For many years, only one game entered the mind of gamers when they saw the name Guerrilla Games: Killzone. And how could they not? Boasting polished gameplay and eye-popping graphics, Killzone emerged as a legitimate contender in the ultra-competitive shooter genre, solidifying Guerrilla Games as a player in the process. But after ten years and four entries across three consoles, the team decided to veer away from its established shooter and venture onto something radically different. Horizon Zero Dawn is the result of Guerrilla’s bold desire to craft a universe unlike anything they’d attempted before. A studio known exclusively for crafting first-person shooters heading up an open-world action/RPG initially sounded insane. The gamble paid off. Since its release in February, Guerrilla’s daring leap of faith has been a resounding success, garnering critical acclaim and record sales numbers.
I count myself among the fans. Horizon Zero Dawn is an amazing experience that borrows the best elements of celebrated hits such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and the recent Tomb Raider games. Combine that with a wildly imaginative premise and setting with a top-notch presentation, and Horizon truly stands as one of the year’s best. But like the seemingly unstoppable mechanical behemoths inhabiting Aloy’s world, the game does feature several weak points that keep it from achieving video game perfection. Now, compared to the overwhelming amount of things Horizon knocks out of the park, these drawbacks are relatively minor. However that doesn’t mean these nagging issues won’t irk players now and again.
15 Best: Breathtaking Presentation
One of Guerrilla Games’ strengths has always been eye-popping visuals. Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t disappoint in that area. It’s a damn fine looking game. Character designs and facial animations are immaculately detailed, as are the cities many of them occupy. Despite the convenience of fast-travel, hoofing it on foot offers a greater reward, letting players fully soak in the gorgeous and diverse vistas. Lush forests, arid deserts, and snow-capped mountain areas look fantastic and are accented with touches like the dynamic day/night cycle beautiful weather effects. When you're not smashing machines into scrap, simply admiring their killer designs and animations can be enjoyable in its own right.
Horizon looks stunning in standard 1080p, but playing it in on either an HDR capable display or on a 4K TV with a PS4 Pro provides a further visual face-lift. Increased color-depth, shadows, and textures breathe further life into Aloy's world. Not to mention Horizon is among the very few games that gives PS4 Pro owners possessing 4K displays a game that helps justify their investment.
14 Worst: Ultra Specific, Tacky Armor
Horizon’s harsh world boasts many hazards. Not to fear, because Aloy has a suit for every occasion. Like, literally, every possible ailment has a dedicated outfit geared towards resisting it. Aloy can rock armor that quells scorching fire or shields against biting frost. For some reason, two separate outfits exist to guard from ranged attacks and melee damage each. Those two can’t just be lumped together into one set of armor that resists physical damage in general? Having a closet full of uni-taskers means players are routinely going into the menu to change outfits and it grows tiresome after a while. The presence of armor mods, which buff Aloy with further resistances, makes this approach even more baffling. I’ve gotten by fine by simply enhancing the physical damage-focused suits with elemental mods, all but eliminating the need to spend resources buying a "winter coat."
On a more subjective note, I’m not wild about many of the actual designs. Some look average at best–others make Aloy look downright silly. Whether it’s a bland assortment of browns or tacky/strange headgear, you will find yourself conflicted in the conflict between tactical advantage vs aesthetic enjoyment.
13 Best: Optional, Rewarding Tutorials
Tutorials in most games tend to be dull, hand-holding affairs that can occasionally insult the player’s intelligence. Worse of all, they’re typically mandatory. Horizon Zero Dawn eschews that approach for a more appealing alternative. Gaining a new weapon unlocks an accompanying tutorial mission, which, despite being labeled “tutorial,” are more akin to challenge-style missions. Examples include killing X-amount of enemies using a certain bow or tying down a specific enemy type using the Ropecaster (oh, we'll get to that baby later). What makes these tutorials great is A) they’re optional and B) they reward experience points. Considering how simple most of them are, they function as adequate training wheels to get the hang of new gear. Perhaps more importantly, tutorials are perfect quests to have keep active during free-roaming period. Out in the world, players will undoubtedly partake in the designated activities anyway, so why not earn some extra XP and gain some mastery over a weapon in the process?
12 Worst: Slow Movement While Using Focus
Aloy’s Focus, her futuristic (or, within the context of Horizon’s timeline, ancient), information-gathering headset, performs several useful functions. These abilities include scanning a machine’s strengths and weaknesses, uncovering key environmental clues, and even revealing a target’s whereabouts across distances. Needless to say, the Focus is an invaluable gadget that sees a lot of use. Unfortunately, when the device is active, Aloy’s movement automatically slows to a walk. I understand the reasoning behind this; Guerrilla likely doesn’t want players to accidentally overlook important cues by letting them to rush through Focus-essential areas. That logic makes sense in the more linear, enclosed areas. In the open world, though, I’d love to be able to scan things while moving at a faster pace. That freedom would be especially helpful in the heat of combat, making me less likely to be shredded to ribbons by a Sawtooth because I needed to double check whether fire or ice was its Achilles’ heel.
