Horizon Zero Dawn Review
An under-shadowed hype train
Horizon Zero Dawn was a weird game when I saw it for the first time. During the PS4 pro reveal stream on Twitch, Sony made bold claims about the way this game will set the benchmark of the future of what the PS4, and the PS4 Pro can do in terms of scale and quality. But I was at best skeptical. The most graphically intensive game so far on the PS4 that had impressed me at the time was Overwatch and Uncharted, achieving what most PC elitists would call “neat”. A near ultra experience running at a solid 60 FPS, for a game that was arguably small but well made for it’s size. The constants boasts of 4K rendering with HDR compatibility, as well as 1080p + HDR for the standard PS4, felt like pipe dreams towards my expectations of the game. I was skeptical, as the lead engineer pitched the techniques and capabilities of the mid-cycle console. This PS4 Pro had something to prove, and this game, developed by Guerrilla Games, a longtime partner of Sony, was the golden child to do just that.
The train leading up the release was overshadowed by the juggernaut that is Nintendo, and the sheer amount of mystery that was the Switch. Not to mention the utter onslaught of PS4 exclusives that came out during the 1st quarter of 2017. Gravity Rush 2, Nioh, Yakuza Zero, all receiving positive reviews, made the stage for the golden child of what the PS4 Pro could really deliver, even more daunting. But Guerrilla was determined. If anything, I had some expectations.
Before playing Horizon Zero Dawn, I went ahead and played a few hours of their first game for the PS4, Killzone Shadow Fall. A game mildly received, but undeniably pretty. It gave me some confidence that Guerrilla could do something special with the PS4 Pro, but that was yet to be seen.
A rainy day purchase
I purchased Horizon Zero Dawn on a whim, and I can point to a number of factors leading to said whim. The game started to flex it muscles closer to release. More outlets began to write about the game, it’s prowess, it’s scale, the amount of things to do, and especially the graphically fidelity. Proudly boasting levels of detail that would rival the sheer hyper-realism found in nature documentaries, it really began to slowly make a name for itself, and the train began to build in speed. Reviews were spilling out as the embargo lifted. From performance reviews from folks such as digital foundry, to opinionated sources from all sorts of journalists. The soundtrack began to trickle in, bit by bit, establishing its own distinct melody, working to solidify itself as a game everyone should try.
So I crack. I went on Amazon, bought the game disc to arrive on release day, and after coming back from the office, shut off social media for the night and started to play it.
Going in blind
I knew a few things about the game. It’s pretty. It’s vibrant. The protagonist is likable and relatable, to the point where some reviewers claim the player can really get invested in this character. I’m sure someone has claimed her as one of the best new female leads of this generation, say of all time.
I wanted to come in relatively fresh and unbiased as I could be. But after seeing the reviews, and the constant praise it received on Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch, it was hard not to set lofty expectations. Nevertheless, after weeks of playing multiplayer games such as Overwatch and Destiny, I was ready to sit back and relax, take in a good story, and let myself get immersed in a world for once.
I have a launch PS4, and seeing how much this game was touted for the pro, I expected the visual to somewhat surpass the fidelity and clarity found in Shadowfall. Since it was only for PS4, it had to run basically flawless, with only the minor hiccup here and there. I expected the world to be both vast, and full of interesting secrets, yet also beckoning to be explored, as you progress through the story and it’s many side quests.
I judged those as fair expectations. A nice long immersion into the world of Zero Dawn, for the 20 to 30 hour long campaign. A considerable well priced experience.
What I got, was more.
Before I dive into my review of the game, I want to let you know that this contains heavy spoilers. Very, heavy spoilers. If you don’t mind that, keep watching.
But what to expect
There is a huge difference between seeing and experiencing, especially content that is meant to be experienced. A great example of this is VR. Through a 2D screen on a mobile device, VR looks expensive, gimmicky, and even a bit of hassle, as the asking price for a few hours of fun is too high to justify based off of someone else being jacked into the headset. But once you’re there, in the matrix, you get it. Everything makes sense, everything is suddenly realized.
