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.
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.
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.
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.
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.