Video Games Review: Horizon: Zero Dawn distills the best parts of its many influences to create something truly amazing

During my first six hours with Horizon: Zero Dawn a phrase appeared in my head and got lodged there, as phrases like to do when you write for a living. The phrase in question was “This is once-in-a-hardware-generation stuff.” It stuck with me as my playthrough progressed, and it wasn’t until I’d been away from the game for a few hours that I started to wonder if that was true at all. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a  beautiful pastiche of some of this hardware generation’s best titles. It casually lifts its favourite things from other, equally great games — be it mechanics, design or even art style — and throws them into a blender. Far from being lazy or trite, it works hard to either equal or improve upon everything it borrows — and the result is a new high water mark in the open world action-adventure genre.

Horizon: Zero Dawn follows Aloy, a young woman cast out of her tribe at birth and made to live as an outcast without ever knowing why. She is raised by Rost, a gruff but gentle fellow outcast who teaches her how to survive in a wilderness filled with the decaying ruins of modern human civilisation and the rogue robotic wildlife they left behind that now wander the landscape in herds, attacking and destroying humans wherever they find them.

Whatever the great cataclysm that sent humanity reeling back toward the days of the early Bronze Age doesn’t seem to matter greatly to Horizon. It’s far more concerned with Aloy’s ground-level, human story of a young woman nobody seems to want trying to find her place in the world. Aloy is judged without merit, sneered at and spat upon by those who’ve never met her at all, fueling her drive to survive and prove them all wrong.

As Aloy makes her way through this world that is still rebuilding itself in the ashes of another, she comes across various pockets of human settlement, all of whom seem to have some reached one milestone of human history or another — the Nola tribe of which Aloy longs to become a part are very much a tribal matriarchy putting them squarely in the Stone Age. Later in the game Aloy will run into people who evoke the look and ability of the Ancient Romans and Feudal Era Japan. There are encounters like these all throughout the game and, unless you dig into the dialogue yourself, they go unremarked upon. Guerrilla simply present this coded information to you, frequently through manner of dress or architecture, and leave you to fill in the blank areas to your satisfaction. Horizon assumes its audience is smart enough to figure these things out and, while I wish I didn’t find this quite so remarkable, it nevertheless makes a refreshing change from AAA titles cramming every last scrap of lore down your throat.

The story is driven by dialogue trees straight out of Mass Effect and The Witcher 3 — my goodness, Guerrilla Games looked long and hard at The Witcher 3 when designing this thing and who can blame them? — bolstered by a career-best performance from Ashly Burch (Borderlands 2, Life is Strange, Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’) as Aloy herself. Burch’s Aloy is a lot of different things — put-upon, competitive, compassionate and possessing a will of steel — but its the moments when Burch’s own lightning-fast wit and personality shine through that make Aloy feel truly human.

Her performance is helped along by some of the most life-like visuals, both in terms of character and environment, ever seen in a video game. I don’t know how Guerrilla have done it but there are a team of artists over there that have figured out how to make simulated people look and feel as empathetic as any real person. They’ve accomplished this without The Uncanny Valley rearing its head for a second. I think it’s the way they’ve tackled eyes, they’re remarkably warm and sparkle in a way that allows you to instantly suspend disbelief. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The environments are filled with a similar level of care and artistry. So convincing is Guerrilla’s interpretation of how nature would erode The-World-That-Was that it’s possible to forget you’re on Earth at all. To the characters of Horizon, the ruins and relics are little more than part of the landscape — they’ve simply always been there. To us, they are the shattered remains of a freeway overpass or the rusting hulls of satellite dish arrays. Sometimes its not clear what these decaying remains used to be and you’ll stop to inspect them a moment before identifying the silhouette of what would have, at one time, been the main street of a town.

I mentioned in the intro that Horizon pulls from a number of different games, combining these disparate elements into the gaming equivalent of a fine meal. As you progress through the game, the amount of things pinched from other titles seems to multiply but, again, at no point does it feel derivative. In spite of its obvious influences, Horizon feels like something wholly its own.

It borrows its map design from The Witcher 3, giving you a world that feels real and lived in, as well as its combat which requires data collection, preparation and precise strikes to succeed. It takes its crafting and reliance on a capable female protagonist from Rise of the Tomb Raider. It lifts the digital overlay and scene-of-the-crime detective sequences of Aloy’s Focus earpiece from the Batman: Arkham series. It’s got enemy fortresses from Shadow of Mordor, fauna-highlighting map markers from Far Cry, tiered loot drops from Destiny, the dialogue trees of Dragon Age, and it all just works.

Encountering the game’s many, and well-advertised, robotic enemies is a trip all of its own. These machines, based clearly on certain types of animals from the earth-that-was, are so deftly crafted that upon initial inspection I didn’t feel a great compulsion to fight them. Rather, I was happy to play post-apocalyptic David Attenborough and watch them gambol about together. Sentry units surround herds of grazers and will alert them to danger nearby, causing them to scatter. Predator machines will attack you on sight and aren’t afraid to track you for quite a way should they catch sight of you. It’s possible to wait long by the river and watch the machines dynamically come into contact with Nola hunting parties and begin to scrap.

Like The Witcher 3, combat with either the grazing or predatory machines can result in swift obliteration if you aren’t careful about your footing and your loadout. Do you have what you need to take this thing down quickly? If not, prepare for an uphill battle. Why these robotic monstrosities resemble real-world creatures is, like much of Horizon‘s world-building, not immediately clear, and it allows the world to take on a much more ominous tone. Where did these things come from? Who designed them? And how is it that they seem to be flourishing?

Exploring the game world, as in The Witcher 3, is a pleasure all its own. The world map is vast. After sinking my first twelve hours into the game, I went to the (zoomed-in) map screen and moved the cursor around to look at where I’d been. Feeling accomplished, I then zoomed out to discover a truly dizzying amount of map still unexplored. I’d traipsed through barely more than a quarter of it.

Every area is distinct and has a flavour all its own. Environmental effects are frequent — heading into the snowy mountains regularly yields violent snowstorms that obscure light and vision for long periods. Indeed, the way the game handles light and lines-of-sight is very interesting — you need to really pick your moment when scouting a camp or a group of machines because running out of daylight or copping a change of weather can mean having to completely rethink your plan of attack.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that seems to keep rewarding the player. The more you invest in it, the more determined it becomes to give back. After putting this review on its feet, I find myself coming back to my earlier statement about Horizon being a rare kind of game, and though I went back and forth on it, I think the phrase that leapt into my head was correct after all. It is a game that has kept detailed notes on the best mechanics from the last few years, and has incorporated them all in ways that, while not always new, are certainly exciting.

Horizon: Zero Dawn IS the sort of game that comes around once in a hardware generation, and you owe it to yourself to play it.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Aloy; Deep exploration; Dat crafting; Dat design; Dat worldbuilding
Lowlights: Combat difficulty curve my put some off; I am a grown up and cannot play it 8 hours a day
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: Out now
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.