I didn't like Horizon Zero Dawn. Well, not at first.
The first hour of the game is an exposition-heavy tutorial, teaching you how to sneak, how to climb, how to scan the robotic creatures that make up much of Horizon's wildlife and beat them via combat and traps. It's a slow first hour, with tutorials laboriously teaching you everything you might need to know about the game's controls and systems.
After this ordeal, the game asks you to take down a Sawtooth – a hulking metal predator with jaws that could tear a Nora Brave apart, covered in sharp edges and weaponry — and that's when I saw the magic under the hood.
It was a tough opponent, a challenge that marks the end of the tutorial, and teaches you that each fight against robotic beasts is different, with different strategies required for success.
I was hooked after this taste of the hunt, drawn in by one of the most vibrant worlds I've seen in gaming. Even playing on a base PS4, the level of detail in the environments and robots is impressive. Later, I journeyed to other biomes, travelling across cracked deserts and frozen peaks that all felt like they had their own ecosystem – even if it was mostly of the mechanical variety.
You play Aloy, a young woman that exists on the fringes of a primitive tribe, far in the future after civilisation has broken down. The opening of the game focuses solely on this small tribe, not breaking character once as you stab a spear into a robot death-machine or use a grappling hook to get down from a tall mountain.
Horizon does a good job of subverting your expectations every step of the way, and the game I thought I was playing at the end of that first hour was completely different by the fifth and fifteenth. It's a vast game, even after you co-opt a robot steed to carry you around the place – and this is where problems start to rear their head.
Horizon has a pacing problem, and it's an inherited problem. Horizon lifts several survival mechanics nearly wholesale from the genre, including the recent obsession with filling every world full of meaningless collectables. Want to carry more arrows in your quiver? You're going to need to hunt a boar. Want more of those electric traps used to hunt the biggest beasts? You're going to need to harvest a variety of wires from smaller creatures. It's busy work. Horizon has plenty of good moments, but for every golden hour there's an hour you have to spend skinning animals and peppering robots with arrows.
This was best emphasised during my first Cauldron. Cauldrons are facilities buried underground where the world's mechanised wildlife is assembled - which Aloy wonderfully refers to as "spinning them out of thin air". Reaching the centre of this particular one, I encountered a huge fire-breathing beast, but didn't have the items to take him out. You can only save at campfires dotted around the world, and there weren't any of those deep in the cauldron. Nor were there any of the wires I needed to make new traps, so I had to grind through the boss fight, failing repeatedly until two hours later I finally bested it.
These nigh-impossible fights against creatures that can kill you in an instant are the game's high point. The battles often evoke Capcom's Monster Hunter franchise but Horizon has its own cadence, a way of doing things and a fluidity to the combat that elevates it. Each fight often involves multiple weapons and you using every method at your disposal, often finishing fights with the bigger creatures by tearing their core components out with a combination of arrow and spear.
There is a variety of weapons, armours and skills you can pick up, adding more options to your arsenal, and each of these feel essential – a weapon to rope enemies to the ground, the ability to nock two arrows to your bowstring or disarming your unused traps, recovering them for future use. These additions come together to create a rich tapestry of robot-slaughter that's incredibly engaging.
It's only natural then that tussles with human enemies feels lifeless by comparison, and the game makes you do it often, clearing bandit camps or dishing out pain to human enemies throughout the game's storyline. Combat still has a certain something to it, and I did have a dumb smile on my face when I nailed a guy tangled up in an electrical trap by slamming my spear into his gut. Unfortunately, these struggles against human opponents are overly simplistic, lacking the finesse of Horizon's robotic prey.
So much of Horizon rewards careful planning and preparation, encouraging you to map out how you're going to fell a monster before it happens. It's rare that a robot will charge straight at you, and you'll need to work out the way each monster acts. Some will try to dive-bomb you from above, some will shoot flames at you, and some will run for cover, taking the most direct route to put ground between you. You can learn and exploit these routines, doing your homework to learn what works against which creature is when Horizon is at its best, asserting itself as easily the strongest adventure in recent memory.
If Sony is looking for a new world to push as the Uncharted series winds down, here it is. Horizon is a great game and there's a world that I want to see explored further. There's more than enough quality here to ignore the incessant call of the next collectable, but the flaws here are persistent and frequently interrupt the flow of play, taking focus off the game and bringing your focus onto boring minutiae.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a stellar open world game. Guerrilla has crafted a magnificent and utterly gorgeous adventure game with surprising depth that rewards player skill and will more than likely prove to be PS4's next major action franchise. It's just a shame the game's open world is so desperate to validate its own existence that it never lets you truly enjoy the thrill of the hunt.