It’s the same with this game. The first hours of the game are fucking gorgeous. Drop dead gorgeous. To the point where I sat there scratching my head at my PS4, wondering how such as system can pump out some of the best visuals I’ve ever seen in a PS4. It adds to the library of what exclusive content can do. Looking at examples such as The Last of Us on PS3, as well as Uncharted 4 on PS4, these exclusive titles built specifically for Sony hardware truly push the limits of the console, and I heard those limits loud and clear, due to how prevalent my console whirred during initial load sequence, and some more intense battles.
The character, Aloy, as a child seemed inviting, naive, and utterly curious. Willing to throw caution to its side to get the answers she wants, she’s relatable, like that one friend who’s egging you on to do something stupid, because it’d be cool to see what happens next.
Her personality extends through her more adult self, as she hones her curiosity with the main premise of the story, discovering who she is, where she came from, and finding answers to her questions. It’s a great spirit, one we don’t see all the time portrayed (in my recent memory), and definitely adds to the initial pull of Aloy.
There’s more. As the story unfolds, this theme of questions being answered with more questions does more to draw me in as a player. I begin to not only care about Aloy, but about the world itself, as it finally latches it’s grip onto me for the rest of the campaign.
So let’s break it down. There is a lot to discuss here in terms of the game play, the artistic direction and storytelling, and the design. A lot of the elemental choices made in this game do reflect the overall vision, but there are some pain points worth bringing up with interfere with the flow of the player.
The graphical fidelity of this game is fucking insane. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, these developers are true wizards of their craft. It’s depiction of a post post-apocalyptic earth shows both the grim history of the world towards its fall from grace, and the beauty the natural world can still hold to the user.
The art direction in correlation with the narrative displays some sort of techno-utopia gone wrong, and in its place is this interesting mesh of nature and machine some how coexisting. The landscape displays this vision the best. Stare off into the deep mountains of (some location yet to be named) and this interesting mesh of how HADES is fully one with the natural shaping of the mountain, paints a picture-esce snapshot of the old world fossilized, and integrated into the current setting. It’s a beautiful shot worth seeing from the height of a tall-neck as it parades around undeterred by its machine compatriots. It’s not just the heights, the variety of biomes in this open world really flex the graphical fidelity of this game engine. No wonder Hideo Kojima chose this engine for Death Stranding.
One of my favorite parts of this game is riding on the back of an overridden machine. Allowing me to traverse the landscape at a reasonable speed, I can take in the stride of nature as I gallop across different zones. Common elements of similar zones, such as stealth grass (more on that later), help maintains some familiarity as each biome presents it overall theme in tandem with the narrative. All Mother Mountain is temperate, Meridien boasts more lush climates, and the land of the Shadow Carja banks on more barren elements.
The cities and outposts are amazingly constructed, but also slightly conflicting. It may just be me, but wandering into the city of Meridian or the tribe of All Mother Mountain, I can’t help but shake the feeling everything feels vibrantly static. Like a parade of colors stuck in limbo, and only really receptive to my actions. It’s a bit weird to grasp. Some more prominent open world games breath life on all corners. Take Grand Theft Auto 5 for instance, where everywhere you turn something interesting is happening. Sure the game could be cheating, creating instances of entertainment as you the player traverse certain areas of the map, but it’s both passively and actively dynamic. It ignores the player, pulling them into the world as just another NPC, but also can shift of a dime to be reactive and receptive of the player, fully reacting to player actions, or providing dynamic scenarios for the player to engage in.
Static Side quests of people lying on the side of the road or chilling out by the side of a rock don’t really sell it for me. But hey, it’s a start. I’ll dive a bit deeper into side quests during my analysis of the story, but let’s just say some had more love put in than others.
The whole package is something really amazing to hold onto. The world offers something for anyone with an eye for adventure. Whether that is looking for relics of the past, liberating an outpost Far Cry style (I thought we were past copying mechanics from old games but hey, first attempt), delving into cauldrons to boost your abilities, interacting with the characters of each city and outpost, and smiting your enemies, it’s all here.
Quick rant on cauldrons: I love them. They’re the best side quests in the games hands down. They’re not easily found, require a bit of puzzle solving to traverse, and provide some the most satisfying boss fights this game has to offer, with real tangible rewards that make the future experience of the game very rewarding in the long run towards the end of the story.
