I hate open world games. Probably a strange way to start an in-depth look into Horizon: Zero Dawn, you know, a giant game about exploration. But it’s important to address my bias. I have completed three open world games in my life, two of which were Japanese games, which aren’t quite the same thing – Final Fantasy XV and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Both games, strangely enough, benefit from a large, empty world, unlike your run-of-the-mill AAA open world games – your Far Crys, Assassin Creeds, Just Causes.
The third open world game I’ve completed is this one – Horizon: Zero Dawn.
HZD was developed by Guerrilla Games, a Dutch studio and a PlayStation-exclusive one since 2004. They gained renown for their Killzone games, first-person shooters that honestly do not stand out in any way, from what I’ve seen. I find that last sentence important, because it shows a particular pattern. Killzone campaigns fall right in the middle: they’re no Titanfall 2, but they’re not as cookie-cutter as the Call of Duty campaigns, graphically if nothing else.
(Side note, I actually quite enjoy Call of Duty, but my mind goes on autopilot for most of the single player stuff.)
There’s a great Noclip documentary about the making of HZD, and how a studio known for generic first-person shooters created a game about robotic dinosaurs.
HZD released in late February 2017, five days before Breath of the Wild (oof). Across the board, the scores were pretty nice, around an average of 8.75 or 9 (side note: please stop adding decimals into ratings). I heard about the game on the Internet, mainly for its graphics, which are jaw-dropping at best. From a pure technical perspective, Guerrilla did an astounding thing with their Decima engine. HZD’s world has a great living atmosphere, something I’ll get into later.
So you have a company known for making linear FPS for their entire catalog, switching over to a bow and arrow robot dinosaur open world fighter.
The question is – does it work? Well, there’s a reason I called this essay a half-broken mold. Because for as many interesting and genuinely fantastic things that sets HZD above its open world predecessors, there’s just as much that keeps it from being really spectacular.
Let’s break it down.
I always like to go back to Reggie Fils-Aimé’s iconic quote – “If it’s not fun, why bother?” So many games I play (and eventually abandon) don’t nail their core gameplay concept. Call of Duty wouldn’t be as fun running around a blank room shooting static enemies (except in Black Ops 3). It’s only when fighting other capable humans that I really enjoy Call of Duty. WB games like Shadow of Mordor or Arkham Asylum fall completely flat in this direction for me. Hit Square, Square, Square, Triangle. It’s a rhythm game without a beat.
I define the core gameplay as what you spend the majority of the game doing or experiencing. If a game succeeds at it, then it can make the rest of the game – if it’s not so good – more forgivable. It’s why exploration in Breath of the Wild feels so good while the combat sucks. It’s why sneaking and combat in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is loved while the story – the most important part in previous Metal Gear Solid games – is trash. And, inversely, it’s why people love Uncharted so much – the shooting is nothing special, the climbing is numbing, but the story, performance, and presentation more than makes up for it.
And thank God that HZD’s core gameplay manages to hang in with the rest of those games. As many flaws as the game has, Guerrilla really nailed its combat system, specifically in regards to fighting the aforementioned robot dinosaurs.
As people who have been reading my gaming opinions on FBTB over the last few years, I like having options in games. Metal Gear Solid V. Dark Souls. Hitman 2016. These games give the player immense freedom in how to tackle a scenario or enemy. HZD is much of the same.
There are nine main weapons in the game (with three additional in the Frozen Wilds DLC). You’ll start the game without much – to begin the main quest you’ll only need regular arrows and fire arrows. But over time, as more and more of the world is revealed, you begin to have a ton of options.
What makes HZD different from, say, a shooter with different gun options, is the synergy between weapons. Let me give an example.
If you want to efficiently freeze a robot, you need to keep it still. So I use a ropecaster to tie it down, then create a freezing AoE (area of effect) around it with my sling. Then wait until it’s frozen, use tear arrows to blast away its armor, exposing the juicy wiring underneath, and light it up with hardpoint arrows until it’s dead. That’s kind of my go-to strategy for these bad boys, especially the bigger ‘bots. I call it the pin cushion.
But others might play the game different. Some might use the tripcaster to shock a robot, then override it, and run into battle with it against other machines. You can go heavy on the offensive, using arrows to knock off armor and dodging around tail whips and stomps. You can go super sneaky and use precision arrows to carefully shoot the robots’ weak points. You could go wild with blast wires and have a robot chase you, blowing itself up. The more weapons you get, you have that many more options at your disposal.
And some machines punish certain strategies. Say we use the stealthy approach. Well, if you so much as miss that sweet spot on a Glinthawk, a robot bird, it’ll call its whole swarm down on you. So much for stealth. Or how about going hard on offense? Then watch out for the Stalker, a robot that can go invisible and shoot you with pinpoint accuracy from a distance. Have fun killing that one.
The pin cushion, for instance, is nearly completely useless against the Rockbreaker, a machine that can go underground to avoid my AoE and makes me want to commit robotic genocide.
HZD’s machines force you to change it up, especially if you’re sticking with one strategy.
I should say now that I played on Ultra Hard difficulty, which I determine as the only proper difficulty. There was no time in my entire playthrough that I died unfairly. As with the best games, dying was 100% my fault. You have to give the robots respect, which sounds stupid, but when most of them can kill you in one or two hits, well…it changes your perspective. It’s probably the masochistic in me (thanks, Dark Souls), but I love playing games on the hardest difficulty.
