Horizon Zero Dawn PC Review: Phenomenal Game, Mediocre Port

Horizon: Zero Dawn, developed by Guerilla Games, probably has one of the dopest premises I have ever seen for a game; it really cannot get much cooler than hunting huge animal machines with bows and arrows. I first found out about the game from a friend who hyped it up back in 2017, but alas due to it being a Playstation exclusive upon release I was never able to actually experience it until it was finally ported to PC. This was probably one of the most anticipated games of the year to arrive to PC as it was a critically acclaimed title back on console, but its actual launch on the platform was rocky to say the least.

I am going to get this out of the way right now and say that my biggest criticism of the Horizon: Zero Dawn is easily the port. The game was literally unplayable on release, and I was forced to refund it initially as I could not play without repeatedly crashing. A patch has since been released that fixed the crashing, but my overall performance in the game is still somewhat mediocre, especially in the expansion areas where I would get significant frame drops from time to time. I would hesitate to recommend this to anyone who does not have a decent set-up; if you are lacking a relatively powerful gaming PC just get it on PS4 instead if that option is available. That being addressed, and regarding the actual game itself, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an incredible experience and easily one of the best games I played this year.

In Horizon: Zero Dawn, you play as Aloy, an outcast of the Nora tribe, cast out when she was born due to the strange circumstances surrounding her birth. One of the biggest questions I had going into this game was the logical inconsistency of its setting; there are highly technological advanced machines, and here we are trying to hunt them with bows and arrows, so what gives? Funnily enough that is actually an important plot point, and a large part of the game’s story is Aloy’s journey to discover the truth behind her birth as well as the bigger picture of how this world came to be.

Gameplay:

A big part of what makes Horizon: Zero Dawn so enjoyable to me is its combat, specifically when fighting machines. You do encounter quite a few human enemies in the game as well, but the human encounters are relatively a lot more straightforward and nothing to write home about in particular (not that it’s bad, but human combat engagements generally play out the same every time as opposed to a different combat experience with each varying machine). The idea of hunting a much larger machine gives some Monster Hunter-esque vibes, and what’s great is that Aloy also has a ton of tools at her disposal for taking down the different machines she comes across. Each machine has its own strengths and weaknesses, and a big trick to knowing how to defeat them easily is to identify those weaknesses (whether it be elemental weaknesses or specific points on their body that are vulnerable). For a while I always thought Glinthawks (flying machines that resemble vultures) were a pain in the ass, but then I discovered the existence of a weapon that can tie them down to the ground, and suddenly fighting them became significantly more manageable. Later on with sufficient progression, you can even hijack machines to make them fight for you, which can easily turn the tide of an engagement if you happen to take control of a more powerful machine. The DLC expansion Frozen Wilds also adds a few new machines that are even nastier than the ones in the base game, and are available for those who seek new challenges. What I enjoy about the machine combat the most is that it always keeps you on your toes, as you can have the strongest gear available and still easily die if you get careless (especially so on higher difficulties).

The other major part of the gameplay is the open world exploration. I am personally a fan of open world designs as they offer a lot of freedom to the player in how they pursue objectives, and a lot of times a big part of the experience is simply going through the world itself. Horizon: Zero Dawn is no exception; traveling throughout the land really made me appreciate just how gorgeous it is. Watching machines interact with their “natural” habitats, or running into a group of other people attempting to hunt one of the larger machines, exploring the mysterious insides of a Cauldron, and checking out the various settlements across the map all show the sheer amount of effort into making the world feel alive. A lot of the side quests you can pick up as you explore are also generally well-designed and unique (and some of them will change Aloy’s interactions with the main story missions down the line). The game does a decent job of accounting for the different order you choose to complete objectives; for example choosing to beat the expansion before tackling the main quest (not recommended for an initial play-through because the expansion content is more difficult than the base game) versus tackling the DLC after will change Aloy’s dialogue with the various NPC’s, which was pleasantly surprising. There are also a lot of different data points sprinkled throughout the game that you can scan and read/listen to, which all provide intriguing lore into the world at large.

Aside from the lackluster human combat, my only real criticism of the gameplay lies in some of Aloy’s movement mechanics, in particular climbing and riding a mount. Climbing in this game can be janky at times, and there were quite a few times where I tried to jump to a certain handhold and ended up missing and falling to my death instead. Riding a mount can sometimes feel clunky (especially when going up/down steeper slopes), and mounted combat feels like an after-thought. Unless I needed to cover a lot of distance fast, I generally found it better to just travel on foot instead as Aloy has some serious leg strength and cardio.

Writing:

Horizon: Zero Dawn’s narrative and its premise are some of my favorite in video game stories. The idea of primitive humans living among highly technologically advanced machines is fascinating, with the mysterious existence of “Old Ones” who supposedly created this technology long before the time of Aloy and her people. The idea of a “precursor” civilization is not a new trope (this trope’s also used in the Mass Effect series, one of my favorite video game trilogies of all time), but Horizon Zero Dawn executes it well. While who precisely the Old Ones were and how the current world came to be are central plot points so I won’t elaborate further due to spoilers, the biggest draw for the game outside of its gameplay mechanics was the need to learn more; what brought about the fall of the Old Ones, and what is Aloy’s role in this story? The game balances just giving you enough lore to get an idea of what might be happening while also dangling the carrot on a stick, forcing you to go along for the ride if you want the whole picture.

The storytelling is further enhanced by the overall high quality of the character writing, and the main cast of characters are all interesting and likable (or unlikable, but most of the unlikable characters are probably intended by the writers to be disliked). Aloy is a strong protagonist, who is notably different from her peers in that she is open minded and curious about the world around her as opposed to fearful, which usually means she’s willing to explore a lot of different areas that none will otherwise dare to venture. Her character journey from a fiercely independent woman due to her outcast upbringing to one who learns to help and accept help from others is a great arc, as she comes to realize her bigger purpose beyond simply just discovering who she really is. Best of all, she can also be an absolute savage (pun intended) to others if you choose to which led to some very funny moments in the game where she straight up has no chill.

I think the writing’s strongest part is in its antagonists, however I won’t say much about them due to a lot of their identities and story interactions being integral to the narrative so elaborating more would be treading into heavy spoiler territory. Horizon: Zero Dawn showed that sometimes the biggest villains aren’t necessarily your textbook example of traditional evil, but just plain stupid, selfish and short-sighted. I was also huge fan of Sylens, one of Aloy’s major companions (won’t elaborate further for spoilers), and he acts as a perfect foil to Aloy as someone who possesses a similar technological aptitude and curiosity for knowledge but is almost a polar opposite as far as personality is concerned, and his role in the story really makes me wonder what part he’s going to play in the upcoming sequel.

Misc/Ending Thoughts:

Horizon: Zero Dawn is also no slouch in its visuals and soundtrack. Exploring its world wouldn’t be such an incredible experience if it weren’t for the amazing sceneries, which often made me forgive the subpar performance I was getting on my machine. Its music, for lack of better words, is also incredible, and after finishing the game for the first time I couldn’t get Aloy’s theme out of my head for a few days (major props to vocalist Julie Elven for her work). The game is a masterpiece, and while I wish the PC port was better at least I can say I’m fortunate enough to be able to experience this game without having to buy a Playstation console. It is a game with impressive ambition, and for the most part succeeds in fulfilling it.

Rating: If you have a good rig, get it on PC, otherwise get it on PS4.

Software engineer and gaming enthusiast, writing reviews to share quality media; check out my personal site at www.edmondwu.dev

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store