Given that one of the best games of 2015 was the third-person action game Rise Of The Tomb Raider, and that one of the best games of 2016 was the prehistoric open world action/adventure game Far Cry Primal, you’d expect big things from Horizon Zero Dawn (PlayStation 4), which basically combines them. But it’s actually the adding of post-apocalyptic sci-fi elements, as well as bits of gameplay from some other great games, that helps make Horizon Zero Dawn one of the best games of 2017.
In Horizon Zero Dawn, you’re cast as Aloy, a Viking-like warrior of unknown parentage who lives in a grassy forest land that’s not only full of rabbits, turkeys, and boars, but robot animals as well. Aided by your trusty bow and a futuristic, Google Glass-like device called a Focus, you have to explore the world to figure out where you came from. Y’know, while not getting eaten and stuff.
In essence, Horizon Zero Dawn is like if you played Far Cry Primal from the perspective of, and with the hero of, Rise Of The Tomb Raider. Aloy is not only skilled with a bow and arrow, but she’s also an experienced rock climber, shares Lara’s love of zip lines, and knows how to find the raw materials needed to craft whatever ammo and supplies she needs. All of which she does while exploring a lush open world that presents a good mix of story-related missions, side quests, errands, and random combat encounters.
But there are elements from other games at work in Horizon Zero Dawn as well. Aloy’s Focus works like Detective Vision in Batman: Arkham Knight, and she can chat with people just like Captain Sheppard did in the Mass Effect games. She can even be sneaky like the guy in Sniper Elite 4, stealth killing ‘bots like a pro. Though when she does, she thankfully still moves at a good clip, unlike some slow poke stealth action heroes I could mention.
If all Horizon Zero Dawn did was drop a Lara Croft-like hero into a primitive open world, and have her do her best Dark Knight impression, it would still be pretty cool. But what makes Horizon Zero Dawn feel different from Far Cry Of The Tomb Knight Primal is that it’s set in such a beautiful and intriguing world. Along with the mechanical animals, who look like they were built by the same company that constructed the Geth in Mass Effect, there are ruins that recall the post-apocalyptic world of The Last Of Us and The Forbidden Zone from Planet Of The Apes, while at times this feels like that Star Trek episode “The Paradise Syndrome” with the Native American-like aliens. I’m just glad no one talks in broken English like in the future parts of Cloud Atlas.
It also helps that Horizon Zero Dawn pits you against some challenging enemies. While you sometimes fight other humans or attack their settlements, most of your fights are against the mechanical animals, who are as varied in their behavior as their real-world counterparts. For instance, the antelope-looking ones get spooked and run off if you startle them, the sabretooth tiger-ish ones will stalk and claw you, while still others look and act like the raptors from Jurassic World. Well, if the raptors had frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.
Of course, combing all of these interesting elements into Horizon Zero Dawn would be for naught if it didn’t also have solid and intuitive controls. This is especially true when you’re crouched, scurrying around, and nailing mechs with your bow and arrow from the tall grass. Though it’s also notable because Horizon Zero Dawn is made by Guerilla Games, whose previous games in the Killzone series were often undermined by problematic controls.
That isn’t to say that Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t have some issues of its own. It does, they’re not just deal breakers. Or game breakers for that matter.
For starters, Horizon Zero Dawn could use a more structured system of fast travel points. Rather than have a bunch strewn around the world, you fast travel by using Fast Travel Packs, which work in conjunction with campfires that double as save points. But rather than just letting you fast travel whenever you want, each trip requires using raw materials to craft these Packs, materials that would better used to make arrows and health potions.
Now, you do learn how to take control of some robots so you can ride them, but like with the horse you had in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, you end up hopping off these mounts so often to gather raw materials that it’s easier to just walk everywhere.
Aloy’s Focus could also be more helpful. When you activate it, which you do by pressing in the right thumbstick, you can only scan objects in the world or mark potential targets. You can’t attack anything when using it, and you can’t move fast. Which is a real problem if, like me, you have a bad habit of accidentally pressing in the right thumbstick when you’re engaged in a frantic fight.
Horizon Zero Dawn also has some minor technical issues. There are times when shadows will just magically appear or the weather will abruptly change, and Aloy occasionally gets stuck on a rock, though usually just for a moment. Also, the markers that show you where to go can be frustratingly inaccurate at times.
Also, I really don’t appreciate that when you stealth kill a mech, it often looks like you’re stabbing it in its, uh, USB port…if you catch my drift.
Even with these problems, though, Horizon Zero Dawn is an impressive sci-fi action/adventure game set in a rich world. In fact, it’s the first game since Titanfall and Destiny where I wish there was a corresponding novel about this universe. Even without it, though, this remains an effortless fun but challenging adventure, one that’s already one of the year’s best games.