I’m officially late to the Horizon Zero Dawn party (mostly thanks to Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands’ initial addictiveness) and by the time I’d loaded it up, I’d already read thousands of words praising….well, pretty much everything about it. Obviously that raised my expectations somewhat, and a game I’d initially bought with a fair degree of ambivalence was now being talked about almost everywhere in Game Of The Year/Console Shifter type terms. Given it’s only March, GOTY talk suggests either something really rather special, or some weird kind of mass delusion but, either way, I was genuinely quite excited to see what all the fuss was about…….
And at first…. I didn’t totally get it. Like, I could see that Horizon Zero Dawn looked fantastic, and I’d caught glimpses of why Aloy was being universally received as such a great character, and I’d even been quite taken with the post-apocalyptic-futuristic-stone-age setting of Horizon Zero Dawn – but in my first few hours of the game, I’d not really come across anything that properly grabbed me; anything that heralded this as something particularly new or spectacular. Indeed (aside from all the robots and shit, obviously) I’d frequently have to remind myself that I wasn’t playing Far Cry Primal again, and I’d sort of made my peace with playing through another 40+ hours of reasonably enjoyable (but not particularly memorable) Hunting and Gathering shiznizz.
After those initial couple of hours however, things slowly started to change. First it was probably the poignant farewell to Aloy’s father figure that grabbed my attention, then that was quickly followed up by an intriguing little hint about Aloy’s origins, before then coming across a particular collectible that was quite cool, in a goosebump-ey kinda way. Moreover, as I plugged away at the Game’s opening areas, all of these individually cool things started to fit together, creating a deep and mesmerising world that was exponentially greater than the sum of its parts. Stumbling across an old roadsign or statue, for example – a stupidly small thing – would add to the mystery and wonder, and it’d make even the most mundane side-quest feel like a catalyst for discovering a little bit more about Horizon Zero Dawn’s Universe. Likewise, each “activity” type, or hidden area etc. felt intricately and cleverly woven into Aloy’s journey, and I wanted to pursue them all precisely because they’d contribute in some way to the odyssey she was undertaking, or to the skillset she’d need to survive it.
Even the side-quests themselves felt weirdly vital – and whilst finding somebody’s missing ring wasn’t hugely pivotal to the overarching narrative per se, I found myself willingly undertaking such errands because I keenly felt Aloy’s need to prove herself to the tribe, to overcome the stigma of her being an outcast (or Nora). Again it’s a small detail, but Guerrilla Games have subtly, expertly made it a thing anyway, and each time Aloy receives a “Oh, I was wrong to be so mean about you” type response, it generates a genuine feeling of accomplishment – and one that goes way beyond the extra XP or loot you’d picked up for your trouble. Admittedly, I was perhaps more attuned to this given I’d just come from Ghost Recon Wildlands, but in a way, the contrast highlighted just how much thought and skill had gone into creating Horizon Zero Dawn; how mutually beneficial and well thought-out elements can enrich an open world game, driving a player (and narrative) on instead of making them feel like they’re merely ticking off a list of tried-and-tested filler.
That element is itself reinforced by the fact that, actually, a lot of that “filler” is properly fucking amaze-balls. Even if there wasn’t the whole “proving yourself”, or “narrative clues” aspects driving me to explore x, y, or z, I’d still be all over them like a bad rash precisely because they’re shit-the-bedingly awesome. I did my first Cauldron the other day, and by golly was it all really rather cool. On paper, going from “stone age” to “Sci-Fi” shouldn’t work, for a wide variety of reasons, but if there was any reluctance in my brain to make that leap, it was quickly overshadowed by me being all like, “ooooooh” and “ahhhhhhh“, and just generally staring wide-eyed and idiot-like. What’s more – and again, because Guerrilla Games had the foresight to include a “here be dragons” type element to the lore of HZD – I honestly felt like I was genuinely treading new ground, and my sense of amazement matched that of Aloy’s, and there were quite a few times when my cooing and excited gurgling was mirrored exactly by hers. I’m not going to lie, that helped with the bonding, and me and Aloy…well, we’re proper buddies now.
