I will admit that I hesitated to pick up Horizon: Zero Dawn (Horizon from here on out) because it came out right before the Switch and Nintendo’s new Zelda game: Breath of the Wild. However, I caved… and got both. Horizon fully gripped me though. Here I was thinking I was going to have a hard time splitting my interests in the two titles and then I got sucked in completely. Giant robot dinosaurs (basically), stealth, a lush beautiful world and a great story… Horizon sold me near instantly and I couldn’t put it down. Did it live up to my expectations? I’ll admit they were a bit high having waited a while for this game and being on board the hype train as a long-time ticket holder. Let me break it down for you.
First up, I’ll do my best to not give any spoilers away. I’m fairly sure there are plenty of people out there who are traditionally like me and will pick this game up later. I respect that.
You are Aloy, a little girl with an overly large head as a child, but it houses a very intelligent brain. Maybe it’s growing up in the wilds, but you seem to have a great head on your shoulders while still maintaining a childlike mentality. In your youth you find a device in a forbidden area and it turns out it’s part of the technology use by the “ancient ones”. Yup, Horizon is set way in the future and we’ve been reverted to a more primitive state… mostly. As one would expect of a species that hunts robo-animals, they don’t only use sticks and stones. They’ve started to adapt tech into their daily life as the junk is lying about everywhere. There is a nefarious force driving a specific group of people to raise up machines to take over the land; they are called the Eclipse. Other than giant robo-monsters, these guys will constitute your bad guy portion of the game other than some rando-gang of hooligans that are scattered about the world.
So after a very nasty attack on your village, certain things are put into place and as one would expect, circumstances are changed and you are allowed to leave your homeland to find answers… and revenge? I would assume that to be the case, but near the end it’s clear that that is a different variation of being sent out and you are not that sooo… that was a little strange. (This only stands out at the end of the game though so if you don’t get it right away, don’t worry, you will. (non-spoiler)) You may find it weird when you get to the end as well. Let me know. The usual “world’s bigger than I expected”/”meet new people” schtick is in play here and it all works out. Since she just survived a battle for her life and had her whole life changed, Aloy isn’t very surprised by a lot of things. Horizon has a great story about you putting pieces together to figure out the larger picture in time to save the world.
I’ve read how other people lament about Aloy helping so many people when she lived her life as an outcast up until the attack. They can’t imagine why she would go about helping people and how she should be more reluctant to lend a hand. I guess that would be in how you handled your time as an outcast. Aloy struck me as an explorer, ever curious and she wanted to have answers to all of her questions and was frustrated when held back from getting them. I didn’t see her as completely bitter, but a good person who generally cares about others so when she can help, she would. Saying that someone who was outcast would come out only as a completely bitter, self-serving jerk seems very negative/depressing and some people are able to rise above their circumstances… as all should strive to do. Aloy is a success story. I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to play, but it plays out well without feeling heavy-handed and/or over the top even when fighting giant robots with arrows, good job writers/developers! Good job.
Moving on, boy do I love me some stealth. I’m glad that it seems to be getting a lot more attention lately in a lot of different games. While that’s a good thing for me, I’m fairly sure there are some people out there lamenting the same fact. It comes out strong in Horizon though. Had I known about the whistle/lure skill sooner I would have picked it up even sooner. The thing is, the stealth mechanic is pretty overpowered here. While that’s neat in a sense, it also highlights the limitations on AI at this point. While you can whistle and get a human’s and a robot’s attention one would think that the pile of corpses by the tall grass would give anyone pause (unless you’re a robot since they are robots). They do stop at first and gawk at the scene of their fallen buddies, but one more whistle and they simply keep coming, like lambs to the slaughter. Bandit camps and similar strongholds are handled with ease if you pick this route.
