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‘Horizon: Zero Dawn’ Perfected the Modern Sandbox Game

Horizon Zero Dawn image

Horizon: Zero Dawn isn’t a perfect game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s freakin’ fantastic: one of the best AAA games of this generation, and well-worth picking up on the PC if you missed its original PS4 debut. But like every game, it’s got a few flaws.

But it might be the perfect open-world sandbox game. Or at least, the perfect sandbox game in the modern mold, which started around the time of the original Assassin’s Creed. You know what I mean: a huge open map, mostly outdoor environments dotted with a few cities, climbing towers to map out the area, clearing encampments of enemies, fighting some dynamic bad guys or creatures in between, with lots of collectibles and optional crafting to improve your gear. It’s become the default genre for modern big-budget titles, like shooters in the 2000s or platformers in the 80s and 90s.

Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t stray too far from this formula. It has all of the elements above, though it focuses on fighting its showcase Machine monsters and has only one big city. But what it lacks in innovation it makes up for in refinement: The game’s world, story, and characters blend in a way that’s immediate and satisfying.

With the PC version coming out recently, it’s a perfect time to revisit this excellent open world. If you’ve ever enjoyed a sandbox game, be it Grand Theft Auto or Breath of the Wild, you owe it to yourself to play Horizon.

A Beautiful Fascinating World

Horizon takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. That phrase probably brings to mind sandblasted Mad Max sets, or Fallout’s piles of glowing nuclear junk. Not so. Horizon is set so far in the future that nature has taken back the landscape, a pristine and beautifully rendered slice of the American Rockies and high desert.

Horizon Zero Dawn image with Garden of the Gods
Colorado’s Garden of the Gods, or “Mother’s Crown” as it’s known in the game.

Having lived in Colorado Springs, I was delighted to see faithfully recreated copies of the Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks, and to assault an entrenched bandit camp hiding in the crumbling ruins of Broncos Stadium. The land is a bit more colorful and dramatic than it is in real life—no endless rolling hills, a la Red Dead Redemption 2—but that’s fine. If I wanted to walk for an hour without seeing anything cool, I’d go to the real Wyoming. Compared to the natural splendor of the revived world, the occasional delve into the ruins of the old one, or the techno-fabulous Machine dungeons in the corners of the maps, is kind of a let-down.

The graphics are in a slightly hyper-real style, with literally picturesque landscaping and foliage. It’s honestly just a little too ambitious for the PS4. (Even the PS4 Pro can’t handle the game at 60 frames per second.) Even with a less-than-perfect port, seeing the game in full fluid motion and higher resolution on the PC is a treat.

Horizon Zero Dawn tallneck

Like most open world games, Horizon has its take on towers. But here they’re the Tallnecks, 10-story walking robot giraffes that protagonist Aloy has to track down, scale, and interface with in order to unlock portions of the map. At various points getting on top of one of these hulking things requires solving environmental puzzles, taking down a small army of human and Machine bad guys, or sneaking past some.

The fiddly towers in the Far Cry series made me dread them by about the middle of each game. But Horizon is the first game I’ve played where I wish there were more of them. The Tallnecks are that interesting and varied.

That’s Fun to Explore

Of course, being in a fascinating world is one thing. Moving around in it is another. Movement is a core element of a good sandbox game. Take the grapple-and-parachute toys of the Just Cause series, which elevate an otherwise bland shoot-em-up into a vertical playground. Or the climb-absolutely-anything approach of Breath of the Wild, which feels truly open in a way no Zelda game before it does.

Horizon Zero Dawn climbing image

Again, Horizon doesn’t break any particularly new ground here. But it nails the mechanics in a way that makes it incredibly satisfying. Aloy can run around most of the overworld, except for vertical surfaces, where she can only climb on specific parts of the environment. These are marked in big, user-friendly yellow paint and ropes.

Climbing feels good, even natural, with a weight and rhythm that makes getting up even the tallest slopes fun. While I sometimes had to search for the next handhold—a deliberate gameplay choice—I never went flying back towards the camera to a splattery death. (Looking at you, Assassin’s Creed.)

Horizon Zero Dawn riding image

The map is pretty huge, and while fast travel is an option, I preferred to go on foot. But if I was in a hurry, I’d use the machine-override function—a gameplay element unlocked after an hour or two—to get around faster. Robotic mounts are scattered generously around the map, particularly near settlements and story points, so a faster option is never very far away. Aloy may not be a cowboy, but she rides steel horses until the sun sets. This is a natural and enjoyable way to traverse the lovely landscape that gels with the gameplay, the story, and the setting. It’s another common sandbox element, refined to a mirror shine.

With Mesmerizing Enemies

By far the most eye-catching draw to Horizon is the Machines, the mechanized animals that rule the game’s world with only occasional resistance from the humans. Most of the conflict in the game, at least from a player perspective, is in fighting and taming these clanking beasts.

