When Horizon Zero Dawn came out, the world was just a little busy with another open world game you may have heard of. Despite that, the game was successful both commercially and critically. I always thought it had a great setting and look, and I’m always down for a game starring a badass female lead. Especially when they can hunt and ride mechanized dinosaurs! Yo!
So I found it on sale earlier this year and I crunched it down. It took a little bit to get invested, but I will say that the story-based intrigue begins right away. I felt captivated by the plot such that I actually wanted to know what was going to happen next: a feeling I never experience while playing video games, as normally they feature brain-dead, simplistic plots. While the gameplay itself wasn’t the best I’d ever felt, and the open world aspects seemed somewhat derivative to modern open world archetypes (Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft as a brand), I came away from Horizon Zero Dawn feeling like I had truly experienced something special.
Visually, Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the more stunning games to look at on the PS4. Environments truly shine, with rich foliage that changes depending on where you are in the world. Some places look like autumn, some are winter wonderlands, others are dry deserts. These drastic changes reminded me of Red Dead Redemption. It makes for a world that seems more realistic and immersive, and although I couldn’t tell you where I was in the world without opening up the map, each difference contributed to creating a sense of place.
A lot of the time you’re diving into underground areas to uncover the mystery of the old ones. These dungeons have different designs for the most part however they do look a bit samey, and they’re certainly drab compared to the beautiful outside environments. They also all contain storage chests that inexplicably contain crafting materials, and I found it hard to believe these areas would contain such in real life, but alas: it is a video game after all.
Another gamey aspect of Horizon’s visual presentations plays with the stealth mechanic, and that’s the red bushes that cover the entire world in patches. They had to do this in order to let Alloy sneak and hunt, but in what world do patches of red bushes cover every single area including deserts and tundra? It wasn’t a major problem that I experienced this jarring unrealistic aspect of an otherwise picturesque world, just something I could be amused about from time to time. Also, they look perty.
The human models look pretty good too. The main characters all look better, and animate better in cutscenes, when compared to more minor NPCs. The stand out is obviously Alloy. She seems to carry with her more expressive animations that do a good job at matching what she’s saying. A lot of times, people’s animations seem randomized during these conversations, which makes for a jarring experience watching people flop around while discussing the most dire situations. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t take the game seriously, but it was definitely noticeable with some of the most minor of characters.
The sound and music do their job. Sound does a great job selling the threat of the mechanical monsters, and combat performs a wonderful exhibition of tactile, reactionary sound design, making hits feel really satisfying. I particularly loved the sounds these machines made. Each type hosts a varied collection of noises that felt suitable to their visual presence. If there was one aspect lacking in the sound department it would be the music. Nothing really stands out as memorable, but it wasn’t horrible either. The menu music always begins at the same point, thus becoming the biggest earworm of the tracks. It’s an odd combination of annoying and soothing that I felt I neither liked nor disliked. But I’d definitely think about it from time to time when I wasn’t playing.
Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world action RPG with a giant landmass to explore and a healthy dose of stealth. The game’s combat feels chaotic and sloppy however it is manageable with the several slow down abilities granted by the game’s systems and the various skills the player gains over the course of leveling up. The game controlled and felt well. It did a good job communicating what was going on. The nature of several different machines attacking at once created intense fights that proved to be stressful at times, and annoying in other times. I never avoided combat entirely because I hated it, but I never went looking with combat for the engagement.
Experience points come quickly so you never really feel underdeveloped for the objective at hand. There were a couple of times I decided to run away entirely from an overworld encounter due to a powerful monster being several levels higher than what I was, and this is good. All overworlds should possess danger, else why would my character need to level up in the first place?
The overworld is layed out in zones like most open world games are. You begin in a small area that serves as the tutorial for the game, and after narritive the game opens up allowing Alloy to go anywhere she wants. I admit that I wasn’t ever prone to just exploring the environment for the sake of exploring, but that wasn’t the fault of the game’s open world design, I believe. I felt the story more compelling than the side objectives, or the world exploration, but I’ll get into more story stuff later on.
Combat features a dose of traps and a heavy rotation of bow and spear. As Alloy is a hunter from a hunter and gatherer tribal society, her gameplay begins in a sort of stealth mode, where she stalks from red bush to red bush stealth killing enemies and goading others into traps. Once the enemy detects her they try to alert the others, and everyone joins together in an assault. The machines mostly charge Alloy, with others more designed around shooting. Humans mostly shoot, while others charge with spears. Some machines and humans carry with them heavy weapons that Alloy can pick up off the ground and use for the limited amount of ammo they possess. There are also elements which certain enemies are weak to, and exploiting these weakness becomes vital if the player wishes to end engagements quicker while maintaining some semblance of control over the battlefield. As I said, it can all become rather overwhelming.
When fighting machines it becomes possible to apply enough pressure to particular sections in order to break them off. In some cases, you can destroy these machines by shooting an explosive tank, or you can blow off one of their guns, then pick it up and use it against other enemies. I found this to be rather satisfying, and it was probably the funnest part of the combat for me.
Overall the combat feels very reactionary. When I began to feel overwhelmed, I found myself dipping into the various menus crafting and recrafting until I had spammed everything to death. This game has a heavy emphasis on crafting, yet materials are literally everywhere both in the world, inside chests, and on dead enemies, so I never found myself out of materials all that often. I would usually run out of healing options, especially when I was mid-way through the game, but a lot of that had to do with my own unsuccessful preparations for battle. Vendors exist all over the place, both inside and outside towns, so you can always opt to buying materials if you really need them quick. It’s fairly easy to make money so I never had a problem buying what I needed.