What I would have liked to have seen is maybe a necessity to hide bodies like in the Hitman franchise. I think that would have worked out well. If they found a dead body, they would go on to alert the whole compound. It would make it more difficult, for sure, but it would also make more sense. Maybe they would have to find two bodies because of how rough nature is out there, I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I used this tactic throughout the entire game because as my children will attest, Daddy loves being a ninja. They even play ninja at church now by crouching and walking all around hiding in spots. Luckily they don’t jump out and stab people yet, I’ll have to keep my eyes on the cutlery (that’s sarcasm as they would only stab bad guys, I trust my girls). Once a bad guy is alerted by seeing a fallen buddy, they should always be alerted. If they thought they saw something, they can just go about their business. That can come later though and I can wait.
Have I mentioned the open world? It’s pretty big. Not as big as some games, but it’s diverse enough that getting from one side to the other can take a while on robo-horse back. We’re talking about over 15+ minutes of straight riding. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is sizable. The world feels like it’s large only because of how it’s shaped at times. If it was flat, you could actually get around quickly. The thing is that the land is savage. There are bad guys everywhere and while some are easy enough to take down, they can get tough quickly. This is a rough point in the game for me. There is a lot of things to find in Horizon but a decent chunk are tough to get too. It’s a very scary world at times and finding this hidden stuff and getting to certain spots takes time and a lot of dead robots which don’t always go down easy. You have to work for every bit of land you want to explore and once you leave, more robots come back. You cannot clear out an area and expect it to be clear the next time you want to visit. I could rarely sit back and enjoy the scenery too often because I needed to see through the brush to make the shot in time and dodge the next attack coming at me. (I’m not always a “take time to smell the roses” guy.) The combat was very entertaining, but after so many hours, sometimes you just need to get somewhere. That is the world you’re in though, so get over it I guess.
On that same note, another thing that I didn’t fully appreciate, but utilized quite a bit at the end of the game was fast travel. I was never really a fan of fast travel unless it makes sense in the game world. In Horizon, the way they implemented it doesn’t make sense to the world. If you’re anywhere in or out of a fight, you can instantly teleport to any campfire you’ve passes by (a useful “I don’t want to die here tool”). It’s convenient, sure, but it’s fake and that’s coming from someone who hates it when people call crap in works of fiction fake. There is crazy tech left all around the world of Horizon, why couldn’t Aloy simply have found teleport pads and use those and when one wasn’t close enough, you had to run or grab a mount. That would make more sense. Do you get my point? They don’t have to take it out, but it should fit within the confines of the world you’re creating.
The fighting mechanics are good in as much as a person who sucks at FPS games on consoles go. It can be tough to line up a shot and you want to get those tasty head-shots or money-shots on a robot’s weak point. Stealth takes some of the edge off of the difficulty because most human NPCs don’t move when not threatened. When alarmed and actively trying to kill you, they will bob and weave to avoid everything you throw at them so that even slow motion was tough for me. When starting a fight with a machine in stealth you can get the initial shot knocking off a gun or making a large explosion and get a second free shot in as well. After that, it’s up to dodge-rolling, pot-shots and traps that you may or may not have set up before the fight started. Don’t forget to stock up on health items! What will make the game a little easier is to seek out those bunkers where you learn to control more robots. Having a buddy with a laser gun fighting alongside you is very helpful as one might imagine.
I know this point of view won’t be very popular, but I feel Horizon: Zero Dawn may have been better as a more linear experience. Exploring is fantastic and I love trying to get to places that the game doesn’t think you should. I even got to a very high cliff after a long, arduous Skyrim-hop-climb up a wall only to notice a rope course on the opposite ledge. I do like it, really. But unlike some games where the bad guy will win in some ambiguous time frame, it felt more pressing to me here. If they would have focused on the story solely, abandoned the leveling system and given you skills as they became necessary the story would have come across as even more fantastic. Or more correctly, it would have been more focused and exciting like the titles in the Uncharted franchise. I know, open-world is popular, but a great linear story will always come across more clearly than a story given piecemeal in an open-world, especially for explorers like myself.