Horizon Zero Dawn thunderjaw image

And good grief, they’re gorgeous. Calling them “robot dinosaurs” is a bit simplistic, but it works, as they range in size from about a raptor to a T-rex and a brontosaurus. Each one bristles with an amazing variety of design elements, all somehow unified and consistent, undulating with loving animation. The first time you see a Thunderjaw on the horizon and feel like a mouse attacking a mastodon, it’s a standout organic moment in the game.

Each Machine behaves differently, with different strengths and weaknesses, and will require refined tactics to beat. The first time you come across something new, you’re more than likely to have your butt handed to you.

Horizon Zero Dawn combat image

But eventually, as your arsenal expands and you grow more comfortable, especially when you gain the ability to confuse or control machines into fighting for you, you feel like a master of this strange new world. Taking down the relatively few human enemies in the game pales in comparison, and it’s just as well, because mowing down living thinking people like Tommy Vercetti doesn’t really fit Aloy’s character.

Horizon Zero Dawn combat image

The combat was one of the aspects I really looked forward to on the PC because it’s heavily weighted to different bows, arrows, and projectile modifiers. Aloy’s spear only really comes into play when something’s gone wrong. The PS4’s controller is adequate at this, but going to a full mouse and keyboard really opens up Horizon’s full potential, as so much of the combat is centered around precisely shooting at specific parts of the Machines. I bumped up the difficulty to Hard, and it’s still easier than it was on console’s Medium.

And Interesting Collectibles

Just about every sandbox game litters the map with collectible items. Horizon is no different, but its smattering of random documents and audio logs all serve the story first. There isn’t any real reward for collecting them—you might get some unlocks for finding the metal flowers (another crucial story point) or the “ancient vessels” (collectible coffee mugs from the past), but they’re not necessary for anything except your own satisfaction. No need to find 150 Stars here.

Horizon Zero Dawn metal flower image

Even so, I felt compelled to track them down. Each bit that I found, while offering a relatively tiny window into the events that happened centuries before the game’s present story, gave me a tantalizing bit of lore that I was craving. A few of them are extra-special “viewpoint” unlocks, giving Aloy a holographic glimpse at the world (fairly similar to our own) before everything fell apart. It’s an excellent incentive to explore.

That’s more of a compliment to the story than the fundamental structure of sandboxes. So let’s talk about the story.

And a Story That’s Actually Worth Playing Through

I picked up the PS4 version of Horizon on a deep discount last year, intrigued by its robo-dinos, but not expecting much else out of it. And about an hour in I was going to give up, because the story starts about as slowly as it can.

Horizon Zero Dawn story image

After about 15 minutes of prologue, in which we learn that Aloy is an orphan infant cast out of her primitive tribe and raised by a crusty old hermit, we then need to play as a child for a bit more, getting some basic movement and hunting tutorials and learning her motivation. She wants to pass the tribe’s trials to get back in, and finish head of her class so she can find out why she was cast out in the first place. It’s a decent enough introduction, and it sets up teenage Aloy’s character.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that the tribe trials are where the story picks up. We find an intriguing intersection of the scattered human tribes, the old world’s leftover technology, and the Machines that make everyday life a peril. From there Aloy has to travel across the game world to discover not just the nature of the Machines, not just why and how the world was destroyed and reborn, but how she personally fits into all of it.

Horizon Zero Dawn story image

Despite the slow burn start, Horizon masterfully expands its scope. As Aloy explores the map and interacts with Machines and people—always somewhat hesitant, due to her outcast upbringing—she sees it expand both literally and figuratively. If you want to sink your teeth into some serious sci-fi lore, this game will give it to you.

By the end of the main story, I had to stop and digest it for a while before playing any more, in the same way I can’t just hop into the next book after finishing a really good one. Taking the time to find all those collectibles, and get a nuanced human look at the events of the past and the present, made it all the more rewarding.

Horizon Zero Dawn story image

Horizon’s story is one of the best I’ve ever played through. And the way that it’s served by the gameplay and the setting is something to which every sandbox game should aspire. It’s so solid, with such an excellent progression and ending, that I doubt the upcoming PlayStation 5 sequel can match up.

Just Play It

I’m a PC gamer at heart, and only picked up Horizon: Zero Dawn because Sony’s Spider-man (yet another high-profile sandbox game!) tempted me into picking up a used PS4. Now that it’s out on PC, I almost wish I hadn’t played it back then, so I could experience it fresh with renewed technical splendor and keyboard-and-mouse controls.

But in any case, you should absolutely play it if you’ve ever enjoyed the modern sandbox game. The PC launch hasn’t been entirely smooth, but pick it up if you have a machine powerful enough to run it well. (Alternately, wait until its various technical issues have been ironed out.) If you have a PS4, it’s now a “PlayStation Hit,” and can be had with its complete DLC and an art book for just a few bucks.

Either way, it’s worth it. Even almost three years after its launch, I don’t think there’s a better sandbox game available today—or possibly for a long time to come.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition - PlayStation 4 Digital Download Code

Horizon Zero Dawn isn't a perfect video game, but it might be the perfect version of the modern open-world sandbox game.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »