A Misguided Journey
HIGH The first four or five hours are amazing.
LOW Getting mobbed by three different kinds of enemies in the desert.
WTF A lot of this game feels directly lifted from Far Cry: Primal
I hate to say it, but Horizon: Zero Dawn is the best title Guerrilla Games has ever produced, and yet only manages to be a middling open-worlder that fails to capitalize on its strengths. I’m glad to see this refreshing change of pace from a studio that’s been mired in Killzone hell for far too long, but I wish the final product didn’t feel so tired and familiar.
The premise of Horizon is that an unexplained apocalypse has happened, but instead of turning everything into a burned-out wasteland, nature has reclaimed the world. Things are green and lush, and it seems like a paradise restored until it’s revealed that animal-like robots roam freely, dominating the landscape and forcing the remaining humans to take shelter in walled-off enclaves.
As the story begins, the player takes on the role of Aloy, an outcast girl being raised by a man who’s not her father. He brings her up in the wilderness, teaching her how to fight and survive.
Horizon takes quite a bit of time setting this scenario up, starting her off as a small child and carrying through until she comes of age. We see where she comes from, why she is who she is, and when Aloy interacts with people who shun her, it’s an effective way of illustrating her life and environment. Her character is immediately relatable, and the worldbuilding that happens organically drew me right in.
Unfortunately, Horizon drops that ball hard once Aloy sets out past the village walls. Instead of maintaining the same focus that made the opening so strong, the developers make a hard left and proceed full steam ahead into open-world tropeville.
While Horizon’s world is stunningly beautiful, it quickly becomes yet another vast, open space to traverse filled with menial tasks and quests that exist only to give Aloy something to do. The NPCs she meets are so intensely generic and forgettable they might be randomly generated, and the quests they offer are just as bland — nearly everyone wants Aloy to find a missing person or a missing item, and when they’re found, it’s just a bump in EXP before forgetting it ever occurred. When someone wants her to cleanse an area of ‘corrupted’ machines, it’s not clear what makes them worse than regular machines, and when the area is made safe, nothing happens. There’s no effect on the world, or the people… it was just A Thing To Do.
As one would expect from any generic open-worlder, there are also towers (of a sort) to climb that reveal a chunk of the map, enemy strongholds to wipe out, training grounds to get high scores on, special items to find, and a wealth of other busywork objectives to eat up a player’s time while delivering little of significance. This same feeling of not-mattering extends into Horizon’s systems, most notably the crafting.
My inventory was constantly full from picking up items scattered throughout the land and dropped from enemies. Some made arrows and bombs, but the bulk felt like arbitrary doodads to collect because Collecting Is A Thing. Aloy has more than a dozen different bags that can all be upgraded to hold even more stuff, her weapons can be modified, the game offers a slew of different outfits, and barely any of it feels important. There was no appreciable difference when equipping a suit meant for stealth compared to one that had poison resistance, and I question why the devs felt it necessary to offer a clutch of how-are-they-different-from-each-other bows instead of paring it all back and making each step up feel good.
As someone who’d been watching Horizon since it was first announced, one of the biggest things for me was always going to be the combat. Seeing trailers featuring Aloy taking on a huge robo-rex, knocking off one of its hip-mounted guns and blasting it with the fallen weapon lit me right up, and to give the game credit, going one-on-one with a hulking mech does deliver thrills. These are satisfying, exciting encounters, and using various tools to chip away at a monster before bringing it down is great.
Unfortunately, these quality encounters are few and far between because more often than not, nearby enemies will swarm in and turn what should be majestic, strategic struggles into messy gangbangs with Aloy getting battered and bruised from all sides. There’s no chance for strategy in these instances, just the pure survival of running and dodging, and taking shots whenever possible – I often died from being unable to deal with more than a couple of robots at a time, and I soon learned that running away was a better idea than trying to engage.
This leads me to another issue – Horizon only lets players equip four weapons at a time, ostensibly to make the player choose their loadout before taking on a situation, but situations change rapidly thanks to the gangbangs I just mentioned. Having such a limit is arbitrary and annoying since it’s possible to pause and re-equip at any time. Why not simply have all the weapons available at once and let the player save a few steps?
I also have issues with the game’s take on stealth. Initially, Horizon implies that the player can approach situations however they like, but this is far from the truth. Aloy can only be hidden in specific patches of grass, so even if she’s tucked behind a tree or in a bush, she’s still fully visible. Stealth then becomes about running from grass patch to grass patch, and before long, it’s not even possible to do that since the grass is rare in certain areas and some encounters are simply unavoidable. In retrospect, I’d skip kitting myself out for stealth and go for the heaviest combat gear instead.
After putting in my time with Horizon: Zero Dawn, the immense goodwill generated by the opening hours had melted away and been replaced by rote boredom. I started skipping side quests and began mainlining to see more of the central story, yet that story wasn’t interesting enough to keep my attention. Rather than tackling enemies I came across in the world, I simply ran past them to get to my next objective because the thought of getting overwhelmed and killed wasn’t worth the reward of another dozen generic pickups.
The sad fact for Horizon, and every other open-world game like it, is that we now live in a post-Witcher 3 world. CD Projekt Red has raised the bar for this genre in nearly every conceivable way, and it is absolutely not enough to simply be another open-world game. The sidequests have to be interesting, the writing has to be engaging, the characters have to be memorable – just putting a good premise and great graphics on top of boilerplate content isn’t enough. At least, it’s not enough for this reviewer.
Horizon: Zero Dawn checks all the open-world boxes and will have no problem eating up a number of hours for people who aren’t tired of this formula yet, but with more focus on its strengths and a willingness to break away from what every other open-world game does, Aloy’s journey could’ve easily been one of the year’s best.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Guerrilla Games and published by Sony. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Alcohol Reference, Blood, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Themes, Tobacco Reference, and Violence. Despite all the warnings, I found this game to be pretty inoffensive. The majority of violence is Aloy stabbing or shooting robots, and when fighting other humans, it’s not very graphic. As for the rest, none of it stands out in my mind as notable. I let my young son watch me play for a few hours and had no concerns at all.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: No audio cues are necessary for successful play. All dialogue is subtitled, although ambient dialogue and noises are not.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
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