Horizon Zero Dawn’s Open World Still Grips Me 7 Years Later

In recent years I’ve come to accept that I just don’t love open-world games. It’s partially because my life has only gotten busier and I have less free time to spend on games, so I gravitate towards shorter experiences. But it’s also because open-world game design tends to be boring and repetitive in my opinion. This isn’t a new opinion, either; much has been written about the so-called Ubisoft-style open-world game and its tiring checklist design. However, there is one open-world game in recent years that has grabbed my attention, and no, it isn’t Breath of the Wild. Rather, it’s the game that one overshadowed in many people’s minds: 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn.

What’s shocking about my love of this seven-year-old title from Guerrilla Games is that there’s nothing groundbreaking about its open world. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is a “checklist game” through and through. It has its version of towers you need to scale to reveal sections of the map, which then highlights all the various side content you can lose yourself in. And while it seems like a lot, it can all be sorted into simple categories. They range from hunting quests and expansive dungeon-like encounters called Cauldrons to camps of enemies across the land and collectibles to find. So yeah—a Ubisoft-style, checklist-oriented open world. Which, as I’ve said, I’m not a fan of. Usually.

Yet Horizon Zero Dawn’s take on the familiar formula grips me. When I first played it on launch in 2017, I fell deep into the game’s plethora of content, turning over every proverbial stone the game had to offer. Part of what drew me in is the game’s gorgeous world that blended mechanical enemies with natural splendor. It has often been jokingly said that this game is just about fighting robot dinosaurs, and while that may be true, it is also awesome. Playing as Aloy and hunting down machines is a delight, thanks in part to the fact that you’re incentivized to target and pick off specific components of your mechanical prey to do better damage.

Image: Sony

In a world full of games whose combat loops boil down to shooting or slashing enemies with reckless abandon, the more involved encounters of Zero Dawn and the focus they demand spark an endorphin-making chemical reaction in my brain. This all comes together in the occasional, especially exhilarating battle against a giant bird or a hulking mechanical T-Rex. I’ll never forget facing down the optional monster Redmaw, which I only encountered thanks to my avid desire to complete side quests. The most difficult enemy in the game, this armored, hard-hitting beast pushed me to try again and again to find the right strategy for taking it down. It took all the skills I’d spent the whole game developing, and finally conquering it felt like a true rite of passage, both for Aloy and me.

Aloy’s journey, while not necessarily groundbreaking, is good enough to get the action moving and keep me invested in exploring the world and finding the little details that make it feel alive. In the weeks I spent with Horizon Zero Dawn, a game called Breath of the Wild was also released. Everybody around me played it and praised its fresh take on the tired open-world genre. I did not play Breath of the Wild until much later. I was too busy with Horizon Zero Dawn, and I was happy.

With seven years having passed, I sometimes wonder if Horizon Zero Dawn really is as special or as gripping as I remember. Maybe it’s just in my head, or maybe my disdain for open worlds happened soon after the game’s release. But 2022’s sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, repeated the process. Despite my aversion to falling into rather repetitive open-world games, it grabbed me. It isn’t particularly exciting to do every minor task, and yet I will always do it in a Horizon game.

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