Game Name: Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
Developer: Guerilla Games (Killzone series, Shellshock: Nam ’67…. Is that it?!)
Platform: PS4, Microsoft Windows (reviewed on PS4)
Categories: Native American vibe, Apocalypse, Open World, Robot Utopia, Bandits, Corrupted Lands, Feuding Tribes, Fetch Quests, Light Conversation, Arena Challenges, Too Many Collectibles, Combat Centric, Elemental Attacks, Traps/Bombs, Bows/Arrows, Great and Complementary Arsenal, Weapon Upgrades, Animal and Bot Hunting, Gathering/Crafting, Material Hording, Limited/Quick Skill Progression, Shallow Armor Options, Memorable/Impactful Story, Convincing and Gorgeous World, Heavy Exploration, Uncanny Valley, Beautiful Score and Sound Effects, AAA Title but Inspired and Heartfelt
May Appeal To: survivalists, hunters, crafters, map sweepers, bow and arrow fans, sparkle-eyed believers in our ability to shape the future…. but also post-apocalypse nuts (sorry, judging holistically, it’s a positive reboot on humanity).
May Repulse: haters of the open-world formula or anything that isn’t Assassin’s Creed, the bloodthirsty, cinema-skippers, item collecting-shunners, those that blame the combat system instead of practicing, and anyone who is vehemently opposed to reading data logs.
Comparable To: the frenzied bot-exploding action of Binary Domain, the fluid terrain mobility and tribal weapons of Monster Hunter World, broad story concepts of Fallout 4, some Last of Us crafting, Mass Effect’s penchant for in-world wikis and NPC interactions, a heavy dose of cliff scaling from Prince of Persia (2008) or Uncharted’s environmental set pieces, and a heapin’ helpin’ of the detective modes from Arkham Asylum or Witcher 3. (This is a game well-versed in its ancestry.) And yeah, there’s influence from Assassin’s Creed in the form of stealth takedowns, elevated viewpoints, and a tendency for techno-overlay glimpsed through the old Animus imagery.
Learning Curve: 1 hour of putzing around sets you in the right direction. 3 hours and it will become familiar. The indirect qualities of the bow subsets are tricky to get used to –
I was still discovering new ways to deconstruct my enemy 10 hours in.
Game Length: 25 hours – 70+ for a completionist
Difficulty: Adjustable, but combat skews “high” and “frequent” in my opinion.
Mastery: The scattered hunting lodges have 3 tiers of medals, which aren’t irreconcilably hard with end-game gear. The gear, itself, is acquired so early and easily you may fool yourself into believing it gets better down the line. (There is one shielded armor that I recommend using a guide to acquire.) The landscape is littered with about as many collectibles as Donkey Kong 64, with less direction on where to find them.
Story: It’s a shame I can’t spoil the story beats, which are worth discovering on your own. Instead, I’ll discuss the setting and narrative delivery methods.
Post-apocalyptic world rebounding from some self-imposed cataclysm. You’ve heard this one before, right? Well, something refreshing in this telling is the style and positivity used to spin the aggressive metallic sentinels and skyscraper graveyards dotting the landscape. A technologically-burgeoned civilization was supplanted by a thrifty, upbeat, and decidedly-spiritual collection of tribes living in harmony with their surroundings. They have their conflicts, pariahs, and tales exposing the amoralism that lurks in us all but there is something innocent, soothing, and perhaps even edging on the simplistic in resolving the struggles they face, akin to fables without loose ends. Bright, impactful environments swimming with allure certainly color the interpretation, though the people themselves seem small, adapted, and understanding of their place in a world where massive mechanical beasts emulate the circle of life and benignly dig troughs, stalk prey, or march a rut in well-worn paths via caravans.
The precursors’ legacy is eternal, evidenced by gargantuan armored husks buried askew and eroding, as well as the flashy trinkets that serve every tribesman as adornments and elaborate jewelry or headdresses. A minor sense of foreboding surrounding the ghosts of unknowable legends is almost unilaterally superseded by curiosity or respect at the prospect of using their cybernetic heirlooms. And the methodology of uncovering the past by referencing familiar, modern notions is turned on its head as the player shares Alloy’s confusion about mass concerts of a horrific genre that doesn’t exist in modern day, bizarre indulgences in societal recreation, futuristic jargon that is barely discernible through context, and notes describing the casual armament of what appear to be normal citizens.
Hours of cinematics entertain and core characters gain empathy, though brilliant lore reveals like the holographically-imposed visions of the past are few and far between. To fill the interstitial spaces of the dead world’s eulogy is a stupefying collection of long-winded audio logs and, unfortunately, a greater number of long-winded, non-sequential journal entries (I choose to reject the irony). Perchance less interesting, but no less important, is the current native population, whom generally have little comment aside from scant quest-givers and speak in believable, nuanced dialogue whose actors read with routine difficulty.
