Horizon Zero Dawn review

Aloy's robot-murder spree is less about open-world invention and more about cold, efficient discipline.

Aloy is one highly motivated heroine. For religious reasons, the Horizon: Zero Dawn protagonist is shunned from her tribe — literally disallowed from speaking or being spoken to by any human being save her equally exiled father-type, Rost. After a slow but necessary introduction to the game, where Aloy learns about her "post-post-apocalyptic" world and the player learns how to move within it, things start looking up! Then they start looking way, way down thanks, once again, to this far-future-Earth’s religious practices.

Faith, superstition, curiosity, and the desire to understand one's world are definitely key themes to the world of Horizon and its characters. Aloy in particular is driven to learn more about the bizarre planet she's inherited: one inhabited by lumbering machine monsters as well as Bronze Age human beings. This drive to learn more about her world puts her at odds with NPC quest-givers who are keen to say "X is because Y god said so, and that's that." That desire to investigate also gives Aloy the best, most believable motivation to solve quest-givers' problems since The Witcher 3's Geralt of Rivia.

Mostly, these investigations lead to peppering gargantuan robots with bombs, tripwires, harpoons, and lots and lots of arrows. Despite the number of tools and toys at Aloy's disposal Horizon isn't in that "toybox" class of open-world game like Metal Gear Solid 5 and Far Cry 2. Developer Guerrilla Games hasn't engineered a dozen ways to knock down nameless human dominoes.

In fact, the game's human enemies (which are a small majority compared to the robots) are ironically the most mechanical foes in the game. Like clockwork, they'll march to one-hit-kill doom from stealth strikes and headshots if you just hide in the tall grass and whistle for them with the press of a button. Woman-on-machine combat, however, is more meticulous and specific. Aloy must drill off armor plates with arrows, aim the proper sort of ammunition at the right weak points, and stake tripwires to electrocute anything that would interfere with her mammoth dismantling.

There are multiple ways and sequences in which Aloy can deploy these tactics, but they still exist within a very limited range of possibilities laid out by the developers. If you're the sort of open-world player who asks "I wonder if this will work" — like riding a cargo container into the sky — then the answer is very often "No."

The about two-dozen varieties of killer robots aren't cogs in Rube Goldberg machines made out of physics, A.I. routines, and dynamic fire. They are the game itself. What Horizon lacks as a creative outlet it makes up for by forcing players to practice the best ways of hunting metal beasts with efficiency and especially precision.

You could slowly peck away at gun-toting sabretooth tigers with armor-piercing arrows, for instance. Yet studying those tigers will reveal that it's better to harpoon one to the ground, tear off its breastplate, and put one well-placed fiery round into its side. Of course, you still have to practice executing that maneuver — over and over again, as quests drive you towards similar enemies. That's  tricky when you're aiming for a specific point on a moving target with single-shot weapons like a bow.

Horizon includes a few creature comforts to help you out (which makes make combat less demanding than, say, Monster Hunter). You can slow down time for short periods while aiming, for instance, and pressing R3 will let you scan robots to highlight their weak points.

Even these features seem deliberately hamstrung to encourage practice and skill, however. The scanning effect wears off quickly and bullet time (arrow time?) isn't unlimited. So you have two options: you can either leave yourself vulnerable by constantly re-scanning and waiting for slow motion to recharge, or you can learn the techno-beasts' cracks, barricades, and Achilles heels. There's even an in-game bestiary with point-by-point breakdowns of their oily arteries and weaknesses to help out.

Not every mechanic finds its balance between holding your hand and respecting your ability, unfortunately.

Crafting is a massive part of Horizon. Aloy pulls up weeds, strips corpses, and guts robots for scrap. All of which feed her necessary supplies of everything from inventory capacity to arrows. This is mostly streamlined to one or two button presses for the important stuff (e.g. traps and ammunition). What's not consolidated is the mountain of post-apocalyptic garbage living in Aloy's backpack.

You collect literally hundreds of units of most materials, all of which is usefully classified according to purpose. Yet there's no easy "sell all junk" shortcut at vendors. There's no one-button command to sell entire stacks of Blaze, or Chillwater, or Sparkers, or whatever other components you need for the game's few dozen potions and ammunition types. I spent three-fourths of Horizon carrying around 10 times as much of anything as I ever actually needed. I figured out the right balance, eventually, but only after dozens of hours of fighting with inventory space and the compulsion to pick up everything I saw.

The one exception to this gripe seems to be healing items. Aloy can keep a pool of healing herbs on hand to mend injuries with a single button-press. Even fully upgraded, though, this supply seems woefully small. It takes ages to scour the landscape to stockpile the stuff. Then it seems to drain away in seconds during any real fight against the metal bruisers.

Your alternative/supplement to herbs is potions. You can craft these after hunting organic wildlife (which is even more tedious than collecting herbs) or by buying the ingredients from merchants. Yet somehow none of these options feel adequate, or like the "right" way to stay healthy. No matter which way you stay fit, it feels like a chore.

These problems with inventory and healing aren't the end of the world, though (pun so fully intended you have no idea). The rest of the game is a mechanically, narratively, and aesthetically arresting master class on intelligent creative theft. Horizon robs from other, more established open-world franchises, like the equally-hunting-and-crafting-focused Far Cry. Then it wraps them up for players in a plot that feels more sensibly motivated than we usually see in similar AAA open-world games.

It's "thrilling" in that blockbuster-y way — with Aloy tumbling off cliffs and making last-second escapes from explosions in cutscenes — but also makes it feel earned. Skillful repetition of robot battles forms the backbone of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It's a foundation that balances mandatory finesse with just enough tactical variety and amenities to stay fresh and tilt the likelihood of feeling like a machine killing badass in the player's favor.

Now, if only I knew where to dump 600 strips of this damn ridge-wood I can't sell...

Verdict: Yes