Which is, of course, important – and as I mentioned before, Aloy’s currently conquering a Shit-ton of hearts and minds everywhere, and she’s definitely another reason why I’m falling rapidly and hopelessly in love with Horizon Zero Dawn. Like all great characters, she’s relatable and likeable – but like all truly great characters, it’s quite hard to say why exactly. I mean, she’s obviously witty and sassy, compassionate, a great combination of courageous and vulnerable, but there’s something else too; something less easy to articulate or define. Whatever it is though, it draws you in and whilst my experience of being a teenage girl in a post-apocalyptic-futuristic-stone-age setting is exactly zero, I’m, like, totes empathising with her. I’ve seen a few people draw comparisons with the rebooted Lara Croft – and I get that, for sure – but for me, Aloy’s just that bit more likable and relatable. It might change as I play more, obviously, but Lara Croft could get me all a bit eye-rolley after a while, whereas Aloy just seems to have her shit together more, or is a bit less prone to melodrama, or whatever. Anyway, long-story-short, not only are the game’s story and gameplay elements drawing me in, but I’m actually looking forward to spending time with Aloy now too.
That’s quite a potent combination, right there, and it’s a big part of the reason why – after a slightly slow start – Horizon Zero Dawn has subtly, cleverly grabbed hold of me and, given the depth and quality of almost every aspect of it, probably won’t be letting go for quite some time. It is an absolute joy to play – to the point where when I’m not playing it, everything else just seems rubbish. We’re possibly approaching Fallout levels of addiction here, folks, and that’s something quite rare, I think. See, whilst there’s nothing in Horizon Zero Dawn that’s entirely new or unique, what makes it so compelling is the way in which they’ve been expertly and lovingly woven together in a rich tapestry of addictive Gaming goodness.
Indeed, even though it’s entirely possible to make all manner of comparisons, or “take the Story elements of x, throw in the Combat of y, and mix that up with the Setting of z” type explanations, I think what makes Horizon Zero Dawn special is the way in which each of those individual elements have been adapted or improved upon before being incorporated into the whole. I’d even be willing to bet there are a currently a fair few developers playing Horizon Zero Dawn and throwing out fairly frequent variations of “For Fuck’s Sake, why didn’t we do it like that!?” in relation to the more obvious improvements, as well as some confused “Why didn’t that work this well in our game?” for the more subtle, je ne sais quoi-ey ones.
Take the side-quest/outcast angle, for example, and compare it to The Witcher 3. See, Geralt’s side-quests are often undertaken in a “changing people’s minds about Witchers” kind of way, and it works fairly well, but in Horizon Zero Dawn, it works really, really well. Or how about the “overriding beasts” thing, which is very similar to the “taming” element in Far Cry Primal: it was pretty cool in the latter, and I quite liked riding around on my sabertooth tiger, for sure, but in HZD, it just felt more necessary, more vital that Aloy could chose to tactically override a particular machine rather than fight against it. And, at the risk of belabouring the point, take the “vantage” collectibles. They’re similar to the “echos” in The Division, and whilst I thought they were pretty cool, the Vantage ones in HZD are mesmerising, tantalising reminders that, actually, some shit’s gone down and you’re currently really rather intrigued by what that could’ve been.
