Horizon Zero Dawn

So basically, this game has robot animals and you hunt them with a bow. I mean, that was enough for me to try it – it’s too rule-of-cool not to, right?

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Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4)

Released Feb 2017 | Developed: Guerilla Games | Published: Sony

There are 2 stories going on in Horizon Zero Dawn, or rather there are 2 worlds competing for attention. There is the world of Aloy, of tribes struggling to exist in a world ruled by machines, and of clashing and warring clans. Then there is the old world, the world that now only exists as calcified ruins populated by long-decayed corpses, of powerful tech unimaginable by the tribes of the present, and one in which humans fought desperately to prevent the apocalypse.

One of these is significantly more interesting than the other, and this imbalance is a persistent issue with Horizon Zero Dawn’s writing. As Aloy dives into the ruined remnants of the pre-apocalypse civilization we become invested in uncovering this mystery of how humanity survived. It is a mystery characterized by a raw, panicked humanity; of corporations desperately trying to wrangle a positive and profitable spin, of scientists working feverishly to ensure their race’s survival and of normal people staring down their oncoming death with hope, love, fear, and despair. Compared to it, the tribal politics and squabbling of Aloy’s world can feel trite and pathetic.

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It doesn’t help that the character writing is lacking somewhat. None are entirely awful or bland, but the vast majority of the cast are simply fine – none inspire much emotion beyond a faint sense of interest. I enjoy Aloy’s curiosity and her sarcasm-laden refusal to be patronized, and the boisterous charm of stocky palace vanguard Erend is engaging, but the rest of the cast are just ok. It’s nothing much more than the usual gamut of NPCs you see in any other RPG. Again, in contrast, the long-dead humans seen through holograms, datalogs, and flickering, corrupted recordings come across as more well-rounded.

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Horizon Zero Dawn does what I suppose is a very typical big open-world major title game thing: it wears a lot of different hats. Aloy is a hunter and like any good hunter she is excellent at stealth. Stealth in Horizon Zero Dawn is a very simple thing; scattered about the world are patches of tall red grass. If Aloy is crouched in them, she’s hidden and if she’s not, well, she’s not. It’s almost deceptive; time and time again I found myself crouched somewhere, thinking I was out of sight only to forget that if I’m not in red grass then Aloy was utterly out in the open.

If you are caught out, Aloy has access to some weaponry to defend herself. In close quarters she has her trusty spear, but unfortunately it’s a bit rubbish. Both light and heavy attacks are slow and limited, and basically just used as a last resort. By upgrading skills Aloy can at least do powerful attacks while in cover or on downed enemies, but otherwise the spear is kind of useless. Far better is her bow, and her huge array of ranged weapons and toys, though maybe you get a little too much choice. The long range sniper bow is by far the weapon I found most useful, especially once it’s upgraded to fire arrows that knock armour and weapons off beasties, while the other faster bows have even more elemental attacks and work in a pinch or against enemies with specific weaknesses, such as igniting canisters of flammable fuel on the backs of grazing robo-deer. There are other weapons, such as a sling to fire elemental bombs, a “tripcaster” (some sort of trap-laying gadget) and a ropecaster (fancy future word for throwing ropes to snare enemies) but I honestly never used them at all – I guess it at least gives freedom to how you play but sometimes feels a little oversaturated with options.

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There are also some light RPG mechanics, another standard of this brand of game. Plenty of sidequests are dotted about the map, and thankfully most of them involve at least a decent level of involvement – I’m reminded of Assassin’s Creed: Origins mostly, and that’s not light praise as far as I’m concerned. Sure, they’re not quite as lengthy and deep as, say, The Witcher 3, but they’re certainly far better than some of the lacklustre guff that’s out there. Even the shorter errands are worth playing, which is a pleasant sight. The world is filled with a whole load of bits and bobs to do; corrupted zones to clear of nastier machines, hidden ruins to explore, and the usual bandit camps to sort out. Obviously there are collectibles to hoover up though unusually for this kind of game they aren’t worthless shit sprayed about the map; instead we get strange metal flowers that open up as you approach that are encoded with stunning poetry, and hidden relics and totems of the past and the present, all of which add to the rich lore of the game.

Still, mostly what you’ll be doing is harvesting and crafting. Every machine has a bevy of components you can knock off and collect, and they’re different depending on the machine. Helpfully the game has Aloy’s Focus, a system where you can tag weapons to craft and the map will show where the critters that drop the resources you need. You will also accrue a vast stockpile of modifications for your weapons and outfits, stacking damage and resistance percentages to a wild array of elements. I can see this becoming broken, especially on harder difficulties, but on normal I have to say I mostly just slapped on whatever good-sounding stuff I had and rolled with it. It’s by no means the most sophisticated crafting and modifying system, but it it’s serviceable, even if it is really easy to simply buy the most powerful class of weapons and items not terribly far into the game.

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Horizon Zero Dawn was a funny one to play. It certainly comes with high praise from some corners of the internet, but I’m not entirely sure I think it deserves it. Make no mistake, it’s not a bad game at all, but it sure wasn’t a mind-blowing experience. Much of what is on offer here is perhaps at worst a little shallow, a kind of slightly pale imitation of other games out there which offer a similar world, or similar gameplay but done better. Still, it’s a fine time, and definitely a fun way to spend 30 or so hours; it doesn’t have the content or hold the interest long enough to match up to its beefier competitors but I think it doesn’t need to. It’s charming and imaginative and there’s no doubt that I absolutely want to see more in this setting, so for a first foray into this strange hostile land dominated by hungry machines I’d say it’s a worthy time.

4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.

 

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