I’ve just taken down my first Stormbird. Not because I needed to, but because I knew where to find it and it was one of the last machines I hadn’t defeated yet and sometimes I have really bad ideas. I was woefully unprepared, forced to take frequent breaks in the fight to craft new ammo for my Blast Sling to throw at this monstrous machine over and over again. After what felt like an eternal struggle, it finally dropped and relief washed over me as I earned experience points and dug through the machine’s remains.
Checking the map reveals something interesting—there’s a vantage point not far from my location. Immediately, without preparing or recuperating, I begin the climb. How complicated can it be, right?
Very, it turns out. Climbing sections are broken up by machine encounters I have no business being in right now. I frantically weave my way through these encounters with enemies I hadn’t exactly learned how to properly tackle yet, and more of them than I’ve faced at one time so far. Health potions are a necessity as I run around each area’s perimeter in search of my next path. As I run, Aloy mentions that maybe she shouldn’t be here yet. A fair assessment. These fights are tough and I have no idea what I’m doing. Then, finally, I make it through. Areas filled with way too many tough enemies for me to handle are behind me, and there’s just an open section to enter as I close in on the vantage point.
Again, Aloy mentions that these tough machines make her think she shouldn’t be here yet. But I already made it, I thought as I stepped off the path and into the next section.
There’s another Stormbird, and this one makes the last one look like a joke. There’s no chance to hide in tall grass and shoot off components one-by-one with tear arrows. There’s no opportunity to hide and formulate a plan. This thing is on me from the get go, and my only choice is run, attack, heal, attack, run, heal, repeat.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be here.” Yes, Aloy. We’re on the same page. I definitely should have leveled up a bit more and gotten some upgrades. Maybe actually upgraded to a new outfit rather than the free one from Teb. Miraculously, the Stormbird goes down on my first (long, drawn out) attempt. I’m out of all types of health and I’m running dangerously low on blaze, but I’m alive and the Stormbird’s a motionless heap of metal. I’d call that a win.
I search the area and find the spot I’m supposed to climb to claim my prize. Up top, I open a supply crate and use my focus to check out the vantage point. Success.
But there’s more here. I follow yet another path upward and find myself face to face with one of the most spectacular views I’ve seen to this point.
It’s another set of ruins, and Aloy once again mentions that she feels like she shouldn’t be here. I climb up a wall, leap to another and reach it’s top and…
That’s it. There’s nowhere else to go but back down.
And then I realize something. The game wasn’t subtly hinting that I wasn’t strong enough or prepared enough to take on these enemies. It wasn’t telling me that maybe I should buy a new outfit and a couple more weapons to make it more manageable. It was telling me that I literally was not supposed to be doing this yet. I’d stumbled upon a section that would come up later in the story I’d been neglecting, and I’d gone as far as I could until advancing the story.
With that, I start my trek back down the mountain.
And that’s Horizon Zero Dawn in a nutshell. Once you advance the story enough to open up the biggest section of the map, (almost) everything is fair game. You can go just about anywhere and do just about anything, even if the game had plans for what you do to be tackled at a certain time. Freedom of exploration is yours, and the game never prevents you from doing anything within the map proper. Guerrilla Games created a world people would want to explore at their own pace and in their own ways, and players are free to do just that.
Want to work your way up a late game section long before you’re prepared? Have at it. Want to set aside the main story and scour the map for collectables, campfires, and undiscovered side quests? Enjoy. Just keep in mind that you may find yourself out of your element from time to time and you may be forced to take the game on in a whole new way.
That’s the thing with Horizon Zero Dawn. Even when moving off the beaten path and doing things “out of order,” the game never punishes players for doing things their way, even if the things they do were intended to be part of a story mission later on. In fact, the game rewards players for it, forcing adaptation and new ways of approaching enemies.
Horizon Zero Dawn is built on variety, both in its beautiful vistas and in its gameplay elements. Want to clear up the map and see everything that’s out there in Ubisoft tower climbing fashion? Find a Tallneck—just be aware that these towers are moving and can only be accessed from certain points within each section. Oh, and there are a ton of enemies, machine and human, waiting to kill you at most of them.
Want to pick off human enemies one at a time and slowly take over their sections? Want to make a huge mistake and barge in swinging your spear? Either way, find a bandit camp and wipe out those monsters so reasonable people can swoop in and provide new save points and merchants.
Want to challenge yourself to try out different weapons and take down machines in different ways? Head to one of the five Hunting Grounds spread throughout the world. Each has three Trials, and each can provide up to three prizes for completing those trials.
Itching for a dungeon? Head into one of the Cauldrons. Their combinations of exploration, light puzzle solving, and ridiculous boss battles are highlights, even when being there seems like a horrible mistake. Cauldrons are essential, not just because they’re standout moments in a game filled with great moments, but because they’re also essential for getting through the game. Cauldrons are where Aloy learns how to override new machines, and they completely change the game.
Battles are hell of a lot more manageable if you can get a machine or two working for you before jumping in. Upgrade an ability and you may not need to join the battle at all. Just do your overrides and back off while the machines fight it out amongst themselves.
Want to challenge your combat ability? Check the map and seek out a Thunderjaw or a Stormbird. Or maybe go for a corrupted zone instead. If you’re lucky, you might find not one but TWO corrupted Rockbreakers and wish you’d made better life choices leading up to that point.
Even at its most frustrating, Horizon Zero Dawn is always fair and always doing exactly what its developers intended for it to be doing. Some of the enemies in the game are tough. Really tough. But they’re all manageable if you’re smart about things. Yes, even those two corrupted Rockbreakers who will absolutely tear you apart again and again if you make even the slightest mistake.
