Horizon: Zero Dawn – A New Kind of Apocalypse

Guerilla Games, known primarily for the Killzone series of fps games, decided they wanted to do something different for a change of pace. So they decided to make a third person open world shooter with rpg elements in a post-apocalyptic world full of robot dinosaurs. You know, the usual suspects.

Our protagonist Aloy is an orphaned child being raised by a man named Rost. The two both live within the boundaries of the Nora tribe’s ‘sacred lands’, but are branded as exiles and are forbidden from entering Nora settlements or communicating with those of the tribe. Horizon begins by showing Aloy’s discovery of a strange relic of the ancient world while still a child, a trinket that will shape her future.

This trinket is really the heart of the game, as it is core to both the story and the gameplay. It is called a ‘Focus’, and it allows Aloy to scan enemies, interface with ancient technology, and much more. Many games feature concepts like this – whether they take the form of ‘heightened senses’ or some form of technology – but few make it feel so natural, so integrated to the gameworld. You might ask how a person in a primitive society can figure out how to work a complex piece of ancient technology… and the game answers that. It shows her playing with it for nearly a decade as she grows up, exploring its possibilities and coming to understand more of what it is capable of. This type of attention to detail is a big part of what makes this game work… that, and its unique premise.

Post-apocalyptic games tend to be fairly cookie cutter. Whether your dangers are zombies, anarchist cults, or other assorted monsters, you tend to know what you’re getting into from the start. Not so for Horizon… Horizon gives you some of the most incredible encounters ever by having the world populated by strange robots who have clearly been inspired by animals. In fact, the world has no large wildlife – nothing larger than a boar – except these robots. They create such an interesting visual aesthetic, and it carries down to the people in this world too. Much like primitive tribes centuries ago, the people of this world make their clothes, their gear, and even in some tribes their homes, out of the parts these ‘animals’ provide.

The overall juxtaposition of high and low tech present is unlike anything else I’ve seen, and – beyond just being fascinating – it is simply gorgeous to look at. Horizon is one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played. What intrigues me is that, unlike most of the other modern graphics-heavy games to come out of the West, Guerrilla Games have made excellent use of colour. This world is lush, full of vibrant colours and interesting shapes. And there’re few things I love more than getting that ‘horror game’ feeling of helplessness in a lush, vibrant game.

No, Horizon is not a horror game… but, at least if you play it on hard difficulty, the game’s opening few hours give you one of the greatest sensations of helplessness I’ve felt in games. You step into this world, and you’re confronted by machines that can – and will – kill you in an instant. Even the most minor and seemingly nonthreatening of machines will quickly ruin your day. What is so unique about Horizon is how you come to learn about these machines. While you do get stronger, your character’s strength is not what makes the difference between ‘oh shit, a Scrapper, I’m screwed!’ and ‘oh, it’s just a scrapper, nothing to worry about’. It’s more than just your character’s growth. This game is one of the greatest examples of “knowledge is power” I’ve ever seen. The real weapon you gain as you progress is the understanding of how each machine behaves and what each of the weapons in your arsenal can do.

Of course, it helps that the game’s controls are mostly very responsive. Shooting, in particular, was crisp and clean. Guerrilla Games clearly took a lot of inspiration from Crystal Dynamics’ recent Tomb Raider games, as their bow controls felt very similar in all the right ways. Melee combat was not quite as enjoyable for me. Mind you, it never felt like a problem, they simply weren’t quite as responsive as the shooting. Which is fine, since melee is not nearly as important to the game. I will also say that stealth and traps felt a little too easy to abuse in Horizon. The machines seem really easily confused by stealth, and way too prone to just walking into glowing lights over and over again. It didn’t break the immersion for me, but it certainly didn’t help it.

There are two issues I had with the game’s controls. Like many modern shooters, the game features an aim assist feature. Aim assist is not inherently an issue, but Horizon’s aim assist seems to have trouble figuring out what you’re actually going for. Great for showing off your ability to curve arrows on twitch, not so great for those moments where you’re trying to fire at one of three close together targets and one moves off and you watch your arrow fire away from the headshot you’d lined up in stead prioritizing the fleeing machine that’s way out of your reach.

