But at its worst, the game feels like a slave to the machine that is the open world genre.
My first few minutes with Horizon Zero Dawn on PC were not promising. After I launched the game, it informed me it was scanning my hardware to figure out optimal settings. I was not given an option to opt out of this, or stop it from happening. The process took 30 minutes, and then launched me straight into the opening cutscene (which is unskippable), without telling me what it had determined were optimal settings or allowing me to change them. After that, however, I managed to retool my settings and launch into the main game, and I was quickly reminded of what had drawn me to Horizon in the first place. This exchange – something I didn’t like and I couldn’t avoid, followed by moments of great enjoyment – would go on to define my time with the game.
"Horizon is a post-apocalyptic game where robotic animals, including horses (Striders), sabertooth tigers (Sawtooths), and T-rexes (Thunderjas), roam the world. The story follows Aloy, a young girl who is outcast from the Nora tribe at birth."
If you’re not familiar, Horizon is a post-apocalyptic game where robotic animals, including horses (Striders), sabertooth tigers (Sawtooths), and T-rexes (Thunderjaws), roam the world. The story follows Aloy, a young girl who is outcast from the Nora tribe at birth because she is “motherless.” As she grows up, she learns to hunt with spear and bow from Rost, another outcast entrusted with raising her. One day, she stumbles into the ruins of the Old Ones, the technologically advanced humans that came before, which are forbidden by the Nora religion. There, she finds a Focus, a piece of wearable tech that allows her to interact with old technology, scan areas, and outline the tracks of the machines.
Determined to get answers about who she is and why she was cast out, she convinces Rost to train her for the Proving, a Nora ceremony where young members of the tribe are officially recognized as braves. She would become a member of the tribe simply by finishing, but the winner is granted a boon – largely anything they want – from the Matriarchs. Aloy’s plan is simple: win the Proving and force them to tell her who she is. Things escalate from there, of course, and soon Aloy finds herself traveling far beyond the Nora’s Sacred Land in search of answers to much bigger questions that I won’t spoil.
This is where Horizon begins to falter. If you’ve played any open world RPGs in the last decade plus, you’ll have a good idea of how Horizon works. You’ll harvest plants and pluck wood from saplings for healing supplies and crafting materials, kill rabbits, foxes, and boars for yet more crafting materials, and hunt the giant robotic beasties prowling the land for even more parts, which can be used to upgrade and modify your bow, tripcaster (a device that allows you to place tripwires on the ground), and other weapons. As you travel, you’ll run into strangers who you’ve never seen before and will never interact with again once you’re done with them. They have troubles, you see, troubles that they are incapable of solving themselves and are happy to dump onto you, a strong passing adventurer. After you mine them for information using Horizon’s rendition of Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel, Aloy, who is remarkably social and open for a woman who spent her entire life until this point being shunned by all but two people, has the option to help them out, though she won’t commit, you know. Player agency and all that.
"Like many of the elements Horizon borrows from other titles, the skill tree feels like it’s here because the expectation is that it will be, not because it makes the game better."
The side missions that follow are predictably rote. They usually take one of three forms: using Aloy’s Focus (which gives her Horizon’s version of Detective Vision) to track somebody down, slaughtering bandits or machines (or both), or getting something for somebody. In one, I track down a mentally ill man and reunite him with his sister before the voices in his head make him hurt someone. In another, I track down a man’s priceless family sword before helping the thieves who stole it recover a missing man in exchange for its safe return. One merchant wants me to find vessels used by the old ones. He’s convinced they were used for elaborate beard-shaving ceremonies, but they were really just coffee mugs. It’s funny sure, but the quest is still a collecathon. Another sees me retrieving a family spear and a missing daughter for a grieving widower, or joining my buddy Nil, an unusually honest ex-soldier who kills bandits because he loves violence, for a raid on several bandit camps. I enjoyed some of these quests greatly, mostly because of the characters involved – Nil’s refreshingly honest hunger for violence made me stop every time I saw him – but it doesn’t change how banal they were.