Ah the story is quite a beast. At the time of writing this review, I’m about 75% of the way through the story, but part of me feels that’s OK considering I still have a few mysteries to solve regarding Aloy, Zero Dawn, and Gaia and Hades. And the current mood of the story is that it’s gripping. It’s really gripping. Reviews of this game praise how interesting the story is and how the player can become invested, but offering a sense of time in which players can more or less expect to be drawn into the story and compelled to finish the adventure is definitely about 40 to 50%. The communications with the man on the focus, Silens, the constant theme of three steps forwards, two steps back, all add to to this overarching sense of mystery dominated by the wonder of the world itself. I’ve caught myself asking, “huh, what’s that in the distance? Is that a monster? Why is it embedded in the mountain like that?”
The funny thing is the mysteries of the land can and will be solved, either by the story or by you the player. The beauty of this open world is that there are no real restrictions, just soft restrictions. Want to grind your way up through the levels, solve all the side missions and content to blaze through the story in one fell swoop? You can do that. Explore the world at your own pace, discover the interesting mysteries of the world.
Can an outcast accepted ever learn to accept? Because let’s face it, Aloy has it real rough. No recollection of her past, raised by an outcast father figure who you get little to no exposition of why he left (that story better be in the game soon), and everyone basically hates you for no freaking reason. Kinda reminds me of current society in a way. It’s funny because she basically reacts to this head on, and it resonated with me because I went on a mini-monologue on how the game resonated with between her frustration of being praised clashing with the knowledge that she was constantly reminded that she was an outcast the entire time. How can you expect the protagonist to accepts these bouts of heaping praise.
This moment, in tandem with the realization that just because your question is finally answered, albeit the solution was not one Aloy was quite looking forward to, is that this whole thing is much bigger than you. Her constantly clashing with mystery man over there about conflicting goals, only to sulky realize he was right all along, adds to the potential empathy I as a player have for Aloy. It’s compelling. I started to care, hard. I wanted to finish this game, to end this. To bring closure.
It also helps that the fact that I am the chosen has actual meaning and context to it. About why I can only do it. The reveal that Aloy is a re-incarnation of Elisabet, served mainly by reminders of the genetic identi-scan (really?), sells the player better that hey guess what. Ted, over there? Yeah he may or may not be able to slay a Thunderjaw like you, but it’s only you that can save the world. Thanks Gaia, I always knew you believed in me. So yes, I like Aloy. She is definitely in the running for top female protagonists, surrounding the likes of Samus Aran and Lara Croft. Let’s cut the bullshit, and just call her the best protagonist of 2017.
A God, and a Believer
HADES and the followers of the sun god are interesting characters. A metallic mesh of subroutine functions turned sentient and aware, yet still embedded with the same primitive goals as before. Eradicate all organic life on earth. Reminds me of the Ratchet and Clank antagonist, but ten times edgier. HADES is a baller antagonist. Created as part of Zero Dawn, his original purpose is to act as a dormant subroutine capable of destroying all life on earth via terraforming and machine commandeering, only to then return to sleep so Gaia can start over, reconstructing the biosphere for the next generation of humans. It’s a weird addition to the suite, as acknowledged by the engineer in charge of the project, but hey if it’s necessary, it’s necessary.
Except, it kinda isn’t? See what irks me is that the whole reason we arrived the the conclusion of operation enduring victory and project zero dawn is that machines were infected with a virus that made them aware, but changed their directives to attack organic life, rather than preserve it. And this was before HADES existed. So look, I get the reason HADES is a necessary subroutine of Gaia, but as a person who looks at this critically, this kind of antagonist only exists for the plot of it, and “in the real world” would have a safeguard against Gaia getting hacked and losing access to all of her subroutines, as well as HADES become sentient and fully desynchronized from the rest of other facilities in Zero Dawn. But hey, that’s just me thinking critically in a “hey, would i say this if I existed in this world” kind of way, don’t mind me.
