The old world has been destroyed but its legacies remain: vast, ruined cities, strange underground structures and, everywhere, machines. Scrappers sifting through ruins, Grazers absorbing nutrients from the ground, Watchers keeping an eye out for human interlopers and, terrifyingly, Thunderjaws and Stormbirds as massive engines of destruction. Humanity has been reduced to a small number of tribes, hunting machines for material resources and animals for food. Strict codes of conduct govern their behaviour, with the merest transgression leading to exile.
Aloy has lived her entire life in exile, raised by the outcast hunter Rost. Aloy has no idea why she was banished from the Nora Tribe at the moment of her birth, but Rost advises her of a loophole in the law: if, upon coming of age, Aloy can win a competition known as the Proving she will be allowed to rejoin the Nora. Rose trains Aloy in the ways of hunting, combat and survival, but Aloy has extra help: a Focus, a device of the old world that helps her identify threats and find hidden paths. Aloy's skills and talent will be tested when a new threat to the Nora is identified, one which will take her far from her homeland in search of answers to questions about her very existence, and how this world came to be.
In a lot of post-apocalyptic video games, the reasons for why the old world was destroyed are pretty irrelevant: the game just needs a cool backdrop for exploration and adventure, and sticking in a ruined Capitol Building, an overgrown Hollywood sign or a Hoover Dam turned into a fortified military base can be a good shortcut of letting players know what's what. Horizon Zero Dawn - which sends you scrabbling into the ruins of Denver, Colorado just a couple of hours into its lengthy runtime - initially feels like the same sort of game. The world has been destroyed and the wilderness is now overrun by robot animals. Cool. Move on. But after a while the game, it becomes clear, hasn't thrown these things in just for giggles. The writers and designers at Guerrilla Games have done something very unusual by modern gaming standards: they've come up with a deep, rich and well-thought-out backstory and mythology for their title, one that makes the story and the world matter in a way they don't in so many other franchises.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that initially feels overfamiliar. The game is set in an impressively-sized open world which you can explore at leisure, packed with robotic monsters and human enemies to defeat, bandit camps to conquer, quests to undertake and better gear to unlock, along with a sprawling skill tree to slowly level up through. It's another open-world action game, a genre that feels not so much over-explored at the moment as utterly exhausted. From the solid Grand Theft Auto V to the fun-but-shallow Fallout 4 to the disappointing Far Cry 5, the open world game is starting to feel like a done deal and the prospect of yet another huge map filled with icons for you to tick off like a violent accountant may cause some to groan and move on.
Fortunately, Horizon Zero Dawn is much more at the Witcher 3 end of the quality scale than the identkit Ubisoft collect 'em up one. The game ties together it's central storyline, where Aloy is trying to uncover the mysteries of her birth and her past, with the side-activities in a highly organic manner. Aloy is a hunter, an explorer and, later on, a Seeker, effectively a licensed adventurer and peacekeeper, so it makes sense for people to stop her and ask for her help, and for her to agree. The game deserves plaudits for how it organises quests into categories: "main" quests directly push forward the main story. "Side" quests are useful for exploring the world and new locations, but not essential to progress. "Errands" are not important at all and don't even further your understanding of the world and its factions, but are a source of experience and loot. Other tasks are simply listed by location: hunting areas, Cauldrons (effectively techno-dungeons, in a splendidly inverted Dungeons & Dragons twist where cavernous underground sources of adventure and loot are highly high-tech robot factories) and bandit camps, which can be cleared out and turned into new, allied settlements. Side activities can be ignored, but completionists are rewarded as doing these missions gains Aloy new friends and allies who may show up later in the game to provide support during tough missions, especially the grand finale.
The game's storyline starts off rote - why was Aloy abandoned as a baby, and why was she immediately outcast by the tribal elders? - but rapidly becomes more complex through a series of brutal plot twists. Aloy's understanding of herself involves uncovering what exactly happened to the old world, where the early and familiar answers - humans in the late 21st Century created military AI which rapidly gained sentience and spiralled out of control - are rapidly complicated and given much greater nuance and understanding as Aloy uncovers holographic recordings and logs of those events. The true story of what happened to Earth in the late 21st Century becomes central to the present-day story in the game, a rare example of backstory and present-day narrative combining into a single, cohesive whole. These stories are delivered through splendid, much-better-than-expected writing, dialogue and voice acting (Lance Reddick from The Wire and Fringe is particularly excellent as Aloy's extremely reluctant "guy in a van" advisor, Sylens, she inadvertently contacts via her Focus). Aloy herself is a strong protagonist, one who goes through some knocks as the game progresses and learns some incredibly disturbing secrets, but never loses her wry sense of humour, optimism or hope. After a near-endless parade of video game protagonists who are taciturn, gruff and relentlessly cynical, Aloy's relative confidence and integrity is a welcome relief.
