Horizon: Zero Dawn – As good as it looks?

If you have even a passing interest in video games then I’m sure you’d have come across Horizon: Zero Dawn at some point over the last couple of weeks. Unless of course you’ve been living under a rock, which is obviously your choice. Even if you don’t recognise the name, you’ll recognise the advertising for sure. Red headed woman, robot animals, brightly coloured grass and sky. Looks slick. Looks good. Luckily it also released just before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild so people actually did play it, give it their time and provide comprehensive reviews before being sucked in by that behemoth. Those reviews happened to be rather good:

89% on Metacritic.

9.3/10 from IGN.

10/10 from PlayStation Lifestyle.

The list goes on. Obviously it must be quite the game then. One to knock Uncharted from the top spot of PlayStation’s exclusives list?! Well I pre-ordered it, I’ve played it and… it’s fine. Now don’t get me wrong, it gets a LOT of stuff right for sure and technically it has some very impressive features, but it feels quite unfinished to me. Almost like Guerrilla are holding back their best work for a sequel…?

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Draw me a distance… Truly impressive work.

Visually, it’s certainly impressive. From the swishing grass and the effects of the wind on Aloy’s hair and outfits to the sweeping vistas you get from vantage points which offer insane draw distances, Guerrilla knows how to get the best out of the PS4 in terms of graphical capabilities. The world is also varied and vibrant, with snowy mountains, harsh deserts and lush jungles to explore at your leisure. It’s also a fully open world from fairly early on in the game with no loading screens whatsoever, which is also impressive. The combat mechanics are also rather good. The bow in particular is very satisfying to use and Aloy controls well in a pinch, able to snap between stealthy crouch and full blown sprinting without much delay. And the sliding is pretty great. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve played – that’s awesome. Finally, the story is actually quite intriguing once you get into it and I found it pretty compelling in the end. This is a solid basis for a new IP – there is a reason that the post-apocalyptic world is the way it is and that reason is quite a good one, which I didn’t consider before playing.

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Get used to the bow… You’ll be seeing plenty of it.

Beyond that though, it doesn’t hit the spot for me at all. As I said, it feels rather unfinished, with a lot of elements borrowed from other games, but not improved upon. I’ve discussed this at length a couple of times and for all the things this game does right, there’s a lot that just doesn’t sit right with me. Every element it borrows is done better elsewhere. Firstly, the combat with humans. Totally unsatisfying in every way. The AI is passable I suppose, but even on the hardest difficulty they were no challenge at all and killing them was very bland. Head-shot here, head-shot there, stealth kill that isn’t that great… The bandit camps reminded me a lot of Far Cry 3 and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, both of which gave better experiences in different ways. In Far Cry these sections were more intense, with rewards for taking every enemy undetected. The AI was also smarter and every encounter with an enemy camp was a strategic play with numerous options for success or failure – especially late in the game. Shadow of Mordor was great because it gave more opportunities for vertical traversal… and it was just so brutal. That game borrowed heavily from other titles as well, but moving about the world, the stealth takedowns and combat in general felt so good. The controller rumbled fiercely, the animations were very slick and you could really feel the dagger rip the windpipe out of those Orcs. In Horizon all of this is bland. You can play it tactically and stealth it up, but there’s no point. You can’t climb most of the crumbling building either, which I expected you’d be able to given Aloy’s nimble feats elsewhere. It’s easier to just rush in, headshot everyone, hide from backup in long grass and repeat. They won’t find you. The stealth takedowns look pretty flashy, but there’s a lot of realism in the rest of the game and sometimes these takedowns just look weird as Aloy flips around them elaborately, when a spear in the back would do just as good. The humans feel like paper enemies. There’s barely any gore either. Killing fleshy enemies in Shadow of Mordor or The Witcher 3 isn’t hard, but the executions are brutal as hell, meaning you don’t mind seeing them repeated as much purely because they’re so satisfying to watch. I got none of this satisfaction from Horizon.

