Horizon Zero Dawn's rich storytelling and robot dinosaurs make for an experience like none other

Articles: Gaming
Jun 04, 2021 Written by:ROG Article

I launched three electric traps with my tripcaster, trying to zone the Bellowback while I healed. That was an immediate failure. The machine launched a ranged-fire attack from where it was standing, destroying all the health gains I had made in the previous five seconds. I switched back to normal arrows, trying to find an angle on the gas bladder at the rear of the machine. I shot, stopped to heal, and repeated that sequence until I wore down the Bellowback’s defenses. It took all the healing items I had hoarded, but I finally emerged victorious.

Horizon Zero Dawn is an ambitious original title set in an apocalyptic far future where machines roam the land and humans live in primitive societies. The developers crafted a rich and breathing universe with distinct cultures, characters and plenty of secrets to uncover. The prologue of the game dropped me into a human village with little to go on. At first, the bizarre creatures and alien world made me feel like a fish out of water, but my adoptive parent slowly introduced me to both the human and living machine elements of my new environment. By the time I left my village, I felt that I had most of the tools to succeed in a hostile and unforgiving new era on Earth.

hzd-1Image source: Gamesplanet

The creature design alone makes Horizon Zero Dawn an unforgettable experience. The game puts me toe-to-toe against a huge variety of enemies that are a hybrid of cold machines and living creatures, including crabs, horses, and even the mighty T-Rex. This Jurassic Park and Red Dead Redemption hybrid feels quite natural: the wildlife are both an enemy to be feared and prey to hunted. Muscles glow blue and green with synthetic tones and steel armor replaces skin and scales. The combination of prehistoric flesh and manufactured metal gives Horizon Zero Dawn a look all its own, but it goes beyond mere aesthetics. Some enemies may have vulnerable shoulder blades, while others are incredibly tanky when shot from the front. Every battle asks players to learn how to approach things differently based on the species of enemy encountered.

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While the machines and locations in Horizon Zero Dawn both feel grounded and real enough on their own, the art design in this title adds another layer of polish to make both aspects shine even brighter. Light sources are brilliant, from the glowing eyes or reflective muscles of the machines to the torches in a human village. In sunlight the machines still look quite good, but when hunting them in a dark forest at night, their albedo is truly dazzling. With HDR enabled, this effect is magnified and all aspects of a fight pop, from the machine itself to the explosions and sparks that fly under a volley of arrows. Against the backdrop of the muted and pastel tones in the landscapes, the point lighting from machines and mechanical structures pulls me into the action without being busy or distracting.

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Horizon Zero Dawn’s expansive world offers more interesting locations and things to do than I’ve had time to fully explore. Other open world adventure titles send me spelunking in generic caves and tombs that usually just hold a few bland enemies and a single treasure chest for my trouble. Horizon Zero Dawn, in contrast, absolutely nails this aspect of the experience. Every single cave and ruin design was unique, and I was always rewarded for taking my time and exploring. I found audio logs, emails and other clues scattered throughout the environment, and they help illuminate what transpired to create this world. There were few puzzles, and the traversal sections in these caves were straightforward, which I appreciated. I spent less time dying or bored because I couldn’t find the secret door. That let me immerse myself in the discovery of the past right along with the main character.

When I stepped into the boots of the Nora tribe warrior known as Aloy, I entered the world with a bow, a spear, and an ambition to learn more about the past. The game allowed me to choose where to travel, what to explore, and how to approach a fight. Trained in FPS games, I tried shooting my targets in the head or eyes to search for vulnerable weak spots in the beginning. However, the movement patterns of the machines taught me that an arrow to the eye was going to be a rare occurrence.

hzd-2Image source: Gamesplanet

Over time, I experimented with fire, ice, electric, and explosive ammo and learned how to whittle down the machines faster and more efficiently. I also discovered that a well-placed elemental arrow shot, for example a fire arrow in a machine’s Blaze canister, could create a chain reaction that would weaken the entire field of enemies by 50% or more. Once I learned the basics of the combat ammo system, I felt less like a primitive human struggling to survive and more like a mad scientist furiously researching the most effective ways to cull machine herds. Snapmaws the world over came to fear my presence.

Vital weapon and gear upgrades required certain parts from certain machines, so once I had a sliver of self confidence in my combat ability, I began to hunt ever-larger prey. For example, fire weapons and traps require Blaze, and frost-based ammo needs Chillwater. After I learned what machines reliably dropped these resources, I farmed them in earnest to keep my one-woman army well-stocked with fire arrows and other goodies. The game rewarded my obsessive collecting with unique upgraded armors and weapons from traders. Better shove that Ravager lens in the backpack for later—never know when it might come in handy. After quite a bit of digging in old office buildings-turned-tombs, I also found five hidden items required to unlock a set of ancient power armor. Thus equipped, I became a spear-wielding space marine, ready to take the fight to even the most formidable machine.

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Horizon Zero Dawn has all the building blocks of a truly exceptional title, and it seals the deal with an earnest and well-paced story. I experienced Aloy’s childhood and the formation of her perspective on the world through her own eyes, not through an in-game story or anecdote. Factions and individuals have motivations and make decisions that make sense in the context of this future human civilization. The pacing of the main story feels compelling but not urgent in the sense that I can’t take my time to explore. Clues scattered in ruins and around the world slowly illustrate what happened in the past to our world to create this one for the new human civilization.

I left the world of Horizon Zero Dawn incredibly glad that I had taken a chance on this PC port. I consider it nothing less than a masterpiece, and I have been eagerly following the news on its upcoming sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, ever since I set down my spear. My anticipation intensified when Sony recently released some gameplay capture from that forthcoming title. If you haven’t already, give HZD a shot so that you’ll be ready when the follow-up is released on PC. 

By Lane Prescott