Creating a new IP is no easy task. You have to introduce something new and unique, and yet at the same time make it feel familiar and welcoming. You need to craft a story and characters that stand out and are iconic on their own, but also establish longevity and leave both the characters and players wanting more.
Guerilla Games, a developer who has already made a familiar IP in Killzone, took a different approach with their new game, Horizon: Zero Dawn, trading in a fast-paced, action FPS for a vibrant, exciting Open World RPG. But does Zero Dawn do everything it needs to in order to establish itself as a new IP for Sony fans to enjoy for years to come? Or does it already overstay its welcome and leave something to be desired?
Thankfully, the needle stays more in the former category and mostly out of the latter.
Horizon stars Aloy, a character who establishes herself right away as formidable and likable. Since no woman claimed her at birth, she was deemed “Motherless” and exiled from her tribe. Left to a caretaker (also an exile), Aloy learned to live on the outskirts of the tribe’s land and fend for herself. This is the core of her character as she spends the early game not exactly understanding what it means to be exiled and is subject to more than a small helping of mistreatment from the other members of the tribe. This shapes Aloy as the early game progresses, and we see a sharp tone and attitude that is highly believable and charming in its own way. The further you go on, the more her character shines, giving the impression that Aloy is not just a player avatar or self-insert. Aloy is Aloy, and she is wonderful.
More impressive than Aloy’s character, however, is her journey. Horizon’s story is tremendous. It might not be the best story ever told, but it certainly presents itself as unique and highly interesting. As the narrative unweaves, you may be able to guess a few key plot points, but you will also be genuinely surprised by how well its lore is constructed and how everything ties together. The pacing is a little hurt by the open world format, but when there’s moments of urgency it feels real and tense. The game’s presentation does an amazing job of just inching you closer to the answers that you so badly want, and knows how to feed you just enough so that you keep chasing it. It never feels padded– every event feels deliberate, every conversation in one way or another important, and the main questline never gets sidetracked or muddled with interference. The dialogue is a little dicey at times, but it’s never enough to make you want to cringe or wince.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Zero Dawn keeps it relatively simple while also adding a small layer of RPG depth. There’s a leveling system, a very simple skill tree, and a fairly modest array of weapons for Aloy to use– from bow and arrow to a tripcaster to a bomb sling. Combat is straightforward and comprised mostly of you shooting your bow repeatedly until everything is dead. There is stealth, but it will only last you so long as detection seems almost inevitable, but also allows you to perform stealth kills and override machines to assist you. Aloy does have traps at her disposal that she can set for unsuspecting patrols (or to cover her escape) as well. You can gather plants from seemingly anywhere on the map and machine parts from defeated enemies to help buy new weaponry, armor, or craft ammunition. Different ammo types can deal more damage, more easily break off machine’s weapons, or cause status ailments such as shock, freeze, or burn. Some machines have a weakness that you can discover by using Aloy’s Focus (a type of device that lets her scan objects in the environment for information) in order to make a fight a lot less stressful. There are also various armor sets that grant different bonuses and protection against certain damage types for the min/maxers of the world. While there is enough depth to make things interesting, the combat does leave something to be desired– the spear hardly has any use outside of dealing massive damage to a downed enemy or overriding, and most fights become “shoot fire arrows en mass until everything else stops moving”. The most exciting parts are the battles with the bigger, meaner machines, but those tend to be one-on-one and few and far between. I hope that Guerilla has big things in store for the sequels that will help make skirmishes a little more exciting and a lot less repetitive.
The world is your oyster as you explore a vast continent filled with damp, collapsed ruins and sprawling landscapes throughout the adventure. Zero Dawn takes no concessions when it comes to creating one of the most beautiful looking environments I’ve ever seen. The game’s day-night cycle does a great job of creating some truly incredible visual moments, and traversing the different landscapes and encountering new towns and characters is overwhelmingly exciting. However, I wish was there was more to the open world. There are not really any big set pieces that create moments of awe when you see them, and most of the map is littered with trinkets that are mostly there for collectaholics. At the time of this writing, I haven’t found anything truly astonishing or had an experience off the beaten path that was particularly memorable that wasn’t linked to a side quest. The world feels as cold and empty as the machines that inhabit it, and eventually you will just start using the fast travel to go from objective to objective unless you need healing herbs.
Overall, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a great first step despite its shortcomings. It feels like a solid first entry with mechanics that could be improved and expanded upon while also presenting a pretty good product in and of itself. Characters are likeable and well presented. The story is an incredible expedition with new revelations around every corner. While simplistic in nature, gameplay is solid and easily accessible. The world map could use a little more excitement, but it looks beautiful and has so, so much potential. I’m excited to see what Guerilla Games has in store for us with the continuation of Aloy’s story and what they have planned for the future of what could be an incredible IP.