HORIZON: ZERO DAWN Review
Back in December, I wrote at length about game design and its apparent lack of ambition. My specific point of focus was relegated to scale, and that next-gen gaming has lately been a haphazard mishmash of larger maps and better graphics. I desperately awaited a game that would dare to impress in enemy variety and the size of the foes you tackle. Cue HORIZON: ZERO DAWN, a game that I had high hopes for in shattering this lazy trend. Taking a dystopian future and channeling it by way of TUROK-but-robots, Guerilla Games’ latest endeavor is somewhat of a cross-blend between FAR CRY and SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, cleverly integrating holistic game design within its incidental open-world. And for the most part it’s great. The dinosaur-like machines (or are they machine-like dinosaurs?) invigorate me with a sense of adventure that no human enemy ever could, and the explosive gallivanting plays out like a cavalcade of exciting new locales to see and machines to kill. By all accounts, the dumbest name in gaming history managed to balance the scales with clever game design.
Countless years after the modern world was left destroyed, mankind has returned to a primal state where they fight enormous machines left in our wake. In this metallic wasteland, you play the aptly titled Aloy, an initially little girl who grows up to be a fierce warrior that can hold her own in this treacherous environment. Outcast at birth, Aloy knows nothing about the family that birthed her, or the civilization that rejected her. Raised by a fellow outcast by the name of Rost, Aloy grows up hated and lonely, desperate to connect with children living inside of the safe zone of the Embrace. But Aloy has one special skill: when she was young, she discovered a highly advanced mechanical tool that let her track enemies, identify weak-spots, and interact with electronic interfaces. In short, she is no superhero, she’s just far more prepared for battle than her cohorts. After finally being accepted into the clan that rejected her, Aloy’s new friends are brutally slaughtered by cultist humans, forcing her to leave the Embrace in a quest for vengeance and answers. The elementary storytelling is an admitted letdown for a world that would have been far more interesting to explore without human foes, but for what it’s worth, it’s enough to keep me going.
Considering how little loot you get off this guy, I wonder if Aloy is really into food waste
Where the story really doesn’t work is in its initial logic. If Aloy is so lonely and desperate to live a life with other people, why not leave the Embrace and travel to Meridian, a city that is far more advanced than any other place on the map and wouldn’t outwardly reject her? In addition, if the high matriarchs (the women who control everything inside the Embrace) are scared of Aloy, why not exile her from the Embrace entirely? HORIZON: ZERO DAWN really only cares to explain itself for its own convenience. Plenty of essential narrative details are left vague or unanswered in a slapdash attempt at world building. I suppose Guerilla Games doesn’t expect the player to read into their universe so much, but because the world is so aesthetically compelling, it feels like a damn shame that the dialogue and plot feel like a 13-year-old’s Middle Earth fan-fiction. The clear feminist overtones are actually quite fun, but they’re portrayed so comically, say nothing of relevance, and are so ham-fisted that the game can never escape the stigma of playing like a #feminism product written entirely by men.
Going into HORIZON’s prologue, a few urgent complaints arose. Its tutorial phase, albeit lengthy, is haphazard at best. Information is illogically sprinkled through the opening stages, making it almost impossible for me to remember relatively important details. The world opens up quite quickly as well, and though I appreciate the freedom this gives the player, the needless trekking from A to B creates a greater disparity between tutorial and open game. The distinction between your light and heavy melee attack is never clearly articulated, the skill tree isn’t explained in detail, and critical plot points are glossed over in a manner prototypical to vague video game lore. But worst of all, the game’s attempt to teach how to trade items with merchants is completely ill-conceived. In an early quest, I am tasked with acquiring a Tripcaster (basically a crossbow that shoots electric trip wires), but the merchant insists that he’ll only sell you the item if you give him a rather rare item in return. Aloy responds in the dialogue that she had recently looted one. The game then sent me into the trade menu, and I naturally went to the “Sell” sub-menu in an attempt to give the merchant this rare item. But alas, it was nowhere to be found, leading me to believe that I would have to hunt down the item myself.
