Horizon Zero Dawn is Breathtakingly Close to a Masterpiece
There are many moments when Horizon Zero Dawn left me in awe of its vision and ambition, but it’s perhaps the game’s bold vision that took my breath away most frequently.
Horizon Zero Dawn Review
Developer: Guerilla | Publisher: Sony Interactive | Genre: Action, Role-Playing | Platform: PS4 | Reviewed on: PS4
The current console generation is defined by many things: a distinct shift towards digital, the abundance of quality independent gaming experiences, and a distinct lack of meaningful new, major IPs. Sunset Overdrive didn’t ride the wave of open-world hype Microsoft had hoped it would, while Watch Dogs and No Man’s Sky failed to set a standard for new PlayStation 4 franchises. It wasn’t for lack of want; there are plenty of multi-platform titles, like The Division & Destiny, that fell short of expectations, extremely profitable new properties ultimately tarnished by their troubled release windows and lasting reputations. These titles, no matter their ambition or success, all ended up in the shadows of old properties brought to life again by the new hardware: from Dark Souls to Gears of War, and Uncharted to Batman, quality entries from long-running franchises have dominated the conversations around these still-young consoles, which has made it even harder to distinguish this generation of gaming from the last, in terms of marking definitive creative arcs for developers and genres.
There are many moments when Horizon Zero Dawn left me in awe of its vision (especially on the Playstation 4 Pro – to say it is a visual showcase for the system is an understatement), but it’s perhaps the game’s bold dedication to it that took my breath away most frequently. From the opening moments, Horizon tries like no game in recent memory to really leave an impression on a player, placing them in a world thick with history, ideologies, characters, and a set of tools and mechanics that lead to some of the most harmonic, satisfying gameplay I’ve experienced in years. Set against a stunning post-apocalyptic vision of America’s landscapes, Horizon isn’t exactly a revolutionary title in any sense, but it’s a distinct step forward for the Playstation 4 and the open world genre, which both have struggled to evolve and impress in recent years.
At its core, Horizon Zero Dawn is the definitive amalgamation of modern single-player gaming: there is no lack of hip superlatives one could use to define it. You can literally make Modern Gaming word pizza out of it: Horizon is an open world game with RPG-like skill trees and abilities, with a huge, open vista to explore, a shit ton of collectibles, and a sci-fi story full of rich, dynamic characters to learn about, quest for, and learn to love/hate across dozens of hours of exploration, combat, and narrative-driven gameplay.
After spending thirty-plus hours in Guerrilla Games’ post-post-post apocalyptic vision of our world, I can definitively say that yes, Horizon is a brazenly modern game, checking off every single box of the Cool Single-Player game list I spewed in the paragraph above. And it’s very good at many of those things: it’s got a map that lights up with icons like Geralt’s wet witchering dreams, and you’ll craft so many goddamn items, you’ll feel like an actual real-life survivalist (which you are not; this is one of those “do not try this at home” moments). It’s also a game that brazenly features elements like Assassin’s Creed whistling, Tomb Raider platforming, Far Cry hunting, and Uncharted-quality CGI chest hair; it’s in how Horizon re-arranges all those elements into something unique and fresh that leaves its lasting, if slightly limited, impression.
A great example of this influence-heavy congruence are the Tallnecks featured heavily in the game’s pre-release trailers and gameplay footage; finding and climbing the peaceful gargantuans roaming Horizon’s landscape offers the most inspired, energetic expression of the game’s mechanical philosophies (on numerous levels… we’ll get there). There are many dangerous, beautiful creatures to find traversing the land, from vicious, ice-breathing alligators and perfectly harmless metal gazelle, to find, kill, override into allies, and ride around; oddly enough, the most fascinating is the quietest and most humble of them all, a creature that never attacks the player, or moves off its predetermined paths.
