Given how most role-playing games are rooted in complete and utter control of every aspect of the game, it's heartening to see a game like Horizon Zero Dawn that makes a point of telling you a story rather than you necessarily finding your own one.
From the very get-go, Horizon Zero Dawn sucks you into its richly designed world with some of the most impressive graphics in the PlayStation 4's history, but it's the story that keeps you playing. Rather than allowing you to create your own character, you're firmly planted into one - Aloy, an outcast who has been raised from birth by a warrior of the Nora tribe to survive in the wilderness and hunt robot dinosaurs. You say that out loud and it sounds deeply contrived - almost as if just saying 'robot dinosaurs' is enough to grab your interest - but what Horizon Zero Dawn cleverly does is make said robot dinosaurs a part of the scenery.
You can tame one to ride, you can use another get a vantage point over an entire map area, others will attack you on sight whilst others will simply graze and scatter when you come towards them. There's a rich ecology and the AI for them is smart enough to give you a challenge when you need it and ignore you when it isn't called for. But, more than anything, they're just one part of the game rather than the be-all of it.
What Horizon Zero Dawn has in spades is crafted storytelling and a beautiful visual sense to deploy that storytelling. You become invested in Aloy's dialogue choices - working off a similar mechanic to Mass Effect - and you can bend and shape her skills and responses to suit your own playing style, but still, it's about following hers rather than you writing your own. That's something that has been missing from a lot of RPGs of late and to see it again, especially in a game this well made, is heartening. You're drawn into the world and taken far away.
In a lot of ways, Horizon Zero Dawn has more in common with The Legend of Zelda than, say, Elder Scrolls. The action throughout the game is relatively straightforward and robust and the game allows for both toe-to-toe fighting or more ranged archery work. There's even elements that allow for some gunplay, but again, the structured way in which the game approaches them means that you'll never be caught out or over-matched in a fight. The armour is rudimentary and, again, is split among different play styles - stealth, ranged or offense - and the survival / crafting elements are easy enough to follow along with it.
While there are side-quests to be found in different map areas, Horizon Zero Dawn is very much on a linear path. You'll only be able to move the story forward if you're at a certain level and that helps to balance the game out so well. The side-quests are varied enough that it isn't all just fetch-and-retrieve, some will involve specific times of the day whilst others require you to clear out a castle or venue. Again, the game is big and broad enough to allow you to handle these in your own way. You can charge in and spear them all or you can come in quietly and take out the guards without being seen.
Tellingly, Horizon Zero Dawn's story follows a few familiar beats - you're an outcast, there's tribal intrigue that sends you out into the world - that borrows from some of the best RPGs, but the game and story itself is almost about has been left behind and forgotten. The rich design, from overgrown forests to mountainous regions, to rusted laboratories deep underground and husks of a once-modern city, teems with little flourishes here and there that point to a richer experience, if you fancy delving deeper into the backstory and lore of the world that's been set up.
Horizon Zero Dawn reminds that you can have a game that has smart and involved storytelling, engaging gameplay and beautiful graphics - and one doesn't need to be sacrificed for the other.