Helis. Aw man poor Helis. A fanatic consumed by religion, he refuses to accept any kind of logic thrown at him. From the time he could have killed Aloy during the proving, to the time he charged Aloy with combat in the ring against a corrupted beast, this dude is stupid. Like all kinds of stupid. He’s a masterful general and combatant I’m sure. As leader of the eclipse, and in charge of the Shadow Carja during the mad sun king’s rule, Helis is not someone to fuck around with, and I respect that greatly. But, ugh. What a puppet. He’s full of life, yet any attempt to swing logic or reason towards his petty little brain is wasted effort. For me, he was hard to like. He was hard to look at and say, yeah man, you’re an asshole, and I will defeat you. If anything, HADES, a newly formed AI, is a much better antagonist. Silently pulling the strings, corrupting machines via derangement, as well as recognizing Aloy as a true threat, directing forces and manpower towards her extinction. That thing knows what’s going on.
Helis also confused me. His choices are mixed between orders of HADES and this mad prophecy. There is this scene where Aloy is about to be dropped into the ring, and he goes on and on about prophecy, and destiny, among other kinds of stories. And the option Aloy is shown to confront him with, just add to that sense of frustration. You look at him. Is he insane? Destiny? What? Is this a game? What can I say? I don’t love Helis. He is a well designed antagonist from a narrative standpoint, but his role as a puppet is so blatantly obvious you wonder who the blind one is in the room.
Final thing I want to touch on here. Questions are answered with more questions. This theme that dominates about 60% of your playtime is brilliant. Because it gives you a reason to explore the world. To delve into the ruins of the cauldrons and relics of the past. It makes the actions you take toward solving the mystery open doors onto how this world came to be, and how you, the chose one, fit into it. The answers you receive during your quest dismiss these floating feelings of uncertainty felt by Aloy, and does a pretty decent job of making you the player, care. I love this theme, it’s a wonderful way to do world building, because it provides a good motive of exploration. Just because we made a hyper realistic open world game doesn’t mean I want to go out and discover every nook and cranny. Give me a reason as to why I should climb the tall neck, or search the cauldron. Tightly integrate it into the narrative and/or gameplay mechanics, and I’ll go out of my way to really push forward. Not every element of the open world does this well, but the ones that do, really keep the player coming back.
Just you, and the bow
Ok. The Combat. What a beast. There are few elements of the combat really worth talking about here. In a word, it’s satisfying. In a few paragraphs, eh, grab a cup of coffee, I’ve got stuff to preach.
Ever wonder why Hanzo Mains exists? It’s not because they’re trolls, or incompetence, or any other funny meme you can conjure up. I bet 8 out of 10 Hanzo mains, love Hanzo because everything focus around the bow. The Bow and Arrow is one of the most satisfying weapons in the game of overwatch, hell in any game. Look at Call of Duty, a game overflowing with futurism, and wall running, and the bow and arrow is still in the game because it’s that special. The bow and arrow is satisfying to shoot. You lie in the wait, patient as you stalk your prey while computing the angle and shot you plan to take. The draw of the bow, the release of the string, the silent whirr the quill makes as it zips through the air, the satisfying “clink” as it lands on a target, unsuspecting. It’s a gratifying relic treated with major respect and rewards a true steady hand. No one challenge the Bow and Arrow for it’s stature, it’s legacy and history. It’s still an accepted weapon and makes full use of that.
Horizon knows this, and embraces this with the lore and the gameplay of the game. Everything you strike revolves initially around the bow. Sure you can run whacking some robots left and right with your spear, but that will get you nowhere fast. No, the true way to play the game is with the various types of bows and ranged gear that make your engagements satisfying. And the fact that the bow is really emphasized as the primary tool in this interesting diorama of possible weapons is even better.
There is a huge focus on ranged combat, and the satisfaction it brings to the table in terms of engaging the enemies of the game. You are Aloy, a capable human being, but a human being nonetheless. Compared to the behemoths of Deathbringers and Thunderjaws, you are but a speck of fragile skin and bone to their arsenal of advanced warfare. So you the player, tasked with taking these monsters down with mere sticks and balls, need options, and the world delivers that to you in full swing. From stealth approached via multiple tall grass sections, to overrides of various robots to commandeer as allies in battle. Horseback is an option as well for faster, and more nimble engagement than your legs can carry you. You have the tools to take down these threats. Hell, even your arsenal, when creative, can apply incredible options to attack, allowing you to assess the situation, and set the rules of engagement in your favor. From the slingshot to cause panic and distress, to the tripwire to set traps and disable, or secure the threat. Smaller nimble bows that trade draw speed for less damage, or larger sharp-shot bows that pack a considerable punch and precision, at the cost of reload time.
