Surviving Among the Apex Predator Machines of the Distant Future

Horizon Zero Dawn’s ultra-hard mode more closely approximates what it would be like to live on the bottom of the food chain

Avishya Arali
Dec 19, 2020 · 5 min read

Everyone knows Horizon Zero Dawn. This action RPG was a massive hit among gamers and won numerous awards while selling over 10 million copies by February 2019, making it one of the best-selling PlayStation 4 games of all time. For many, it was an opportunity to experience some of the best storytelling narratives so far. Personally, HZD is one of my favorite PlayStation games.

I love the environment in which Horizon Zero Dawn is set. A post-apocalyptic world where humans are no more the apex predators they once were. Dangerous machines now rule a revived earth- one born from a world destroyed by greed and the misuse of power. The most realistic worlds are created when environment design and storytelling go hand in hand.

The world of Horizon Zero Dawn. Source: The Verge.

I’ve played Horizon Zero Dawn three times at this point. Twice on normal difficulty and once on hard mode. I enjoyed the experience each time. But a month ago, I decided I’d try the ultra-hard mode difficulty. If I felt immersed in the narrative and game world before, this mode only amplified it further. In this article, I will not be getting into the details about the game mechanics. I’ll be speaking about the overall feel of the experience and why I feel the world’s setting works out better in this mode.

From the beginning, the game teaches us to respect and fear the machines. In one of the first missions, we’re tasked with taking down a Sawtooth. There, we learn what the machines can truly be capable of, how unpredictable they can be, and the damage they can do. No amount of words can describe how I felt when I met my first Thunderjaw. The sheer adrenaline pumping through my veins and the thrill of taking down a monstrous-looking dinosaur is an experience I will never forget.

A Thunderjaw vs Aloy. Source: Polygon.

But here’s the thing…aren’t we supposed to fear the power of a machine? Logically, how can a machine like that be conquered so easily? It’s a creature ten times my character’s size. It’s a dinosaur. How can Aloy get hit by the force of a Thunderjaw’s tail swing and walk away as if she just slipped and tumbled?

After some time, the player realizes that he/she has nothing to be afraid of when it comes to defeating machines. There’s no risk. And that’s when these terrifying creatures we are told to value, become nothing but casino machines. It becomes second nature to walk up to a machine and kill it without a care in the world. It’s not even like the machine will detect you in time.

But in ultra-hard mode, this changes. I will never forget how a weak machine like a Watcher, utterly destroyed me. A Broadhead charged at me, believing I’d be okay, I stayed put. I was flung across the screen and it took away half my health. Suffice to say I was confused and shocked, in a good way. This was exactly when I started to dread this run.

Sawtooths are scary. Source: IB Times.

Now, I think twice before approaching a lower-tier machine let alone a Sawtooth or a Ravager. A single shot from a Ravager’s cannon is enough to take away a big chunk of my health. The player begins to experience the game in a more realistic manner, “ Oh, it’s a shot from a laser cannon… Of course, it’ll take away a big chunk of my health.” A single tail swipe from a Thunderjaw sends me flying across the battlefield and my ultimate doom also feels rational. Imagine being hit by the tail of a Dinosaur. You’d be dead instantly. Currently, my pride and overconfidence are taking a serious beating as I play through this mode.

Redmaw. Source:

The biggest example of this is the Redmaw mission. Aloy teams up with Talanah to take down Redmaw- A legendary Thunderjaw, a beast, marked with years of battle experience. It is said that Redmaw has taken away thousands of lives, yet, I beat it almost instantly in normal mode. It almost broke the immersion and my connection to the story, “ That was it? This was Redmaw? Was it supposed to be this easy? If he’s killed thousands of humans and has years of experience, I’m sure it wasn’t supposed to be as easy as it should’ve been.” But ultra-hard makes this challenge feel as scary as it’s supposed to be. It took me a long time to defeat him.

This is why I believe ultra-hard mode does justice to the storytelling. It’s so realistic and validates the game’s narrative.

True to life, a machine will detect Aloy quickly. It can kill her instantly. It will charge at her. It won’t run away. Most importantly, it is not an easy opponent.

In ultra-hard mode, you begin to fear the machines, you learn to be cautious, you learn to respect each machine since there’s a high possibility of you dying at the hands of it. Once I understood this, I truly felt like I was a part of Horizon Zero Dawn’s machine infested world.


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