'Horizon Zero Dawn' is 'The Witcher 3' for the 'Avatar' Generation

'Horizon Zero Dawn' is 'The Witcher 3' for the 'Avatar' Generation

'Horizon: Zero Dawn' might just be the best-looking game ever made Sony Interactive Entertainment

The machines rule the world in more ways than one, in Guerrilla’s stunning far future theme park

The machines rule the world in more ways than one, in Guerrilla’s stunning far future theme park

A few hours into Horizon: Zero Dawn I realized I was about to make the same mistake I had made in The Witcher 3.

There was a moment, just ten hours into CD Projekt's sprawling hundred-hour-plus fantasy where I put the controller down, convinced that I was done. I'd just come off the sun-baked, GI-Joe fever dream that is Metal Gear Solid V and The Witcher's vast, rain-sodden, war-torn stand-in for medieval Europe had quickly become oppressive, the story slow to start and much too bleak. I was overwhelmed by its scope and the sheer size of a map littered with question marks, islands and monster nests. The main quest hadn’t yet opened up; it sat patiently waiting for me as I locked myself into an endless loop of collecting herbs to make potions, looting treasure maps to find ever-cooler weapons (“I don’t know what Cat Armor is, but I want it!”) and taking odd jobs from grim-faced locals that usually ended with me finding their loved one’s arm in the nearest wood. This was not fun. This was not epic. It was work. And it was my fault. I had turned one of the best games ever made into a shitty minimum wage slog.

It's an occupational hazard these days. The open world RPG – the prog rock double album of gaming – can easily become bogged down with busywork if you let it. That’s a risk, too, in Horizon: Zero Dawn, Sony's attempt at an equally big-budget open world adventure – this time set in the far future. Just as the mechanical beasts that roam its post-post-apocalyptic landscape ingeniously mimic their real-life counterparts, Horizon efficiently assimilates the reigning open-world champ The Witcher 3, scooping up its systems and structures – if not its substance – and stylishly re-engineering them.

But where the bleak monster hunting adventures of Geralt of Rivia recall Game of Thrones, Horizon: Zero Dawn is more James Cameron's Avatar – its super-saturated world just a JetBlue flight away from Pandora. And what a world. Snowy Skyrim-like peaks drop into lush Alpine lowlands with crystalline rivers and streams, skyscraper waterfalls and sun-dappled woods sprinkled with fireflies. The intro – which feels like a callback of sorts to Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls: Oblivion intro – has you escaping an underground bunker as a child, emerging into a stunning valley where it’s hard not to just stand there and marvel at the ridiculous glory of it all. A dragonfly floats past, a trail of leaf-cutter ants march up and down the trunk of tree, while a fox trots into the brush. It's an eyeful.

Horizon wastes no time threading the needle between that dazzling open world and its narrative, molding itself around a straightforward, enjoyable story that’s more SyFy Channel than HBO – steering clear of anything that might kill its pace or complicate its colorful mosaic. The plot, which follows tribal outcast Aloy’s quest for answers amidst warring clans and deadly machines, never shoots for – and never reaches – the complex highs of The Witcher, but neither does it drop into a slog, at least not for very long. The Witcher feels like a vast, living world with stories and quest lines that seem to grow out of the very soil, binding the whole thing together, tempting you constantly with side quests and places to explore. Horizon gives you far fewer, and they don’t call to you the way the question marks on the map of Temaria do. Aloy’s world feels tighter and more economical than Geralt’s in every way. Its combat and character systems are Assassin's-Creed-fluid, never going so deep as to lose or confuse you – its upgrades always cool but never too complex or too far out of reach. CD Projekt built The Witcher 3 to overwhelm you with its grand sweep and detail. Guerrilla – who spent years making gorgeous but sometimes shallow shooters – just want you to marvel and to play.

It’s a world stunningly and meticulously designed – with the most care and imagination lavished on the machines themselves

Which might be why, despite its exquisite environments Horizon: Zero Dawn feels more like the world’s greatest theme park than a real place. There’s a solid eco-peril story – sinister goings on that dovetail with Aloy’s own quest to find her mother, and the source of the old world's demise – but the true threat they might present to the tribes takes an age to reveal itself, so that for the first few hours after you leave Aloy’s tribal lands it’s easy to forget what exactly you’re supposed to be so worried about. So you do forget – and happily. You zoom in and out of the gigantic map, gather resources (you’ll fret constantly over your stocks of wire, for example), seek out save points and take on lumbering mechanical marvels, channeling your inner monster hunter until it’s time to remind yourself of that urgent business on the other side of the mountain.

It’s a world stunningly and meticulously designed – with the most care and imagination lavished on the machines themselves. Up close they look like they’re made from Ducati motorcycle parts and Dyson vacuum cleaners, but they move and behave so believably that hunting them feels less like a shooting gallery and more like a tense, potentially fatal dance with a living, breathing thing. Most are a far cry from a Dark Souls boss, but no matter how good your armor, a couple of good hits can knock you dead.

Horizon’s human inhabitants are another story – their tribes and villages, with homes you can never enter and over-earnest dialogue, feel the most ersatz. Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, stand around in Jamiroquai hats doing mostly nothing, as if even they got bored of trying to get their Scandinavian Burning Man festival off the ground. The buried, eerie bunkers that point to Earth’s technological past – not to mention its spectacular, apocalyptic fuck-up – are littered with the long-dead petrified corpses of Silicon Valley tech worker types who leave audio logs whining about the fact that because they presumably caused the death of all life on Earth, they won't get to see Machu Pichu. There are some sparks of life here; Sona, the tough-as-nails female warrior is representative of a universally strong portrayal of women in Horizon's world. Erend of the Roman-like Oseram tribe is a stand-out, progressing from douchey frat-boy to useful, doe-eyed companion as he searches for his own answers amidst his grief – and the scenery-chewing Varl defends the matriarchal Nora tribe while venting spleen at our outcast hero like a boss. The Wire actor Lance Reddick does his best with the know-it-all Sylens, too.

But Aloy herself – who has the personality of a cell phone – is almost entirely empty of anything resembling inner conflict. Her relationship with father figure, Rost, feels under written; his demeanor (not unironically, given the setting) so robotic that when they have their big moment together on screen just a few hours in, the emotional payoff barely lands. Spend just five minutes with Elena and Nathan in Uncharted 4 and you absorb their inner lives, their tensions and their past. OK, so Naughty Dog had three games before that to flesh the whole thing out, but still – you get the sense that they don’t need you to be watching in order to exist. As lovingly sculpted as the denizens of Horizon’s far-future Earth are, you get the feeling that once you leave, they're wheeled off for repairs, Westworld-style.

That’s not to say there’s no heartbeat here – there is, and it's strong. You feel it as you creep down from a ledge into a herd of grazing Broadheads, who could startle and stampede at any second – or when you’re on a knife edge inching through a bandit camp while deadly war machines clank past your hiding place, scanning for intruders. You feel it as you crest yet another peak and cast your imagination into the breathtaking vista below – all of it explorable and humming with possibility. Horizon is a game almost embarrassingly full of such moments, and they deepen it.

So, if after twenty or even thirty hours of play the cast members hired for this park sometimes seem less real than the robots, or the story sometimes feels too thin, or its cities feel like sets, that’s okay. The Witcher 3 was a dark fantasy brought thrillingly to life. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a colorful dreamscape – a theme park of seemingly endless play that you can return to whenever you feel the need to escape for a few hours. This isn’t Game of Thrones – it's a James Cameron movie writ large – as big, as bold and as eye-popping. It’s escapism, pure and simple and it will own you if you let it.