But every encounter in Horizon Zero Dawn is rewarding, whether you’re learning a new strategy, picking enemies off, or taking down machines that once seemed impossible to defeat. Even when in over your head, or when being chased down by a mob of angry Glinthawks, Horizon isn’t punishing you. It’s inviting you to accept a challenge. But there’s no shame in turning that challenge down and running for your life. I have no problem admitting that I did my fair share of running, especially during my under-leveled searches for metal flowers and ancient vessels.
There’s been little mention of Horizon Zero Dawn’s story so far, but that’s not a slight against it. It’s another of the games numerous pieces that works to perfection. Aloy’s story, one of leaving home and discovering a new world beyond its borders, of making friends (and enemies) and discovering the secrets of the past, is archetypal hero’s journey stuff. There’s a call to adventure, and Aloy answers it. And oh is there adventure to be had. What follows treads familiar ground, following established signposts and tropes without ever feeling formulaic or predictable. You’ve seen and done things like this before, but you’ve never seen or done this before.
It’s a story with weight to it, too. This isn’t a matter of doing one thing that leads to another thing and so on. This is a story with significant impact and heavy themes. It’s about a young woman leaving home and finding herself, ascending to the place her primitive matriarchal society needs her to occupy even if she doesn’t want to be there—but it’s also about the convergence of science and religion, of belief and explanation. It’s about humans making mistakes and learning from the past, even if it’s the past of others.
Aloy is a special character, both in game and from an analytical perspective. She’s a strong woman in a society led by women who worship a goddess known as All-Mother. She’s an individual capable of doing things on her own but learning to accept the help of others. She’s a great female protagonist because she isn’t a great female protagonist. Her being a woman isn’t her defining characteristic, just like being a man has never been a defining characteristic for any character ever. Aloy is a hunter, a tracker, a fighter, and a one of the most interesting gaming protagonists ever created.
Horizon Zero Dawn challenges female stereotypes by not hitting players over the head with them. Other characters will mention her gender, and a few are resistant to a woman being so strong, but Aloy is far from the only strong woman in the game. Insecure men desperately holding onto their stature are the exception in Horizon’s world, not the norm.
The game is incredibly diverse, too. There are strong women and strong men, but there are also people from all sorts of backgrounds. Yes, they hail from different tribes within the game’s world, but they also represent more racial diversity than I think I’ve ever seen in a video game. It’s refreshing to see a game that so elegantly represents the diversity in our world—even if it is a video that takes place decidedly not in our world.
Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t just check all the boxes of things I love in video games. It creates and checks boxes I didn’t even know I cared about. A solid, intriguing sci-fi story? Check. A strong hero who develops into a total badass? Check. Beautiful world and character design? Check. Differing enemies and encounters, in variety, scope, and challenge? Check. Varied, rewarding gameplay? Check. Tight, responsive controls? Check. Upgrades worth unlocking and modifications worth using? Check and check. And the list goes on and on.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a game with lofty goals, and a game that hits so many of them it gets hard to keep track.
Guerrilla Games spent a decade on the Killzone franchise, and I really liked what they did with it. Horizon Zero Dawn is so far above their previous games that I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Hermen Hulst and his team have gone from creators of very good games to the upper echelon of game developers with what might be PlayStation’s most important IP since Uncharted released in 2007.
Horizon Zero Dawn is not without its faults, though. I didn’t run into any major issues while playing, but I did get stuck in inescapable mountain crevices a few times. Nothing a quick reload of a (thankfully recent) save couldn’t fix, but still frustrating.
My biggest gripe with the game was the consistency with which unrelated dialogue would overlap. Aloy making sense of her surroundings as audio journals and holograms played, background character dialogue interfering with story related conversations, and conversations with a certain audio-based ally layering atop things happening in the moment were all too frequent hangups. Again, nothing even close to game-breaking, but far from ideal.
Late game sequences can skew a bit toward the easy side of the spectrum, especially for players who have tackled all side quests and long stopped leveling and unlocking skills. Machines I’d once feared and done my best to avoid became machines I tackled head on because melee hit, critical hit, repeat wasn’t just an option, but the quickest way to take them down. And that’s before unlocking the glory that is the Shield-Weaver outfit.
That’s not a knock, though. It was empowering—thrilling—to have advanced Aloy to the point that Stalkers and Sawtooths were best handled with a few spear hits. It was a complete shift in gameplay style that I came across by necessity after inadvertently revealing my location, and I’m so glad it happened.
There are good games, and there are great games—and then there are special games. Horizon Zero Dawn is firmly in the latter category. It grabbed hold of my attention from the opening scene and didn’t let go, even three days removed from finishing it. Aloy’s first adventure is a perfect storm of story, mystery, atmosphere, and gameplay. Everything about it makes you want to keep going. To keep exploring its world. To keep uncovering its mysteries. To keep taking on its enemies in new and interesting ways.
Horizon Zero Dawn is special, full stop. It’s up there with the likes of Uncharted 2, The Last of Us, Fallout 3, Max Payne, and even Super Mario World—games that hit me in different ways and hold special places in my heart. Horizon isn’t just a game I loved playing. It isn’t just a world I loved being in and exploring. It isn’t just a game I wish I hadn’t fully explored after 59 hours. It’s a game I’m ready to start from scratch and immerse myself in all over again.
Most importantly, Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t just a game I expect to place at the top of my games of the year list in December—it’s a game that has already taken its place among my favorite games of all time.