Post-apocalypse. The word conjures up images of desolate wastelands, dust, and dogged survival. But what about post-post-apocalypse? When all the calamity has died down, what’s left? Horizon: Zero Dawn provides the answer. A lush, fascinatingly intricate world awaits you, but it's one that belongs to machines. They mastered it long ago. Now it’s your turn.
Aloy is your robotic-wilderness prodigy, who sets off to find out why machines across the land are becoming corrupted, leading them to attack indiscriminately and spread disease. She isn’t a blank slate, helper-figure you’d expect from an RPG. From the start she’s tenacious, with a shard of fury inside from being shunned by her matriarchal tribe for being motherless. Playing her feels like you’re teaming up with someone ambitious and intelligent, her get-on-and-do-it attitude perfectly curtailing the trepidation of taking on more intimidating machines like a Stormbird or Thunderjaw. Talking to other characters lets you choose between compassionate, confrontational, or diplomatic responses, making it increasingly apparent that Aloy is the only person who dares take these beasts on. Slightly flawed but resolute, she’s a fitting medium for your fearless exploits.
Let loose in a world that begs you to explore every corner, the most valuable object Aloy owns is her Focus, a gadget from the ancient world clipped to her ear. It makes getting to grips with your surroundings easy, freeing you up to feel more like a hunter. The nifty gizmo can track people, detect and tag enemies, seek out loot, or hover its electric gaze over a body part of an especially intimidating machine to see its weaknesses. Walking through ruins of the old civilisation would be a dry exercise if not for this little device, which also lets you access audio logs and texts which retain the kernel of life from thousands of years ago. Or, as the case may be, death. The death of a long-gone world, whose bones you walk over with each step.
Ruins are integral to Aloy’s journey and the world you find yourself in. They aren’t just there to look spooky. Sure, crawling through the shell of a ruined apartment building sends shivers down my spine, but amid the rubble are tales from long ago. Voices speak to you about their fears, telling of the chaos that reigned when the cities started to collapse and society panicked. Their stories are brief, but they ground Aloy’s experiences, reminding you that although life found a way to survive in the future, there are millions who didn’t make it.
Replacing them are the machines. Robot animals might sound like the easiest concept to get your head around. Replace flesh with metal. Done. But they demand more credit than just being robots. Because you don’t simply kill in Horizon: Zero Dawn. You hunt. I use the word because it’s not a simple case of shooting machines until their circuits fizzle out. Tracking your quarry, adapting your weapon loadouts and armour, and tailoring each shot to a specific body part makes every fight between Aloy and a mechanical beast a duel. Without exception, it feels incredible.
You can mix and match perks, tailoring Aloy’s skillset to fit how you want to take on the wilderness. Hitting one component enough times will disable it permanently, so if you like to keep your distance you can choose to rid yourself of that pesky disc launcher on the Thunderjaw’s back, then pick it up and give the beast a taste of its own medicine. Or you can hide in the long grass and lure machines towards you before taking them out with a powerful silent strike. The variety of approaches means fighting never gets dull, as when you get bored of one tactic there’s an alternate one just waiting for you to master. You’re not super-aware of the change in your thinking until you look behind you, startled to see you’ve placed enough traps and tripwires to make the perfect ambush, having already plotted a route to take once you startle the beast.
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One of the sole places where Horizon: Zero Dawn stalls is its lethargic jumping. Seeing as you’re navigating the landscape for the whole game uninterrupted, movement is key, and trying to jump up a couple of boulders slows down what would otherwise be a fluid sense of motion. Melee attacks too suffer from this tiny but significant lag, sometimes ending up being delayed - frustrating when speed is so critical to fighting.
Not that combat is always necessary. Pacifists, rejoice: you don’t even have to kill the machines after a certain point. Barrelling through Cauldrons - high-level, robotic dungeons where the machines are created - will reward you with more override codes, which you can then use to hack into unsuspecting beasts and turn them to your side. Stealthy disruption suddenly becomes an option, as you can send machines off to attack their friends and create distractions while you slip away unnoticed.
It's an effortlessly satisfying experience for curious explorers. There’s so much to see and do. Errands, side quests, tutorial quests, and main quests (obviously) are just the beginning. Striding across the landscape are the exhilaratingly-climbable Tallnecks, who you can override to download map locations without exploring every inch yourself. For those who prefer combat to story, hunting challenges abound for you to win medals, or if you want a really challenging fight, dangerous Cauldrons lurk in the mountains - mysterious robotic wombs that seem more organism than machine. That’s not even mentioning the ruins textured with secrets about the past, the collectables to find, the bandit camps to eradicate… the variety of choice is overwhelming.
Each quest stacks up to build a world brimming with potential. It’s not all about the machines either, as the tribes are just as unforgettable. Political squabbles await between the proud Carja, the inventive Oseram, mystic Banuk, and traditional Nora, dragging you deeper into the social tapestry. Some quests recruit Aloy to investigate mysteries like a detective using your Focus, encouraging you to linger in the beautifully crafted settlements. Aloy’s journey is about people just as much as machines: about how humanity continues to adapt, turning a historical calamity to their advantage.
Even small details like the layout of the inventory helps you get to grips with the game without being intrusive. There's no clumsy crowd of items here: resources are marked with what they’re good for (crafting ammo or upgrades, trading for other items, or selling) as well as a list of machines you can get more of them from. A catalogue of all the robotic beasts you’ve run into gives you details of their weaknesses and attacks so you can consult it before fighting, and come up with your tactics. A small detail admittedly, but just glancing at it familiarises you with the intricacies of the world without going through an exhaustive tutorial. What it comes down to is that Aloy knows her stuff. It’s up to you to get the best out of her.
Like a real ecosystem, Horizon: Zero Dawn is brilliantly balanced. Aloy feels like an inextricable part of it, halfway between prey and predator. Whether you’re climbing cliff-faces with a weightless, fluid joy, hunting, or travelling through the landscape, Horizon: Zero Dawn takes you on a tour of discovery. An endless sense of wonder and awe push you onward no matter what you’re doing. The more time I spend in Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world, the less I want to leave.