Guerrilla Games goes open world in this sumptuous, enjoyable yet overly generic new age sci-fi RPG.
You'd be forgiven for going into this one expecting something a little different. For developer Guerrilla Games, at least, Horizon Zero Dawn sees a remarkable change in both pace and tone, a well-earned break from over ten years of stoic service on the gritty battlefields of Killzone and a step away from the crushed concrete and exposed steel mesh of Helghan towards something brighter, breezier, more open. Horizon Zero Dawn is a sumptuous, slow-burning adventure that stretches its 30 hour tale across a vast and beautiful map that's light years away from the killing fields of Guerrilla's first-person shooter series. It's an open world game of admirable scope and craft.
And yet there's something wearisomely familiar about it all.
Perhaps that's down to this being Guerrilla's first big open world, the studio lacking some of the confidence to forge its own path, for you'll have seen much of Horizon Zero Dawn elsewhere. This is a genre piece that's a little too generic: Horizon Zero Dawn is too liberal with what it borrows, and often too literal to boot. The result ends up feeling like an imitation of something you'll have played countless times before, and often in finer form.
The fiction is all Horizon Zero Dawn's own, however, an enjoyably pulpy new age sci-fi where the earth lies in ruins and is patrolled by savage hordes of mechanical dinosaurs. You're Aloy, a tribal outcast who's promoted against the odds in this post-apocalyptic matriarchy to the role of seeker, venturing past the boundaries of her isolated village. There's enough enigma in the world that lies beyond to pull you through the course of the tale, even if some of its threads get knotted up along the way.
It doesn't help that Horizon Zero Dawn so readily invites comparison to The Witcher 3. It's a match-up that was always going to weigh against Guerrilla's favour; this doesn't benefit from all that world-building that's gone before in CD Projekt's dark adult folklore, and in its place is a sci-fi fantasy that tends towards over-earnestness. It's a young adult The Witcher 3, but lacking so much of the warmth or the charm.
The grand structure of Horizon Zero Dawn apes The Witcher 3 - it's a series of quests that guide you through the various sights and sounds of this ruined earth, complete with countless diversions along the way - as are some of the finer details. Come across a scene and you'll be asked to investigate using your 'focus' - an overlay enabled by a magical bluetooth headset you find early on in the game, one of the lumpier parts of the fiction here - tracking footsteps and investigating items. There's not that same sense of purpose, though, the all-important motivation and character getting lost in uneven writing and mumbled execution.
Blame some of that on Decima, Guerrilla's own engine that does a remarkable job of rendering fantastical steel, sparks of neon and achingly beautiful landscapes yet stumbles on the more personal drama it's been asked to convey. Ashly Burch brings a humanity to the role of Aloy that's undermined by the awkward performance capture and twitchy editing of each cutscene. It's telling that so much of the heavy lifting and exposition here is done via scratchy hologram playback or through the many audio diaries that act as collectibles along the way.
A small shame that Horizon Zero Dawn can be so dreary when so much of it is delightful. As a visual spectacle it's unsurpassed, on console at least; here's one area in which Guerrilla can go toe-to-toe with The Witcher 3 with more than a fighting chance. The landscape itself is varied and rich, swooping from tundra to woodland to the grandest of canyons as fast as one of the mechanical mounts can take you, while the detail is staggering; tall grass sways to a gentle breeze as swarms of fireflies dance above the thickets. There's something deliciously, irrefutably and proudly video gamey about its aesthetic, an impossible clash of tribal lore and far future tech that somehow all makes sense. As a technical achievement, Horizon Zero Dawn is nothing short of a masterpiece.
What you do out in those wildlands also benefits from some impeccable craft, even if it's often short on imagination. The combat in Horizon Zero Dawn is enjoyably meaty, bringing all the intensity and complexity of a first-person shooter to the open world genre. Aloy's main tool is a bow - reinforcing the idea that there's more than a little Katniss about her - and it's complemented by a suite of ingenious tools. There are trip wires, traps and - best of all - a ropecaster that can be used to tie down prey. The toolbox is a treat, and it's put to good use.
There's more than a trace of Far Cry in its pomp as you lean on light stealth mechanics to clear out bandit camps, even if the AI's not quite robust enough to deliver the same sort of surprises that Ubisoft's own series often conjures. Horizon Zero Dawn finds its own voice, however, when you're facing down the dinosaurs that roam its wildlands. The mechanical menagerie are very much the stars of the show.
They're brilliantly designed, Tomy's Zoids toyline of the 80s given oh-so-fashionable orange and teal makeovers and complete with beautifully evocative names such as Thunderjaw and Sawtooth. They've more personality than the rest of the cast combined, and the encounters with them that form the backbone of Horizon Zero Dawn see the game firing on all cylinders. It's here where Aloy's moveset is pushed to the fore, and she's a more than able star; there's the poise of Lara, with a little of Vanquish's flair folded in too as you slide from encounter to encounter, crafting new ammo as you go. When it all comes together, Horizon Zero Dawn can be electric.How a tiny studio invented Diablo, and the action RPG 'All the technology we built was based on a single screen grab from X-Com.'
It's disappointing, then, that too much time is spent in cookie cutter encounters with more mundane flesh and bone of fellow tribespeople, where the imagination falters and where it all feels most like a pale imitation of countless games that have come before. There's the foundation here for something truly wonderful to come, and you hope that Horizon Zero Dawn does enough for Guerrilla to be able to come back and have another crack - and to perhaps put more of its own stamp on it all if it does.
This is far, far from a bad game - it's enjoyable in its own way, and you're certainly never short of things to do. There are zip-lines to chase down, towers to climb, dialogue trees to wander through, items to craft and a tech tree to explore; it's an exhaustive checklist of every trope of the modern day open world game where every component is at the very least competent. The core combat and aesthetic of Horizon Zero Dawn have been placed in fine focus; the rest, though, is something of an indistinguishable blur.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a work of considerable finesse and technical bravado, but it falls into the trap of past Guerrilla games in being all too forgettable. For all its skin-deep dynamism it lacks spark; somewhat like the robotic dinosaurs that stalk its arrestingly beautiful open world, this is a mimic that's all dazzle, steel and neon yet can feel like it's operating without a heart of its own.