The other issue is the game’s climbing. With all the games that have done climbing so well lately – Assassin’s Creed, inFamous, Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and so on – it is hard to believe how bad the climbing in Horizon feels. Handholds are hard to find, the game frequently walks you off cliffs in stead of moving to footholds, jumps that look like they’ll go to one place often either take you to the wrong place, or even off the cliff entirely. They also utilise Uncharted/Tomb Raider style ‘dramatic pauses’ while making jumps during some climbing scenes. The main problem is that the climbing never actually has drama to it; there are no ‘near misses’ or quick-time events in the climbing… in fact, the ‘dramatic pauses’ actually become reassuring since it tells you that the game recognised your intent and you made the right jump. The other odd part is that these pauses rarely take place in the longest jumps in a particular climb.

That being said, those issues are both fairly small when you take into account all the game does right… like the game’s narrative. The game features two stories told in parallel that are related to one another, although not always in immediately apparent ways. The first story is the story of the present – what is happening. This story is told through a variety of small quests that all build up to give you a consistently greater understanding of the world as it is. Pretty standard right? It’s all in the execution. Despite the game featuring weak side characters, they do a fantastic job of giving you just the right amount of story so that you rarely feel lost, but you also know that there’s always more to learn.

The other story, and by far the more interesting of the two, is the historical narrative. The story of what happened in the decades between modern day Earth and when it all went to hell… and the story of what happened after that. This is told through a medium that is overused in modern gaming: data drops. All over the world you’ll find scrolls, books, letters, murals, and – of course – digital recordings showcasing history. The difference between this game and most of the other games I’ve seen use this method is that these ‘data drops’ all feel very natural. If you look close enough, you’ll find the legends of how Meridian came to be, of how the last Sun King fell, histories of each of the game’s myriad cultures… and of how the world of the ‘ancient ones’ – Our World – came to an end. And it is that last story that had me riveted, pushing forward to find that one more answer, to uncover every secret. Information is doled out to you at just the right pace that you’re kept guessing, and made to wonder.

Not all of these pieces of information are grandiose chunks of story though… throughout your adventure you’ll discover random little pieces of data showcasing small parts of what the world was like in the years leading up to the end. You might uncover an ad for a restaurant, a piece of fan-mail sent to a celebrity, or a letter between two friends or lovers… these little pieces are the ‘secrets’ out there for you to uncover, and they can be easy to miss, hiding amidst the ruins of a building or sitting half-buried in the dirt at the bottom of a ravine. Fortunately, they’re not essential to the story. They add context and they do a great job of making the past world feel genuine, but they typically don’t add anything to the main story.

There is no shortage of things to do in Horizon. Whether it be simply hunting down the little pieces of information mentioned above, completing a plethora of side-quests, participating in the challenges of the hunting lodges, or hunting down that last Tallneck or Cauldron – there is always more to do waiting if you’re just willing to look for it. But none of it ever feels artificial. The Cauldrons and Tallnecks have a place in the story, the hunting lodges fit with the personality of the Carja nation, and the side-quests – while often somewhat on the dry side – did fit into the culture and the world very well. This game also featured one of my favourite pieces of side content I’ve ever seen in a game: Vantages. Vantages are scenic viewpoints that often required some form of platforming/climbing to get to. When you reach the summit, you can activate your focus to get an image of what that particular place looked like right before everything went to hell – so you get these gorgeous pictures of elaborate buildings superimposed over what things look like in the game’s current age. Alongside that, you get story fragments revealing the story of the individual who set up the vantages. I won’t spoil the story, but trust me – reading it is worth your time, it tells a touching story that had me almost in tears as I read the final words.

Possibly the greatest take-away I can find for this game is that, much like Persona 5: if every part of a game fits together just right, the game just works. Horizon’s subtle soundtrack plays up the game’s events and scenery just right, the visuals are cohesive, the gameplay works mostly as intended. Even the game’s ‘filler content’ ties nicely into the thematics. What minor flaws the game has do nothing to detract from the incredible experience Horizon has to offer. And I cannot recommend this game’s hard difficulty enough… it offers one of the most amazing feelings of personal progression I’ve seen in a game. Overall, Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of those games that will sit with you long after you’re done… reminiscing on the story and the beautiful experience the game offers.

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