Horizon Zero Dawn

FBT headed for the horizon. He’s still there.

I only picked up Horizon Zero Dawn because it was in the sales and I had nothing else to play – it looked like one Free-Roamer too many, a Far Cry Primal knock-off with the animals lazily reworked as robots. Gimmicky. I love proving myself wrong all the time.

In the 31st Century, humans live in simple hunter-gatherer tribes, co-existing with huge mechanical beasts left behind by a long dead civilisation known as ‘the Old Ones’, which the humans deify. Recently, the robotic wildlife has started to become threatening, and a cult forms around this new breed of machines. When the cult attacks a village looking for Aloy, an outcast who was found outside an ancient sealed door belonging to the Old Ones, she sets out to discover the truth about the machines, the Old Ones, and her past…

The first hour or so felt like I was playing a mod of something else. There’s practically every free-roam game you’ve ever played in here; Tomb Raider reboot, Fallout 3, Far Cry Primal, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed 3, TES, the list of nods is endless. And it’s the same process – doesn’t matter of it’s a wild animal or wild machine, you kill it, strip it for parts, use them to craft or sell. You find traders, (their currency is metal – the one overabundant material in the place?), side missions, take over camps, craft, make choices, level-up… it’s all here. And not just games - I’m sure the plot is from an old Star Trek episode.

But… it doesn’t feel derivative. The truest measure of a free-roamer isn’t when you free-roam, it’s how drawn back to the main story you are, and I never stray too far from Aloy’s self-discovery and what happened to the Old Ones. You totally buy some cataclysmic extinction event occurred and want to find out how - and why we’re no longer the dominant species. The new food chain is automated.

It’s endlessly exciting going up against metal creatures with a bow and arrow. You do gain more conventional weapons, but they’re cumbersome and it’s more fun using the terrain and your wits. I rarely swap out my bows. Some animals move in herds and startling one can cause them all to run – sometimes toward you. Others are pack animals, predators, or huge, lumbering giants; a standout is clambering the roving giraffe-like machines which scan the area, unlocking the map. There’s a few surviving ‘real’ animals, and hunting those helps with crafting. Just be sure it is a salmon you think you’re shooting at.

You’re always on edge, hunted, scanning the woods and grass, timing runs across open plains, peering through snow and the dark for a glint of metal or glowing eyes. It’s a living, breathing facsimile of a real world and you never stop pondering as you stare out at this metal eco-system, how did they evolve to become a species, what did the Old Ones do?

It’s fairly obvious what happened but the game has some choice comments on tech reliance, mega-corps and eco-warnings, and the big reveal is brilliantly done; it feels fresh and gripping – the machines, human evolution, the creation of tribes and new religious icons, it’s so well written and there is a solid logic to the place, which you key into the further you get.

A nice touch is fast travel isn’t free; you need to craft an overnight bag – there are traders later on that provide a perma-overnight bag, but its one of dozens of little touches that makes HZD feel real, and like it was made with care, a gamers’ game not some slap-dash Triple A knock off (looking at you, Cyberpunk 2077). Still, the inventory management is frustrating – traders require certain machine parts to build you a weapon and you will always drop the part they need. You end up with hundreds of pieces of junk hoping someone will trade for it, and some side missions fall into cliché find/fetch/explore/kill for me requests. But it's always a beautiful, eerie, scary place to scavenge and side-mission about in.

Obviously there are some moments of ignoring the obvious – for centuries the tribes have had access to all this tech, be it in the machines or the ruins, and occasionally jury-rig weapons from it – yet they’re still one step up from Cavemen. Not one bit of reverse-engineering in hundreds of generations? Actually, the only real criticism of HZD isn’t the in-game tech it’s the game tech. HZD spends a good twenty minutes on EVERY start up trying to optimise like it’s the first time it’s been played, loading screens mean go get a coffee and make a snack, and if you let go of the keys or mouse, within a minute it’ll minimise to desktop – many an emotional cutscene was ruined by that.

Although it could have done without the cult conveniently popping up at every plot point, it all falls together really nicely, and watching Aloy slowly come to realise what happened is moving – the reveal is no less powerful or emotional for you guessing it early on. And Aloy is my new hero. Unlike Tomb Raider reboot’s Lara, who wept at every cut-scene opportunity, Aloy gets shit done. She is filled with doubt and worry, overwhelmed and under-prepared, but she rises to it, pushes through and gets bolder, more assertive and becomes an absolute badass. When people say they’ve heard of her, you believe them.

She’s just great company, full of pithy observations, and when she gets herself a typical over-the-radio mission giver, she’s not afraid to call them out for making her do all the work. And she has some weapons-grade sass. A favourite line, when told the Sun is ‘masculine’, was “Um... It’s a light from the sky. Never seen anything dangling from it.”

This is a near perfect free-roamer. It came out of nowhere to sell 10 million copies, and it’s easy to see why. Yes, it does recycle every open-world you’ve seen, but considering the diminishing returns of the Far Cry’s and the Fallout’s, it’s amazing a new IP pulled off such a fresh, confident take. It’s like the devs just knew what we wanted, knew what worked then instead of complicating it to seem original, got out of the way and let us play. Brilliant.

This game is one of the few I wished I’d bought on day one. It’s going to be my Game-In-The-Sales of the Year. The end credits had barely faded before I was into the Game Plus, excited to experience Aloy and her adventure again. And the good thing about coming to HZD years after release is the sequel is just months away. Unfortunately it’s a PS5 exclusive at launch… but Aloy is worth the wait.