Not that HZD is particularly…hard on Ultra Hard. Sounds oxymoronic, I know, but the only real change is just being careful around the giant killer robot dinosaurs. I find it ridiculous to imagine that a 19-year old girl could survive getting swatted away by the metal paw of a Sawtooth. By that logic, any lower difficulty shatters my suspension of disbelief. On Ultra Hard, the game becomes far more about stealth – reading and watching the movements and patterns of the ‘bots and knowing the right moment to strike.
Obviously, that’s not for everyone, but it’s my bread and butter. By the end of the game, I can take down every bot with such precision and efficiency that I feel like I’ve mastered the game, which couples with Aloy’s mastering of overriding machines. It’s my perfect Chex Mix: robots, ice bombs, and pretzels.
But! HZD, God bless it, didn’t put its whole combat system onto the big metal boys. As you should do with all games, Guerrilla breaks up the robot fighting with human fighting. A great idea on paper, but one that wavers between numbing and annoying in execution.
As cool and varied as the machines are, the humans are that much less interesting. As far as I can tell, there’s three real variants of human enemies – snipers, fighters, and tanks. Snipers tend to shoot you from afar, which on Ultra Hard difficulty, means you get one-shot. Fighters try to overwhelm you with melee attacks. Tanks don’t care about damage and walk down the road with a giant bazooka trying to blow you up. There are a few quirks in there, like buffed up versions of the snipers and fighters, but aside from that, fighting humans is far more of an “overwhelm the player with numbers” game.
My biggest problem with human enemies is that they are all exactly the same to kill. For someone like me, who was trying to avoid being sniped by arrows, it meant a stealthy approach, carefully picking off the enemies one by one at opportune times. Load a precision arrow, kill the human, move on. As I mentioned previously, the robots forced me to change up my strategy. At best, with humans, if they got too close, I’d switch to regular arrows and stick ‘em until they went down. That was it – my two strategies. Now, status effects with humans work exactly the same as with the machines, but I never felt the need to shock, freeze, or burn a human enemy. Not when I can snipe them with a careful arrow. If the game doesn’t force me to change, then, well, why would I?
The most interesting human fights get is when they’re coupled with robots, but those are far too few to make up for it. Plus, generally the biggest robots allied humans are Corrupters, which go down far too easily to be a challenge. Besides, they show up maybe eight times in the game. If the human enemies won’t change, at least change up the scenario. There are six bandit camps in the main game, full of only humans, and they are all exactly the same. Remember when I talked about how I go on autopilot when playing Call of Duty? Yeah.
A new player to HZD could misunderstand a tool in Aloy’s kit – the spear. Which, I can’t really blame them, it has two buttons dedicated to it, after all. Seems important enough to me! And while the spear has its uses, HZD is not, I repeat, IS NOT a melee-based game. So, when in my first playthrough, I was whacking a Shell-Walker with my spear to my heart’s content, nothing happened. Well, something happened – I died.
The spear is…bad. So bad that on this second playthrough, I did not use it at all, save for the rare critical attack or silent strike, the latter of which instantly kills most weaker enemies. I’m honestly not sure why even include a spear in the game – you can’t upgrade it like every other weapon, it does such minimal damage to be useless, and it just feels…bad. Like, game feel is such a murky term, but everything movement-wise about the spear feels slippery and unruly, as opposed to the beautiful accuracy of the ranged weapons.
Wait, did I say accuracy? Well, that’s when the hitboxes work. Shooting at enemies, human and robots alike, especially when up close, sometimes just stops working. Like, the arrows pass directly through them. For someone on Ultra Hard, when a shot can mean life or death, having the game just ignore the arrows completely feels cheap. I never died because of it, but it certainly didn’t help my situation. Wings on Glinthawks especially, which take up, you know, about half of its total size, cannot be hit by arrows, no matter what I do. And when they’re dodging around, shooting ice at you, it would have been super helpful to be able to shoot the big moving target.
There are degrees of the hitbox errors. Like, shooting at the middle of a Strider will 100% of the time hit, but aiming towards the tail can literally be hit or miss. Some enemies, mainly the bigger ones, I never had an issue hitting, even the Stormbird, which has giant ass wings. I can shoot those suckers down from half a mile away. My solution was to slow down time (there are a few ways to do this while aiming) and really ascertain my shot before taking it. And to never let a robot get too close.
Humans, maybe because I was so sick of fighting them, had far worse hitboxes. Especially the tanks, who have stupid cylindrical helmets, try to get in close and 25% of the time do not get hit. Add that to the sometimes-questionable head hitbox, and the sneaky approach can be completely usurped by an arrow just missing an enemy – close enough to annoy me. What did I do? Well, the game forced me to change my strategy, though probably not on purpose. I had to get closer to my targets, and I threw down some exploding tripwire around me in case some tanks or fighters wanted to get up on me. Those always hit.
The last tenant of combat is overriding machines, which I briefly mentioned earlier. It’s fairly straight-forward – get close to an unaware ‘bot, hold triangle for a few seconds, and the robot will now fight for you.
Most of them. Striders, Chargers, and Broadheads, the three rideable machines, just kinda stand there until they get killed by far more aggressive machines.