There are few moments in gaming like stumbling upon Horizon’s futuristic take on the giraffe; first, the faint rumble of something large stomping around begins to vibrate the controller ever so slightly, and the shadow of a creature begins to cut across the sky in the distance. Like anytime a mechanical sound is heard, instinct dictates one hides in the shadow, hiding Aloy among the tall weeds, clicking on the game’s Batman-y Primal Detective Vision to determine just where the Tallneck is hiding. Then, the game’s combat mechanics step to the forefront, as every Tallneck is casually (and conveniently) surrounded by Watchers and other creatures for the player to fight through, the trial by fire required to begin the pilgrimage up the Tallneck, where the world’s secrets are revealed to our protagonist, a fine representation of the theories of knowledge gained when closest to the gods (the Old Ones, in the dystopian lore of Horizon, set thousand-plus years in the future).
Climbing to the top of a Tallneck, which can only occur after defeating a herd of mechanical beasts, solving the puzzle of how to reach the lowest handholds of the great Tallneck using the game’s environments, before climbing up and overriding its central computers to unlock its knowledge. There’s a reason they’ve been showing off this creature since the game’s first trailer; the feeling of reaching the top of a Tallneck, standing on its flat head and looking across the gorgeous vista of Horizon, is something special (and the effects-laden sequence when one rappels down from a recently-corrupted Tallneck isn’t half bad, either), and represents the height of Horizon‘s many joys of combat, environmental traversal, and philosophic expression through gameplay design.
Focused moments, like the Tallneck interactions, and the game’s main story missions, are an absolute delight; when Horizon concentrates on a singular idea, the results are shockingly effective, on a number of levels. The game’s visuals are the most obvious example: Horizon is undoubtedly the most visually impressive game ever released on a console, a title that acts as a true showcase for the improved power of the PlayStation 4 Pro. Holding a sturdy 30-frames per second at a gorgeously-rendered 2160p checkerboard resolution, Horizon puts everything else on the system, from Rise of the Tomb Raider to Uncharted, to absolute shame; and that’s before the game even applies the HDR colors, which allows Guerrilla’s strongest visual systems, their lighting, to shine and shimmer in some truly impressive ways.
Even Horizon has its limits, of course: the game’s visual fidelity and various weather and lighting systems come at a bit of a cost to the illusion of environmental interaction. While enemies routinely smash through trees and rocks, destructing environments to try and attack players, Aloy’s interactions within her own environment are often limited; plants and objects don’t react to her movement, and her lack of realistic interaction with environmental effects, like swimming through water and leaving prints in the snow, occasionally stretch the illusion of Horizon’s breathing world. The game’s wildly intricate animation systems (we’ve all seen the “Aloy spins on a horse” GIF by now) help a bit to alleviate this issue, but over time, the various ways in which Horizon stretches a bit at the seams becomes a little hard to ignore.
The game’s much-discussed facial animations are an element of this, as well: like The Witcher 3, Horizon fills out its world with many dialogue-heavy scenes, both in the main quest line and the game’s many side quests, dozens upon dozens of people with stories to tell, proclamations to make, and shitty, self-serving plans to involve Aloy in. And the farther Aloy gets from the main ventricles of the game’s story, the more the facial animations and lip-syncing suffer, to the point where minor characters, no matter how compelling their stories, look stiff and awkward, stuttering through canned, generic animations that are horribly mismatched with the very emotive, passionate deliveries of dialogue for said characters.
The quality of those animations, much like the aforementioned visual quirks, establish a pattern that Horizon falls into more and more as the game progresses; the first dozen hours are full of some of the most intriguing world-building in years, building out a world full of religious leaders, primalistic tribes, and dramatic intrigue with a surprisingly diverse cast of female warriors, leaders, and citizens (though the White Savior overlay does hinder the game’s feminist ideologies a bit, as the story slowly unwinds through the main quest lines). However, as the game moves through its second and third acts, the initially exciting gameplay elements and narrative ideas lose a bit of their glamour, especially as the game unwinds its central mysteries.