In essence, almost everything in Horizon Zero Dawn has a “hook”, and working together in concert, you can basically kiss goodbye to anything else you’d had planned until you’re done with Aloy’s adventures. It’s a game with a really great character, a fantastic Narrative impetus, and plenty of really, really cool shit to be getting on with. It’s massive without being daunting, and even though there are acres of ground to cover, I haven’t felt overwhelmed yet – and mostly because each new area or path offers the player plenty of opportunity for discovery and – oftentimes – robot-themed mayhem. I also like how the upgrading, leveling-up, unlocking shizzle helps in this respect too, and aside from offering the player plenty of variety, choosing to explore a Cauldron, or focus on XP for a bit often greatly increases your options elsewhere. So, after being granted the ability to override more machines upon completing a Cauldron, for example, it suddenly makes a particular valley a different proposition. Whereas before you’d perhaps had to sneak past everything, now a couple of tactical overrides can make it an entirely different prospect. Ditto the skill tree, or finally gathering the little doodah that’ll allow you to get your hands on a weapon you’d been coveting for a while.
This is the kind of thing that can really elevate open world/RPG games, I think, and it certainly helps make it feel a fuck-ton less checklist-ey. I loved how I could – when regularly getting my ass handed to me by a particular machine – have a wee look at my skills, inventory etc, and figure out a route to overcoming it. With, like, thinking and shit!
Again, it’s not unique to Horizon Zero Dawn, and it doesn’t make this game stand out on its own, but, like most other aspects of the Game, it’s cleverly incorporated into the experience in such a way as to benefit and augment all of the other really cool stuff.
Finally, in terms of “issues”, I have found a few – and the Game’s not objectively perfect by any means. That said though, most of them are merely annoying, and are rarely ever problematic enough to significantly detract from my experience. At least thus far, anyway. The environments can be a bit “hole-y” and a few times I’ve found myself trapped in the scenery and either had to do a weird, MC Hammer-like shuffle to get out of it, or just fast travel back to the nearest campfire. Climbing’s a bit of a ballache too, and I’ve spent longer than I’d have really liked hurling Aloy to her death. See, unlike in a lot of games, it’s perfectly possible to leap in a direction where there’s nothing to grab onto, and coupled with the fact that often it’s quite hard to see the bits you can grab onto (for various reasons, but often because the lighting in the game, whilst beautiful, makes seeing yellow ledges nigh on impossible) that’s a recipe for a lot of accidental plummeting.
My biggest frustration so far has been with the Combat/Combat Camera. Most of your more effective weapons are ranged, but you’ll sometimes have to rely (or fall back) on your spear, and the camera doesn’t adjust to that change as quickly as I’d like it to, which often means you’ll have no choice but to mash buttons blindly and hope for the best until it does sort itself out. Even worse than that, sometimes you’ll have to try and use ranged weapons on some machines whilst you’re been charged at by others, and in all honesty, that’ll result in the Combat Camera freaking the fuck out, leaving you disorientated, dizzy and, more often than not, very fucking dead. Indeed, there have been plenty of times when I’ve been buffeted around every which way, and the camera’s only sorted itself out in time to zoom in on my hideously crumpled corpse. Which is nice. It is possible to mitigate it a bit by retreating whilst it fixes itself, but it’s a bit frustrating missing out on the chance to finish off an enemy whilst it’s vulnerable because you’re having to make allowances for iffy controls – and particularly if it’s a timed challenge.
Again though – and in testament to just how much I am loving Horizon Zero Dawn – I’m reasonably happy to let that slide. In other games it’d likely result in controllers being lobbed across the room, but much like with a great friend who has a few foibles, I’m willing to overlook it in HZD precisely because it’s so great everywhere else. Like, really, really great. Have I mentioned it’s great yet?
Because, like, it is great!
And because it’s great, and because it’s so expertly crafted, and because so much attention and skill has gone into creating a deep, intricately balanced and multi-faceted Game, I’m very much ready to buy into the Game of the Year talk/Mass Delusion wholeheartedly at this point. Obviously, having not played it to completion yet, that might change, but at this early stage, I’m totally besotted with Horizon Zero Dawn. And, actually, I say “early stage”, but so far I’ve sunk a big old chunk of hours into it, and precisely because I’ve only just scratched the surface, I’m very much looking forward to sinking many, many more into it too. With Aloy. Who’s my best Buddy.
Because she’s great!