Late in Horizon: Zero Dawn, while I was exploring the ruins of a once futuristic but now ancient building, I suddenly thought, “This is one of the best games I’ve ever played.” From talking to friends and reading reactions online, I’m not alone. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a creative, exciting, and beautiful game. In fact, aspects of it are so good that they highlight the parts that aren’t. Even with its failings, it still stands out like a blazing noon sun.
A large part of that is the story. You play Aloy, a young woman of the Native-American-like Nora tribe living in the far future, when cities are piles of brick and rusting metal overgrown with vegetation, and when the secrets of the technologically advanced “Old Ones” are lost to time and superstition. Also present are the Machines, mysterious animal-like robots that roam the game’s lush open world. When exploring as a child, Aloy stumbles upon a tool allowing her to interact with the lost tech, and she’s drawn into present conflict with roots in the mysteries of what happened to man and machine in the past.
Horizon’s world is brought to life with graphics that are some of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. Mountain vistas, vast forests, and ruined cities are stunningly and realistically rendered, and they’re enhanced with moody lighting and weather. The writing stands out as well. Aloy is a dogged, smart woman, born an outcast and shunned by most other Nora. However, her ability to peer into the secrets of the Old Ones makes her feel as if she’s part of two worlds. The game fully realizes its world by setting up rules for its setting and sometimes subverting them, as in the case of how Aloy navigates Nora culture. And superb voice acting keeps you invested, especially from Ashly Burch (best known for her comedy shorts Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?), who gives a likeable, nuanced performance as Aloy.
And then there’s the star feature of the game, the animal-like Machines. From the equine Striders to the deer-like Grazers to the Tyrano-sorta-Rex Thunderjaws, they’re brought to awesome life with interesting designs, fluid animations, and the fearful knowledge that even the smallest of them can make short work of you. Each type has its own behaviors, weapons, and weaknesses. You’ll never tire of the numerous ways you can hunt, run from, and, eventually, reprogram and ride them, thanks to tight controls and interesting weapons. The same can’t be said of the game’s human enemies, who are often predictable and a bore to fight.
It’s too bad, then, that you can’t interact with this imaginative world in a more meaningful way. The storyline and side quests are linear and only occasionally offer multiple dialogue choices or solutions, though they are well written and voiced. An unnecessarily complicated inventory menu doesn’t help either. Problems continue in the one big graphical failing: character faces. While they look realistic, the facial animations are often static and dull eyed, working well about one-fourth of the time. Thankfully, the characters are saved by their solid writing and acting.
However, because the game does everything else so well, these problems stick out. I could go on about amazing little details, like how Aloy will balance herself when walking down a steep incline, how much fun it is discovering the world’s history, and how thrilling nearly every encounter with the machines can be. It’s almost like a mix of The Last of Us’ green apocalypse, Tomb Raider’s stealth combat, and Skyrim’s creativity. Just like those games, it’s not one to miss.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Voices by Ashly Burch, Lance Reddick, and Crispin Freeman. PS4. Rated T.