Horizon: Zero Dawn is both unusual and excellent. Killzone maker Guerrilla Games' first stab at the ever-popular open world genre lifts ideas from a long list of contemporary classics, but it drops them into a post-apocalyptic plot that very much has its own flavour. The title's marriage of science fiction to tribal politics is unlike anything you're likely to have seen before, and yet the Dutch developer's confidence in such an outlandish concept shines through from start to finish. This isn't flawless, but it's still one helluva debut.
Let's begin by vanquishing the giant Thunderjaw in the room, though: Aloy's inaugural adventure is a role-playing game through and through. There had been concern that the release may share more in common with Far Cry Primal than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but on the Western RPG scale, the PlayStation 4 exclusive sits proudly alongside the likes of Fallout 4 and Mass Effect 3. It has everything that you'd expect of the genre: quests, dungeons, dialogue options, merchants, settlements, crafting, skill trees, and more.
But for as good as the title is at ticking boxes, it also has plenty to say for itself. Indeed, those who chastised Guerrilla Games for failing to flesh out the Helghast's story may be surprised by just how much lore is crammed into this 50 or so hour epic: bickering tribes tussle over differing religious beliefs while splinter factions wage bitter civil wars against monarchs who seek to heal the split between societies. And this all runs concurrently alongside the tale of the Old World, the civilization that existed before extinction ended life as we know it today and allowed the Earth to be inhabited by enormous robotic machines.
The conduit for all of this information is the aforementioned Aloy, an orphan exiled from the matriarchal Nora clan and forced to live in a humble shack many miles away from the embrace of All-Mother, the mythical deity which the tribe believes to be their goddess. As an outcast, the red-headed huntress serves as the perfect protagonist: her instinctive curiosity gives the game the perfect excuse to drip-feed you information about the world in which you exist, and you may be surprised by how engaging it all is.
That's not to say that the story-telling is perfect: the supporting cast is generally quite forgettable and the final few quests which focus on the so-called Ancients never really settle upon a fulfilling mechanism to relay their big reveals. But the heroine more than makes up for the shortcomings: she's strong-willed, sharp-witted, inquisitive, and ever so vulnerable all at the same time – think Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger with a bit of Lara Croft and you'll be roughly on the right path. Despite her competency in combat, she's relatable in a way most video game characters aren't.
And it's through the many main and side quests that you'll become attached to the character. Despite the mission design never quite reaching the astronomical highs of Geralt's most recent campaign, there's a lot to like: each short story has its own self-contained arc which either helps to expand upon your understanding of the world or enrich Aloy as a character. There is some poor voice acting – though nothing ever sinks as low as the now infamous Brom quest – and a couple of death scenes will make you cringe, but on the whole it's good stuff.
That said, the lack of options are an obvious area for improvement in the game's inevitable sequel, as it can feel like you're being funnelled down a set-path as opposed to having any meaningful agency over the outcome of the world. This is where CD Projekt Red's opus very much raised the bar, and while Guerrilla Games is not the only developer to be standing in the Polish studio's shadow, it has to be acknowledged all the same. But it's not like the title doesn't have several strengths of its own, with its excellent battles being the best arrow in its quiver.
Where most RPGs struggle in the combat stakes, Horizon leverages its developer's learnings from Killzone to deliver an experience on par with the best third-person action games. Equipped with an incredibly versatile bow, you must use your wits to hunt down the enormous robot dinosaurs that stalk the landscape. Stealth and tactics come into play as you attempt to turn the odds against the enormous mechanical opponents, with each enemy vulnerable to unique strategies. You may, for example, use fire arrows to blow out the fuel canister on one foe – or remove the laser gun from atop another so that you can wield it yourself.
The game doesn't mess around, and a slightly dodgy save system means that you may lose progress when you inevitably eat the dirt at times, but once you get used to the way that the game wants you to play, it's incredibly gratifying turning the tides against such overwhelming odds; enormous health bars will fall fast once you know the best tactics to whittle them down, and while some repetition does set in towards the tail of the end-game, you'll at least feel as though you've mastered the machines. It's just a shame that the human combat is so stilted and simplistic in comparison; the mechanical robots are seriously smart, while the fleshy people wait for their heads to be popped.
At least there's the gorgeous scenery to soak up while you bring down idiotic human beings, of course. There's always been a rivalry between Sony's first-party studios for technical superiority, and the crown may temporarily be heading to Holland. Some very minor pop-in aside, Horizon is a tour-de-force: it has all of the fidelity of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End but delivers it in a sprawling, seamless open world. The quality of the character models can look out of place in conversations due to Bethesda-esque plastic facial animations, but this is generally forgivable given the quality on display elsewhere.
It's not just the technical achievements: it's the art direction, too. Tallnecks – mechanical-like giraffes – linger on the horizon, while thick forests loom large and frosted mountaintops make way for blistering desert expanses. There's a real strong sense of identity here, from the tribal clothing which adorns animal skins with robot parts through to the splendour of the Carja tribe's Meridian city compared to the rustic nature of the Nora's wooden shack settlements. A special mention must go to the soundtrack, too, which is subtle but excellent.
Debuts don't get much stronger than Horizon: Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games' latest borrows liberally from a variety of different sources, and yet it leverages these fundamentals to forge an experience that's daringly unique. The main quest tires a little towards the end, and the writing never hits the same highs as The Witcher 3 – but the tactical action stands leagues ahead of what we've come to expect from the genre, and the presentation is quite simply unmatched.