Overriding can be extremely helpful, especially in early game, when you’re still getting the hang of fighting each ‘bot. If there’s two Sawtooths? Well, let them fight until one dies, then take care of the other, which is likely pretty badly wounded.
And while the mechanic is definitely cool and useful, I can’t help feeling that there could’ve been more to explore. I don’t generally judge a game based on what “could be”, but in HZD it just feels like a lost potential. For me, I stopped overriding machines around two-thirds of the way into the game. I just never needed to – I could take them down quicker than my robot friend could. There has to be a way to make overriding more engaging – maybe allowing an upgrade to an overridden machine, making it better at fighting? Letting it follow you instead of having its own set path, so you could ride into battle with an army of Sawtooths and Ravagers? Having Aloy be able to literally control the robot, like some sort of possession mechanic? There are options, and any of those would have had me using the mechanic far more and for far longer.
Ooh boy. So, people have praised HZD’s story, and I haven’t even looked into why they do, but I’ll give my opinion here. This is the part of the essay where I’m getting really into spoilers, so if your interest has been piqued by what I’ve written so far, now’s your chance. The story really does have some cool moments, so I recommend playing it for yourself.
Okay, let’s move on.
The story is weird, man. Like, Guerrilla done messed up how you’re supposed to tell a story. When I’m far more invested in the story of people that happened a hundred years ago, and I couldn’t care less about my main character and her struggles, then something’s gone wrong.
There are two stories, and I’ll outline them quickly below:
STORY 1 – THE COOL ONE
A few decades after 2020, in a world full of technological advancements in AI and robotics, this guy called Ted Faro starts making incredible robots. He starts shipping them out to battlefields to fight and becomes a war profiteer. This causes a rift in his company, but he continues, cause he’s making mega bucks. His latest creation is able to override (corrupt, as Aloy calls it) the enemy machines, and it’s super effective. The problem? It’s on its own network, and its completely self-sufficient. It uses biomass for fuel and can reproduce at super high rates. So, the world starts getting overrun by these ‘bots-gone-wrong, and everyone realizes that the world will literally die because of these unstoppable robots. Faro reaches out to one of his ex-coworkers, Elisabet (no, not Elisabeth, you pleb, Elisabet) Sobeck. She devises a solution called Zero Dawn. Military forces draft citizens to try to hold the robots off for as long as possible for her plan to work. Sobeck creates Gaia, an AI that will be able to terraform and eventually replenish the barren Earth with plants and humans and all that good stuff once the bad robots have run out of biomass fuel. Basically every human dies except for the ones protected by Gaia. And that’s it. A couple of centuries later and the world is replenished by GAIA to what we see in the game.
This. Story. Is. Awesome. Everything about it – the holograms, the voice recordings, the notes, I was enthralled. Watching humanity look to their future is damn encouraging, and you can sense the total dread in these people tasked with creating a world not for themselves but for someone else. It’s bleak. It’s depressing. It’s great.
STORY 2 – THE DULL ONE
Hundreds of years after Gaia, her fail safe, called Hades, gets turned on by sequel-bait (no, I’m serious) and begins to control the bad corrupter robots. Robots get angrier and more deadly. To stop this, Gaia makes a clone of Sobeck and sends her out. AKA Aloy. A bunch of stuff happens, but basically Aloy has to stop Hades, who brings robots out of the ground to try to stop her. There’s this organization called the Eclipse, led by an obviously evil guy called Helis. This gang always shoots at Aloy and make me sick of fighting humans. Aloy is sassy to everyone but also sympathetic at the same time. Eventually she stops them. The End.
This. Story. Is. Trash. And I’ll get into why soon but let me go ahead and say that the main HZD story – what I’ll be calling the Aloy story (as opposed to the Sobeck story) – isn’t that different from your other open world games. It hits all the beats – a baddie, an organization to fight, a main character. That’s usually enough for most games. But why it’s so rough, I believe, in HZD is because it’s put directly next to the Sobeck story, a story with deep arcs, character development, conflict, relationships, and an immaculate presentation. Plus, it doesn’t suffer from completely stiff shot-reverse-shot dialogue system. Ancient holograms cover up the robotic movement of the animations really well. There are stakes, there’s a sense of time that feed into that bleak desperation I mentioned.
So why is one so good and one so bad? Well it comes down to the game being open world. Most of the games with the best stories are linear – the Last of Us, Mass Effect (I’ve got you, Nick), Telltale’s the Walking Dead. There are a few outliers – Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher 3 – but you’ll notice that, especially the former, the best moments are those when the games go really linear. And that’s not really the fault of the writers or the developers. It’s the fault of open world games. The more freedom a player has, the more disconnect from what makes a story good – stakes.
How many open world games give a quest like this: “Help, my son has been kidnapped by bandits!” You say “I’ll be right on it!” Boom, quest activated. And then you have just as much time as you like to meander around, doing God knows what, until you eventually get around to rescuing his son. I mean, nothing will change, so why bother? There’s also a lack of agency in these stories. Sure, Deacon St. John (from Days Gone, you know!) might care about A and B, but Eric (the guy writing this article!) sure doesn’t. Eric likes riding over zombies with his motorcycle until they glitch out. It’s something that the medium of games struggles with. A game like Uncharted blends player and character agency because, well, there’s nothing interesting behind you. Forward is the only way to go to make things happen.
