Horizon Zero Dawn: Our First Impressions

Image: Kotaku

Horizon Zero Dawn isn't out until next week, but we've had some early time with Guerilla Games' latest labour of love. And every single one of us is so impressed.

This is what we think so far.

Now, we've tried to steer entirely clear of any spoilers for the game, so you can read on with confidence that we're not going to ruin it for you.

It's worth noting that there is a Day One patch on the way for Horizon Zero Dawn, that will apparently improve "visual fidelity" among other things according to a Sony spokesperson. It will "build upon PlayStation 4 Pro support, adding a Performance mode which will favour smooth frame rates while delivering higher visual fidelity than the current 1080p mode. This mode is available for both 4K displays, as well as 1080p output."

Campbell Simpson, Editor of Gizmodo

Horizon Zero Dawn is the first game in years that I've lost track of time while playing. It's the first console game ever that I've sat in front of for an eight-hour stretch. I sacrificed half my weekend and most of last week's evenings to this game. It is ruining my sleep pattern.

I'm not going to spoil the story for anyone, but suffice to say that there's a compelling plot that gets you interested quickly and draws you in even further as you progress through the main quest. On top of that, there are plenty of side quests of varying lengths and difficulties that are easy to pick up and complete, with rewards of both experience and equipment. I've spent more time on side quests than the main story so far, because everything just feels right -- it's slightly addictive to pick up a quest, run it and complete it and get the reward and move on to the next. It's absolutely the kind of game that gets you playing and keeps you playing, because it's fun to play.

Horizon Zero Dawn pretty clearly takes a lot of inspiration from a lot of games and post-apocalyptic cinema that have come before it, not that that's a bad thing. It takes a dose of its upgrade/crafting elements from recent Far Cry, the Nora tribe's 22nd century techno-mysticism is equal parts Fallout 2 and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the human enemies are pulled from a mashup of Fallout: New Vegas and Warhammer, the world is built from the ruins of The Last Of Us and Oblivion and After Earth and I Am Legend. Despite all of this, though, it very much feels like its own game with its own lore and with its own history and world-building.

I do have some complaints about my time with Horizon Zero Dawn so far. Mostly the camera. My god, the camera. I get that it's the done thing for over-the-shoulder third-person games, and I admit that I'm not great with a controller, but there are times when I feel like I'm actively battling the camera as much as the enemy. It gets stuck on the landscape, and when you're fighting inside a dense thicket of trees, navigating around and seeing what you're doing becomes a genuine task.

Because Aloy has a multitude of weapons at her disposal, too -- as well as plenty of skills -- some of the game's simpler elements quickly seem redundant. For the 20-odd hours that I've played so far, I haven't thrown a single rock to distract a machine -- it's far simpler and more convenient to lure them with a whistle (which is early on the skill tree) and head-shot them with an arrow.

The sling, too, seems less effective than quickly lining up a series of arrows and setting Tripcaster wires. Stealth, seems less useful than finding a high position and raining down non-stop feathered death without worrying about the consequences. It makes different gameplay styles possible, of course, but the guns-blazing approach feels the safest and most effective by a long way, at least on my first playthrough.

You might realise by about this point that I really, really like this game, and I want to stop writing about it and go back to playing it. It's not without its flaws, but they're outweighed far and away by the many, many good things. The interesting and engaging main storyline, the not-too-short, not-too-long side quests, the sometimes messy, always enjoyable combat, the novel gameplay elements -- there's a lot to like at first glance.

Mark Serrels, Managing Editor of Kotaku, Gizmodo & Lifehacker

My early impression is that Horizon Zero Dawn is fucking amazing.

I slipped the disc in on Friday night fully bracing for disappointment. Guerrilla Games has a history of making spectacularly gorgeous games that don't live up to expectations. I'd been quietly tapering my hype for Horizon Zero Dawn. I had no idea I was about to fall hard in love with this game.

I'm not sure where to begin...

Because discussing Horizon Zero Dawn element by element is a disservice to how powerfully it hangs together as a cohesive whole. From a distance it's spectacularly easy to dismiss it as a match and grab of borrowed concepts. As Cam mentions there's Mass Effect, Fallout, Far Cry...

If we're going to continue in that vein, Horizon Zero Dawn feels like it takes the minute-to-minute production values of a series like Uncharted and pushes it into a game with the scope of The Witcher.

It's honestly spectacular on a number of levels. Most obvious, from an aesthetic standpoint, Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the prettiest video games I've ever played. It makes my PS4 sound like a vacuum cleaner from the 1980s, but it's seriously, powerfully beautiful. The art direction plays a large part in that, as does the high concept -- it's truly unique to see these lumbering mechanical machines wandering in a medieval style world.

The universe building too, feels legit. This is not a random collection of wires and textures, it's a fully fleshed out world that you will want to explore and discover. It has writing that is serviceable compared to the best science fiction/fantasy you've watched, and top tier compared to any video game I've played recently.

More importantly it feels good. Second-to-second, moment-to-moment, it feels good to exist and move in Horizon Zero Dawn's game space.