This applies to Aloy as a central character, who is too often presented as an avenue for exposition, rather than a character dynamically shaping the world and narrative around here. Again, the environments of the game provide a rather elegant metaphor for where the protagonist falls a bit short: Horizon has no problems making players invest in Aloy emotionally early on, but never really follow through on the potential of the character they introduce early on. Her interactions with most secondary characters follow rudimentary side quest design, vaguely suggesting White Savior storylines as Aloy, the former outcast who becomes a beloved member of a tribe after saving them all, navigates the world and helps the downtrodden, misfortunate, and downright lazy NPCs of the game complete their various tasks. Like The Witcher, Aloy is offered a range of responses in conversations with characters, ranging from generic inquiries to fill out storylines, to oddly constructed moral choices that only hold the slightest of import when those decisions come back to roost later in the game. Well-voiced by Ashley Burch, Aloy is a character I was begging to feel a closer connection with through the story; I really wanted Horizon to lean into its feminism at times and really explore some underdeveloped dynamics in epic game narratives, and it often feels if Horizon falls a bit short. Aloy is steadfast in her beliefs, but a little too malleable and safe in her behavior to really keep her a consistently engaging vector to deliver the game’s story through.
Much has been said about the game’s excellent creature design, another place where the game’s slick presentation and creativity are on full display. However, there comes a point of 25 hours where fighting the game’s endless supply of near-identical mechanical herds becomes a bit tiresome. As diverse and engaging the game’s many approaches to combat are (from stealth to puzzle-like trap setting, and straight-up third-person action), there’s a path to greatest efficiency that applies to nearly every encounter, and Horizon never forces the player out of that comfort zone, which leads to the combat, as exciting and dynamic as it can be at its finest, feeling a bit stale after a few dozen hours with the game. The same applies to the game’s stunning Cauldrons (think; dungeon), experiences that are both too short, in how easy it is to complete them, and too long, in how much exposition ends up being delivered through these moments, and the lengthy, word-heavy cutscenes always in near proximity of these underground experiences.
It doesn’t help that the game’s enemy set is exactly the same in hour one as it is in hour forty; the first time one stumbles across a Thunderjaw, under-leveled and low on resources, the thrill is most certainly fo’ real. The fifteenth time you fight a Thunderjaw, two Bellowbacks, and a handful of those annoying-ass Firehawks, however, nothing has really changed; and it’s that repetition in encounter design (no matter how satisfying said combat is) that ultimately discourages the player from creative engagement with them. Encounters become about efficiency, rather than creativity: once you have the tools to exploit any enemy’s weakness (which can always be seen by engaging Aloy’s Detective Mo- I mean, her “Focus”), it becomes a systemic process of stripping down the complex machines to their barest parts using specific arrows, then attacking their weak spots with the necessary elements to take them down. The game’s few combat trial areas break out of this rhythm, but those camps are too far and few in between (and also, way too optional) to effectively add variance to the core experience of Horizon.
That being said, that experience is still rewarding, even if it becomes a slight case of diminishing returns by its final few hours. Horizon Zero Dawn is both a sum of its parts, and a victim of them, a game full of rich environments ridden with forgetful collectibles, vistas that are stunning and a tiny bit sterile, and a story that has as many satisfying twists and resolutions as it does frustrating moments and unnecessary complications. Horizon Zero Dawn is as much a game about discovery and the limits of technology in its story as it is its gameplay; while the repetition of these themes and encounters may run a bit thin by its final hours, the delivery of those ideas on a technical and interactive level remains an impressive, lasting feat. For better or worse, Horizon Zero Dawn is the defining experience of console gaming in 2017: it is a pinnacle of what the PlayStation 4 Pro is capable of technically, a near-evolutionary improvement of open world gameplay and storytelling, and a byproduct of a triple-AAA industry a little too accustomed to playing it safe, holding the game back from reaching its absolute full potential in a few critical moments.