To tie this back to HZD – look at the end of Act I . Aloy goes to the Nora Proving to become a member of the tribe. But it goes badly and the tribe is attacked by bandits. Everyone Aloy has ever known dies, including her father-figure, Rost. She’s upset, she’s angry. And for the most part, I felt that. Rost was cool, he’d been with us for the whole game thus far. He was like a bearded Aerith. So Aloy becomes a Seeker of the Nora, and swears to find answers, starting with a suspicious man she’d met the night before the Proving called Olin. So she heads out, full of questions and angry at the world. Perfect. I’m in.
Twenty or so game hours later, I finally made my way to Olin, having conquered every robot, bandit camp, quest, and everything else between him and me. And just like the father whose son had been kidnapped in my hypothetical quest earlier, Aloy would be just as pissed at Olin had I immediately headed his way or if I had taken a year to get there. Hell, when I made it to Meridian (the city where Olin is), I’d forgotten why I needed to find him in the first place. Part of that problem was that Meridian lies across the entire map from where the Nora lands are, so not a great start. Exploring and wandering around my immediate area is much more exciting than some unknown city on the other side of the world. If I hadn’t known that Olin would never move, no matter how long it took, then maybe I would have gotten there quicker. It’s just the problem with open world games. It’s a balance of freedom and story, and you can’t have both. You can’t override a Watcher and loot it, too.
The Sobeck story, meanwhile, unfolds way in the past, only accessed through old data. It’s intriguing enough to draw me in and make me want to head directly to the next hologram (which I did, open world be damned). The characters in the Sobeck story aren’t subjects of Aloy’s time wasting. There’s no disconnect between gameplay and story with them because there’s no gameplay. I mean, it makes sense. Remove the gameplay, and you’re basically watching a movie. And the story of your average movie is generally gonna be a lot more succinct, tense, and enjoyable than your average game. Had the Sobeck story been presented different, maybe via only text, or just hinted at, like in From Software game, then the Aloy story wouldn’t be nearly as bad because I wouldn’t have to make the comparison. But it is. So I must.
But there’s more story to the game than the main quest. HZD is littered with side quests, some that are mediocre, some that are just absolutely the worst thing ever. In a beautiful world with gorgeous landscapes, nothing makes more sense than to force me to focus on the ground, following a vague purple line to find some random whatever. The side quests are nothing to write home about, as with pretty much every other open world game. Added to that characters with strange names that Aloy somehow remembers even when they weren’t told to her (yes, that actually happens), and you have unimpactful wastes of time. And as far as the quest rewards go, by the time I started actually doing them, when I had my entire weapon kit set, getting a “Generous Reward Box” for every quest, with some basic materials, was hardly worth my time. If you can’t make me care about the side characters, at least give me something good. The only good quest reward I can think of was for “Weapons of the Lodge”, which was actually challenging, and I got three great, exclusive weapons. Finally, a reward worth my time!
Finally, I want to talk about Aloy’s character. Having a good character in an open world is important, way more than, say, a linear game (though the latter usually does it better). And by “good”, I more so mean “not annoying”. Why was Venom Snake great in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain? Because he did not say a word, letting me focus on sneaking around. The boys in Final Fantasy XV had some great chemistry and dialogue to make them act like real people.
Aloy, on the other hand…well, moment to moment, she’s not unbearable, though for a hunter, you’d think she wouldn’t talk so much. But in cutscenes and when talking to side characters, Aloy is just the worst.
You have rudimentary dialogue options maybe 10-15 times in the game. Three choices: fist (angry / strong), brain (smart / pragmatic), and heart (emotional / sympathetic). As you can probably guess, these have no real impact on anything save for the next few lines of dialogue. I went with the angry choice at first, because, you know, given Aloy’s history – outcast and all – it would make sense that she wouldn’t much like the people of the tribe who cast her out. The problem is, Guerrilla failed to give the dialogue any meaningful use, meaning that after that short interaction, Aloy’s back to her regular lines. It’s clear that they wanted Aloy to be sympathetic, because goddamn if she doesn’t seem simpering to everyone she comes across. Yet she can turn on a dime to be a total jerk to them, because I guess the redhead badass hunter has to be both caring and aggressive. Can’t have both! Can’t have your protagonist have any flaws!
Aloy’s dialogue somehow manages to minimize how cool this robot world is. See these beautiful sights? Aloy couldn’t care less, even though they’re as new to her as they are to us. With Aloy, there’s no time to meander. Even though, you know, that’s pretty much all I did. I actually think her voice actor, Ashly Burch, does a fine job, it’s just the whiplash and disconnect that made me sigh.
And one last thing, before moving on. I want to talk about the concept of death in the HZD world. In a lot of games, there’s this weird separation between combat and cutscenes, like in Uncharted, where Nathan Drake can kill hundreds of people in gameplay and in cutscenes return to a normal life with normal troubles like an angry wife or long lost brother. HZD does, and not even in a bad way. And in this world with giant machines, I got to thinking that death wasn’t really a big deal. Sure, it happens, and sure, maybe it sucks when people you care about die, but your family isn’t my problem. That’s what the world set up for me, I thought. Even Aloy unremorsefully kills hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people, not even all of them particularly bad. The world of HZD isn’t necessarily safe, you know? So death is just one of those things. Hell, side characters don’t even care. They go “oh well, it happens.”