In the valley of giants
Combat can only be as engaging as the enemies pitted against you. And here is where Horizon’s main draw comes into play: Fighting Robot Dinosaurs. The variety of machines roaming the world offer various amounts of challenge and creativity in terms of engagement, and the few “Boss Battles” against the larger fodder, bring something interesting to the table. I will say this, fighting deathbringers gets a little old after the second engagement, but the battle with the Corrupted Thunderjaw and the Corrupted Bruiser in the Sun Temple Arena, are way more interesting. The Bruiser brings this interesting “Spanish Bull Fighting” vibe as you dance with death. The way it can pick up speed, but fails to turn on a dime, giving you the opportunity to turn the tables, recollect your gear, and take down the machine with fire, much to the dismay of Helis. The Thunderjaw, a bit slower, excels in more ranged engagements, so fighting it on horseback or effectively using cover, and Sniper shots to play this interesting game of Peekaboo. The Deathbringers, these large lumbering tanks filled with advance warfare, which is basically stuck in it’s holding pattern, offer a lot of chances to disable the machine as it cycles through its aggressive routine. Cauldron boss fights, which reward you with the ability to override the machines to fight on your side, are way more satisfying to complete. Gone is the open world, stealth grass, variable cover, and horseback. It’s you and the machine, in an arena, gladiator style. Many, many deaths were held in these cauldrons, relying on my speed and strength to kite, disable, and engage these behemoths. But I’d do it all again.
The medium and smaller enemies as offer some interesting mechanics. Two come to mind, the large robot with the inflated chest area that’s just screaming hit me, and the stalker, a robot that relies solely on turning the tables into its favor, and leaving you guessing every time. I enjoyed fighting big bird over here, because big bird is one enemy I can always sway into my advantage. And that sets up some very cool collateral damage for the other smaller fry in the area. Sure you can pin it, disable it, and pop the pouch, but the game has a sense for rewarding curiosity and creativity in the heat of the moment. Using the robot’s weak spot against it allows you as Aloy to set some very interesting double kills, provided you’re good at controlling the flow of battle. The other enemy worth highlighting is the stalker. I love the stalker as a concept, but a sigh comes up every time I cross into it’s territory. This stealth equipped, super sensitive hunter does one thing very well that no other enemy can do: it resets the rules of engagement. The common thing with every enemy, except for closed engagement sections, and the stalkers, is that you can engage them on your terms and your rules. Sure they might have advantages like the fact they can fly, or they’re just insanely tanky, but the world offers you so many options, you can get really craft, and cheesy, about how you approach each battle.
Not so with the stalker. One you enter the territory of the stalker, something feels, ominous. A presence, watching you from the shadows, waiting for a sign to strike. Blinking lights littered across the land, and a sulking transparent shadow that’s hard to pinpoint, even your focus can’t nail down the actual prey. Or should I say, predator. This is where the fight gets tense. The choices the player makes initially, and throughout the battle, results in this great tug of war. Who owns the field, who drives the course of battle? Can you see it? Can it see you? The addition of stealth, as well as the fact that the stalker is a glass cannon, and usually hunts in pairs or groups (according to the several times I’ve fought it), makes this battle even more interesting from a player’s perspective. It’s a good test of wit, a tussle of control, and a strain of patience. A well designed foe, probably one of my favorite robots in the game overall.
Hmm? Oh yeah, the humans. Imagine any Ubisoft Open world game, but no guns, slower engagement that rewards stealth rather than “arrows blazing”, and if you miss a takedown or a critical hit, running to break line of sight in order to reset the engagement, or just spam to win. Easily the weakest enemy in the game in terms of design and engagements.
Master of None
For as well rounded and gratifying Horizon is as a whole package, there is a slight issue regarding the cohesion, this whole “Master of None” identity. For the many things the game builds up and shines in, there are areas where the game falters and stumbles. So, let’s talk about two things: the acronym RPG, and what I like to call, “The Ubisoft Effect”.
A quick Wiki search for the acronym “RPG” or “Role Playing Video Game”, tells us it is a game in which players control the actions of a character or several party members, immersed in some well defined world. With the roots of the genre stemming back from tabletop games, the mechanics, rules, and terminology are commonly shared across a variety of media, including complex 3D worlds such as Horizon. Elements from Quests, to Character Attributes, to Progression, are all common place in most well defined RPG games.
So, in truth, this is the first Action RPG for Guerrilla Games. It’s their first attempt in telling a cohesive story, it’s their first attempt at creating a full open world experience, and it’s their first attempt at creating a full blown RPG, complete with progression, and “player expansion”. You assume the role of Aloy, sent to a bunch of main and side quests tied to the immersion of the world, and work to unlock new attributes and increase your overall strength and power via level progression.
So what’s wrong with it?
Actually, really only one thing. The Depth. Horizon has incredible depth, most of the time. In the lore, in the weaponry (somewhat), in the world and all of it’s secrets, hell even some of the side quests over some amazing work in terms of what the game can achieve. But one we dive a bit deeper into the RPG elements of the game, the same level of care and quality isn’t really achieved, isn’t it?
At best, the RPG progression in Horizon reminds me of a game I adore from head to toe, faults and all. And that is Borderlands 2. On the surface level, they’re pretty close in terms of design and implementation. Three trees for three different play-styles. As you play, you kill things, and complete objectives. This contributes for points, used to spend as you upgrade certain abilities. This makes you a stronger foe for the environment, and the environment responds by throwing more and more complex challenges at you. And with you newly minted abilities and weapons, you can solve those challenges in more interesting ways, rather than just chucking grenades and shooting tangos in the face.
All right, so what’s the issue?
Back to depth. Borderlands progression system does one thing really well. Defines the play style. Each character has 3 different classes that the defines the overall play style of the character in question. A balanced class for solo play, a defense/support for group play, and a balls to the wall full offense class for more aggressive, high DPS builds and characters. The classes subtly influence the large decisions you make in terms of prioritizing progressing and growth, as well as the short term decision concerning loadouts, grenade mods, and passive buffs via trinkets. The RPG revolves around the progression goal of the player. You can see everything laid out in front of you. You can taste the potential of the final abilities available to the player. It builds around a few core mechanics that define your character, their ultimate ability per se. For a FPS, it’s a satisfying system that compliments the insanity fueled nature the game shoves into your face. Every step is exciting, every new ability unlocked feels well earned. Sure you can mix and match between abilities to form your own style, but let’s be honest here. The cohesion of the three trees to make them work with within their own zone, really do add to the nature of the game and the experience it wants to sell you.
Horizon, albeit their first, attempts this. And doesn’t quick hit the mark. Each of the three progression trees: Prowler, Brave, and Forager; all do a good enough job of defining their roles for Aloy when the player controls her actions. What they don’t do, is help define a play style and identity for the player to assume. Look at Path of Exile for example. An unfair comparison, but a game with an incredibly dense progression tree, that really does allow for true player expression and expansion. But more importantly, it defines a play style. And that’s what’s missing here.
The Prowler focuses on stealth based attacks and abilities, the Brave is more standard combat actions and damage increase, and finally the forager tree improves health and resource acquisition, as well as crafting. This skill tree doesn’t set the play style of the game, moreover it buffs the play style the game kind of forces upon you. Most engagements start with a stealth like entry, picking off sentries and other High Value Targets till you either fuck it up, or choose to begin the rush. The fight shifts into a more frantic pace, requiring you move and shoot. The Brave tree buffs this up, with higher damage output, better mobility, and other action based options. Finally, when your back is against the wall, the forager skill tree flexes it’s muscle, optimizing the resources you’ve collected to keep you alive longer in the fight. Instead of defining the style of play, it augments the core method of play, leaving the feeling of progress kind of lackluster and wanting more. What’s to stop me from farming high level robots, as well as completing sidequests to grind out the skill tree so the world and it’s story becomes a breeze The funny thing is, this is kind of fine. It’s a nice start. The game and world define Aloy’s play style. The skill tree augments it. The weapons expand upon it. This sparse, yet directed tree works fine with the cohesion of the game, even if it doesn’t fit the traditional mold. And you know what, I’m cool with breaking the rules from time to time.
