encampments like Far Cry, you’ll endlessly pick medicinal herbs like Shadow of Mordor, you’ll scale map-revealing towers like Assassin’s Creed, and you’ll scour the environment for a menagerie of collectables like… every open-world game ever. All of this may seem derivative, but it’s woven together with an elegance and high level of polish that provides a more than solid gameplay foundation.
Upon that foundation, Guerrilla has built a third person action role-playing game that is an absolute joy to experience. Aloy moves fluidly through the world, whether she’s scaling a frosted cliff-face or zip-lining through a dense tropical jungle. Combat is straightforward, yet intense, with heavy and light spear attacks landing with a generous sense of weight. Aloy can also utilise a wide variety of ranged weapons and devastating traps, allowing for a multi-faceted and considered approach to offense that creates some truly memorable emergent thrills. I also don’t think I’ve ever felt so formidable when using a bow & arrow in a video game – from landing long-distance headshots to tearing chunks of metallic armour from house-sized robotic beasts.
Talking of house-sized robotic beasts – these are the real stars of the show. A couple of dozen types of these majestically animated colossi roam the environment – some are fairly passive, barely registering your presence unless you get within striking distance, whereas others are maniacally constructed killing machines that will frantically pursue Aloy in fit of murderous rage. Early on it’s best to avoid all but the meekest of these creatures, but as time goes on Aloy learns how to best them and will, eventually, gain the ability to turn them into temporary allies, prompting the kind of mechanical mayhem that even the most action packed episode of Robot Wars could only dream of. If Horizon is to take Uncharted’s spot as the new big PlayStation franchise then expect these monstrosities to become a familiar staple and key point of distinction for the series.
Sony has a long history of pushing the envelope when it comes to the technical prowess of its first-party software. Horizon is not only another clear example of this but very possibly the most technically impressive game that I’ve ever played. And we’re not just talking pure pixelpushing here – Horizon combines first-party development knowhow (and budget) with jaw dropping art direction and unparalleled level design. Each moment spent in this world feels cohesive and deliberate. The same area can be unrecognisably changed when framed by an alternate time of day and/or weather condition. Layers of rock, grass, ice, and twisted metal quickly form gorgeous sets that facilitate Aloy’s quest – until she eventually moves on and the elements paint something new. The night sky is photo-realistic and not only makes for some awe-inspiring vistas but also adds a subtle sense of cosmic depth to the world. Guerrilla very wisely included a robust photo capture mode within the game, which quickly resulted in social media becoming inundated with lavish and thoughtfully composed screenshots alongside customary hashtags – a marketing team’s wet dream, and a telling tribute to this technological tour de force.
My complaints with the game are few and minor. The upgrade tree feels a tad dull, and I think the game could be made stronger if all abilities were unlocked from the get go, relying on mechanical mastery (a la Breath of the Wild) over an arbitrary drip feed of new skills. The side mission content felt entirely superfluous and I had no desire whatsoever to undergo menial errands when presented with such an intriguing core narrative. The reliance on genre conventions such as collectables and the foraging/crafting loop are needless padding in a game that warrants time and attention for infinitely more rewarding reasons. Guerrilla would be well advised to cast off the gamerfication of this series moving forwards – get rid of arbitrary upgrades and rote open-world economics, and instead focus on an organic progression with exploration as the through line.
But putting these very minor (and no doubt subjective) niggles aside – I’d argue that Horizon is an unreserved triumph, and a watershed moment for this generation of consoles in terms of maturing the medium. As Nathan Drake settles into a potentially permanent retirement, Sony has done well to pass the baton. Whether or not we see Aloy again (and I have a strong suspicion that we will…) – Horizon is, thankfully, here to stay.