I spent almost my entire weekend playing Horizon Zero Dawn. By this I mean I stayed up until completely ungodly hours of the night, and then hopped back on as soon as possible after grown-up chores the next day. I have a burning need to talk about it, and since many in my social circles got distracted by Zelda I figure I get to talk to my lovely readers instead.
For the most part I’m a PC gamer. I don’t buy a lot of console titles because of the expense and because my PS4 setup is slightly awkward. That said, if Horizon is the only game I get for PS4 this year I will still be satisfied. I cannot express how deeply I am in love with this game. Before I gush about all the great things though, I will point you to this amazing piece about the cultural appropriation in Horizon and how uncritical perpetuation of some of these stereotypes is harmful to native peoples. It is definitely worth a read and some thought. I get the sense that the developer was trying to do the right thing here, but tried to get there by seeing which things appeared “less offensive” via google search instead of actually consulting with any native people. I hope they take it into consideration moving forward, because aside from that it was truly great to see both women in positions of power, and to see actual and frequent variety in the races of main and side quest characters.
So, the game is beautiful. I get that most modern games tend to be quite pretty in their own ways, but this one speaks directly to so many things I love. The first time you see a pack of machines with their eyes glowing in the early morning fog is like a dream. The scenery feels very real and as you find more of the “vista points” you realize it is representing a real place. One of the things I spent a ton of my play time on has been crafting upgrades for all my bags and ammo pouches. It probably would have been utter torture farming so many rat bones and raccoon skins if I hadn’t found a place I loved to farm them in. It’s just a little corner of forest, outside of a bandit camp I cleared and near a river. There’s no machines around, just peace and quiet and lots of wildlife to hunt. Several times I’ve gone back to this quiet place when I needed more meat or skins not necessarily because the hunting is great there but because I just love being there.
In contrast to the quiet moments, combat can be a bit of a roller coaster. I appreciate that the game really rewards thinking ahead. Laying traps, bombs, and tripwires ahead of time can really change the flow of a fight. Once a fight is engaged the pace can get a bit frantic, especially with larger monsters or swarms of things. I love the feeling of dodging and leaping out of the way of attacks, and running to slide into cover. The various concentration skills help to slow down time and still make precision hits even mid-battle, and make the whole thing feel incredibly epic. I also love that all of the weapons feel very distinct but still useful. Sure, I gravitate to using the precision sniper-esque bow, but I also regularly use the tripcaster, the normal bow, and both of the slings. They all have different uses, and as you get access to higher-quality versions they also gain new functionality via new ammunition types. It makes saving up for those purple-quality weapons way more satisfying since it unlocks new attacks instead of simply increasing a flat damage number.
This game is very good at making you feel like a complete badass. I’m not always the most proficient at shooting things in games, but Horizon gives me enough tricks and tools to make me feel amazing. The other area where this is really noticeable is during climbing sequences. I’ve played games that suddenly try to turn into platformers and feel like they are wasting your time making you learn a series of fiddly jumps with requisite falls to your death. Horizon clearly marks climbing-accessable areas with yellow paint or ropes. Yes this feels a little like cheating but I’m not complaining. Nor am I complaining about the way Aloy gracefully hops from one handhold to the next with minimal direction from me. It just works, it looks cool, and it gets me up to high vantage points where I can enjoy the view instead of leaving me cursing and swearing about missing a jump for the 50th time.
If I want something that more closely resembles a puzzle, I’ll head for a cauldron. These are part dungeon, part exploration/puzzle, and give some insights into the world story. I absolutely adore the two that I’ve seen. If you haven’t played through one yet, maybe skip the rest of this paragraph for spoilers… The first time I went to a cauldron I didn’t know what to expect at all. I really liked the change of scenery from mostly natural or time-ravaged landscape to actively functional machine works. I liked that it gave me lots of ways to be sneaky but I could also run in and brute force my way through things if I had to. The boss fights at the end were intense, although by the second one I knew enough to take my time and lay lots of traps around the room before engaging in combat. The cauldrons were a little time consuming but completely worth it, both for the experience of seeing how the machines are made and for the reward of new overrides upon completion. I can’t wait to explore the rest of these.
Ok spoiler-ish things over. I want to touch on the story but honestly there’s not a ton for me to say yet. The game does a great job of setting up both the current pressing issue that Aloy is working on as well as the broader mystery of what happened to make the world the way it is. I don’t know how involved the main storyline is because although I’ve spent what feels like an obscene amount of time playing I have only just arrived at Meridian, the big city that’s your first lead in tracking down the cause of the big bad thing that happens at the end of the quasi-tutorial section of the game. I am completely okay with this level of progress, because I’ve enjoyed every single distraction along the way. Errand quests, bandit camps, cauldrons, tallnecks, hunt challenge courses, they all have different levels of challenge and different but satisfying rewards. The only potential downside is that I’m now level 31 and my story quests are level 17-ish. However none of the story fights have been a complete pushover even with the level discrepancy so I can’t really complain.
Sometimes open world games lose me because they don’t give me enough direction, or they drown me in choices and I feel like I’m not making any progress on any one thing. Somehow Horizon avoids this and I’m not sure what makes it work. I think it helps that I bought all the available maps as I left the starting area, so vistas and collectables are marked and I don’t have to wander aimlessly and hope that I stumble into something cool. This basically saves me from having to open an external website or something, and lets me satisfy my compulsion to collect everything and essentially clear an area of content before I move on. I do enjoy the fact that they mark an area without pinpointing the exact location, though, so I still get a little bit of exploration and sense of discovery. It feels like a good balance, and the maps are completely optional so you can discover things on your own if you prefer that route instead.
Overall I am head over heels in love with this game. The story is interesting, the world is fascinating, the combat is satisfying, and you get to ride around on awesome robot animals. I know there’s an avalanche of great games releasing right now and in the coming weeks but if you were on the fence about this one I wholeheartedly recommend it. If you’ve been playing I’m curious how far you’ve gotten and what your thoughts are, so leave a comment and let me know!