This incredibly strong narrative and character-focus, but where the player is free to break away at almost any time to pursue their own agendas. Those who want to build up their skills and experience through hunting missions can do so, and the game's strongly dominant storyline is helped by its robust combat system. Human enemies are fairly easy to dispose of, but the game's real challenge comes from fighting the "mechafauna," animal-like robots who can be found spread across the entire landscape. These machines come in different types, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, weapons and abilities, and learning these about each type is crucial to defeating them. Early in the game fighting even a bottom-tier machine can be fraught with peril and pursuing a stealth build (allowing you to take down low-ranking machines in a single hit from cover) can pay off handsomely. Later on, you can gain access to more exotic weapons, such as "tearblast" arrows which can rip machines' armour and externally-mounted weapons clean off before you can engage them in more direct combat. Aloy's growing prowess is offset by the game steadily drip-feeding tougher and more powerful machines into the fray, culminating in the top-tier creatures, the T-rex-like Thunderjaw and the massively-winged Stormbird (visible from several miles away, at which distance it's already bigger than the much smaller Glinthawks when they're right next to you), which will have you running screaming for cover the first time you see them. The satisfaction gained when you finally bring these behemoths down is immense.
The game does not lack for content: a comprehensive playthrough taking note of all the secondary material and completing the expansion, The Frozen Wilds, will easily take around 60 hours, if not more. Even that opens up new possibilities, including unlocking "New Game+" mode and new difficulty levels to give you more of a challenge. If you're less interested in the optional stuff, you can mainline the main story in under 30 hours or so, and even play on "Story Mode" where combat is decidedly trivial and, in many cases, unnecessary.
Horizon Zero Dawn does not have many negatives. The expansion relies perhaps a little too much on fighting one particularly annoying new enemy type which can be a bit tedious. Hitting 100% on the game requires grinding certain hunting missions which can get very repetitive very quickly. It's a little too easy to spend all your money and resources during and after a particularly tough fight, forcing you to spend some time gathering new resources and supplies before the next battle. But then that's also a central part of the gameplay, and as the game continues Aloy's ability to resupply becomes much more powerful (towards the end of the game you can go from being totally out-resourced to fully equipped and ready to roll again in a few minutes). Truth be told, the only complaint than can really be made about Horizon Zero Dawn are the technical issues on the PC version of the game, which are being addressed through patches (see postscript).
Horizon Zero Dawn (*****) is visually-stunning, well-written, impressively characterised and it has a central SF storyline and backstory (along with what the cool kids are calling "lore" these days) which ranks amongst the best in recent video games, certainly in the AAA space. The game is perhaps a tad slow to get going, but once it catches fire it never lets up through dozens of hours of hunting, exploring, fighting and learning more about how this world came to be. The game is available now on PlayStation 4 and PC, and an enhanced and expanded edition should be available for the PlayStation 5 after it launches.
Technical Postscript: Horizon Zero Dawn's PC port has suffered a number of technical glitches and problems since release. Although several major problems were fixed quickly through the release of two patches and several hotfixes, other issues remain. I was lucky that my experience was mostly smooth sailing, with only a few crashes (oddly only after the first patch was released and then addressed in the second). Weird framerate spikes were a more consistent problem across multiple settings and even continued when upgraded to a new graphics card (an nVidia 2060), although I was only playing at standard HD resolution. This seems to not be related to how the graphics are rendered but how the Decima Engine handles the background streaming and loading of assets; simply put, the engine wasn't designed to handle the vastly more rapid camera movements that the PC can handle compared to the PS4. Death Stranding, which uses the same engine, was designed from the ground up to be a PC title, so they fixed these problems in development. Horizon Zero Dawn, which was never supposed to be a PC game and was ported by Sony as a revenue-generating experiment, hasn't quite had the same expertise expended on it. Fortunately, Death Stranding's much more solid port shows that these issues can be fixed with the engine and I expect they will in time (a third patch was released just before this time of writing which fixed several of these issues).
In the meantime, one solution which has fixed a lot of problems is switching on "Hardware-accelerated GPU scheduling". To do this, make sure you have the Windows 10 2004 update installed (this is one of the newer major updates, and may not have auto-installed for everyone yet), then right-click on desktop > Display Settings > Graphics Settings > Hardware-accelerated GPU scheduling ON. Then restart the PC. This should eliminate a lot of the background stutter which in turn causes some of the crashes.