Horizon Zero Dawn is as fresh now as it ever wasn’t

Horizon Zero Dawn is as fresh now as it ever wasn’t
Josh Wise Updated on by

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In 2017, a year hardly understocked with great games, one release embarked in a bold new direction. It depicted a world of dense forests, thirst-sharpening sands, and gleaming belts of snow. It seemed instinctively given to fantasy, but was tinged with the technological. Mechanical beasts, wrought in the image of animals, ravened across its plains, and the ruins of an older civilisation—familiar to us, if not the citizens of this land—were glimpsable under mounds of rubble and rust. Out into this wilderness rode a lone hero, expressive in deed and motion, and gifted the advantage of an out-of-place gadget. The game was called The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

It was heralded for its systems-based approach—a phrase that bears all the romance of accounting software, but which describes a loosening breeze (calibrated, of course, with precision) that blew through the grid of the open world template as we knew it. The rules of its sandbox, when struck against one another, would spark with ideas and solutions that you suspected the developers couldn’t have foreseen. It felt like fresh air, as though you hadn’t so much turned on your Nintendo Switch (or, God help you, your Wii U) as opened a window. That same year, Horizon Zero Dawn came out—two days before, in fact, on March 1—and it was filled with ideas that were foreseen by everyone: the established creed of climbable towers, capturable bases, and craftable gear. One look at its map and its mission log, and you would be forgiven for thinking that it didn’t have a wild breath in its body.

It is out now on PC, offering a collection of advantages, such as support for ultra-wide monitors, for those who wish to flood their peripheral vision, and thus plunge themselves deeper into its fiction. There is the option to unlimit the framerate and play at 4K resolution, provided you have the requisite graphics card, that is—along with the willingness to gently broil it in pursuit of such heightened fidelity. But perhaps more valuable than these cosmetic buffs is merely the chance to reconsider the game—or, for dedicated PC players, to simply consider it. I have been playing it again, on a humble PlayStation 4, and have found its charm undimmed.

Horizon was, in a sense, business as usual, but its winsome power lay in two places. One was in the reassuring hand of genre—the comfort-hungry eagerness with which we yearn to see the patterns of tradition honoured. (This desire, incidentally, is why, for the Zelda-zealous, the sheer force of creative reinvention in Breath of the Wild carried with it a mild sadness—as many of its links to the past were broken.) The other was in developer Guerrilla Games’ knack for recasting these patterns in zippy new configurations. The towers, for instance, now moved, like gently grazing giraffes with saucer-shaped heads. The visual style meshed the ancient with the futuristic. The tribal people scattered across its pastures looked caught between the Neolithic and the Toys-R-Ussic, seemingly fashioning their clothes from smashed heaps of Zoids—those foot-bruising robotic animal toys from the eighties, which, indeed, seem to have been the inspiration for the game’s metal beasts. Despite the recognisable formula of its design, Horizon felt strange and unique. It was business as unusual.

Not to say that newness was off the menu. Credit must go to Guerrilla (a studio who made its name with the Killzone series), and to art director Jan‑Bart van Beek, for the machines that click and whirr through the fields. These beings, moulded from a mixture of animal and dinosaur influences, are still unsettling to behold. Take the Strider, a roughly horse-shaped clump of cables and sighing pistons, with a blue lamp beaming from its muzzle; or the Thunderjaw, a hundred tonnes of stalking circuitry that tips its hat to the Tyrannosaurus rex, and fires bladed discs from its hips. These are not beautiful creatures, but they are ferocious in function, and rich with the suggestion of peeled-back textures—walking wireframes, writhing with sinewy polygons. You could, with some justification, argue style over substance, that Horizon reskins plenty of existing ideas, but I would urge you to examine that skin. If you took the machines and reforged them from flesh and bone the game would cease to work. They are wired into the world, an inseparable part of the plot but, more important, of its imaginative life.

If it is beauty you’re after, then lift up your eyes to the hills. Horizon is powered by the Decima engine, whose principal advantage appears to be to lend a physical heft to light: to blow it between trees and bruise it with rain. The game was an early showcase for high dynamic range, and, though there have been other games since that have supped themselves colour-drunk—Red Dead Redemption 2, for instance, or Ghost of Tsushima—there is a bright ozone-briskness to the air in Horizon that marks its expressionism with a clean note of sobriety. Is it any wonder that Hideo Kojima, in search of an engine for Death Stranding, settled on Guerrilla’s? His team produced a gloomier spectacle—a rockscape of dark greens and lethal downpours, of fogs the colour of concrete—but the similarities shine through: a baffling world, in which technology hacks nature, all filtered through a lone figure.

In the case of Death Stranding, it was Sam Bridges, played by Norman Reedus, who tethered us to the world. In Horizon Zero Dawn, we have Aloy, played by Ashley Burch, who seems to have the gift of perfect pitch. Or, rather, her regular pitch seems to be perfect for an array of roles. When she isn’t clowning, as Tiny Tina in Borderlands, for example, she has the odd knack of outwardly doing very little while slipping quietly into a character—spiking her lines with rudeness, for Chloe Price in Life is Strange, or miring her usual energy in the quiet mud of a character like Mel in The Last of Us Part II. With Aloy, we get Burch unalloyed, so to speak, the natural naivety of her character girded by an enigmatic inner strength, and stropped by the harshness of her surrounds. I still find something insistent and striving about the performance, underpowered by damp dialogue that leaves nothing onscreen unneedled: “There’s something up ahead… What’s that? A dead person! There’s something shiny there.” Would that the director, Mathijs de Jonge (along with narrative director John Gonzalez and lead writer Ben McCaw) had the confidence that Kojima had to allow his star to stay quiet, and for his inscrutable world to speak, step by step, for itself.

It’s one of the few bum notes in a game that brims, elsewhere, with confidence. You feel the light-footed step of a developer that’s shrugged off a decade of military shooters, as grey and heavy as iron, and gone in search of adventure. Three years is a long time in games (they age quicker than movies, as if caught in one of Kojima’s showers), and to venture back to Horizon Zero Dawn now—be it via a sufficiently tech-encrusted computer, or just by picking it off your shelf and sliding it back into your PlayStation 4—is a lesson in the resilience of ideas and style. Take the weekend, and go back. 2017 beckons with the promise of the wild.