In Horizon Zero Dawn, there are robot animals to fight, bloodthirsty bandits to eliminate and millennium-spanning mysteries to uncover. Yet, every time I turned a corner in this lushly detailed video game world, I was sucked into some incredible new spectacle.
“Ohhhh, what is THAT?” I gasped at the sight of a massive robotic bird circling in the distant sky. Or a lakeside settlement with dusk-coloured towers, guarded by men in ornate armour. Or the twisted wreckage of a skyscraper-sized machine, its metal tentacles tangled in snowbound mountain peaks. “I need to go check that out!”
A much-anticipated PlayStation 4 exclusive out Tuesday, Horizon Zero Dawn is set 1,000 years in the future, when civilization as we know it has vanished in some sort of apocalyptic event. This beautiful but dangerous new world is inhabited by primitive tribal societies who co-exist with animal-like machines of unknown origin, from ornery mecha-bulls to deadly, dinosaurian behemoths.
Into this fascinating mix of low and high technology comes Aloy, a flame-haired huntress cast out from her tribe at birth. As a child, Aloy stumbles across an augmented reality device called a Focus – left behind by the so-called Ancient Ones – giving her abilities that enhance her already formidable skills.
From the very beginning, Horizon Zero Dawn hooked me with its mysteries. How could Aloy have been born without a mother, as her tribal elders claim? Where did these machines come from, and why are they increasingly hostile? And what happened to mankind that caused our world to disappear, leaving nothing but crumbling skyscrapers and strange metal bunkers? Everything is explained in time, in surprising plot chunks doled out over 30-plus hours of play. (I actually spent more than 60 hours with the game, trying to make it last as long as possible.)
You can see the DNA of a lot of different franchises in Horizon Zero Dawn – Far Cry, Tomb Raider, Uncharted, maybe even a bit of TV’s Game of Thrones. Its stunning open-world vistas are supported by a rich background fiction and exhilarating, unique combat.
Using an arsenal of low-tech weapons enhanced with salvaged futuristic components, Aloy’s arsenal includes bows with several distinct types of arrows, slings that hurl bombs that shock, freeze or set enemies on fire, tripwire traps, the ability to override hostile machines and turn them against their allies, and much, much more. The action mixes tactical planning with frantic improvisation, making every encounter feel fresh.
As Aloy sets off across wildly varied landscapes – a nearly unrecognizable post-apocalyptic Colorado, Utah and surrounding environs – her quest to learn where she came from gets woven into the lives of the many people she encounters along the way, as well as the larger mystery of modern humanity’s disappearance and the rise of the bestial bots. One moment she’s brokering peace between warring tribes, the next she’s unearthing long-buried secrets about her ancestors’ extinction – all while constantly sparring with the 20-odd diverse machine species that inhabit the world.
Amsterdam-based studio Guerilla Games, best known for PlayStation’s grim but visually impressive Killzone franchise, spent more than six years on Horizon Zero Dawn, and it shows: in the beauty of the game’s visuals, the depth of its backstory and the tightness of its design. Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ll see of this high-tech savage land. (Horizon Forbidden West, maybe? Please?)