The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is one of grass swaying in waves to a gentle breeze. It’s one of powerful rain and snow storms, and of proud, beaming sunrises and haunting, ethereal moonlight. It’s a vast, varied world of woodland creatures scrounging for their next meal, and people living small, simple lives—a virtual life whose smallest interactions have been carefully, painstakingly considered. The fact that this world just happens to be home to an entire phylum of giant terrifying metal predators is beside the point. But they, too, are realized with the same care and consideration. Stay at enough of a distance and robots will resemble alligators wading and turning in the water, or grazing antelopes, or giant preening falcons. Of course, get close enough where they can see you and they’ll turn you into scrapple.
The fact that Guerilla Games has created one of the most vibrant and beautifully envisioned open worlds in a video game to date, and that this is one of the least impressive things about Horizon Zero Dawn, should speak volumes. This game is, above all else, a narrative triumph: a nuanced hero’s journey that blends tried-and-tested tribal fantasy tropes to a particularly poignant and humanistic brand of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. The laurels were certainly there to be rested on, as Guerilla Games could’ve never explained why exactly robot dinosaurs live in this world in idyllic natural splendor and the game would’ve been perfectly serviceable as a cheap thrill. Arguably, robot dinosaurs don’t need explaining. Just ask Michael Bay.
However, there’s a reason why robot dinosaurs rule the Earth in the game, and it falls to a young redheaded girl named Aloy to find out. Aloy is an orphan (and outcast) from the agrarian Nora tribe, raised to run, jump, climb, and hunt by Rost, a gentle Viking-like giant of a man. The details are sparse as to why the two are no longer part of the tribe, but after Aloy accidentally stumbles upon the crumbling ruins of a futuristic society that once was, and finds herself with a tiny holographic analyzer called a Focus attached to her head, she ends up with more questions than Rost can possibly answer. Eventually, she decides to participate in a Nora rite of passage, in hopes that the tribe’s matriarchs will provide answers to all her pressing questions.
The answers subsequently take Aloy, bow and spear in hand, across a world full of machine nesting grounds, the macabre hideouts of feral bandit tribes, and biblically opulent kingdoms. Like every open world, the land is peppered with sidequests, collectable items, and scavenger hunts; everyone with an exclamation mark over their head has something that only you are capable of doing. This is a game from the Witcher 3 school of quest design, because even the most trivial of tasks has a story, and the vast majority of these stories are well-implemented and well-written enough to support a game on their own. Even better, every single one has some tiny bearing on where the overall campaign winds up—which makes Horizon Zero Dawn replay-worthy in ways that the vast majority of games in its genre are not.
Remembering what Aloy is fighting for is important, because even on its normal difficulty, Horizon Zero Dawn is no pushover of a game. The cycle of gameplay has quite a bit in common with the last two Tomb Raider titles in terms of needing to strike a balance between exploration for the best enhancements to Aloy’s moveset, weapons, and armor, and is quite generous with the resources needed to craft virtually anything Aloy needs for any task. In the heat of battle, however, all the preparation in the world can end up being worthless with one wrong move. Yes, Aloy can stylishly slay a beast in one strike by sneaking up behind it in tall grass, but being spotted by the other two beasts she never noticed can find Aloy dead in two or three hits.
No matter what challenges come Aloy’s way throughout the game, no matter what new upgrades she buys, no matter what new heavy weaponry she’s crafted, no matter what new, slick, stealthy assassination move she’s learned, she remains a tiny, fragile human up against hard, vicious metal creatures, and trying to take on a pack of vicious bipedal killbots by one’s self using only a spear is often a fatal mistake. Every single fight in the game is a fight for Aloy’s life, and it’s a miracle of balancing that, aside from the occasional bad camera angle, the game’s difficulty never feels overbearing or unfair.
Even at its most frustrating, Horizon Zero Dawn succeeds at creating a situation where you will always have a clear, massively compelling reason to keep fighting. The good people Aloy meets throughout her journey are counting on her. The story of how exactly the apocalypse happened could be right around a corner. The villain responsible for unspeakable crimes against your tribe could be over the next ridge. Sometimes, though, you just fight for the privilege of exploring a new area unimpeded by enemies, to see what remarkable achievement the people in a new land have built, or to simply watch animals being animals—remarkable sights that never wore out their welcome over the course of dozens of hours of gameplay. This is the benchmark of the truly great open-world title: creating a world that captivates you just by the very act of having you feel as if you’re living within it.