Zero Dawn’s world building is exceptional.
While it never reached the iconic status of Microsoft’s Halo franchise, Killzone sat atop Sony’s first-party shooters with Shadow Fall being the genre’s only PS4 exclusive of note. We bring that up to underscore the bold decision to have Guerrilla Games forego another installment to create the entirely new Horizon: Zero Dawn. It was a good choice.
Combat in Zero Dawn is primarily ranged, though your spear will be put to good use, particularly when attacking unseen via the indispensable “silent strike” or pummeling downed enemies. Still, melee combat feels like more of a last resort as it’s rather limited (likely deliberately so) and exposes you to a lot of damage. Thankfully, your bow feels awesome.
If you’ve played the Tomb Raider reboots you’ll be ahead of the curve here as the over-the-shoulder zoom and feel of the controller feedback seem nearly identical. As you progress you’ll gain the ability to concentrate, thus slowing time, to allow for more precise shots. You’ll also eventually have the option to nock multiple arrows at once via the upgrade system.
Not only does fighting with a bow feel great, the variety of arrow types and corresponding enemy weaknesses lead to ample amounts of strategy. Granted, the fire arrow will be your best friend — setting tougher enemies ablaze is a great way to limit their effectiveness and deal damage — but things like corrupting machines into facing each other and blowing off critical components with the tearblast arrows are simply tremendous fun.
In fact, fighting with the bow is so fun we rarely used the secondary weapons, particularly once we acquired more powerful versions of the bow types and corresponding ammo. Of the other weapons, the sling (with its shock bombs) and tripcaster are the most useful. The ropecaster and rattler (basically a primitive shotgun) feel unnecessary.
There are some mild drawbacks with the setup, most notably how many items eventually land on the d-pad where you’ll scroll left/right and then tap up to use. On the fly you can misidentify the potion icons, and it’s easy to go past the item you wanted. Some of the free running isn’t as crisp as you’d like, but that’s more about the game not always making it obvious where you can ascend.
Based purely on world building, enemy construction and environmental diversity, Zero Dawn is nearly flawless. We couldn’t get enough of exploring the terrain, and the way nature blends with the remnants of Earth’s past is exceptionally done. There’s a plastic feel to human faces during the cut scenes, however, that feels a notch below other high-profile titles. A larger variety of silent strikes would’ve been appreciated as well.
While the voice acting is certainly good it never threatens the likes of Rockstar or Naughty Dog for the top spots. Still, it helps bring a mostly enjoyable story to life and never undercuts the narrative with performances that pull you out of the experience. The soundtrack is solid, but it’s the ambient sound of the world itself along with the robotic creatures that earns top billing.
Set in the distant future after a calamitous event wiped out the Earth as we know it, Horizon: Zero Dawn finds humanity having reverted to a much more primitive state. Our story begins with a young baby being exiled from the tribe and sent into the wild to be raised by another outsider. He names her Aloy and raises her to become a capable hunter and tracker.
Now entering adulthood, Aloy has the opportunity to run in the tribe’s ceremonial coming of age competition known as The Proving. By winning, she’ll have the chance to ask the tribe’s elders anything, including her origins. The tribe is attacked during the event, however, and when Aloy survives she is named a seeker, free to hunt down the assailants and learn the answers to help unravel the mystery surrounding her birth.
It’s an interesting thread, though — similar to several aspects of Zero Dawn — it isn’t hard to see where inspiration was probably gleaned, in this case the criminally overlooked Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Still, despite some similarities here and in other areas, the game manages to blend them all together to make something that feels fresh and not overly derivative.
There’s a ton to do with loads of side quests to complete, ingredients and relics to hunt down and weapon tutorials to master. All of that on top of the lengthy main story means you should be prepared to spend upwards of 40 hours with Zero Dawn before reaching the end — unless you’re hell bent on just blitzing through the game and doing as few optional activities as possible, though that would be akin to chugging an expensive bottle of wine.
If you’re looking for a weakness it comes in the form of character development. For all the time you spend in the game, there aren’t any great or memorable encounters with NPCs, an issue that’s readily apparent during Zero Dawn’s many side quests. You’re asked to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, and yet there’s nobody there to encapsulate those stakes at a human level.
We loved our time with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It offers an interesting story, exquisite world building and dynamic combat. There’s room to grow in the inevitable sequel, but Guerrilla Games’ first installment is a surefire Game of the Year contender.