Story missions are better and better presented, but they’re equally predictable, requiring many of the same things as the side quests – track this person, search this area, kill some bandits or small machines – before throwing you into a combat arena filled with a big machine, several human enemies, several big machines, or both. Killing machines in these environments generally involves setting a trap or two, then flinging arrows at them as Aloy rolls around like a madwoman to avoid being hit. Against humans, you’ll generally want to crouch in the tall grass, Assassin’s Creed style, before whistling at enemies, Assassin’s Creed style, so they’ll come over and you can kill them, Assassin’s Creed style, before moving on to their friends. Their friends, of course, are idiots who do absolutely nothing about the pile of bodies gathering around your bush save remark on it as they march into your waiting spear. Again, this is not to say that there’s no fun to be had here, because there is, but it’s disappointing how much of it is so repetitive.
The game has a leveling system and a skill tree, of course, which is fine, but it locks a number of basic skills – like the ability to whistle from a bush, or kill silently – behind it. You unlock these early on, but that, combined with Horizon’s leveling system, which assigns a recommended level to each quest, can sometimes mean grinding out sidequests you don’t want to do to get the abilities and stats you need to continue the plot. Horizon isn’t too bad about level-gating; I managed to clear the opening areas of side quests, which gave me a lot of experience and made the others optional, but holding me back from playing the story and hiding basic abilities behind a skill tree doesn’t make sense, and is particularly irritating. Like many of the elements Horizon borrows from other titles, the skill tree feels like it’s here because the expectation is that it will be, not because it makes the game better.
"Horizon is at its best in the in-between moments when you’re traveling the world. When you’re stalking a Sawtooth, setting traps along its path with your tripcaster, using your ropecaster to tie down a machine so you can override it with your spear, climbing some tall peak just because, riding your overridden horse machine through the vast emptiness."
If it isn’t obvious yet, Horizon’s core issue is that it has an identity crisis. It has all of these mechanics it has borrowed from other games but doesn’t do anything interesting with them. It’s a game that tells you to determine how Aloy responds in Mass Effect-esque dialogue – your options are conflict, compassionate, and clever – while rarely offering you the ability to do so and using its dialogue wheel to throw exposition at you. It offers you side missions galore, but builds them around uninteresting mechanics – Detective Vision, bush stealth, fetch quests, etc – and repeats them ad nauseum.
Horizon is at its best in the in-between moments when you’re traveling the world. When you’re stalking a Sawtooth, setting traps along its path with your tripcaster, using your ropecaster to tie down a machine so you can override it with your spear, climbing some tall peak just because, riding your overridden horse machine through the vast emptiness, looking for the next thing. In areas where you can prepare, set traps, and engage on your own terms, Horizon is great. Weapons fell wonderful, enemy feedback is fantastic, machines have unique tactics and are fun to fight, and you can do crazy things, like shoot guns off of machines and use them against them. In these moments, Horizon soars. The game also impresses when it takes an old idea and does something new with it. Tallnecks, for instance, are Horizon’s answer to the Ubisoft tower. By climbing it, Aloy can override it and fill in her map. The distinction is that Tallnecks move, forcing you to reach high places to jump onto their backs, and climb up from there. The additional challenge here, combined with the creatures roaming around near them and the limited number of times they appear in the game, make Tallnecks something the Ubisoft towers never managed to be: fun.
One of Horizon’s best features are Cauldrons, hidden labyrinths of wires and old tech. Conquering them means sneaking past the machines inside, and learning how these robots were created. They end in a boss fight against a particularly nasty machine and reward you with the ability to override new machines so you can either ride them or have them fight for you. They’re great areas that combine the game’s intriguing backstory with interesting environments and good combat encounters, and I found myself exploring more of Horizon’s world just to run into them.
"Horizon was a gorgeous game in 2017 and it’s gorgeous today. It comes with all of the graphics options you’d expect on PC, including a much-appreciated FOV adjustment. The initial optimization informed me that I should be running the game on medium settings, but I managed to run it on Ultra in all but the most intense encounters at mostly stable framerates."
