Open-world games set in a dystopian future aren’t that hard to come by. But a post-apocalyptic game that compellingly immerses you in its world and is actually pretty creative, well, that’s a robotic horse of another color.
Horizon Zero Dawn opens a digital door to a future that it suggests is about a thousand years ahead of us. It’s an age of human tribesmen who hunt with handmade bows and spears in a land that’s barely familiar to anyone from our time. But if you look closely enough at the beautiful, dense foliage and overgrown hills, you’ll spot hints of the crumbling tech and calcifying structures of our own civilization.
Another ominous element of our legacy is the massive machines we apparently left behind. These giant robots resemble a wide variety of animals and dinosaurs. As they rumble across the landscape, with their self-sustaining power supplies glowing, they seemingly have some task to perform. And they also keep any human interference at bay with powerful weapons and pack-mentality attacks.
Along with ridable robotic species that look like horses and bulls, there are constructs such as the tiger-like Ravagers, for instance, that pack cannons on their backs. And a huge robo-bird called a Glinthawk swoops down out of the skies to shoot out icy, reaction-numbing breaths. Then there are the really big amblers like the gigantic Bellowback, which spews out blasts of fire equivalent to a dozen flamethrowers. Turn a corner and surprise a few of those cyborg critters crossing your path and you’re in the middle of a situation that the average guy with a bow and arrow would have a pretty hard time dealing with.
Fortunately for us, we play as a young huntress named Aloy—a hard-driving outcast who’s anything but average. As a young girl, she accidentally fell into an old, forbidden ruin. And before finding her way out again, she came upon a high-tech device called a focus—a small, self-powered computerized gadget that attaches to her temple and gives her what amounts to magic in this animal skin-wearing society.
The focus heightens Aloy’s awareness and grants her access to ancient doors and recordings, helping to reveal environmental details. When aimed at those roaming robot foes, it exposes weak points in the beasties’ electrical and mechanical structures. Send a few piercing arrows into a special “cargo sac” on that Bellowback I mentioned, and you’ll need to quickly step back and watch the fireworks.
However, it’s not just robots on the receiving end of Aloy’s expanded skillsets and her accompanying arsenal of specialized arrows, slingshot ammo and odd gun-like projectiles. No, she has some human baddies to battle, too.
As our huntress heroine digs into the technological mysteries (and in some cases, the downright wicked ways) of what mankind once was, she begins to find unexpected ties to a new strain of evil rising in the human ranks of her world. Bashing and slashing these ruthless human foes results in small splashes of blood.
Without giving too much away, I should also mention that those savage human individuals are driven by an ancient computer program they believe to be a dark god. And another program called GAIA is essentially worshiped by some groups as a benevolent deity. Other content issues include recorded comments about drunkenness and substance abuse and a few uses of the crudities “b–tard,” “d–n,” “b–ch” and “a–.”
By the time you’ve traversed this paradoxical, futuristic-yet-stone-aged mash-up, it’s pretty clear that Horizon Zero Dawn is more than your average T-rated shooter/role-playing game. It’s a title that raises interesting questions about the nature of man, our choices in a tech-driven world and our propensity for good or evil … even though just enough of said evil gets depicted here to give this engaging game a sharp edge for younger players.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.