Horizon Zero Dawn Review: Robot Dinosaurs, Naturally

Horizon Zero Dawn

WHAT IS IT?

A massive sci-fi/fantasy open-world RPG, exactly like every other massive sci-fi/fantasy open-world RPG.

IS IT GOOD?

This is a game that lets you hack into a giant robot crocodile, unleash it against your enemies, and then ride victoriously away on a robot bull.
So, yes.

WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?

Anyone whose interest was piqued by the above description, less those who don’t have the patience for bland storytelling. Also, fair warning: you’ve probably played (something like) this game before. And it doesn’t have nearly as many robot dinosaurs as advertised.

SPECS

Developer: Guerrilla Games
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: February 28, 2017
Single-player

Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn

RISE OF THE MACHINES

Horizon Zero Dawn is a gloriously stupid game, one in which you regularly stab robot velociraptors in the face with a spear. Unfortunately, it’s also a game that takes itself way too seriously.

First, the good: it’s absurdly fun to play, with tight controls, gorgeous environments, and a wonderful array of robotic enemies. Set thousands of years after a mysterious technological collapse, you play as Aloy, a young woman raised to fear technology, in a time when giant animal-like robots dominate the natural world. Meanwhile, the remnants of humanity have regressed to a sort of admixture of earlier civilizations. It’s a combination of Norse, Ancient Egyptian, and Renaissance culture, with some wholly inappropriate Native American cultural appropriation thrown in. Also, everyone speaks American English.

Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn

The open world map is suitably grand, and it’s a real pleasure just exploring the environments. Whether you’re hunting robotic deer in snowy mountains or chasing an enormous dinosaur/giraffe hybrid through the desert, there’s always something fun to do and/or look at. You start off equipped with no more than a spear and a bow, but quickly work your way up to explosive trip-wires, a grappling hook that can drag enemies to a halt, and other weapons it would be a shame to spoil. Smartly, the robots are nearly impossible to defeat using only blunt force. Instead, you need to learn each enemy’s weakness, targeting specific parts of its body. One enemy might have an explosive power source to blow up, while another has reinforced armour to tear off. Usually, it’s some combination thereof.

Impressively, and somewhat surprisingly, the game also encourages a stealthy approach. Nearly all the enemies you come across travel in herds, too strong or too flighty to be confronted head on. The fiercer ones, like the “Sawtooths” (sabre-tooth cats) or the “Shell-Walkers” (giant crabs) don’t take kindly to being approached, and will respond with explosive, claw-swinging force. The meeker ones, say the “Grazers” (deer) or the “Striders” (horses, and also by the way a great Tolkien reference) will actually run away if they spot you. The only way to survive is to sneak up and then kill and/or tame a few robots each time.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Speaking of taming, you can also hack. And boy is hacking great. Early on, you gain the ability to take control of smaller robots by sneaking up on them and tapping the “Override” button. As the game progresses, you unlock the ability to hack bigger and scarier robots, until eventually you’re pitting giant hawks against giant rhinoceroses, then sitting back to watch the carnage. (And as a nice bonus, you unlock those abilities by exploring some very well-designed dungeons, making for some of the best side quests in the game.)

SYSTEM ERROR. UNEXPECTED REBOOT.

Even though the core gameplay is great, the rest leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, you’ve seen this all before. The mysterious past and the not-so-shocking connection to our orphaned hero. The tribal warfare too boring to care about. The tired dialogue tree where the outcome is always the same, but you get to decide whether you’re “Good”, “Evil”, or “So Bored Let’s Try The Third Dialogue Option”. It’s unfortunate that the game developers treat these things with such reverence, because a game this stupid would have been better served by a healthy dose of self-awareness. Robot dinosaurs!

Then there are the endless fetch quests. The world of NPCs who only know three stock phrases. The goddamn Detective Mode (sorry, “Focus Vision”), whereby every mystery is solved by tracking purple-hued footprints. Even the giant robot hunting thing is couched in very traditional RPG terms. Step 1: identify elemental weakness. Step 2: destroy enemy with fire/ice/electricity. Step 3: collect loot, sell to trader, buy new weapon.

Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn

Similarly, while the Dungeons are great, the rest of the side quests are fairly banal. Too many lost heirlooms, missing relatives, mysteries that any eight-year-old could figure out. Bandit Camps taken directly out of Far Cry 3. Animal hunting taken directly out of Far Cry 3. Viewpoints taken directly out of Far Cry 3. (Actually, may as well just call it Far Cry Future.) You can even collect audio logs for backstory, which video games have been doing since at least BioShock and which stopped being interesting after BioShock 2. There’s also an obligatory item-crafting system, and an even-more-obligatory stop-and-harvest-the-flowers system lifted straight out of Red Dead Redemption.

Heck, even the very good central features of Horizon Zero Dawn have all been done elsewhere. A bow-and-arrow from the recent Tomb Raider. Hacking enemies à la Deus Ex and Mass Effect. A post-Apocalyptic landscape ripped straight out of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (which, by the way, is a fantastic game). Literally everything about Monster Hunter. True, there’s never quite been a game where you fight an invisible robot jaguar with a rocket launcher strapped to its back, but we’ve all seen Austin Powers, haven’t we?

Horizon Zero Dawn

JUDGMENT DAY

Ultimately, none of that really matters. Horizon Zero Dawn is fun, beautiful, and enthralling. Even if its core trappings are lifted from other games, and even if its storytelling isn’t particularly exciting, it’s still a blast to play. For every little kid who smashed their dinosaur toys together while making pew pew pew sounds, this one’s for you.