11 Best: Scaling Tallnecks
Anyone familiar with Ubisoft open world games likely know the formula of climbing up a really tall thing in order to survey the landscape and unlock new map points. While that idea started off as fun, much of its novelty has been lost due to repeated usage and dull design (looking at you, Far Cry 3’s radio towers). Horizon borrows that trope, but freshens it up with its majestic Tallnecks. These disc-headed, Brachiosaurus-esque machinations act as moving vantage points that you must ascend and then hack to gain geographical information. Variety are the Tallneck's best friend. One may occupy Snapmaw-infested waters Aloy must battle through, another may be trapped within a camp of crazed cultists that must first be infiltrated in order to reach. Regardless, each Tallneck requires a different approach which prevents them from becoming repetitive. It’s also helps that climbing them evokes a little bit of the exhilarating sense of awe that scaling a colossi created in Shadow of the Colossus.
10 Worst: Inability to Sell/Drop Treasure Boxes
Treasure Boxes are special items that bestow several resources at once. They’re a great way to quickly accumulate many types of supplies, but what if you’re already filled up on a certain item like, say, rocks? *Note: you will ALWAYS be maxed out on rocks. Since you obviously can’t add any more of that item, the treasure box will remain in your inventory until it’s completely emptied. But what if I simply don’t want the rocks? Can I just drop the box or, better yet, sell the remaining contents to some sucker and get it off my screen? Nope and I can’t comprehend why that is. I’m OCD about my inventory in games, so having treasure boxes filled with leftovers of useless resources drives me nuts. Sure, I can just use up my inventory of rocks to free up space for the new ones, but why should I have to do that when it’d be easier, and more profitable, to just sell or toss the dumb things?
9 Best: Exploring Cauldrons
Cauldrons are Horizon’s take on the traditional dungeon. Like Tallnecks, these metal caverns find much of their strength in variety, both in their design and in the types of enemies inhabiting them. One Cauldron features massive rotating wheels Aloy must ride to reach platforms. Another may have an expansive stealth area filled with robots to avoid. Even the act of entering a Cauldron changes with each one. I once had to survive a pack of Stalkers guarding the front of one particular entrance, while another Cauldron tasked me with exploring the depths of a flooded cavern to locate its entrance. On an aesthetic note, their entirely sci-fi appearance provides a nice juxtaposition from an otherwise primal world. A big boss encounter acts as the Cauldron’s centerpiece and the reward for conquering it and completing the dungeon is invaluable: the ability to hack and control more types of machines. Challenging and rewarding, Cauldron’s are fun, meaningful diversions from Horizon’s sprawling open-world.
8 Worst: No Lock-On Feature in Combat
Ranged attacks are Aloy’s forte due to her mastery of the bow. She’s proficient with her spear as well, but melee combat lacks the same finesse due to the absence of a lock-on mechanic. Players must rely on the camera to manually aim their attacks. Although less of an issue when battling larger enemies (they’re as easy to hit as swinging a bat at the Titanic's hull), smaller, more agile opponents, such as humans, can present a trickier challenge. Sometimes you’re just swinging wildly and while it works at a base level, it’d be even better if Aloy could hone in on their position. Using the slower heavy attack can be a gamble since Aloy commits to a single direction while poised, so if the target moves, she’s wide open to a counterattack. Because of this, melee attacks tend to be a last resort for me, even against melee-centric baddies.
7 Best: Piecing Together the Fall of the Old Civilization
Despite Horizon’s world appearing primitive, the game takes place one thousand years in the future. Mankind was forced to restart from scratch after an unknown calamity caused modern civilization to collapse. A big part of the story’s allure stems from unraveling that tantalizing mystery.
Without spoiling specifics, Aloy spends a fair amount of time scouring “Old World” locations, such as ruined corporate buildings or military factories, in search of answers. Scattered audio files contain fascinating, out-of-context monologues that paint a picture of a utopian world on the verge of chaos. Vantage points provide literal windows, showing exactly how the landscape once appeared before hell broke loose. You'll even learn a little bit just by digging up old coffee mugs (an actual type of collectible). Horizon’s story eventually spells everything out, but a lot of the fun comes from connecting these dots while exploring the world and drawing your own conclusions. Discovering every clue and exploring every ruined structure makes the question of “What the heck happened?” burn ever fiercer, continually fueling the search for answers.
6 Worst: Overwhelming Inventory Choices Early On
Horizon wastes no time presenting players with a wealth of options once the opening hours wrap up. But there is such a thing as having too much too soon. Items are color-coded to convey quality, with green basically meaning “Meh," blue as “You’re getting better,” and purple stating “This is basically a Cadillac.” Instead of gating access to higher categories of items until you hit a certain level or story point, the game presents players with the option of buying most anything surprisingly soon. That sounds cool on paper, and it is to a degree, but it also makes knowing where to start a bit of a dilemma. Should I spend resources on buying beginning gear or save up for the better version of it right off the bat? It doesn’t help that you can get by mostly fine with your starting stuff (more so armor). As such, I survived the first third of the game with my starter-ish gear and jumped straight into advanced equipment without giving the middle tier a second glance.