The “Ubisoft” Effect
Quick task for you. Pick an open world Ubisoft game, any game. Assassin’s Creed, The Crew, The Division, it doesn’t matter. Now, look at the map. See how it is littered with things to do, massive amounts of collectibles, challenges, quests, and mission for the player to do, all laid out.
Now, open up Horizon’s world map.
See what I mean?
There is so much “stuff” to do. Cauldrons, Outposts, Side Quests, Main Quests, Collectables, Hunting Challenges, Tallnecks, spelunking, the list goes on and on. When I play open world games, such as Grand Theft Auto or The Division, these games all suffer from the same trope: bombarding the player with shit to do in hopes they don’t get bored. Whereas in other more linear adventures such as oh I don’t know, KILLZONE, that uses narrative, set pieces, and small trinkets to expand the lore and world, a constant breadth of activities dominates most, if not all, open world game settings.
Ubisoft is especially notorious for doing this, with varying degrees of success. Some activities in games like Assasin’s Creed Black Flag, and The Division, keep the player interested in investing their time and effort in the world. Mainly, in the name of progression and RPG elements. Horizon does this too, where every little activity contributes to the progression of the player, and unlocking more of the skill tree. What I find a little disappointing, is that almost each element of the world is introduced to the player through a set piece, a main mission or side quest, or a tutorial brought up by the game. And then, that’s it. It’s up to the player to run off and complete the rest of the list. It’s a bit lackluster, turning something that benefits the player so much that they feel compelled to do it, to benefit the player so much the have the luxury of choosing to do it or not. The moment where I had the option of doing a side quest for 600 XP and some lot, or farming some Thunderjaws and Snapmaws for the same amount of time, that rewards me with more interesting components for weapons I really want, hit me like a brick wall. And that it’s wrapped in a quest I can pick up from a trader at any time, and it’s not hard locked by my level?
You tell me what’s more satisfying.
To be honest, I don’t have any major gripes with this system. It’s effective, but common. And the sheer amount of stuff to do never really pushed me to complete events as I stumbled onto them, especially as the story kicked into high gear 70% in. You do have the option before the final boss, to go and prepare by completing side missions, weapon quests, cauldrons, and other world events, but honestly, I’d expect anyone to be wholly invested in the world by the time the final battle rolls around, and just save that stuff for later.
Not everything is sunshine and roses
While incredible, this game ain’t perfect. Not by a long shot. Coming up are short few remarks I wanted to address in terms of constructive criticism, as well as some gripes I personally had with the game.
I mention how the theme of questions with more questions can do a lot for the game in terms of encouraging exploration. Some elements of the world tie that in better than other. A great tie in, is the cauldron. Why the hell the cauldron still exists when you stumble upon one for the first time, offers some serious wonder, but also drops some real questions for the player. This increases investment. A bad tie in, is the settlement camp. The settlement camp offers the player to “strategically” cripple the standing shadow carja network of troops and machines. Accompanied by a NPC who’s had one too many fight to the deaths (and actually enjoyed it), it gives off this low key Far Cry feel that makes the whole process seems a little disjointed from the rest of the experience. What’s worse, is that you’re fighting humans, the least engaging enemy type in the entire game. If you’re crafty enough, you don’t even have to step foot in the damn camp, and can eliminate HVTs, sentries, and little fodder with headshots. An alarm mechanic would at least add some tension, forcing the player to move quickly through the shadow, and plan out their attacks to avoid raising suspicion. But from the 3 camps I’ve liberated so far, I’ve never felt rushed, or had a real sense of tension of urgency. The reward is lackluster compared to the side quests which give us some interesting dialogue for world building, or cauldrons that grant us the power to manipulate the machines of Zero Dawn.
