Horizon: Zero Dawn is not a perfect game. Don’t get me wrong, it̵7;s incredibly amazing: one of the best AAA games of this generation, and well worth picking up on your PC if you missed its original PS4 debut. But like any game, it has some shortcomings.
But it can be the perfect sandbox game in the open world. Or at least the perfect sandbox game in the modern form, which started around the time of the original Assassin’s Creed. You know what I mean: a huge open map, mostly outdoor environments dotted with some cities, climbing towers to map the area, clear camps of enemies, fight some dynamic villains or creatures in between, with lots of collectibles and optional crafts to improve your equipment . It has become the standard genre for modern big budget titles, such as shooters in the 2000s or platform players in the 80s and 90s.
Horizon Zero Dawn does not deviate too far from this formula. It has all the elements above, although it focuses on fighting its exhibition machine monsters and has only one big city. But what it lacks in innovation it compensates for refinement: the game’s world, story and characters melt in a way that is immediate and satisfying.
With the PC version recently released, it’s a perfect time to visit this excellent open world. If you’ve ever had a sandbox game, this is it Grand Theft Auto or Breath of the Wild, you owe it to yourself to play Horizon.
A beautiful fascinating world
Horizon takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. That phrase will probably think of sandblasted Galna Max sets, or Fallout’s piles of glowing nuclear waste. Not like that. Horizon is set so far in the future that nature has taken back the landscape, a pristine and beautifully made slice of the American cliffs and high desert.
After living in Colorado Springs, I was very happy to see faithfully recreated replicas of the Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks and to attack an entrenched bandit camp hiding in the crumbling ruins of the Broncos Stadium. The country is a little more colorful and dramatic than in reality – no endless rolling hills, a la Red Dead Redemption 2– but it’s good. If I wanted to walk for an hour without seeing anything cool, I would go to the real Wyoming. Compared to the natural splendor of the revived world, occasional diving into the ruins of the old, or the techno-fabricated machine prisons in the corners of the maps, is a kind of betrayal.
The graphics are in a slightly hyper-real style, with literally picturesque landscaping and foliage. It’s honestly just a little too ambitious for the PS4. (Even the PS4 Pro does not handle the game at 60 frames per second.) Even with a less than perfect port, it is a treat to see the game in full motion and higher resolution.
Like most open world games, Horizon has taken the tower. But here are the Tallnecks, 10-story robotic giraffes that the main character Aloy must track, scale and interface with to unlock parts of the map. At various points you have to solve environmental puzzles, take down a small army of human and machine villains or sneak past some.
The boring towers in Far Cry the series made me fear them roughly in the middle of every game. But Horizon is the first game I have played where I wish there were more of them. Tallnecks are so interesting and varied.
It’s fun to explore
Of course, being in a fascinating world is one thing. Moving around in it is another. Movement is a core element in a good sandbox game. Take grip and parachute toys off Just because series, which elevates an otherwise bland shoot-em-up to a vertical playground. Or climbing-absolutely-any approach of Breath of the Wild, which feels really open in a way no Zelda game before it does.
Again, Horizon does not break any new ground here. But it nails the mechanics in a way that makes it incredibly satisfying. Aloy can run around most of the world, except for vertical surfaces, where she can only climb on specific parts of the environment. These are marked in large, user-friendly yellow color and rope.
Climbing feels good, even natural, with a weight and rhythm that makes it fun to climb even the highest slopes. While I sometimes had to search for the next handle – a conscious game choice – I never went back and flew towards the camera to a splattery death. (Watching you, Assassin’s Creed.)
The map is quite large, and although fast travel is an option, I preferred to go on foot. But if I was in a hurry, I would use the machine control function – a game element that was unlocked after an hour or two – to get around faster. Robot mounts are generously scattered around the map, especially near settlements and story points, so a faster alternative is never that far away. Aloy may not be a cowboy, but she rides steel horses until the sun goes down. This is a natural and fun way to cross the beautiful landscape that gels with the game, the story and the setting. It is another common sandbox element, refined to a mirror gloss.
With Mesmerizing Enemies
By far the most eye-catching attraction to Horizon are the machines, the mechanized animals that control the world of the game with only occasional human resistance. Most of the conflict in the game, at least from a player’s perspective, is about fighting and taming these clanking animals.
