Horizon Zero Dawn on PC features dynamic gameplay marred by technical issues

Neil Haeems/Staff
Guerrilla Games

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Horizon Zero Dawn is the latest in a series of former PlayStation 4 exclusives that have received a PC release. One of the most unique aspects of the game is developer Guerrilla Games’ innovative take on the oversaturated post-apocalyptic genre. Horizon Zero Dawn takes place a millennium in the future, in a breathtaking world that sees the last vestiges of modern society reduced to relics. In this universe, humanity has endured only in small tribes. All that remains of the “Old Ones” are murderous robots that look and behave like dinosaurs with machine guns.

Players assume control of Aloy (Ashly Burch), an outcast shunned at birth by her tribe. At the outset of the game, her plan is to return to her tribe and participate in The Proving, a warrior ritual that will allow her to learn the reason for her exile. As Aloy’s personal quest for answers sends her out into the wider world, however, her journey grows in scope. Horizon Zero Dawn’s narrative parallels the player’s exploration so that Aloy uncovers the larger story of humanity’s fate as the player grows more familiar with the game world.

Though story and gameplay alike borrow from other fantasy and sci-fi games, the developers offer a creative justification each time they rely on a trope. For example, a central mechanic in Horizon Zero Dawn, as in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Ghost of Tsushima, is a heightened-senses mode that allows players to highlight a trail of footsteps to be followed. Unlike other games, this scanning feature grows naturally out of the lore and is intrinsically tied to Aloy’s lonely, exiled childhood.

Burch’s voice performance is instrumental in bringing players to empathize with Aloy, but the facial animation of Aloy and other characters is inconsistent, ranging from passable to downright laughable. Horizon Zero Dawn’s dialogue writing, especially in side quests and in moments when Aloy speaks aloud to nobody in particular, does not meet the standard set by the thoughtfully layered narrative. 

Story cutscenes remain refreshingly concise and serve to usher the player toward gameplay sections, leaving the exposition as an optional conversation. However, the pacing suffers when the main story is constantly dragged to a halt as players scour the landscape for healing herbs in order to avoid being understocked in the next boss battle.

Combat against the robot dinosaurs is particularly challenging, forcing players to use the game’s various mechanics to their advantages. Because players must pair the correct weapon and ammunition type with each creature, complacency means certain death. 

Despite this complexity, much of Horizon Zero Dawn pits Aloy against scores of human enemies that are far less interesting to fight. Stealth is simplistic and easy, allowing Aloy to get ridiculously close without alerting enemies. Furthermore, the lack of a lock-on mechanic in melee combat means Aloy’s spear mostly misses and is often useless.

Originally launched in 2017, the PS4 version of Horizon Zero Dawn was a smash hit due to its polished core gameplay: engaging combat against the various machine types and a rich, expansive open world. On PC, mouse and keyboard controls allow the combat to be much more responsive than on PS4, keeping the player engaged in the action and cutting down on interruptions endemic to controller gameplay. The open world is likewise made much more stunning by improved lighting and higher fidelity textures. 

And yet, widespread technical bugs hamper the overall experience of Horizon Zero Dawn, even on high-end PCs. The constant stuttering, immersion-breaking frame rate drops and random crashes are inexcusable for a new version of a several-year-old title, especially since the July PC release of Death Stranding, which also uses Guerrilla’s Decima game engine, was close to technically perfect. 

While Horizon Zero Dawn’s reliance on genre tropes and uneven game design alone are not enough to sour the full experience, the intriguing story and combat are regularly weighed down by small annoyances. This, coupled with poor performance, makes Horizon Zero Dawn’s PC release feel like an unfinished beta rather than a blockbuster game. Ultimately, the developers’ official statement about the bugs only affirms that Horizon Zero Dawn should not have been released in its current state.

Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].