Horizon: Zero Dawn, developed by Guerrilla, was released back in 2017. The post-apocalyptic open world romp about robotic dinosaurs (a new genre?) launched to general critical acclaim. In fact, up until Ghost of Tsushima, Horizon: Zero Dawn was PlayStation’s fastest selling original IP in history.
A game of many strengths, and quite a few oddities, Horizon: Zero Dawn is largely a pretty fantastic game. I’ve finally finished it, after it’s been stuck in my backlog since I got my PS4 in 2018.
“Horizon: Zero Dawn is largely a pretty fantastic game”
Amongst all of its strengths, the thing that stands out to me, even three years later, is how well it handles the idea of hunting. For an open world title, which are usually pretty easy, Horizon is often tremendously difficult.
The game starts you out slow, with an initial area that keeps the threat level pretty low assuming you don’t explore the fringe areas. But the game places heavy importance on one thing; hunting is crucial to your survival.
Using your Focus, a functioning relic of the ‘Metal Age’, you can tag enemies and mark their patrol patterns. You can also use it to locate and highlight weaknesses in the design of the robots who inhabit the environment.
It could be a blaze canister hidden on their stomach. Maybe a power pack on their back. There’s actually plenty of other examples of these weak points, whether that be jets, turrets, claws, excavators, and more.
As I mentioned, Horizon Zero Dawn is, for the vast majority of your journey, a steadily increasing difficulty curve. JUST as the dreaded Sawtooth starts to become easier, the game introduces Ravagers – a faster, more dangerously armed version.
Tramplers starting to become a cakewalk? Introducing Behemoths, a hulking beast who can throw rocks at you. Horizon: Zero Dawn, right up until you finally unlock later skills and weapons, is a bit of a bitch.
“Horizon: Zero Dawn, is a bit of a bitch”
Which is why hunting your enemies is so crucial. Stealth in Horizon: Zero Dawn honestly isn’t the best, especially in 2021, but what’s there works just fine.
These fights with the machines, which are otherwise extremely difficult, can be made that much easier by simply just watching your enemies. Making sure you have the right elemental arrow, waiting for just the right animation in your opponent’s gait to be able to hit the pesky blaze canister hidden under a Sawtooth’s chest.
It can get more complex than that as well, as some enemy’s weak spots will be protected by regular armour that you need to knock off first. This means you have to weigh up how much time you have to nail two or even three pixel perfect shots, versus how much time it’ll take for the enemy to locate you.
Sometimes, avoiding combat is smart. If you’re low on health restoring items, or low on arrow crafting resources, it’s just not worth it. But the best armour and weapons aren’t just purchased with currency, you need valuable machine parts as well. This makes combat inevitable in the end.
You can take advantage of the way the robots function to make things easier. The less dangerous machines, like Grazers, are often protected by the more lethal variants. So six Grazers might be covered by two Sawtooths, or four Glinthawks.
These more combat-ready models will likely patrol the area around the herds, making sure to stop and look around every now and again. This is where knowing the particular weaknesses, and taking advantage of them, is important.
“.. knowing the particular weaknesses, and taking advantage of them, is important,”
Grazers have Blaze packs on their back that, when hit by a fire arrow, blow up in spectacular fashion. Timed to perfection? You can catch multiple enemies in the same explosion, giving you an immediate advantage.
I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that Horizon: Zero Dawn is the only game to get hunting right (despite my title). Red Dead Redemption 2, perhaps the most detailed video game of the generation, also nails the experience. But Horizon makes hunting fun. You get XP as an instant reward, currency, upgrade materials, and the improvement.
In RDR2, which I reviewed fairly recently, hunting was treated as an entertaining side activity, but never the main course. In Horizon: Zero Dawn it’s the primary activity. If you’re not tracking the latest lethal piece of robotics for whatever resources it has, you’re hiding from them as they try to nail you down. Most new machines aren’t introduced as fancy boss fights, they’re given to you organically as you explore further out of your comfort zone.
Each new encounter, with bigger and more dangerous creations, starts with scouting to learn more about them. A little watching to work out their behaviours and moments of vulnerability.
At what stage in their animations is the weak spot exposed? Where will the elemental explosion hit the most people? Can you get to a spot they can’t reach?
“It’s an extended game of cat and mouse in a world where rushing in unprepared WILL kill you”
It’s an extended game of cat and mouse in a world where rushing in unprepared WILL kill you. Relentlessly. Running into the monstrous Storm Bird for the first time scared the life out of me, and took 30 minutes and 5 deaths to finally kill. Because I didn’t prepare properly. I rushed in blind, mostly out of excitement.
I think that’s the major difference. In Horizon: Zero Dawn there’s a risk/ reward system to every combat and engagement decision. I found myself weighing up my health resources, and the enemies I was stalking. Is it worth taking on a couple of Sawtooths with only one heal? It would give me enough XP to level up, but at the same time it could leave me scrounging for resources.
I can’t think of… any game, really, that places this amount of indecision into its perception of ‘the hunt’ as it were. Coming out victorious is always an adrenaline rush, as a stray dodge can leave you eating dirt having lost half your health. Even now, 25 hours into my experience, I still tense up when I see a Stormbird on the horizon. I open up my map, look for a route around its territory, for fear of falling afoul to its ranged attacks.
In 2021 there’s not much point in reviewing a 2017 video game. But in playing it now I’ve realised that few games, if any, have demonstrated such a deft hand at hunting.
(Aside from Hunting simulator maybe, I’m not perfect)
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed one of my first write ups of 2021! Until next time, have a fantastic week. Don’t forget to head on over to our Twitter for more opinions, spicy takes, the occasional shit-post, and photo-mode snaps!
I’ve been playing video games in some form or another for nearly two decades. My favourite campaign of all time is Halo: Combat Evolved and my favourite multiplayer of all time is Overwatch, with a dash of Halo 3. Huge lover of everything gaming, no matter the platform or source, and I enjoy a story driven campaign like nothing else!