If you're picking up Horizon Zero Dawn today, you're in for a treat. Some of the reviews might have skewed a little high, score wise, for my liking, but Guerrilla's open-worlder is one of 2017's finest games so far. There's been stiff competition, with more to come—but I feel this is one we'll see nudge into the upper parts of several publications' year-end best lists.
There's a lot to do in Horizon. Not all of it's amazing, or of significant plot importance. But my completion total of just 33% after well over 20 hours in its world, this sprawling and spectacularly varied swathe of post-apocalyptica, speaks volumes to its side-quests, errand runs, hacking diversions (I love the Tall Necks, and can happily ride one until a Glinthawk comes and knocks me down), crafting and trading, some epic battles where men and machines mixed in puddles of blood and blaze, bandit camp clear-outs, "Cauldron" dungeons, and more.
It's possible to fill the detailed map with too many waypoints to properly process—but my advice is to follow your own feet, and steer clear of letting purchases fill in the blanks for you. There's real wonder in simply walking over that next hill, following that dusty trail to its eventual end point. Sometimes it'll lead you to an impossible enemy or a new settlement; at others, to nothing much at all. And yet, those moments of no real importance can really feel striking.
Your first five hours or so will be spent in a small but busy area, in the southeast of the world map, which is gated from the wider region. This is a tutorial phase, effectively, serving much the same function as White Orchard in The Witcher 3. You'll learn how to take down some of the game's less-deadly machines; establish some lore foundations relating to the protagonist, Aloy, and her tribe, the Nora; and run through the basics of crafting and trading. (Both are essential to progress—you cannot get ahead in Horizon unless you protect yourself from the elements, pack a varied arsenal, and keep a stock of health potions and resistance elixirs to hand.)
The game will naturally send you off to most corners of this starting zone, based around the Nora capital, Mother's Heart. But there's a narrow passage through mountains to the west that I never went to before exiting the Nora territories and pushing towards the larger, more luxurious city of Meridian.
In one idle animation, the equivalent of Sonic tapping his foot, all of that pressure lifts from Aloy's shoulders.
Bringing my map up with Aloy into her 20s, level wise, and feeling like a little exploration before pressing ahead with the next main mission, I set off for a save-point/fast-travel marker close to the opening of the passage. A thin, barely walked path followed a stream back to its source—a massive waterfall, cascading down the north-facing side of a mighty range, the sun just coming up over its peaks. Come the closing point of the natural cul-de-sac, a handful of dog-like Scrappers presented no challenge. One dropped a pretty powerful weapon mod, but the rest spilled only the usual shards, the game's currency, and crafting components. Nothing else to see, here.
And yet, there was plenty—the music fell away as the final Scrapper collapsed in a shower of bright white sparks, and then there was just the bubbling of the water, and the most fantastic birdsong. I walked back along the path slowly, drinking in the atmosphere—the silence that was anything but, as the background came forward and presented, just for a few minutes, a convincing argument that this game world really was alive. I paused and looked out to the south, to see a gigantic something cocooned in ancient rock, its mechanical tendrils, possibly, silhouetted against the morning light. I thumbed the Share button.
My favorite moment of magical quiet, though, in Horizon comes when you're not moving at all, and the conditions are just right. Aloy spends so much of the game pursuing serious goals, chasing serious villains, coming up against serious odds. Her expression in conversations is, more often than not, deadly serious. But she's a young woman, still in her teens, childhood play a fresh memory. So when the snow begins to fall, in the northern parts of the map, just let go of the controller a second or two. Put it down. And watch.
Isn't that a delight? In one idle animation, the equivalent of Sonic tapping his foot, arms crossed, or Mario lying down a while on the N64, all of that pressure lifts from Aloy's shoulders. She's no longer a Seeker, on a mission to save the world as she knows it—she's a girl again, a child, fascinated, thrilled, by the feeling of snowflakes on her skin, on the palms of her hands. She's seen snow before, of course. She'd have played in it, not so many seasons back, with her adoptive father, Rost. So much has changed since then—but in this moment, none of that's weighing her down.
A smile can say just as much as it hides, and here Aloy's joy is written all across her face. I love it.
'Horizon Zero Dawn' is out now for PlayStation 4.