Bald eagles are going extinct, Aloy
Long story short, I spent a solid hour trying to kill machines I was biblically underprepared to hunt, only to not even get this rare item once they were dead. Confused, I headed back to the merchant only to find out that I could just immediately buy the Tripcaster off of him in the first place. I was beyond frustrated. If I could just buy this item off of him, why tell me that I need to trade for a very specific item that doesn’t visibly exist in my inventory? Why not show me the item and designate it a “quest item”? Why make it possible for me to hunt the machines that drop the aforementioned item if they’re too hard for me to kill at the moment? Why not take advantage of this quest and teach me how to sell items as well? Perhaps this sounds like a minor gripe, overblown for dramatic flair, but the fact that Guerilla Games falls so squarely flat on their face during their opening segment is indicative of a larger problem with the company’s ability to write a game that makes the learning process invisible. Anyhow, I digress.
Once the open world kicks into full gear and Aloy is left to fend for herself in the treacherous wild, HORIZON really picks up the pace. With every new prairie, you stumble upon new enemy sets, learn new skills, discover side quests, raid bandit camps, climb towering dinosaurs to expand your map, and so on. In short, the experience is no different from your average FAR CRY game, except that it’s, well, better, and I’d wager to say that the only reason this is the case is because of the enemy variants and the way that ammunition is handled in the game. Where Ubisoft made their job quite easy between installments, relegating the action to man-on-man combat with a smattering of wildlife hunting, HORIZON is still firmly a game about killing huge robots. A FAR CRY experience rewards you with ammunition every time you eliminate a target or ransack a cache, but HORIZON’s ammunition is quite literally your currency. The same items you often trade with merchants end up crafting your flaming arrows, freeze bombs, and shock wires, and the fact that these materials need to be scavenged from disparate robotic corpses encourages you to conserve your ammunition as best as possible.
Bow And Arrow With Red Dot Sight
Where the game really began to blow my mind was with its largest enemy variants. I struggle to call them boss fights, because they incidentally crop up across the map and often just exist holistically inside of the environment, but they either match or exceed endgame confrontations from similar titles. An encounter never feels scripted, but rather like an observation of a natural habitat, and interrupting the pattern of a machine can quickly avalanche into unforgettable set pieces. By scanning a newfound enemy, you briefly highlight their weak points. But doing that isn’t really a necessity since the layouts of their bodies are often quite self-explanatory. Attacking an enemy with your diverse arsenal becomes a beautiful ballet, allowing you to tether them with your harpoon, launch freeze bombs at their bellies, use explosive arrows to blow off their weakest ligaments, and fire your remaining shots at their most vital organs. The fact that each body part responds differently to a shot feels decidedly next-gen and helps these foes come to life in unprecedented ways. You should also never forget about the smaller machines in your area. The ecosystem that Guerilla has created allows for a communication between robots that makes it essential that you keep your eyes on all surroundings, even during the largest boss fights. The added difficulty of playing the game on “very hard” is an absolute pleasure, forcing you to pretty much survive each epic encounter without taking a single hit. Hell, the fact that I can call HORIZON a hard game is a welcome surprise for a genre that’s lately been watered down for casual audiences.
As such, HORIZON is of the METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN ilk, though not quite as elaborate, allowing you to create your own adventure, rather than letting the game make those decisions for you, which is probably why the game’s “dungeons” and more linear segments (including the prologue) are so unapologetically boring by comparison. Its rather boring human enemies, godawful voice acting, robotic facial animations, and haphazard storytelling somehow never get in the way of the phenomenal emergent gameplay at hand. This is in part thanks to the fantastic scaling at play. As Aloy levels up and acquires new skills, the game never gets much easier, escaping the trappings that held back similar experiences like MIDDLE EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR. The fact that the beginning isn’t the funnest, most rewarding challenge is the greatest indicator of the game’s mechanical qualities.
Sure, HORIZON: ZERO DAWN doesn’t have the heart of SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, but it certainly holds its own in sheer spectacle. The thrill of taking down what I can only describe as prehistoric creatures is a joy in its own right, but the added psychological tension of defeating these robots with nothing but bows and arrows really cements the stress. As long as she’s not conversing with others, Aloy is charismatic and speaks to herself even in combat, and the way this world opens up to you once the irksome intro has subsided allows HORIZON: ZERO DAWN to tower above the competition. It’s a fantastic approach to scale and vision in a genre that’s densely populated by cover-based machine gun fodder, and for that alone, I giddily enter its terrain.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4