In addition to some of the irksome limitations of personifying NPCs, the game shits a staggeringly large auditory/literary dump to supplement a steady parade of conversations/cutscenes at some point, marring the high praise I give its lore and story! Much of the content is entirely skippable or able to be perused at a later hour but 50% of it involves entire rooms of interact-ables and positionally-triggered sequences as if it was a museum’s guided tour on how not to cripple an adventure’s momentum.
(The majority of Horizon’s collectible logs are consolidated to 3 or 4 locations, so don’t stress if you’re missing a huge amount.)
Presentation: My quibbles are few and should be dismissable by comparison to the otherwise superior graphical achievements: NPCs are wooden, faces are out of synch with their words, and nearly everyone retains some form of questionable animation frames. The biome borders transition too quickly to be natural gradations and environmental lighting or weather can shift unexpectedly like when bridging indoor/outdoor locations. Highly mobile enemies jump and swoop amid carpeted vegetation so you’ll sporadically wrestle a camera angle out of a wall or coax it out from some undergrowth.
Whew, we good? Great, that felt a little icky. Look, this is a gorgeous game and there is some breathtaking scenery. Every doodad’s design is fully realized and the bare essentials of, well everything, are interesting and inviting to look at. (I’d love to flip through the concept artists’ sketchbooks and pre-production work.) The sway of the trees, the ripple of the grass, the crunch of the snow, the infinite sky, the mirrored sheen of a lake – all quality execution. The resonating gulps and gurgles of sinister foes send shivers down your spine and you can sense the tension in your bow just by the strained sinew tightening to release an exploding volley of ice that crystallizes and shatters in a titillating auditory experience. Meanwhile, the high-res map packs cap at 30 FPS on the PS4, but it’s all so buttery smooth that I hardly noticed. I can describe it all day but, just look it. Look it.
Unique Features: The primitive, visceral approach to weapon construction, but with an elemental spin, gave me a passing memory of Unreal Tournament and its secondary fire modes! Between triplines, mines, AOE status effects, sniper rounds, gatling guns, hand-chucked bombs, tethers, blades, sticky ammunition, and destructible foes to use it all on, Horizon Zero Dawn has a delightful toybox to upgrade and experiment with.
Gameplay: Honestly, my recommendation is bound by the combat, story, and how good the game looks while doing it. And while combat is strong, it’s perhaps not enough to underpin the less embellished sub-systems, which are either underdeveloped or simplistic beyond traditional expectations – take your pick.
Combat sparks joy. Starting slow, the game trains the avid hunter with using a futuristic gizmo that is equal parts UI overlay and plot device. With it, the main character projects a purple sphere of holographic analysis – highlighting game trails, objects of interest, quest givers, and most importantly: enemy weakpoint analysis. A cornucopia of tactics gets drip-fed into the player’s rote memory over the course of several hours before you end up with advanced maneuvers such as preemptively marking your quarry, setting an icebomb for an enemy patrol, rigging a series of tripwires in the expected path of charging retribution, and sniping a single robotic gazelle’s flame canister from a vantage point in order to set off a chain reaction that explodes its kin and sends a boar analog careening your direction. Other times, you might avoid enemy proximity shriekers as you stalk the invisible jaguar-bots which leave a willowy silhouette of bent light in their wake – caught in the open, you hurl some lightning bombs to halt their advance and begin wailing the nearest one with your staff before getting the opportunity to pin an anchor to a divebombing vulture and force it to the ground. Once you’re actively galloping across an open field atop a mechanical bull and use your spear o’ hacking to create bait to distract a tyrannosaurus before shearing off its massive plasma cannons and -wielding them like Schwarzenneger against a square acre of jungle- blast the containment field off the rex’s cold, beating heart, you’ll identify the cerebral and dexterity challenge and how fun it is. Oh, and human bandits litter the landscape but never stand a chance against you.
Looting your fallen foes (and the fleeing throng of squishy organic animals) are the primary methods of upgrading your equipment through elemental resistance modules, brewing potions, and crafting bigger carrying cases for the various ammunition types. Tribesmen in this world drape themselves with carbon fiber cabling and multi-colored plastic bits so it should come as no surprise that the metal chips used to craft arrows are one and the same currency you barter for provisions. Rare items are discovered and hoarded though the game makes a noble attempt at informing the player of what is used for crafting and what is sold as junk. If there was 3x as many potions and gear to purchase, I’d have been in love with the system – alas, the annoyance of all merchants (save for a few on one city block) being literally identical puts a damper on any excuses I had to min/max the economy. Each merchant gives one free lootbox and that’s almost the sole reason for seeking them out.
Other things spark less joy: there are only 22 main quests and under 60 side quests (sans expansion) and I’ll admit it felt like less. Something that sets this game apart from the violent fetch quests of, say, Fallout 4 are the quieter, slower tracking/sleuthing missions where you follow onscreen icons until you strike a line through the objectives and interact with the highlighted object. The bluetooth holographic assistant makes it fairly trivial though the effort is still appreciated. In fact, the device is a massive crutch and only the decreased walking speed while using it prevents the player from seeing through walls, finding the important NPCs, or honing in on the ‘macguffin’ 100% of the time. Experience from quests and killin’ affords you skill upgrades which, coupled with crafting, provides a steady chain of progression impetus until everything plateaus out and you’re doing it all for the story.