I could go on, but I'm only about five or six hours in and I pretty much just want to vomit hyperbole. Suffice to say, I am in love with this video game, and that happens once in a blue moon for me. If Horizon Zero Dawn continues at this level for its entirety, this might be my favourite video game experience since Bloodborne.

Tegan Jones, Commercial Editor at Kotaku, Gizmodo & Lifehacker

I hate crafting in games. I also hate grinding for resources. Horizon Zero Dawn makes me do both constantly. And I’m loving it.

Perhaps it’s because it feels like Crafting Lite, in that it isn’t overly complex. Perhaps it’s because I’m so immersed in the world that it feels natural rather than taxing. Either way, the witchcraft that Guerrilla Games have managed to pull is masterful.

In general, the games I obsess hardest over have always been RPGs. I enjoy beautiful narratives, rich characters, decisions that matter and spending an unhealthy amount of time in these fantasy worlds. I don’t even care if the graphics aren’t perfect. The story is always my number one priority. In Horizon Zero Dawn, you get to have both. And if you’re playing on a PS4 like I am, prepare for a visual feast.

I didn’t expect to get as emotionally invested in Horizon Zero Dawn as I did in Dragon Age or Mass Effect. Yeah it’s an RPG, but it isn’t as in depth in terms of weaponry, armour or even decision-making. And yet I’m just as hooked. And those are series I’m replayed repeatedly. I can pinpoint the exact moment that I knew Horizon Zero Dawn was something special.

During the tutorial a young Aloy stumbles upon a holographic recording. With childlike wonderment, she stares wide eyed and replays it immediately, even saying hello back. It was such a small moment, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But it was beautiful, and natural. It made me fall in love with this character and the world around her immediately. And this attention to detail that is representative of the game in its entirety. I found myself getting attached to various characters surprisingly fast.

I’m finding this mixture of rich characterisation and simplified RPG elements to be a positive thing. Sometime I will ignore entire sections of games if they become too complex or overwhelming – such as the crafting system in Fallout 4. I think Guerrilla’s user friendly approach helps combat this kind of player exhaustion. It’s elegant in its simplicity and feels streamlined rather than watered down.

And there’s still plenty of room for customisation. The skill tree is intuitive and allows you to be the Aloy you want. For me, that means pure stealth and a penchant for fire arrows. The only real complaint I have so far is that my partner and I have had to share one copy and therefore tag team our gameplay. Fortunately he’s out of the country for the rest of the week, so it’s ALL MINE.

Rae Johnston, Journalist at Gizmodo

If Bioware wrote an Uncharted game, threw in Assassin's Creed-esque stunts, Far Cry's crafting system and NPCs from Fallout, you'd get Horizon Zero Dawn. But rather than being an uncomfortable mish-mash of games gone by, Horizon stands on its own as a new universe to explore. It offers an interesting and unique protagonist, compelling narrative, adaptable gameplay and a whole lot of fun.

From, the outset it is clear this is a stunningly beautiful game. The day/night cycle allows you to explore the good-sized map (from what I've discovered, at least) while taking in the vast array of colours the environment has to offer - from the vast landscapes to the tiniest details. And you really can explore it, too - if you're a fan of going off-trail you may be pleasantly surprised by how much of the world is accessible. The mix of mechanical and natural worlds works beautifully to set the tone (and aid the narrative) in Horizon.

The broad facial expressions of the characters are impressive - bordering om natural. The soundtrack is subtle, unobtrusive, but dynamic; you'll know when you've stumbled across something you shouldn't have, but it won't be clear when the danger is completely over - which adds a good chunk of suspense to the gameplay.

Speaking of, the tutorial system is fantastic. With each new weapon you'll gain a new minor quest involving learning the ropes of the bow, spear or slingshot (among others) you've just acquired. As well as the main quests, there's a solid choice of side quests, errands, other random events and collectibles to pursue. You're never left wondering what to do, nor is there an excessive amount of hand-holding. The balance is great.

As for style, you can become a master of stealth or jump right in - it's completely up to you (although in some circumstances, one method has advantages over the other). Prefer melee attacks? No worries? More of a precision shooter? Horizon's got you covered, too. Sneaky take-downs from the tall grass? Go for it. The combat is flat-out fun, adaptable and you've only got the minor inconvenience of a (very) annoying shoulder camera occasionally getting in the way.

The UI is simple to navigate, with your quests, map, skill tree and inventory within easy reach and self-explanatory. You can become encumbered pretty quickly if you're like me and a bit of a resources hoarder, but you can upgrade storage for weapons, armour and ingredients for weapon and health potion crafting which you can do on the go) separately - so as long as you don't mind hunting, it's not really an issue.

Okay, so Horizon Zero Dawn is a beautiful and well constructed game, great to look at and fun to play. But what really caught me by surprise was the compelling story, depth of character, level of control over the person Aloy becomes throughout the game - particularly with the dialogue options - and how naturally deep relationships are established. It hits you on an emotional level in a way that isn't contrived. I'm only eight or so hours in, but Horizon Zero Dawn has quickly become the game I can't wait to get home to. Can I go home yet?

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