But for whatever reason, Aloy flip flops between who she cares die and who she doesn’t, with no indication. She has no loyalty to her tribe, she only makes, like, 3 friends and they all live, so why does she care so much? I don’t get it, and it just infuriated me.
As a writer myself (of stories, generally not really long essays about video games), when you create a world, there has to be consistency. And in a super dangerous world like HZD’s, one that’s been far removed from 21st century ideals (that’s actually a plot point), having someone care about death like we would just seems off.
In other words, I don’t care if your husband’s dead, I just want to go fight a robot.
I mean, it’d be pointless to talk about an open world game without discussing the world.
The map itself is…messy to look at. The world is made up of three main regions – snow, desert, and jungle, with small variations within. Each region has its own specific machines, though about half of the robots are all over, like Watchers or Snapmaws. An interesting thing that Guerrilla did was set the map over the Midwest states, namely Colorado and Utah, with pieces of nearby states. And there’s real life locations in the games, like Lake Powell in Utah, the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, or the entirety of Denver, Colorado. I’ve never been out to the Midwest, so pretty much all of the locations were lost on me, but I’ve read others’ reactions to seeing such familiar places in the game. I guess like how cool it was for me to see Savannah in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
Luckily, Guerrilla avoided writing themselves into a corner with the inclusion of Gaia, the terraforming AI. So while you can still have real-life locations, you can also have a jungle in there, too.
I’ve never been one to enjoy a giant world. Games can claim to be five times the size of Skyrim, but that’s totally arbitrary. I’d rather have a really tightly made world than a great span of emptiness where all I’m doing is pushing the control stick forward.
And while other open world games may dot the world around with camps or hideouts, stuff that’s easily avoided, HZD does something different. All across the world are machine sites, where that specific robot will spawn and do its thing – graze or chill or whatever. This adds some actual strategy to navigating the world. The quickest way might be straight east, but that leads me directly through a Trampler site, and I’d rather not get killed at the moment, thank you. So a lot of the time, I’m checking the map, looking to see the literal path of least resistance. Especially about midway through the game, with ‘bots like Gliders or Stalkers, whose sites are just a total pain to walk through. And, at the same time, the countless machine sites mean that you’ll be in combat often. Which is great, because, as I said, it’s the strongest part of the game.
But aside from that, there are fun activities!
Let’s start with Hunting Grounds. There’s five in the world, with differing degrees of difficult trials, and some that really challenge your playstyle. I played 99% of the game really stealthily, so for a trial like Ravager vs. Machines, where you have to strip off a Ravager Cannon to kill two others machines, a task that is decidedly not stealthy, I was pushed to think outside of the box.
There are three ratings of how you do in the trials, all based on how quickly you can complete it. For some, where you have to kill the biggest ‘bot in the game, doing it in a limited 2:40 is damn tough. I got mine in 2:39.
However, the Hunting Grounds are not without their troubles. For instance, the Tie Down Trial, which made me want to scream. For one, fighting Glinthawks on the regular is annoying at best. For the specific trial, I had to tie down three of these birds and critical strike them, which can only be done when they’re completely tied down. But for whatever reason, the only instruction given is “tie down Glinthawks”. Okay, so I did. Nothing. No indication that I had to use a critical strike. Luckily, the Internet exists, but I was bewildered for 15 minutes while I kept tying down these infuriating birds. And the Tie Down Trial isn’t the only example, but it is by far the most extreme. Clarity is super important in one of these timed trials. I don’t have all day here!
Another thing you can do in the world is Bandit Camps. Already mentioned these, not much point to these. They suck, they’re mindless. Boo. Try again.
Tallnecks, similar to the towers in every open world game, reveal the map and all those fun activities. Usually, they’re surrounded by a fun gauntlet of difficult robots or humans, which can make jumping on its neck rather challenging. I would say Tallnecks are my favorite thing to do in this game, just because there’s that enjoyment of seeing large chunks of a map revealed.
There’s also Cauldrons, which are dotted around the world. They’re where the machines are made, and in each one Aloy can learn to control more robots. They’re pretty straightforward, with long, confusing hallways filled with robots, and then a boss-like battle at the end of each one with a big robot or two. They’re pretty simple, but the reward – being able to control more powerful machines – is more than worth it. My biggest complaint is how incredibly difficult navigation is in the Cauldron, which I’ll be discussing in more detail in the next section.
By far the best Cauldron, ironically, is the one that the Eclipse – the evil gang of humans – has taken over. If only for its change of pace. At the end of the Cauldron, there’s a three-sided fight between Aloy, the humans, and robots. It’s pretty frantic and fun, especially trying to nip between arrows and metal claws to override machines. Plus, it’s always nice when I don’t have to fight humans myself and can let the robots do the hard work.
Corrupted Zones are my special little hell. As I mentioned, I was playing on Ultra Hard difficulty. Well, corrupted machines are stronger and more durable, meaning that you have to put in way more work to kill them. Oh, and they literally one-shot me. Pretty much any of them larger than a Scrapper. Most of my time in these zones was spent trying to isolate and destroy a corrupter robot before its friends found me and killed me. It’s almost like a puzzle, trying to figure out the best way to kill the robots before dying. The worst of these is with two Rockbreakers, who, as I said, made me wanted to nuke everything. Nothing’s more fun than a giant machine suddenly popping out of the ground and killing me instantly. Really makes me appreciate all these times that doesn’t happen.
