Horizon Zero Dawn has been out for a little over a month now and is already one of the year's success stories. It's had great reviews from the critics, it's sold very well for Sony — especially for a new IP — and looks to be a new banner franchise for PlayStation. No small feat from a studio best known for Killzone shooters.
Amid the many things that the game does well, one of its more impressive elements has to be its approach to the open-world genre. Like the post-post-apocalyptic story that it presents, #HorizonZeroDawn borrows many well-known elements from other sources and injects them with a zesty dose of originality, evolving the possibilities for open-world gaming in the process. So how did Guerrilla Games manage to do this?
It's Big — But Not Too Big
One of the most common elements of open-world gaming is an enormous, er, open world. A map — or series of maps — of what seems near to infinity, with nooks and crannies, surprises and adventures, waiting around so many figurative corners.
Skyrim is an open-world RPG that really demonstrates this appeal, with adventure prodding you at ever turn. Games like this are famed for dedicated gamers pouring hundreds of hours into a single playthrough, with the game itself never seeming to run out of content.
Yet this approach doesn't work for every game or series. Bethesda is notoriously flaky with its graphical presentations that are riddled with glitches and bugs. The technical side of the experience can often be laughably bad. Meanwhile, Horizon has been impressively stable from the get-go, with patches needed for only a handful of minor glitches.
When a gaming world starts getting larger and larger, at a certain point it may almost inevitably become weighed down with bloat and filler — oftentimes aspects that are unmemorable and redundant that diminish its quality.
Guerrilla traded the time spent on world expansion to craft a quality environment within a comparatively restrained world. The result is that much of the material encountered along the way is meaningful and with purpose. Horizon's world is large, but it's not infinite to the point of ridiculous.
It Has a Fantastical Story
While a game like The Witcher 3 gets praise for its story and side quests, #Bethesda titles in particular aren't widely praised for their narrative. Nobody gets into a game like Fallout 4 or Skyrim for the fable.
It's in this area that Horizon thrives, with the developers taking a great deal of care to foster a narrative that's relevant to the world in which it's set. The story is not only incredibly well-paced, and perfectly tailored to our hero #Aloy, but it's also vital to understanding the lore. Every new bunker, every new piece of the past that's revealed to the player unveils a little more of this world's intricacies and how it came to be. And as a consequence, where it must go to survive.
A good story needs to hook the player with mysteries and surprises, offering motivation and drive to complete the task to come, or to learn what will happen next. Horizon's story does just that.
Its Combat Is Phenomenal
This is probably one of the most vital components where Horizon rises above the pack — because so often, open-world gaming sacrifices good combat and reliable, enjoyable gameplay for the time and resources to fill out an expansive world.
Fighting other humans in game is all fine and good, with Horizon borrowing from the likes of Assassin's Creed, Shadow of Mordor and #Witcher3 for the task. But this game's machine-animal combat is nothing short of incredible.
Horizon offers a myriad of ways in which the player can approach each machine, while every animal has its own strengths and weaknesses. And since these combatants are littered liberally across the game world, this means that — in addition to the quest-mandated defeats — there's plenty of other individualized opportunities to take down other machines. Whether tying down a #Thunderjaw to turn its own weaponry against it, or lighting a Glinthawk aflame to knock it out of the sky, every encounter is varied and thrilling. The machines and combat are easily one of the best parts of this entire game.
It Doesn't Try To Give You Too Much To Do
Like any good open-world #RPG, Horizon thrives on questing, whether that's a side quest, errand, or an array of peripheral missions to fill your time. You can practice your machine-hunting techniques at the Hunters Lodge, clear out Corrupted Zones, or collect and complete tasks unearthed at the next new city.
Yet there's a finite approach to this. There are only five Tallnecks to be overriden (Tallnecks serving as the stand-in for traditional Ubisoft-style map-revealing towers); only four Cauldrons (dungeons where the process for overriding machine animals is learned); and a similar cap on Corrupted Zones, bandit camps, metal flower collection, and vantage points. And our list says nothing of what is, for an open-world game, a comparatively smaller number of side quests.
Like so much else about this game, it means sacrificing quantity for quality. It means having less to do, but wringing more enjoyable and memorable material out of it. There are still dozens of hours — potentially far more, if you simply want to go exploring or machine hunting on your own — to be spent playing the title. But it doesn't strive to be an all-consuming entity. Put another way, it's a much better respecter of the player's time.
Horizon Zero Dawn is no doubt already on its way to becoming a banner franchise — not just for #GuerrillaGames, but for Sony and the PlayStation. And as we all eagerly wait for what will no doubt be at least one sequel, for now we can sit back and enjoy the introduction of this fantastic new IP, an open-world gaming experience that's already among the very best in its class.
Tell us what you like about Horizon Zero Dawn's approach to open-world gaming in the comments section below.