Details: Horizon Zero Dawn

Based in Amsterdam, development studio Guerrilla Games spent six years to create an extraordinary living world featuring a smart, convincing protagonist, fascinating enemies and probably the most compelling story ever realised in an open-world game. Every inch of Horizon Zero Dawn consists of staggering work. The character relationships, the behaviour of the animals, the weather cycles and the scope of the landscape all come together to tell the story of a young woman trying to find out who she is and ultimately, who she could be.

After more than forty hours, the story of Horizon Zero Dawn was finished. However, less than two days seems an almost unfair amount of time to explore this post-post apocalyptic Earth. While running around at full speed trying to take down a couple of Corruptors or clear out a bandit outpost, you miss a lot of things. Locations and places which when looked at a second time, clearly took a lot of work to create.

These worlds have corners, caves and alleyways that are either occupied for mere minutes or are so incidental, blink and you’ll miss them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hold value or fascination. On the contrary, they can reveal story or character development that would otherwise go unmarked.

One of the rarest things a game can do is allow you to breathe. To just exist in a space without anything happening and let the surroundings envelop you. When the environment is expertly designed with enough attention paid to the details, the player can’t help but wander off and explore. Which describes Horizon Zero Dawn perfectly.

Let’s start in Nora territory.

Aloy begins her journey with Rost and the Nora Matriarchs in a relatively primitive part of the world. This tribe is wary of technology to the point of terror. Or rather, fear of God. As such, their environment is designed by what they can find in the world around them.

Mother’s Heart is the main community hub, surrounded by smaller villages with names like Mother’s Crown, Mother’s Rise and Mother’s Cradle. Here’s Mother’s Watch, which is the first main area you encounter.

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The main gate. Sharpened tree trunks are placed on either side as a visual deterrent. It’s not fooling any human eyes but perhaps wards off machines.
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Every hut in Mother’s Watch faces inwards, towards the central bonfire.
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Not only does the wood in each hut have decorative carvings, but blue and white rope adds colour to the otherwise brown and icy settlement.
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Every hut has a verandah. This one with snowshoes in a wicker basket.
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Every hut can see all of Mother’s Watch, including every other hut. An intelligent design for a community that is very protective of their ways.
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Mother’s Watch seems very focused on a communal nature, which makes sense given the story. On this hut, animal pelts are hung out to dry.
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The structural integrity of the huts is very haphazard. Timber is not cut to size but rather kept in trunk form. I suppose wearing layers of animal pelts helps with the cold when the construction of your house holds barely any insulation.
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Sharp timber stakes are kept near the front gate in wicker baskets. These people may be naive about the greater world but they know enough to be prepared.
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Night falls on Mother’s Watch. The dormant body of a frigid Titan rests high above in the mountains.

The Nora tribe are matriarchal and pray to the All-Mother. As the story moves and reveals itself, Aloy discovers that despite their primitive and fearful ways, the Nora are in fact closest to some of the most important ancient ruins of the ‘old world’. The Sacred Land is what they call their territory (no doubt in reference to the location of All Mother) and rarely venture to the Tainted Land, which is everything outside their borders.

Despite the invasion of violent machines, the Sacred Land itself remains wild and beautiful. Snowy mountains give way to rivers, forests and expansive fields. No wonder they never want to leave. Over one hundred Nora reside in Mother’s Heart, the biggest settlement in the Sacred Land. It is essentially the Nora’s capital city and north of Mother’s Watch.

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Mother’s Heart is much larger and convoluted than any of the other surrounding villages. Different ground levels, functional areas and a design that fits more in with the trees rather than clearing them out for space.
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Housing is not as uniform in this settlement and suggests a hierarchy of workers and soldiers. This one cooks food right outside the front door.
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Nora soldiers come to this outdoor mess area for meals.
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Some houses are much more elaborate than in Mother’s Watch. Thatched roofs, colossal decorations and exterior work areas.
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Despite the effort put into these houses, the Nora trait of cutting corners never strays. The structure of the walls is a bit more focused than in Mother’s Watch but the foundation seems rushed and temporary. Flat rocks piled on top of one another is a half-hearted job and would almost guarantee destruction if a Ravager or Glinthawk comes in contact with it.
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The blue and white rope makes another appearance along the fences but this time with an added line of yellow.
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In addition to woven baskets like in the smaller settlements, various food is carried in serving trays. Decorated with the same Nora rope.
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Fireplaces are vital in this freezing part of the world. Herbs and pelts are hung to dry out.
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A small barracks, used by Nora warriors initiated into training. The bunks are structurally sound yet aren’t shaped or detailed. They are the bare tree trunks cut to size and strung together.
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You can see the body of the Titan in the distance overlooking Mother’s Watch. Mother’s Heart seems more profound but the construction and decoration here indicates a simple evolution.