And good grief, they are wonderful. Calling them “robotic dinosaurs” is a bit simplistic, but it works because they range in size from about a bird of prey to a T-rex and a brontosaurus. Each one brushes with a fantastic range of design elements, all in some way uniform and consistent, undulating with loving animation. The first time you see a Thunderjaw on the horizon and feel like a mouse attacking a mastodon, it’s an outstanding organic moment in the game.
Each machine behaves differently, with different strengths and weaknesses, and will require refined tactics to strike. The first time you come across something new, you are more likely to get your ass to you.
But eventually, as your arsenal expands and you become more comfortable, especially as you gain the ability to confuse or control machines to fight for you, you feel like a master of this strange new world. Taking down the relatively few human enemies in the game pales in comparison, and it’s just as good, to cut down living thinking people like Tommy Vercetti does not really fit Aloy’s character.
The battle was one of the aspects I really looked forward to on the PC because it is heavily weighted for various bows, arrows and projectile modifiers. Aloy’s spear will only play when something has gone wrong. The PS4’s controls are sufficient for this, but going for a full mouse and keyboard really opens up Horizon’s full potential, because so much of the battle is centered around just firing on specific parts of the machines. I encountered the difficulty of Hard, and it’s still easier than it was on the console’s Medium.
And interesting collectibles
Almost all sandbox games hill the map with collectibles. Horizon is no different, but its smear of random documents and audio logs serves the whole story first. There is no real reward for collecting them – you can get some unlocks to find the metal flowers (another important story) or the “ancient vessels” (collect coffee cups from the past), but they are not necessary for anything but your own satisfaction. . You do not have to find 150 stars here.
Still, I felt compelled to track them down. Every piece I found, while offering a relatively small window into the events that happened centuries before the game’s current history, gave me an exciting piece of lore that I longed for. Some of them are extra special “points of view” that unlock, which gives Aloy a holographic insight into the world (quite similar to our own) before everything collapsed. It is an excellent incentive to explore.
It’s more of a compliment to history than the basic structure of sandboxes. So let’s talk about history.
And a story that is actually worth playing through
I picked up the PS4 version of Horizon at a deep discount last year, fascinated by its robo-dinos, but do not expect much else from it. And about an hour I would give up, because the story begins about as slowly as possible.
After about 15 minutes of prologue, where we learn that Aloy is an orphaned child who is thrown out of his primitive tribe and raised by a crusty old hermit, we then have to play as children a little more, get some basic movement and hunting tutorials and learn her motivation. She wants to pass the tribe’s trials to get back in and finish the head of her class so she can find out why she was thrown out in the first place. It’s a decent introduction, and it creates the character of a teenage Aloy.
I do not want to ruin anything, so I’m just saying that the tribal trials are where the story comes from. We find an exciting intersection between the scattered human tribes, the remaining technology of the old world and the machines that make everyday life a danger. From there, Aloy must travel across the gaming world to discover not only the nature of the machines, not only why and how the world was destroyed and reborn, but how she personally fits into it all.
Despite the slow start of burning, Horizon is expanding its scope masterfully. When Aloy explores the map and interacts with machines and humans – always a little hesitant due to her outcast upbringing – she sees that it expands both literally and figuratively. If you want to sink your teeth into some serious sci-fi-lore, this game will give you that.
At the end of the main story I had to stop and digest it for a while before I played more, in the same way I can not just jump into the next book after finishing a really good book. Taking the time to find all these collectibles and get a nuanced human look at the events of the past and present made it even more rewarding.
Horizon’s story is one of the best I have ever played through. And how it is served by the game and the setting is something that every sandbox game should strive for. It’s so solid, with such a good development and finish, that I doubt the upcoming PlayStation 5 sequel can match.
I’m a PC gamer at heart and just picked up Horizon: Zero Dawn for Sony Spider-Man (another high-profile sandbox game!) tempted me to pick up a used PS4. Now that it’s out on PC, I almost wish I had not played it then, so I could experience it fresh with renewed technical splendor and keyboard-and-mouse controls.
But in any case, you should definitely play it if you have ever had the modern sandbox game. The PC launch has not been completely smooth, but pick it up if you have a machine that is powerful enough to run it well. (Alternatively, wait until its various technical issues have been ironed out.) If you have a PS4, it is now a “PlayStation Hit” and is available with its complete DLC and an art book for just a few dollars.
Anyway, it’s worth it. Even almost three years after the launch, I do not think there is a better sandbox game available today – or maybe for a long time to come.
Horizon Zero Dawn