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Horizon Zero Dawn review: A daze of future past

Horizon Zero Dawn is an ambitious open-world RPG that's filled with moments of greatness but a number of shortcomings chip away at the total package.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
5 min read

After nearly 25 hours with Horizon Zero Dawn, I'm still on the fence about whether or not I actually like this game. For all the moments of awe and amazing action it's able to create, Horizon is not without its fair share of frustrating wild-goose-chase quests, monotonous collecting and a number of questionable design choices.


Horizon Zero Dawn

The Good

Horizon Zero Dawn is a beautifully envisioned open-world action RPG with a great combat system, gorgeous visuals and jaw-dropping enemies. It's one of the best-looking PS4 games to date and gives you dozens of hours of fun, filled with possibilities.

The Bad

Many of the seemingly endless side quests and errands lack any serious substance and the dizzying amount of looting and crafting can start to feel tedious and trivial not long after you start the game.

The Bottom Line

Horizon's highlight reel is unlike anything you've experienced before, but the time between these tentpole events could have been more engaging.

Whether or not you should play Horizon depends on your level of tolerance for that kind of imbalance. Horizon is brimming with potential and presents a lot of really great ideas, but the whole package isn't as compelling as the sum of its parts.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a PS4 exclusive from developer Guerrilla Games, the studio known primarily for Killzone, a mostly well-regarded first-person-shooter series.

Guerrilla Games

Horizon is a significant departure from the standard shooter mold, instead playing as an open-world action RPG with a third-person view. It takes place in what appears to be thousands of years after the fall of modern civilization where nature has taken back the world, save for a few skeletal ruins left behind by "the old ones." Life is now made up of several primitive human tribes, some scarce wildlife and, oh, the giant killer robot machines that run the place. (Did I forget to mention them?)

Horizon puts you in control of Aloy, a young tribeless warrior who quickly discovers there's something special about her mysterious lineage. Along her path she uncovers more about the fate of the old ones and how the rise of the machines came to be. Armed with a staff, bow and a variety of tripwires, traps and other weapons, she finds herself smack in the middle of an inter-tribe conspiracy that -- you guessed it -- also involves the race of machines.

Few games have a more promising start than Horizon. The entire first hour or so is a really compelling setup, but it rarely ever matches that level of intrigue thereafter. Horizon nails it in so many categories. It features jaw-dropping scenery, gorgeous costumes, satisfying combat and brilliant enemy design. But at the same time, the game drops the ball in a number of departments. It's tough to discern a feeling of satisfying progression in terms of growing more powerful, and a lot of the game's side missions feel repetitive and trite.

Guerrilla Games

Horizon attempts to wear so many hats that it struggles to keep things flowing. After the first couple of hours, the story also starts to teeter. You're offered so many different side quests and errands to explore that it's easy to lose your focus. On one hand you're encouraged to level up to match that of the next main quest, but the grind required to hit that can be a mindless affair.

Like Mass Effect, Horizon gives the player the choice of speech through a dialogue wheel, but it feels way less important in execution. Before I knew it, I found myself skipping chunks of exposition that I just didn't care about.

Then there are the looting and crafting mechanics in Horizon. You have to worry about crafting for nearly everything you need: ammo, pouches, carry capacity -- even the ability to fast-travel requires a number of items. The problem is that there are so many resources and items to collect that it's tough to develop a tangible appreciation for one item over another. It's not long before it all starts to blur together. I spent countless hours navigating menus, trying to understand what I needed to keep an eye out for, but I just was never able to fully wrap my head around it all. And no matter where you are, it seems that every 5 feet there's something you can gather off the ground. It's looting fatigue.

Guerrilla Games

Plenty of open-world games offer a seemingly endless amount of stuff to do, but where Horizon falls short is in the substance of each of these nonvital sidetracks. Many of the quests you'll undertake consist of following trails, examining evidence or having to trek great distances just to find out you need to return to where you came from.

In one sidequest I was asked to track down a thief. His blood trail led me to someone who said I needed to travel to an area, very far away, all on foot. When I got there, I kid you not, I was then told to return to the original quest giver. That kind of busywork just isn't fun. The grind just doesn't feel worth it.

That said, not all of the extracurriculars are boring. Completing a cavernous cauldron unlocks the ability to override a new set of machines. This will allow you to mount a machine for riding or have it fight by your side.

Guerrilla Games

But these meaningful excursions are not the norm. I eventually reached a point in my frustration with all of the arbitrary side quests that I attempted to brute force my way through a series of main missions and essentially run away when confrontations got too hot. For the most part, that worked.

Then there are a few aesthetics that personally drove me crazy. Even though it's mostly customizable, the default HUD loadout is too busy. I also despised the game's waypoint system. The icons seem to glitch around the screen and really confused some of my navigation.

Where Horizon really gels is its combat sequences and the sense of accomplishment in taking down a machine. Aloy has a number of gadgets at her disposal that allow you to carve out a unique strategy in dealing with the various robo-species throughout the game. For me, experimentation yielded the best results, which was perfectly exemplified the second I realized I should have been using a certain kind of bow for much longer than I had been.

Guerrilla Games

There's something to be said for just how impressive the size of this game is -- in both scope and content. As much as it's filled with repetitive detours, there is still an impressive amount of stuff to inspect.

I'm not sure I've ever had this kind of a love-hate relationship with a video game before. Throughout my time with Horizon I found myself cursing its name over a cheap death or slamming my controller down after a machine battle I had no business being in -- but there was still something here that kept me crawling back.

Horizon Zero Dawn draws inspiration from a number of franchises in an effort to carve out something it can call its own. It borrows the best from a lot of games, and at times it does so to a fault.

  • Check out GameSpot's coverage of Horizon Zero Dawn.