Horizon Zero Dawn review

Go on a memorable sci-fi safari as you hunt down robotic big game.

(Image: © PlayStation)

Our Verdict

A classy sandbox that stands out from the pack thanks to its brilliant battles against an array of fantastic beasts.

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Need to know

What is it? An open world adventure set on a futuristic Earth where tribes battle robots.
Expect to pay $50/£40
Developer Guerrilla Games
Publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment
Reviewed on Intel i7-8700K CPU, GTX 2080 Ti, 32GB RAM Multiplayer? No
Link Official site

If you missed the buzz surrounding Horizon Zero Dawn’s PS4 release back in 2017, here are the cliff notes. This is a systems-driven sandbox where you play Aloy—a tribal outcast with a chip on her shoulder and an undeniable talent for murdering robo beasties. Why are these mechanical monsters roaming lands that otherwise look like they were ripped straight from the set of One Million Years BC? Because Horizon is that rarest of creatures: a dystopian videogame that says something original about armageddon.

Rather than spin a story about naive tribespeople battling the evils of encroaching technology, Horizon has the guts to weave a tale that encompasses complex themes. Whether addressing abandonment issues or tackling subjects as uncomfortable as ethnic cleansing, Guerrilla Games demonstrates a level of nuanced, mature storytelling it never came close to hitting with its Killzone series on PlayStation consoles.

It helps that Mass Effect-style conversation wheels give you a little agency over Aloy’s temperament. Almost every main mission and sidequest lets you answer questions from NPCs with either a thoughtful, heartfelt, or cold response. While your decisions never really affect the overarching story, these moment-to-moment choices draw you closer to Aloy. It’s a smart design decision that makes it easier to invest in Horizon’s (initially emotionally distant) world.

(Image credit: PlayStation)

It’s to Horizon’s credit that it manages to turn a story involving robot monstrosities into a coherent and moving tale. Just because your open world has a mildly absurd premise doesn’t mean you can’t deliver a satisfying story. Maneater, take note.

The real crowning glory of Horizon? Those magnificent machines. Spanning velociraptor-like Watchers to lumbering Thunderjaws—a colossal apex predator that would dwarf a T-Rex—the game’s inquisitive creatures prove a joy to fight. Displaying that dumb yet sort of clever brand of AI Far Cry enemies have been flaunting for over a decade, Horizon’s machines are easy to manipulate yet hard to put down. Using Aloy’s unlikely augmented earpiece—don’t worry, it makes more sense as the story unravels—she can track the patrol routes of her hefty foes then either choose to control or kill them.

The real crowning glory of Horizon? Those magnificent machines.

Sneak up on a Strider, then hack its systems to turn the stocky beast into a mostly obedient mount. Blast a Thunderjaw’s turret from its mighty back, courtesy of Aloy’s dead-eye Sharpshot arrows, before forcing it to the ground with electrifying tripwires. Expose a colossal metal crab’s vulnerable innards, then revel in crustacean cruelty as you light it up with flaming projectiles. Thanks to a varied arsenal and an equally inventive array of enemies, Horizon’s girl-on-goliath fights never get old.

(Image credit: PlayStation)

It’s also fascinating to see these mechanical wonders simply interact with their environment when they think you’re not looking. Like the odd magic moment where you come across a wild stallion playfully rolling around in the morning dew of Red Dead Redemption’s wetlands, Horizon’s beasts can enthrall with the same style of naturalistic behaviour. Well, if you can call a 45-foot android crocodile slithering into a lake natural. One moment you might observe jittery packs of elk-like Broadheads munching on knee high grass, because apparently robots need to eat too. The next, you might witness a group of smaller machines scurrying out of the path of a deadly Ravager, as Horizon’s three-ton puma sniffs around for its next likely mechanised meal.

Aloy meets world

Most captivating of all? Those moments where you crane the camera skywards to admire a lumbering Tallneck leisurely stomping around a set perimeter. These magnificent leviathans more or less work like walking versions of Far Cry’s antenna towers, uncovering areas of the map once you clamber up and hack their satellite skulls. They’re among the most awe-inspiring creatures I’ve seen in any game. The first time I encountered one, I may as well have been a flummoxed Alan Grant fumbling to shake off his shades after drinking in the sight of Jurassic Park’s grazing brachiosaurus.

Encounters with Aloy’s fellow humans don’t fare quite so well. When Horizon first launched on console three years ago, there’s no denying it was a little derivative. In 2020, those overly familiar notes are even more out of tune. Clearly Aloy copied Far Cry 3 when they were both taking that course in Enemy Strongholds 101, because her map is dotted with encampments you’re encouraged to capture through repetitive stealth takedowns and silent bow kills. What makes these samey, if inoffensive assaults worthwhile? The dangling promise of more XP and unlocking fresh machine-taming abilities.

(Image credit: PlayStation)

Want to earn that fancy stealth drop that will let you plummet 50ft without being heard, or open up that skill that lets Aloy draw her bow in slow-motion whenever she jumps? You better murder every primitive bad guy in that nearby camp with the minimum of fuss. These base-conquering quests appear all over, so it’s a shame they never showcase the sort of streamlined sneaky confidence Ubisoft finally hit with Far Cry 5. Aloy is great at swiping oversized machines down in wide open plains, but plonk her in a boxy camp with guards who can swarm from all sides, and she’s nowhere near as competent a fighter.

Horizon’s gorgeous world quickly proves itself to be one of the most visually varied around.

Horizon Zero Dawn’s world is a lot more interesting than Hope County, though. Alongside The Witcher 3, this is one of the most intriguing, believably lived-in open worlds on PC. While the opening hours point to the sort of generic, frost-covered environment so many hypothermia-courting games have already covered, Horizon’s gorgeous world quickly proves itself to be one of the most visually varied around.

As the story progresses and the restrictions Aloy has been bound by lift, the hunter quickly finds her feet scampering across a hugely diverse landscape. Snow-covered wastelands that outdo Rise of the Tomb Raider’s tundras eventually give way to baking prairies that could pass for one of Red Dead Redemption 2’s sweltering deserts.

(Image credit: PlayStation)

Early signs point to Horizon being a slightly inconsistent PC port, though. Several of the team have played the game across a variety of hardware, and the results are somewhat patchy. Happily for our features producer James Davenport, he ran Horizon at a mostly consistent 60fps at 1440p resolution on an RTX 2080 GPU. The hardware team has also been busy benchmarking the game and experienced averages upwards of 75fps at 1440p on an RTX 2080.

Yet on my setup? Despite playing on a 2080 Ti with a beefy CPU, I experienced framerates that seesawed between the mid 40s and low 50s at the same resolution. Hoping to play Horizon in 4K with performance beyond what the PS4 version can offer? You may also be out of luck. The best I could manage at 2160p on a mix of medium and high settings was a stuttering experience that ranged from 25fps to 40fps. The day one patch didn't improve things for me, but that's certainly not the universal experience.

While Horizon’s PC port can’t quite go toe-to-toe with the likes of RDR2’s conversion, this is still a highly polished, top-tier open world adventure. Though it lifts stealth and exploration elements from other games, Aloy’s imaginative combat and captivating metallic foes ensure the time I spent with Horizon will burn bright in my memory.

The Verdict
Horizon Zero Dawn

A classy sandbox that stands out from the pack thanks to its brilliant battles against an array of fantastic beasts.