The world itself is gorgeous, of course. Sweeping plains rise into high mountains and ruins of the old world jut from between the trees that have reclaimed them. Massive cities tower atop mountains while the most dangerous creatures stalk the savannah. Horizon was a gorgeous game in 2017 and it’s gorgeous today. It comes with all of the graphics options you’d expect on PC, including a much-appreciated FOV adjustment. The initial optimization informed me that I should be running the game on medium settings, but I managed to run it on Ultra in all but the most intense encounters at mostly stable framerates. There were dips, even when I turned the settings down to High, but nothing ever swung below the high 40s.
Even here, however, Horizon isn’t perfect. There’s a distinct difference in the quality of the models, animations, and voice acting between the major characters and the minor ones – seriously, seeing a minor character smile is the stuff of nightmares – and the lip-synching alternates between quite good and awful.
The game also has storytelling issues: Aloy only really ever acquires a personality beyond cracking wise or being kind except during a few key points and he character motivation consists of “find the truth.” Beyond that, I could never tell you what she wanted or cared about. Even major, traumatic instances in her like just fade into the background as the plot carries her forward.
"When it’s allowed to be itself, Horizon is something special. But for each moment Horizon is excellent, so much of it is derivative and unengaging."
She also has the incredibly annoying habit of narrating absolutely everything she does. It makes sense, most of the time. She was an outcast; she talked to herself because she was lonely. When she’s planning, tracking someone, examining a area, or trying just making the odd comment, I don’t mind. But when she says something like “the fire – it’s burning it!” when I shot a fire arrow at a machine, or commented on how the plants I’ve been eating to heal since the first couple hours could “come in handy,” – and let me tell you, this kind of stuff happens a lot – it made me yearn from the days of silent protagonists. She’s engaging enough, sure, and I liked her, but I wish she was more fleshed out.
The same issue applies to the other major characters. Horizon has the open-world game problem: these characters only exist in the plot so far as their story overlaps with Aloy’s. They rarely have character arcs or get to do anything beyond deliver exposition and give Aloy things to do. There are exceptions, yes – I particularly liked Erend and Avad, for instance – but once their part in the story is done, you never see them again. In that same vein, villains are brought up and expended as needed. You’re told they’re powerful and causing all this trouble, and then you foil their plots, meet them once, and beat them. Then they’re gone. The result is that few characters outside of Aloy seem to matter, storylines end anticlimactically, and it’s often hard to be emotionally invested in much of the main plot or characters because you know you’ll never see them again once their purpose has been served and the narrative moves onto the next thing.
If I come off as overly harsh here, I don’t mean to. I like Horizon and I’m going to play more of it. When it’s allowed to be itself and the focus is on combating giant machines with fun weapons, Horizon is something special. Sliding under a Watcher as it jumps at you before shooting out its eye, hitting the perfect dodge against a leaping Sawtooth, turning a Thunderjaw’s heavy weapons against it – those moments feel great. But for each moment Horizon is excellent, so much of it is derivative and unengaging. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good game. But it isn’t a great one. At its best, accompanying Aloy on her journey is wonderful. Like a Cauldron, it pumps out the same thing you’ve seen over and over again. But when Horizon is confident, when, like Aloy, it casts off the burden of expectation and is nothing other than itself, it’s something wonderful.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Runs well on PC. A big world to explore. Looks and sounds gorgeous. Aloy is likable. Fighting machines is very fun. Interesting plot. Cauldrons are great. Tallnecks are an improvement on climbing towers.
Derivative mechanics taken from several other games. Side missions are rote. Characters disappear when their time in the story is done. Uneven production values in side areas. Storytelling could use improvement. Skill tree feels tack on. Some level gating.
When it's allowed to be itself, this is an excellent port of a very good, highly ambitious game. Too often, however, Horizon is too derivative for its own good.