The stealth grass is weird. It’s incredibly consistent in some areas, and then in other areas, it’s really not. It’s a cool mechanic, which plays into the map design of some closed off arenas of engagement, but otherwise it’s woeful and kind of just exists as a means to provide a distinct route. It’s a big, shouty safe zone, guaranteeing enemies will not engage you here unless provoked. And because the grass has to look the same regardless of the biome, it sticks out like a sore thumb, especially in the more snow packed areas. What would have been nice are mechanics that focus a bit more on line of sight, vantage points, in combination with the stealth grass. Hell, even weather to reduce enemy visibility, and pushing the player to rely on the focus more for high levels of play would be cool.
And on the subject of combat, the fucking Melee combat. Remember how I talked about the cycle of combat? From a stealth entry, to a more direct engagement, with evasion and health as a secondary component of the whole equation? Remember my words on the joy of the bow and arrow, and the satisfaction it brings? The same can not be said for the melee combat. Melee combat consists of two phases: stealth combat quick time events, and weird combat interactions with varying degrees of success. Melee combat from stealth locks you into a set animation once properly executed, but the animation is kind of immersion breaking, especially due to how long the animation lasts, where you execute the animation, and the state of the world post animation, where control is handed back to the player. It’s a bit better when going for critical hits on downed enemies, since you’re already in the thick of it, but a faster animation for more critical strikes would have been nice.
When melee combat is freed up to the player, we end up with this weird stupid mess of an interaction the lack of lock on forces the player to time the swing with the way Aloy is facing, and the impending threat who has breached her personal space. This sometimes leads to wacky swings that pull the player out of combat for so long, it leaves Aloy wide-open and suspect to devastating blindsides and punishment. The damage is weak for both heavy and light swings, even as the player increases the potency on the skill tree, deemphasizing the use of melee combat in close quarters situations, and relying on your ranged weapons as well as running for cover. You can’t even upgrade it, unlike all the other weapons in the game.
One idea would be instead of a spear, a knife would be a better fit. I’d have to research lore wise, but a knife would be a better role for the areas where the melee combat excels in, that being stealth and overrides. Faster animation for robots and humans, less immersion breaking, and a better defined role in the gameplay role. But that’s just my two cents.
To add to the world, the tribal politics had so much going for it. So much. I hate to say this, but the story was incredibly obsessed with Aloy, and everything revolved around her so much, it’s as if the rest of the world’s problems took a major back seat to the mystery surround her and Zero Dawn. In terms of dialogue and character chat wheels, we learn the basics of the Carja and Nora tribes, with the rest locked away in text blocks for the player to sit back and read. If I learned anything from playing Destiny, not many people read this stuff. A rich world begging to be explored, pulled from the focal point in place of a personal story of growth, mystery, and identity. If anything, it made me read. I just wished it was better ingrained with the world, like how the audio logs are.
And finally, on the subject of Audio logs. They’re wonderful, but inconsistent. They give great exposition, but easily cut off by the present world. In order to really understand the full experience, you have to stop, put the controller down, and listen. It bucks the pace of the game. Moving into a new room or climbing down a elevator shaft has the chance to trigger dialog from Aloy or Silens, cutting off the narration of the old world, leaving the player confused, frustrated and having to dig back through the menus to hear it again, or be left wondering what Aloy just remarked on.
For reviews of games, instead of relying on number or some arbitrary scale I’ll say this instead: Buy this game. Complete the story. Take some time to explore the world and do a few of the activities and side quests, especially the cauldrons (which in my opinion offer a way better reward than the settlement camp liberation). This game is worth the full asking price of $60 dollars for the PS4. Hell for some people, this game convinces people to buy a PS4 (adding to an already killer library). If you have a PS4, buy this game. If you have a PS4 Pro, you already have this game. If you don’t have PS4 yet, you have a decision to make. A fairly easy one I’ll attest to. This game is very much worth the praise and hype surround it. I’d buy DLC for this game, that’s how much I like it. Bravo Sony and Guerrilla. Too bad everything got over shadowed by the Legend of Zelda a week later. Aloy may not be the juggernaut female lead on the same level as Samus Aran or Laura Croft, but I suspect she soon will be, one of the greats.