Weapons can also be modified. Modifications increase several stats, such as raw damage, elemental damage, and handling. Increasing handling means you aim weapons a lot quicker, and this becomes important for certain weapons you’ll want to snap up with, like the bomb throwers, because they’re very good weapons for crowd control as you’re being overwhelmed. I didn’t much enjoy having a separate tab in the menu to do so, as often I’d be viewing a weapon in the wrong tab, I’d press the button to modify, and meet the same disappointed realization that I was in the wrong place. Nothing is a roadblock to fun like a clucky interface, and this is really the only flaw that makes Horizon feels clunky to control. Everything else is relatively streamlined for mass consumption, and done so quite well.
Horizon loves to have its players picking up everything in the environment in order to craft and trade. Inventory caps limit what the player can pick up, and this can become frustrating when it comes to sticks. As sticks are used to craft arrows, it can be too easy to overload yourself with sticks in the beginning of the game. Sticks stack in bushels of 100 in your inventory, and by the end of the game I had about 350 without even picking up sticks for the second half of the game. You cannot sell sticks, so the only way to rid of them is by dropping them, which feels wasteful. So they sat in my inventory, taking up space.
You can improve your inventory, like in Far Cry (3, 4), by killing animals and collection materials for crafting expansions. I remember really enjoying this mechanic in Far Cry as it gave me a reason to explore and learn combat with the various forms of wildlife. But in Horizon I never gave it much thought. It becomes difficult, nearly impossible to find the right animals you need. I crafted all of my expansions with materials I gathered by chance. It’s extremely important to have enough meat on hand, though, as it is (strangely) used to craft potions. At the end of the game I was sucking down potions like craft beer yum.
Alloy is an outcast at the beginning of the game, as she was born without any parents. You watch as she grows into a young woman capable of murdering every animal, human, and mechanical demon she sees. Events occur which then propels you through the world in search for answers, in which you learn the tribe that once considered you an outcast were themselves outcasts from the outside world. You uncover the mysterious origins of the world. You find out what happened to the ancient ones. You find yourself knee deep in a catastrophic, apocalyptic threat that you must eradicate in order to save the world.
You meet characters along the way that each serve nuggets of intrigue. You learn their motivations, their desires, and help them with something of major importance. There are some characters whose lives you change for the better, and I always found it odd that, once their story related side mission concluded, that they kind of pushed you on to the next story beat without much of an issue. Some character propose they remain by Alloy’s side, either for assistance or out of attraction, and Alloy shoves them off, claiming she’d be better off alone. This is a lie, as she constantly depends on the help of others (one character you meet later on in particular), so I don’t see that as a valid reason why these characters don’t stick around in more major ways. The end does some work to include these major characters in Alloy’s story–a last major battle in which they all take part of (and I assume more may accompany Alloy if she chooses to help them out during the myriad of side objectives I chose not to complete). But that doesn’t feel enough. Something feels off when you help find a character’s dead relative, help act revenge for said relative, and then fuck off to the next thing. I’m certainly not wanting Alloy to involve herself with any of these characters romantically, even though most of the characters do (and there may even be a story reason as to why they’d want to align themselves with Alloy), but even friendly companionship seems to not exist in Alloy’s world.
For a woman who never knew her parents, or friendship, or love, maybe this makes sense. The distance does her good in that it allows her some personal reflection, but anxiety, or a lack of trust certainly comes into play here as well.
Or maybe I’m making all of this up about a game about stealth that requires the player to be alone all the time?
I think I experienced some real emotion during these character stories, and I expected some kind of involvement across the remainder of the experience. It felt jarring when such established characters dropped off until the end of the game.
Maybe most games do a poor job at establishing characters, so I expected these relationships to be more major.
That’s an overall small gripe I have with a story I honestly fell in love with. Truly, Horizon Zero Dawn features one of my favorite stories I’ve experienced in recent years across all methods of storytelling. Alloy herself is an interesting, complex character, and uncovering her past, her destiny, her origin, is just as interesting as seeing how she develops and interacts with the various characters she meets. There’s a part where characters come together to literally praise Alloy as some kind of deity to be worshiped. Alloy chooses to berate them, wanting nothing to do with all the praise. This reaction felt realistic, and well realized/in line with Alloy’s character development. How many video game protagonists would love to be raised on such a pedestal? To be showered with prayer as if they were actual gods?
This game has the opposite problem as an Elder Scrolls. The main story was so good, I ended up wanting to ignore the side stuff the further I got in. Luckily, the game dumps the player out right before the last mission after the player completes the last story mission. While I would have prefered to have a world post-ending to see new side missions develop relative to what happened in that main story, it makes sense to do this as events occur that change the world such that most of those remaining side objectives wouldn’t make sense. Plus, it’ll be nice to wrap up those quests and see how they change that last mission.
I have yet to play the DLC, Frozen Wilds, and I do plan on going back to tackle those side missions. I’ll have to write a piece later following up on all of this to see if they drastically change my opinion on Horizon Zero Dawn. At this point, I’m willing to say this is the best story in an open world game, and overall I’d say this is one of the must play titles in this generation. PS4 owners: play this game if you haven’t already.
It is a must play title.
In planning, I want to tackle a somewhat short (ha ha, like I’m capable of short) review of Breath of the Wild, before finally tackling a major analysis and comparison to Red Dead Redemption 2. I like to think of this trio as the finest example of open world gaming this generation, however interestingly each game does this in a different way that I find fascinating. As a person who felt genuinely tired of open world games, it feels nice to have so many register with me. These games will definitely stand as defining postnotes for this generation of consoles.
Anyway, look forward to more bullshit