New PlayStation 4 action-adventure exclusive "Horizon Zero Dawn" is set in a post-post-apocalypse, which I've been thinking about a lot lately for reasons I shouldn't have to explain.
The events that wrought the end of the world are just the beginning of the mystery before Aloy, the protagonist of Guerrilla Games' follow-up to its long-running "Killzone" series. Braided into the cataclysm is what came after: tribes of multicultural people whose look appropriates the aesthetic of "Mad Max" as much as that of American Indians, animalistic robots prowling their surroundings and, most importantly to Aloy, her own origins. Orphaned and given to tribal outcast Rost, she sets off on "Horizon's" savaged landscape to find her parents and learn why they left her.
The pitfalls of Aloy's quest for knowledge — which she shares with an ally she meets halfway through "Horizon's" main quest — parallel those of Guerrilla's game itself. Enlightening as her discoveries are, they're often quite grim. They recontextualize her world, putting dark "whats," "hows" and "whys" to the ruins that dot it. In some cases, she almost seems to think they were best undisturbed.
The very design of "Horizon Zero Dawn" contains a similar tension between its surface and the gameplay systems that gird it. Aloy's world is a visual marvel, a mix of lush overgrowth, snowy cliffsides and perpetually dusty desert rock. In its depth of environmental and character detail, plus an unfailing framerate, Guerrilla may have built the best-looking console game one can find these days. It's a living dream to wander, to negotiate its mechanical threats and wildly changing topography only to discover yet another screenshot-worthy vista (there's a photo mode, thankfully).
"Horizon Zero Dawn" is two kinds of gamey.
However, Guerrilla plunges the reverie of its open game world into every genre trapping possible. Icons sprout from the world itself, recontextualizing it as a field of crafting materials to weed, corpses to loot and rarities to collect. Its HUD and map are cluttered with more icons, meters and objectives — more "whats," "hows" and "whys" amid sights and sounds best undisturbed.
To play "Horizon," then, is to reckon with this tension between savoring its beauty and turning away from its gamey guts. Should one withstand that tension long enough to tally a few hours in Aloy's world — disabling the HUD helps — it's all but resolved by the game's other saving graces. The first, indeed, is its story, a silicon onion of technological singularity and all its terrifying consequences. With a few shocking turns and real-world resonance, it captivates despite some lazy voice acting and a heavy debt to science-fiction canon.
The second is the thrill of the hunt. With bow, slingshot and the rest of her pre-industrial arsenal, Aloy stalks the robot safari of "Horizon" as both predator and prey. Guerrilla imports the punchy feedback of "Killzone's" shooting into every one of her actions, whether it's stealth-killing the wolf-like Scrappers, headshotting the cycloptic Watchers or winding up with a 360 and smacking down crocodilian Snappers with her staff. Those and more tactics converge on bigger game, like Stormbirds and Thunderjaws, whose punishing attacks gate access to tiny weak points.
The game's combat is best, though, when it turns into a battle royale. One Scrapper or Watcher is a pushover, but throw more into the mix — or worse, intermediate game like the stampeding Tramplers and the ostrich-like Longlegs — and what started as easy loot suddenly becomes a fight for Aloy's life. By giving her only a few hits' worth of health and limited recovery options, as well as densely populating "Horizon" with her mechanical enemies, Guerrilla guarantees players many a hardfought hunt all the way to the end of Aloy's journey.
The many strategic options available to Aloy in both her arsenal and "Horizon's" world unfold in hunting camps, which task her with timed machine conquests under fixed conditions. They're almost as worthwhile as the game's cauldrons, a series of short dungeon crawls through mysterious bunkers teched-out with LEDs and bundled cable. And both require more stealth and environmental awareness than bandit camps, which may start stealthy but commonly devolve into mindless, button-mashing rampages. Overgrown with palisades and machine parts, at least the camps look cool.
Aloy's encounters with "Horizon's" human enemies betray another tension in the game: She kills a lot of people. Even if she forgoes the bandit camps, the absence of nonlethal attacks force her to spill blood in the game's main quest — and the absence of decent human AI forces her to do so with disconcerting ease. True to the open-world protagonist trope, she's also savior to every person she doesn't kill. And this preponderance of selfless side quests creates yet another tension with Aloy's character, a social pariah with the most selfish of missions.
Unless you want them to get in the way of a long, thrilling hunt, these tensions in "Horizon Zero Dawn" also may be best not to think about.
If you play
GAME: "Horizon Zero Dawn'
TL;DR: Though encumbered by the inclusion of seemingly every open-world gameplay system known to man, "Horizon Zero Dawn" finds life in its peerless graphic performance, a sometimes gripping story and harrowing combat encounters.
GENRE: Action adventure
CONTENT RATING: Teen for alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, mild language, mild sexual themes, violence
DEVELOPER: Guerrilla Games
PUBLISHER: Sony Interactive Entertainment
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4
PLAY: Single player
DISCLOSURE: I received a review copy of this game from Sony and beat its main quest and several side quests on normal difficulty over the course of about 40 hours.