Some of the…weirdest inclusions in the game are the collectables. There’s four of them – Metal Flowers, Banuk Figures, Vantages, and Ancient Vessels. Metal Flowers are all over the world, Banuk Figures in specific climbing locations, Vantages are generally on high places and show holograms of how the world looked pre-apocalypse, and Ancient Vessels are only in ruins. You can then trade them – save for the Vantages – to merchants in Meridian, the main city in the game. Sounds pretty cool in theory – discovering these hidden rare artifacts and trading them for exclusive prizes. Except! For whatever reason, Guerrilla allowed players to buy maps that pretty much show exactly where these all are. So instead of hunting this stuff down, you just walk over to where it is on your map and scan for it. Oh, there it is. And maybe I’m asking for it by buying those maps, but the prizes, yet again, aren’t even close to worth it. I was expecting something really cool for all this effort in hunting these rare prizes, but, nope, just some materials or useless weapon upgrades that wouldn’t help my gear. I’m baffled by everything about these collectables. It really just comes down to exploring, something that the game DISCOURAGES with nearly every system (oh, don’t worry, I’ll get into that later). The only reason I was getting these 30 dumbass flowers was for the prize. And now I got it and I feel like my time was completely wasted. Not what you want your player to experience.
There’s a bunch of towns and cities dotted around the world. One thing I think this game does super well is by populating their cities. Meridian especially feels bustling and huge in a way I haven’t seen many games do. However, the cost of this is that the cities ooze emptiness, ironically. Unlike, say, a Fallout game or the Witcher 3, the only people Aloy can converse with are those with side quests or merchants, the latter of which don’t even talk. Everyone else just has a throwaway line, like “Oh, I hope the market is open!” or “Wow, you don’t look like you’re from around here.” I want to learn about these places. There are so many in this game, and I can only remember around six of them, and not for their detailed lore. For a large portion of these places, all I did was walk in, see if there were any quests, then leave. Maybe stop at a merchant. And that’s it. At least pique my interest here, come on!
For one reason or another, a lot of this stuff in HZD feels a bit like busy work. Like, “don’t want to do the main quest? well here’s a few things you can do in the meantime”. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy doing them or didn’t find them interesting (except for those meaningless collectables), but that I wish they were integrated into the world better.
I’ll talk about the importance of exploration and subtlety in the next section, and you’ll see why I feel this way.
Presentation and Atmosphere
I went pretty in-depth on Breath of the Wilds – pros and cons – a few months ago, so go read that if you want my full opinion, but I’ll quickly summarize the important stuff.
It legitimately baffles me how many open world games, which boast these “larger than the state of New Mexico!” world, completely fail to actually make those worlds interesting. It’s like the phrase goes – wide as the ocean, deep as a puddle. I’d say that the main reason everyone – including me – keeps going back to Breath of the Wild for a prime example of an open world done right is because while Hyrule can be only ankle-deep in points, there’s so much depth to the design of the world that you barely notice it. What I mean specifically is that not everything in Breath of the Wild has a reason to exist. By completely removing 99% of the story, Nintendo was able to create so many cool little details that purely rewarded explanation. For instance, I remember walking around in the horrible, snowy Hebra Mountains and coming across the tiny little shack. It was warm, pleasant, and had no specific reason to exist. It wasn’t relevant to my fight with Ganon. Nintendo had the genius realization – as do games like Dark Souls – that players might not see everything in a game, but that’s ok, because some people will. And there’s nothing cooler in the world than hearing some rumor on the internet about a random seaside town in Breath of the Wild or a whole hidden area in Dark Souls.
And if you haven’t guessed by now, that’s my way of saying that HZD completely fails at this. Just like most open worlds. Everything cool in HZD is relevant to the main story. That sounds like a backwards opinion, right? Like, yeah, so what? I get to see cool stuff when I do the main quests. But the cool stuff is so ostentatious that I know exactly what to avoid even from a distance. Not great for a game supposedly about exploration.
Let me give you some examples.
I played HZD after playing Breath of the Wild, so I was still in that mindset of total exploration. So I did. I wandered high and low across the lands and discovered stuff: a mountain base guarded by a Stormbird, a strange outpost filled to the brim with human enemies, a mysterious hole at the mouth of a river. And guess what? They were either inaccessible or sequence broken. Can’t enter the cool mountain base. I killed the human enemies, nothing happened, then 15 hours later I came back with the right side quest activated and then something happened. Plus I had to kill the humans again, which pissed me off. Can’t enter that very interesting and clearly enterable hole until the game tells me to. Eventually I just said screw it – I guess I’ll just explore when the game wants me to. Everything in HZD has to have a specific quest purpose. Nothing exists just for the sake of existing. It makes the world feel extremely limited and kinda killed my immersion. It’s like one of those RPGs where stuff happens only when your main characters do stuff. The world feels false.
There’s no real sense of legitimate discovery due to the heavy icons all over the map, especially with the collectables. Once you’re within a certain distance of anything, an icon, Fallout style, will pop up on your compass, urging you to go check it out. A “hidden secret” isn’t so secret when there’s a blinking sign pointing to it.