These things don’t spark joy: jumping and gravity physics need further tuning and suffer from much of the fiddly over-commitments found in Witcher 3 or Dark Souls 2. Horizon Zero Dawn is devoted to platforming and elevated combat so the controls should be as tight as possible! Fortunately, some kind architect placed bright yellow ropes, beams, and hand-holds across the continent so as to turn the great outdoors into one giant rockwall with an obvious path (and no other) to circumvent hostile terrain…. Campfires – there’s too many of them, and not even Dark Souls could benefit from 180 bonfire locations or 150+ enemy icons to clutter the map…. leaving a not-so-impressive smattering of places to actually investigate or interact with. Finally, conversations loops offer scant dialogue options, are not tethered to previous actions or skills, and offer only the illusion of choice.
Additional Comments: Not being burdened with deep skill trees, complex crafting, frivolities to spend your cash on, and meaningful map locations makes for a more leisurely experience but your response to what’s there may vary.
What I Liked: Combat was excellent, and that can’t be understated – each scuffle involving skills in tactics, puzzle-solving, risk/reward and inventory management. Weapon subsets and combinations are delightful to discover, same with enemy designs and their susceptibilities. Games that tilt towards player growth and innovation as an indirect mechanic (without being obtuse or frustrating) are empowering and I feel ever more engaged with a character as we develop a confident swagger together. I loved the audio/graphical presentation in its totalilty (minus the NPCs) and the environmental design was intricately thorough and organic – a magnificent and enticing world to roam. The story is something significant to tuck away in the recesses of your mind and recall on occasion the themes and messages presented in this title. Combat, presentation, and story are a strong triumvirate to construct a game’s core around.
What I Disliked: There is button inconsistency for inventory management or scavenging – sometimes you select individually, sometimes you multi-select, sometimes you tap and others you hold. Navigating the UI never quite felt intuitive to me. Though beautiful, the world is lacking substantive filler for the space – roughly 330 icons too many (and it would have been nice to actually show all collectibles instead). Additionally, the campfire save system is baffling in that manual saving is allowed, and auto-saves/restores happen so frequently that there really isn’t any point to it at all (aside from the fact that manual saves are disabled for long stints towards the end and campfires don’t exist indoors. It really had me questioning if my progress was being tracked for a while there).
Side quests can be a bit tedious. Merchant hijinks between trading bauble X for junk Y to receive loot box Z to gain optimal credits is convoluted or unwelcome – and they all peddle the same materials! (There’s like 3 unique merchants total and they’re standing on the same street.) Fast travel sometimes drops you into combat or precariously dangling on the side of a ridge. Creature respawn is too high. Uncanny valley in NPCs distracted from the world building enough that I thought they were all secret robots.
Finally, I’m painfully aware of my obsessive approach to open-worlders, crafting, and inventory management – which often invokes item caps, power-leveling, breaking the game economy, and ham-stringing my enjoyment. I still assert that equipment plateaus woefully early (~20 hours in?) and that there is a deficit in character skills.
Glitches Experienced: The rope caster must use some form of ragdoll physics and you know what that means…. feather-weight model goofiness amid convulsive self-clipping.
Unclear if it’s just bad design or not, but sunsets and sunrises will occasionally have hyper-saturated colors and bypass occluding terrain. Other minor animation issues exist.
Hours I Played: 70
My Personal Reaction: Guerilla Games did an incredible job in forging an experience that drew inspiration from the industry’s immortalized bastions of gaming. While they can’t claim full credit for prototyping the variables of this formula, the product is greater than the sum of its parts – a task that would utterly fail in the hands of a quick-cash company looking to ape its progenitors without the quintessential craftsman’s touch. While not without faults, Horizon Zero Dawn is destined for longevity and mass appeal despite the developer’s lack of experience, solidified by the careful and deliberate underpinnings of its construction. This gave the airs of a passion project with full studio backing to amplify the quality. I’d like to see more of this please, but with more originality in the game mechanics.
Noob Tips: They’re cute, but you must slaughter the organic wildlife in droves – go get’em. Invest early in weapons that “tear” armor plating off, especially the arrows that emulate Jango Fett’s “noise bombs” in the Geonosis asteroid belt. Don’t engage in combat without a plan on what ammo effectively deconstructs the enemy robots – get stealth kills in and lay traps. Collect the free chest from every merchant you meet but don’t open loot boxes unless low on supplies (so they don’t contribute towards individual item caps). The Tinkerer skill for transferring mods, Double/Triple Shot, and anything that slows time or increases firing rate are all worthwhile skills. (I leaned heavily on sniping and stealth.)
Depth and Replayability: Replay value is low since it’s a single character “class” with uncapped abilities and a linear progression path. Compared to other open-worlders, it’s relatively shallow but the combat evolves into something special.
Suggested Value: $60
Where to Buy: Local Game Retailers, Steam, GOG, Playstation Store
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