Horizon: Zero Dawn is an excellent videogame, how could it not be? The pitch alone is worthy of your attention: A post apocalyptic world where human beings have gone back to living in tribal communities, nothing remains of the people who came before, except the skeletons of buildings and, of course, enormous robot dinosaurs. You play as Aloy, a terribly named but incredibly resourceful woman, who is exiled from her tribe for reasons that aren’t clear in the beginning. With the help of your father, Rost, you learn to hunt the robot dinosaurs, and then head off on your grand adventure, looking for answers about your birth, about a terrifying cult that worships machines, and about the circumstances that led the world to the state it is now in.
In truth, Horizon really has no business being even close to as good or as fun as it is. The mechanics the game employs are not new or even especially unique. You climb enormous robotic creatures to open different parts of the map, much the same as you climb any other viewpoint in any other open-world game. You mark your human targets before charging in to fight them. You harvest resources from machines, from wildlife, and from the environment to craft upgrades. You apply skill points to skill trees as you level up your character. You explore your map, collecting missions and special items. You don’t even have the option of customizing your character’s appearance, which the majority of western RPGs would give you. Yet, Horizon Zero Dawn manages to be the best version of all of these things. It manages to take the tropes and expectations of the countless other versions of open-world games, and it shows you a fantastic example of how they can and should work. The last time a game like this worked for me as much as Horizon does was Far Cry 3, which loses points by virtue of not having any robot dinosaurs to fight.
What works most in Horizon‘s favour is the world that it builds for you. You are in a post-apocalyptic setting that yet feels lush and alive. This is not a toxic wasteland, or a barren desert—there is so much in Horizon’s world, the map is filled with a variety of interesting landscapes and ecosystems to explore, varying from the aforementioned barren desert, to snowy mountains, and lush forests. You are also presented with an enormous number of characters and communities to interact with, and get side missions from. Each settlement you come across presents you with additional missions, and none of these feel like busywork or fluff. Everything in Horizon feels important and manages to hold your attention. Characters feel fleshed out and you want to know what they have to say. I found myself digging deep into dialogue trees, needing to know more about these people.
For anyone who loves science fiction, particularly contemporary science fiction, the main questline is fascinating, sending you on a quest to find out just what happened to the “old-ones”, where these seemingly self-sufficient robo-dinosaurs came from, and the origins of your, apparently, miraculous birth. The journey you go on to understand what happened to this devastated world has a real weight to it, and you really along with the story’s main character, Aloy, as you uncover more and more of the story. I found myself actively stopping main story quests in order to do some of the side-quests, because I wanted to know even more about what was happening. I haven’t been so engaged and drawn into the story of a videogame in quite some time, particularly in a AAA game. There are tremendous story examples in indie games and major releases to be sure, but this one gripped me in similar fashion to last-gen’s The Last of Us.
Like all games, Horizon is not perfect. Aloy, while being a tremendously fun character to play, can be sarcastic and quippy to the point that it becomes a bit tedious to listen to. Collecting coffee mugs or metal flowers can feel a bit like a chore, but never to the extent that I don’t want to collect them. There are, of course, issues that have come up around criticism of cultural appropriation through some of the language used in the game. I am not about to decide what is and isn’t offensive of problematic on behalf of others, particularly as an outsider from these cultures, but to me it felt like its use is explained through the fiction of the game. It felt like the return to a tribal way of life made sense and even seemed to follow a real-world logic, as if this was the way that things would go in real life. Again, I’m not going to tell someone that they are wrong for being uncomfortable or even offended by it, but in terms of my own, admittedly privileged experience, it didn’t feel terribly uncomfortable. If nothing else, the conversation it inspires is an interesting and valuable one.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a breath of fresh air, and its success is a tremendously good thing. This game has proven that a game with a female protagonist can be not only excellent, but extremely profitable, at least according to the nearly three million units moved in the first two weeks of the game’s release. It shows that a new intellectual property can be huge financially, and hopefully these two things will encourage more risk and experimentation in the industry going forward. To be sure, Horizon contains much of the same mechanics and tropes we’ve seen in other games like it, and so feels like a safe experiment. But my hope now is that Horizon will encourage developers to be brave and to embrace new ideas going forward. It’s hard to believe how great the first few months of 2017 have been with video games, and a tremendous part of this comes from Horizon: Zero Dawn. If you haven’t played it yet, then you absolutely need to.