Anyway, it’s about time for me to actually talk about how the world looks. Because gosh darn if the landscapes aren’t beautiful. While the world might feel false, in the moments away from humans, where it’s just Aloy running through the wilderness with small animals and giant machines, it’s perfect. There’s an incredible sense of realism that’s been given to everything – wind moves leaves and grass, Aloy’s footprints follow her in the snow, trees cover the jungle floor in shadow. The first few hours, before Aloy leaves the starting area, I’d say were the most magical. Unfortunately, I built up a tolerance to the world, but there were moments in the beginning where I’d just look, enraptured, at the screen. Guerrilla has done an incredible job in populating HZD’s world with varied flora and fauna. One of my favorite examples are the different plants that Aloy can pick up and craft with. They fit in with the world so nicely, and after a few hours of grabbing them, you’ll get a botanist’s eye and be able to go for what you need without even checking for its name.
I’d say the desert area falls the flattest in terms of visual design, but that’s just because there’s only so much you can do with sand and rock, as opposed to snow, trees, shrubs, grass, etc.
It’s when the game takes you out of the landscapes that the visuals really fall apart.
The indoor areas, specifically the ruins and Cauldrons, are God-awful to try to navigate through. Dark, with harsh purple lighting that all looks the same. Compared to how fantastic the landscape is, these indoor areas are horrible. If it weren’t for the story beats associated and found in these places, then I would have really hated them.
Nighttime, too, is rough. Night isn’t incorporated in HZD like it is in, say, Metal Gear Solid V. In the latter game, you’re harder to see, guards are sleepier, and you can turn off the power in bases, rendering everyone (except you, of course) nearly blind. But in HZD, the only difference is that I can’t see what I’m doing as well. Robots are the same, humans are the same. Only Eric’s left stumbling around in the dark. Not to mention that it seems to last so long compared today. Probably because I’m actually making progress during daytime, while in nighttime I’m just waiting for it to be over. This wouldn’t be bad at all if there were some kind of Skyrim-esque “wait” system, where I can just skip time. Hmm, maybe at the copious bonfires / save points dotted around the map? For whatever reason, Guerrilla decided not to include a mainstay of pretty much every open world game ever.
HUD-wise, I actually really like what Guerrilla did – they gave me options (how novel!). I can turn everything in the HUD off, have it come up dynamically, or have it show all the time. For my most recent playthrough, I decided to only keep up health, inventory, and ammo. No need for anything silly like quest markers or machine health bars. I’m a minimalist kind of guy.
Accessibility is so important in gaming nowadays. Giving players the ability to customize their moment-to-moment experience to fit them is paramount to a great game. I guess some people like clutter; I don’t. But to each their own. Now if only I could turn off motion blur…
The animation in this game is…bad. Cutscenes especially, with their lip syncing and jagged motions put on pretty realistic character models. It’s a recipe for the uncanny valley. A YouTube channel called New Frame Plus has done an excellent video on how these character cutscenes work, and it makes sense why they’re so bad and so hard to do right.
But even aside from that, Aloy’s motions, especially in regards to specific motions, like button prompts, can be rough. A lot of them completely lack impact. It seems that, while the robots have incredibly intuitive animations that tell the player exactly when they’re on their last leg (sometimes literally), the humans, as with the combat, are only but an afterthought.
Repetition and Annoyance
This is going to sound spoiled, but there are some games I can’t stand repeating portions of. I mean that in a Game Over kind of way. When you die, you’re kicked to your last save. Dark Souls, of course, handled this well, with respawning all enemies when you die, but giving you incentive to go back and fight: to get all the souls you’ve lost. Resident Evil games – at least the older ones – are all about optimizing a route, and though you might die, you have knowledge of how to work your way through the maze more efficiently.
HZD is stuck somewhere between the old school dying and the Dark Souls way, and it frustrates the hell out of me.
So, to save in HZD – aside from autosaves – is to manually do it at one of the many bonfires around the world. And when you die, you’re booted back to whatever bonfire you last saved at, though with full health. A nice bonus. In theory, it’s not a bad system. But the problem is that HZD is open world. Which, again, might not be a problem, if fast travelling was free. It’s not – you have to go hunt animals, which can be annoying. And for a player like me, who doesn’t like fast travelling because you lose a lot of the potential XP in the area, it can be downright annoying when I saved 30 or so minutes ago.
Metal Gear Solid V had an interesting way of doing saves. Similar to HZD, but with checkpoints around the different sectors of the map, clearly marked. When you died, you got booted back to wherever the last checkpoint you crossed was. The genius of this – and I’m sure that MGSV isn’t the only game to do this – is that it encourages you to run around this great big open world without thinking much of saving. The last thing I want to do when I’m heading towards a clear destination is go out of my way to manually save. Added to that the giant machines everywhere that can destroy you in seconds, and minutes, if not hours of progress can be lost like that. Sorry, oh well, try again!
We’re wrapping up here, but I want to just lightning round a few minor annoyances I had throughout the game.
- Climbing. God, why. Why include climbing if it’s not going to be challenging at all. Or at least interesting. Moving the control stick in a direction and watching Aloy just go there is horrendous. It’s why no one talks about the climbing in Uncharted. And when Aloy jumps big gaps, why does it go slo-mo? There’s no suspense involved. Yeah, she’s going to make it. I’ve seen it 50 other times. Slo-mo while aiming makes sense. Accuracy. Climbing, when it’s really just an animation? 2000 called, they want their special effects back.