Far from the territory of the Nora, lies the workhorse outpost of Pitchcliff. It is in the far north of Horizon’s world and is used by the Oseram tribe. The Oseram couldn’t care less about family or community, they’re all about working their fingers to the bone building weapons and defences.

Pitchcliff is an unpleasant place. When not on long shifts, the metalworkers here are rarely sober. In the one communal area, they gather to dull the pain of their miserable lives at this outpost. Then presumably, its back to work.

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Essentially a factory, Pitchcliff is dug into the mountain. There’s no welcome mat or decorations. You come here to work.
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Every building looks like a giant kiln. Huge stone domes braced together by timber struts.
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The staircase that leads up to the communal area for workers. It overlooks the beautiful mountain ranges, almost mockingly.
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Here is where the Oseram workers get good and drunk. Some sing and dance, most complain.
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The work pays off, however. Unlike the Nora, the Oseram care about every little detail. Everything fits together perfectly.
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This timber is shaped, curved and varnished enough to serve the purposes of Pitchcliff. No half-measures. There’s pride in every rivet and fitting.
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Aloy looks down from near the top of Pitchcliff. In the dark, it becomes even more bleak.
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It is a depressing yet perfect place.

Where the Nora focus on family and the Oseram are all business, the Carja love grandeur. Their central city of Meridian is talked about long before the player ever reaches it and when you arrive, you can see why. There’s no false stature here – this is a shining metropolis.

Outside of the story of Horizon Zero Dawn, I can’t imagine the work Guerrilla Games put into building each section of Meridian. There  is barely any major repetition in design and the amount of detail placed in areas that Aloy can never even reach is astonishing. Towering outposts, busy marketplaces and colossal elevators are all draped in the most intricate and polished ornaments. Every area is both functional and aesthetically intoxicating.

This is the environmental key to a game that makes you want to just hang out. Watch the citizens go about their lives or go exploring independently of any mission or side-quest. There are missions and NPC’s that you can simply stumble across but that’s not what I mean. Discovering backstory for yourself via architecture or environments can be incredibly rewarding and highly personal. Which in turn, makes a game that much better.

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This is just one side of the city of Meridian but its opulence is immediately apparent. However, the mixture of stone walls with timber roofs is an interesting combination.
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On the right, draped in blue, is one of Meridian’s many outlooks. It gives a commanding view of the Sundom, which is Carja territory.
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Meridian sits high above the land. Huge wooden elevators allow access from below.
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There are many market stalls with ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-them’ designs. There’s Aztec influences here and despite everyone’s fear of the machines, some art that is clearly technology-based.
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This view of a marketplace in the evening is from the front door of someone’s house. The ornate lighting fixture on the left only truly comes alive in the dark so thankfully the day/night cycle is long.
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Most of the brickwork is breathtaking. It is a towering presence anywhere you look.
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These small windows are never used by the player yet you can marvel at the detail in the wood from a distance.
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The stone itself holds carved decorations throughout the city. A lot hidden away in alleys and houses. Rarely seen.
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This huge arch is one of a kind in Horizon. It soars above Meridian. 
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A Carja guard stands watch. This tower door is an amazing piece of art. The handle is made of gold and matching tassels hanging overhead. Now I want tassels on every door!
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Intricate designs are everywhere. Even for areas you have no reason to visit.
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More technology-influenced designs furnished with those same lights and an overhead that matches Carja robes.
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Not only are the rugs woven beautifully but these hardwood floors would be the envy of anyone building a house. 
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Stone walls for the foundation, timber for ease of construction. Enough supporting brackets to make these balconies stand the test of time.
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Another Carja guarding an entrance. The art carved into the raw, cold stone.
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One of the market stalls selling weapons and armour. Everything is placed with purpose. Stock on the table with additional reserves hidden underneath.
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Even the interior of Meridian apartments are a feast for the eyes. The shelves braced with three wall prongs and decorated along the front edge. It is smart tidy home design. Also on the left, above the cabinet, is a mosaic painting of a Thunderjaw. 

Every inch of Horizon Zero Dawn rewards the player. After more than 40 hours, I didn’t visit every settlement or explore every cave but I want to go back and scour the landscape. This game took half a dozen years to make and it was very much worth it. There’s colour, wonder and incredible design bursting from the seams in this world and it all compliments and enhances Aloy’s journey.

Her discovery of the events of the old world coupled with her search for her own personal history are the ultimate goals in Horizon Zero Dawn. But hopefully, players will take the time to not dismiss the current surroundings out of hand. The construction methods, the ornate furniture and the functions of the settlement areas all tell an equal amount of story as the dormant holographic messages hidden in the mountains.

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