4 of the Best 2017: Horizon: Zero Dawn

Horizon: Zero Dawn is, aside from Bloodborne, the best PS4 game. Guerrilla Games, the developer of Horizon, have done a spectacular job making the main activity in the game – hunting machines that resemble animals – thrilling and challenging. Not content to make one great system, though, Horizon also has one of the best open worlds ever devised: a stunningly beautiful, expansive world with a compelling fiction that’s a joy to traverse. When I get a quest in Horizon I’m simultaneously excited to explore a beautiful landscape, hunt machines, and resolve a story I’m confident will be well told. Horizon is a well written game. Every tribe you encounter are fascinating, and unravelling how their culture works and fits with the others is a compelling mystery. Aloy, the protagonist, is a likeable companion, someone whose curiosity about the world around them matches the player’s. She’s as well written as she is performed, likely to be remembered as one of the stars of this generation of consoles.

There’s a rhythm to meeting a new machine in Horizon. You scan it, scout its patrol route, place traps, engage it and remove key components. When you’ve killed it you gather material from its body to improve your equipment. The best fight I had in the game was against a Scorcher, one of the first machines I found in the Frozen Wilds, a new area added in the expansion to Horizon. Because I was running in a blizzard, the Scorcher saw me before I saw it. My first indication that there was an enemy nearby was the red exclamation point indicating you’ve been spotted, followed by a growl.

In Horizon, it’s frustrating to be caught unaware by machines, because if they knock you down it’s tough to escape without being pinned down by constant charges and swipes. The Scorcher charged me and knocked me down, then hit me again but knocked me so I was able to roll behind a rock and distance myself from it. Predictably, some of Horizon’s most beautiful art is the design and animation of the machines. It’s hard to appreciate when you’re being knocked around by a blurry shape in a blizzard, but when I scanned the Scorcher I saw briefly how slick and elegant it was. The Scorcher is an enormous metal wolf, with glowing components to indicate its fire attacks.

It would be reductive to saw machines walk or run in Horizon: every single type has their own style of movement which is stunning to watch in motion and difficult to describe in writing. The Scorcher prowls around and skips and leaps towards its towards its prey, lunging forward with glowing orange claws and teeth. When it uses the mine launcher on its back, it leans forward, arching its back and putting its head to the ground.

When you scan a machine in Horizon, you unlock its entry in your journal so you can see the strengths and weaknesses of every part of the machine. The scorcher’s mine launcher is weak to tear damage, which means the component can be removed with enough of that kind of damage, and its body is weak to freeze damage. Commendably, Horizon gives you all the weapons early in the game: if you need elemental damage, you probably have two or more ways to deal it. If I’d prepared for the fight with the Scorcher, I could have set up a shock tripwire to stun it, then fired a long range freeze bomb and hit it with arrows which tear off components while it recovered.

Fights in Horizon are like a dance. Though you have a melee attack, it’s both ineffective and boring to use, so you spend as much time as possible at range. Some machines have ranged attacks, but they’ll all charge you too, so as you fight you’ll try and maintain distance and the machine will try to close distance. One neat caveat is that hitting a machine with damage it’s weak to briefly disables it. When you hit the Scorcher with enough frost damage, it’ll briefly freeze. This window gives you enough time to run up to the machine and perform a special, powerful spear attack. It has a risk, of course: under normal circumstances you want to be far from a machine, but now you’re just a few feet from it when it wakes up.

Combat is full of these design tricks which complicate your strategy and prevent rote memorization of a pattern: by the same token, running out of arrows means refilling your quiver with time slowed, but not stopped. Horizon’s combat is complex and continually surprising. Even when you’re fighting the same types of machine, the environment, the behaviour of the machines, and your equipment differentiates the encounters.

Horizon: Zero Dawn has a photo mode. At any time, you can pause the game and manipulate the camera, remove the user interface, change the field of view, or add visual effects to get a good screenshot. It’s a perfect fit for a staggeringly beautiful game. Never before have I looked at a cliff and decided to climb it merely because I think the view might make for a good screenshot. The promotional material for Horizon dwelt on alpine forests, but it’s impressive how diverse the types of landscapes are in the game itself and how seamlessly they fit together.

Likewise, the settlements and tribes you find in each region are informed by their terrain. The Carja have vast, flat farmland. Consequentially they have stone buildings and the game’s only city. The Banuk live in remote, frozen mountains so their settlements are impermanent and they’ve fewer material goods. Given that Horizon asks you to take the obviously absurd concept of robot animals seriously, I was impressed with how plausible and diverse the tribes of humans were.

Individuals in those tribes are well written and performed too. Most games regard merchants, quest-givers and characters introduced in optional quests as disposable. Horizon often gives these neglected characters more life. One quest has the player helping a Banuk warrior completing a trial, but ultimately finds she won’t accept help. The relationship between the warrior and her companion, who gives you the quest, has the quality I associate most with good writing: it implies a lot and says very little. Horizon’s script isn’t longer or more detailed than other open world games, but it’s comfortable with allowing the player to know just a little about a relationship between two characters. When people unconnected to the main narrative refer to each other by nicknames without explanation, it says a lot more about their relationship than the mere statement that they’re friends.

It’s difficult to summarise why I love Horizon because there’s so much of the game to love. At its core is the best hunting game ever made. Guerrilla Games have translated tracking, planting traps, and stalking prey to a game with greater success than any previous attempt. The machines themselves are the stars of Horizon. They’re all unique, with their own silhouette, passive activities, and style of moving and fighting. The deer-like Grazers cut grass with their antlers, which double as spinning blades. Glinthawks, which resemble vultures, fly around a wide area, picking up discarded machines and stealing parts from the player. Every machine, like every area of the world, has clearly been carefully crafted to be artistically exciting as well as fun to encounter. If there’s a criticism to be made of Horizon, it is that we’re unlikely to see another open world which has been so thoughtfully crafted, or a set of systems which fit together so well any time soon.