Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn is a step in a new direction for the Killzone developer. The shift from a long-standing first-person shooter focus to an open-world action game isn’t without its hiccups, but it’s also a risk that seems to pay off–especially in combat.
Horizon is set 1,000 years in the future, and humanity has essentially returned to a hunter-gatherer society, though they mostly hunt mechanical beasts and gather the resulting parts. The story setup–which comprised the first of two sections of our extended gameplay demo–is admittedly a little cliche. Protagonist Aloy is motherless in a matriarchal, matrilineal tribe, and as a result, she has been marked as an outcast. It works in that it provides motivation for an interesting, relatable character. But I’m far more interested in the history of Horizon’s world than in her background in particular.
My hope for Horizon’s story stems from a scene during Aloy’s childhood in which you explore the underground “metal world.” The six-year-old falls into a cave area littered with ancient (meaning today’s near-future) technology and finds a wearable device that lets her scan the environment. Among other things, I scanned the remnants of a holographic message from a father to his son: “Happy birthday, Isaac.” Aloy’s reaction–which is to immediately replay the message and repeat its loving words–is so pure and childlike that I immediately connected with her, and her desire to know more about the past fell in line with my own and gave her more depth.
Playing 30 minutes of her childhood also serves as a combat tutorial mainly focused on hunting and stealth, and the second part of the demo skipped past some story details to allow for combat and exploration. Horizon’s format and combat are sort of Far Cry-esque (in third person, of course), but its exploration reminded me a lot of Skyrim, down to the style of its waypoints and the eye icon used to measure visibility in stealthy situations. I stumbled upon quite a few strange and beautiful spots and didn’t want for something to do (or hunt). From what I saw, it’s a polished open world, but I didn’t see enough of it to get a full sense of what it has to offer.
I could tell, though, that Horizon’s neo-tribal world is one worth exploring. I missed some of the details when skipping ahead, but there’s a clear setup for both organic and mechanical threats, and taking down enemies seems to quite often lead to more information or at least some useful resources. The hints I did get toward what could be going on with Aloy, the tribe, and what’s hiding in the ancient past grabbed me even when dialogue didn’t.
Of all Horizon’s promising aspects, its combat captured me most. Weapons that feel decidedly ancient, like her bow and spear, surprisingly don’t feel out of place when hunting machines. Aloy’s scanning device–which can highlight machines’ weak spots, among other things–also didn’t feel cheap and instead justified the strength of attacks with her arrows and spear. That balance was probably my biggest concern going in, but a skill tree geared more toward greater stealth, foraging, and precision melee attacks rather than simply increased attack power helps keep Horizon’s combat grounded.
Slaying machines and harvesting their parts for upgrades is also a satisfying combat loop thanks to variety from the skill tree options and Aloy’s arsenal. During my time with Horizon, I continued to look for and find new, clever ways to take down its machine beasts. Even as I began to favor stealth, there were still options: you can track a machine’s movements with the scanner to sneak past it undetected, get close and take it down with an unlockable silent kill, or plant a trap along its tracks with an upgradeable weapon. There’s enough flexibility in attacks, weapons, and skills from what I saw to potentially keep me engrossed for quite a while.
My main frustration was a finicky camera. Combat controls well, but the camera sometimes doesn’t cooperate, getting essentially stuck in the leaves on trees or in stone walls. It didn’t happen enough to be a big deal, but it’s one thing I want to see ironed out before launch.
I’ve been excited about Horizon for a while, and I’m glad that excitement wasn’t wasted. I can’t wait to learn more about Aloy and her world, and I’m most excited to keep refining my combat style when the final game is out.
Horizon Zero Dawn is launching exclusively for PlayStation 4 on February 28. See the benefits of playing on the PS4 Pro and watch a few minutes of 4K gameplay.