Horizon Zero Dawn is a good game. But despite the great acclaim attributed to it since its release late last month, I would question such praise. It’s certainly worthy as an exclusive for the PlayStation 4, especially in showing off the graphical and technical prowess of what is currently the leading game system of this console generation. Where Horizon doesn’t work so well is its gameplay mechanics being cut from many different worn clothes of modern game design, often creating a sense of repeat, exacerbated by its long length.
Horizon’s most outstanding point of value is its concept that is decidedly novel. Set hundreds if maybe over a thousand years after a mysterious disaster sends Earth and humanity back into a decidedly mechanized stone age, it follows the tale of a young woman named Aloy. She learns to hunt, survive and explore a world ruled not by the undead or something along those lines, but cybernetic animals, which have essentially become the dominant species. They take on forms that are familiar to those with a basic understanding of the animal kingdom with some appearing like elk, horses, lizards, bulls, and even crocodiles, giraffes and tigers. She journeys from her homeland in search of not only who besieged her tribe for unknown intent, but to discover at long last what led to the end of the old world - becoming a legend in the process.
While the central mystery at Horizon’s heart is indeed compelling with legitimate payoff at the end for your endeavors, the basic narrative surrounding Aloy and her friends, enemies and everybody else is unfortunately trite. For all the effort of animating the faces and personalities of tens of dozens of virtual people in this world, few were compelling enough for my tastes and my interest in Aloy’s trials and tribulations. For every person that kept my attention - like an earnest, kind and surprisingly uncorrupt monarch of a neighboring kingdom - Horizon aims for glory on an epic scale and succeeds more in its presentation of the world than on its inner workings.
Perhaps the narrative is forgivable if the gameplay can make up for it and Horizon technically does so. The act of crafting and buying the right weapons and traps, learning the weaknesses of each type of machine and exploiting it to great effect can be quite enjoyable. There are some unforgettable moments created by facing large and unrelenting robotic beasts and whittling it down to victory. Death can come for those entering areas of the world without the skills, tools and patience to face them. Considering the game’s vast length, its well that many of your moments feel hard-fought. My favorite flavor of gameplay was finding the Cauldrons - vast underground cave systems that are the breeding grounds for the machines. Beating a cauldron unlocks the ability to hack and control a set of animals, either to ride for faster travel or attack other enemies. It’s especially awesome when late in the game you finally unlock the codes to the T-rex sized bots and see them go to town and commit chaotic messes.
Horizon may seem like a fine open world adventure. But the familiarity of other game series seeps in a sense of fatigue. Clearing out areas and finding high spaces to open up the map is taken directly from the Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed series, though in Horizon’s favor, the towers have a nice twist in being giant mobile giraffes with saucer like heads to climb up on. The bow and arrow mechanics are almost beat-to-beat like in the recent Tomb Raider games.
What the game does well with its ideas, its gorgeous visuals and sense of scale is countered harshly by the derivative gameplay and story, making Horizon feel like its split between inspiration and conformity. It doesn’t surpass its modern trope trappings but it does make for a decent amount of fun. It is ultimately a matter of taste and whether the icing is more up your alley than the filling. It’s not hollow but perhaps doesn’t push far enough to really stand out long term. Judging by its sales, a new franchise is indeed here for Sony’s system and I can only hope it can do more than be just good in its next outing.