5 Best: The Ropecaster
If Scorpion’s famous spear attack was transformed into a firearm, it would essentially be Aloy’s Ropecaster. A unique weapon (not to mention my favorite), the Ropecaster acts as Horizon Zero Dawn’s most versatile tool. Using it to truss a machine can immobilize it long enough to take aim at a vital body part. If Aloy needs a breather from a challenging adversary, tying her opponent down buys precious time to swap weapons, heal up, or lay down traps. The Ropecaster also makes for a decent, straightforward weapon that can be used to skewer people. I’ve found the weapon’s best use to be against the flying Glinthawks, as it not only grounds them but leaves them vulnerable to attack. Few things in Horizon are as satisfying as watching a pinned down machine charge at Aloy, only to be yanked back to the ground a split second before it reaches her face. Get over there!
4 Worst: Occasionally Confusing Waypoint Navigation
Admittedly, this complaint is one of the more nitpicky ones, but it still caused enough of a nuisance to earn a spot on the list. Selecting a location on the map screen sets a waypoint, which also highlights the fastest route. A floating, in-game waypoint marker also appears and is less clear and can act fussy at times. As with most every video game compass (of which Horizon also features) following the waypoint while it’s centered means you’re heading in the right direction. The floating marker attempts to do the same, but deviating even a little bit can send the marker flying off to the side, causing some disorientation. Other times, it takes a while for the marker to successfully point the player in the correct direction. I’ve been told to run straight ahead only to watch the distance meter rise, then turn the camera to see the marker actually meant to direct me to, say, the right. An actual highlighted path (ala Grand Theft Auto or Fable) seems like it should accompany the in-game marker. Again, this isn’t the most egregious issue, but don't be surprised to find yourself fiddling with waypoints more than you'd like.
3 Best: Everything About the Machines
Aloy may be the protagonist, but her robotic foes are Horizon’s real stars. What makes them fascinating is that they’re not just one-dimensional killing machines. They’re fully realized creatures, behaving similarly to the flesh and blood animals most of them resemble. Many species travel in herds, with some even forming communalistic relationships with other robot types. For example, Watcher bots scout for threats allowing Grazers to, well, graze in peace. Each robot also appears to have purpose. I’ve witnessed flocks of Glinthawks picking at the remains of fallen robots. Are they meant to act as the world’s clean-up crews, and if so, do they assimilate any of that technology into themselves? Speculation such as this makes the machines a genuine joy to observe.
Despite being at the top of the food chain, they aren't robot overlords subjugating humanity. Ultimately, the machines are just beasts–with laser guns and flamethrowers on their backs. Since they've long since won control of the Earth, playing Aloy feels akin to being a second-class citizen fighting for your share rather than trying than the standard "We've got to kick these bots off our land for humanity!" That's a cool and, most importantly, refreshing dynamic to explore and experience. Not to mention the machines are an absolute blast to test your mettle against in battle.
2 Worst: Aloy Talks to Herself A LOT
Perhaps the most vocal complaint to arise from Horizon’s pre-release days was Aloy’s regular conversations with herself. At the time, it seemed like a random element to harp on, but after spending hours listening to her drone about melted snow making things wet or whatever inane stream of conscious thought she decides to share, I can confirm that it can become rather grating. This might not be such an issue if these monologues were presented as inner thoughts. That would make sense. Unfortunately, her mouth’s always moving which means Aloy either suffers from schizophrenia, crippling loneliness, or may even be a narcissist infatuated with her own voice. You tell me which scenario is the worst. Aloy speaks to herself so frequently and much of it is so frivolous that I regularly find myself saying “Oh shut up, Aloy.” while playing. Out loud. Oh no, she’s got me doing it too!
1 Best: Strategic, Flexible Combat
Horizon Zero Dawn’s extremely well-crafted and flat-out fun combat shines as its greatest quality. I adore how much flexibility players are afforded when combating the machines. Sure, you can just brute force them to death (I wouldn’t recommend employing that tactic often, though), but I personally find more enjoyment in chipping away at armor layers and taking advantage of exposed weak spots. Breaking off specific components for the purpose of resource gathering feels rewarding in its own right. The most satisfying tactic may well be pinpointing a powerful weapon, such as a laser cannon, shooting it off of an enemy, then nabbing it yourself and turning it against them. Every battle presents a plethora of approaches and I always enjoy considering my options at the start of each encounter. Much like Horizon as a whole, combat contains a mix of previous ideas polished to a spit-shine and its own uniqueness that sets it combat apart from anything else available.