- The voice acting. Aside from a few main characters, it’s rough at best. It’s like Guerrilla told the VAs to “talk naturally”, with a good helping on “um’s” and “uh’s” and pauses. It works in a movie, when I can see the actor’s face. But with bumbling animation that struggles to handle the easiest of sentences? It feels like a waste of my time.
- Doing a quick save at a bonfire turns the screen completely black for a few seconds. This is annoying, especially because 95% of the time I save I am running at a full sprint. It wouldn’t work with Dark Souls’ way either, because I don’t want to stop and sit. Either get rid of the black screen, or come up with a seamless way to save. Hm, maybe like checkpoints.
- Why does opening the map screen start new music? I hate the inventory / map music. It sucks. It completely kills the mood of whatever I was doing. Especially if I’m in the middle of a fight. Just keep the overworld music going. It can’t be that hard.
- You know, for something called a silent strike, it certainly is loud. Shoving a spear into machine parts with loud grinding and smashing noises. Good thing everyone in HZD is deaf, I guess.
- There’s a Metal Flower underground in the first ruins Aloy visits, when she’s 6. Even with the map showing the locations of the Metal Flowers, this one’s not there, because it’s on a different level as the overworld. Besides that, to get to it you have to smash through stalactites, which never once happened before and I don’t believe happens again. If it does, it’s rare. Getting this Flower was awful.
- Corrupted machines have a sort of poison effect linger behind them paths called corruption. It’s not usually an issue, but when doing a silent strike or critical hit Aloy can take repeated damage for being in that spot as long as the animation lasts. This sucks. I’m getting damaged for being sneaky.
- Why does Aloy, when at full sprint, sometimes jump over stuff automatically, and other times not? What’s the benchmark? Should I just jump?
- I hate running around Meridian. It’s a giant circle with exits on either side. And if I’m in a rush trying to save before I leave for work? Welp, I have to make my way ALLLLLL the way around to the one campfire in the whole damn city.
- The best a 2017 game can do to justify my character literally mass murdering is saying “yeah, you killed him, but trust us these guys were horrid”. It just baffles me that it’s the best we can do. This wouldn’t be a problem if Aloy didn’t care so damn much about every “good” person she meets. As long as they don’t show up orange on her radar. Also, there are some serious implications with a radar being able to place people in either “good” and “bad” categories. Like, that’s some Black Mirror shit.
This is a difficult category to explain, because it’s pretty much all theory. The impact of your average game is negligible. Seriously, what future games did Crackdown 3 inspire? Most recycle mechanics or have a few fresh ones never to be used again.
Some games impact the entire games industry – Breath of the Wild, Dark Souls, Minecraft. Some games define literal console generations – The Last of Us and Uncharted, or Grand Theft Auto V, which really defined two and might reach over to the next gen.
So what we have to look at is HZD’s best parts. Its combat. Its graphics. Its atmosphere. And think – can these be applied to other games? I mean, Dark Souls literally now has a genre named after it. How soon before Horizon: Zero Dawnlikes?
Probably not gonna happen. HZD combat, while easily fantastic, full of solid concepts, and most importantly fun, really has no applications beyond, well, HZD. Unless we start seeing more robot dinosaurs in games (which, three years on, we haven’t), then the combat dies with the game.
Well, what about the graphics? This is actually an interesting point. HZD runs on the Decima engine. The only other popular games that have are Until Dawn – which ran so incredibly badly on my PS4 – and Death Stranding, which looks fantastic. I think that HZD will be remembered for its graphics far longer than fighting machines. It sounds weird, but I honestly believe it’s a main selling point for the game. Plus, it’s why I heard about it, remember? I think that the Decima engine has some of the best landscapes in the market. If we combined it with DICE’s Frost Engine, then we’d be looking at a new age of realism in games (I realize that engines don’t work like that but let me dream).
And its atmosphere? What HZD does so right in this regard is by making the world feel alive. The Witcher 3 tried this, and was okay, but it still felt somewhat gamey. I’m looking forward to a time where it’s not even a surprise to see leaves blowing realistically in the wind. The upcoming Ghost of Tsushima actually looks to push the atmosphere to the next level, and I’m excited to see where it goes for the PS5 and the Xbox Series X.
So will Horizon: Zero Dawn be remembered? Because that’s the real testament to a good game. I still pick up The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on my N64. It may be outdated as hell graphically and even mechanically, but it’s such a solid game. 10 or 20 years from now, will people still be playing HZD?
Honestly, I don’t think so. There’s so much fat that could be trimmed, and enough flaws to drag it down, that I can’t believe people will want to shuffle through the fat to fight robot dinosaurs. I mean, obviously I could be wrong. But for all these recent games that get lauded after they release, how many will honestly be played far into the future? I can only think of a few worthy of that, and HZD falls short.
And that’s, ultimately, my problem with the vast majority of these soulless open world games. There’s so much bloat, because the developers are so afraid of the game ending, that it becomes a chore in certain parts. I definitely didn’t enjoy most of the cutscenes in the game. I would have liked less time spent on a flawed story and perfect protagonist.
Don’t get me wrong – there are hundreds of games far worse than HZD, some likely praised by critics. But judging HZD on its own, it relies too heavily on open world mainstays that ultimately fail and a great combat system that’s too specific to have a legacy and, at the end, only half-breaks the mold of what an open world game can be.