This extends to the robot creatures that dot the landscape, which is clearly where most of the technical effort in this game went. I like all of the designs for sure. These are pretty fantastic, borrowing from living animals and tweaking them to create fearsome foes. I like how they move and how individual each creature is. I like the story behind them and how everything knits together. And I like their AI as well – they all move and strike in different ways, that are often unpredictable. But again… not very satisfying to actually kill them. It’s kind of like the difference between killing humans and synths in Fallout 4. The synths are fine, they blow up, bits come off them and they have fancy guns… but it’s just not as fun as shooting the legs off a human, or watching as your bullets burst through their skulls in slo-mo. And that’s what games are about, isn’t it? Fun factor! A game doesn’t need to be hyper violent for this to occur – look at Ratchet and Clank. Cartoon violence, safe for kids but fun as all hell. The satisfaction there comes from the sheer variety of guns and how much of a blast they all are to use. All of Horizon’s weapons are pretty dull. The bow is pretty satisfying, but the tripcaster is dull, the sling is dull… you get the idea. All of the weapon upgrades are also just tiny variations of the exact same thing, just beefed up a little damage-wise.

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The creature design is very impressive.

Now, the robot AI being good is both a blessing and a curse, because although the game hands you these tools to hunt them with and get clever, you rarely get the opportunity to actually BE clever. Too many times I was killed simply by trying to get from point A to point B and running into a group of enemies who instantly dash straight for you – many of them can kill you in one or two hits which is realistic, I suppose, but pretty bloody annoying when you just want to enjoy the game. The dodging is also frustrating. Aloy can roll well, but sometimes the machines just get you anyway. In Dark Souls you die because you make a mistake. Here, you die just.. Because the thing you’re fighting is better than your character. The rewards for toughing it out and besting these beasts are also quite mediocre and not worth the trouble most of the time. In story missions however, there were some great moments where you can get the edge on groups of robots in semi-scripted events where you get a vantage over them, set up trip lines, spook them and then watch the carnage… but in the open world, this is not often an option and I mostly just resorted to legging it while sniping at them in slo-mo with the bow. That gets old pretty fast. Fortunately the save points are quite generous and common.

Perhaps the only negative that springs to mind about the world-building itself though is the people within it. They’re quite vanilla mostly. Some of the side missions are given by some colourful characters, but for the most part they are very bland. Aloy is terrific though – Ashly Burch does a great job with her vocals. And I have to mention the menu system. I hope they patch it a little, because these can be a bit of a ‘mare to navigate at times. They’re not the worst things ever – The Witcher 3 had pretty lousy menus at launch – but it’d be good if Guerrilla could streamline them more in the next outing.

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Ashly Burch is great as Aloy. Could she be PlayStations next mascot?

Now this must seem like a long and boring piece about me railing against this game, which I guess it is. Trust me though, this is not a terrible game and I don’t hate it at all. Far from it. It’s a solid title it has a lot of potential. It has a great story and protagonist, a beautiful and varied world that’s full of content and some solid mechanics, but I feel that many reviewers have let people down and I wanted to write something to set the record straight, from an honest, relatively casual gamer’s point of view.

I pre-ordered this title purely because SO MANY reviewers went crazy for this game (*cough* Greg Miller *cough* – I don’t personally have anything against the guy, he’s a laugh, but he does tend to over-hype) and said that this was amazing, 10/10, excellent, the best thing on PS4 yet… and it’s simply not. Breath of the Wild released for the Switch a week later and THAT has all the elements that make an excellent game. That is the realisation of potential in a franchise – the culmination of decades of work. This IP has a lot of potential for future greatness, and Guerrilla will have every opportunity to strive for perfection in the future – they’ve surely been given the green light for a sequel.

 As their first attempt at making an open world action RPG, this is a certainly a great attempt and I would recommend it, but amazing it is not. The greatest strengths here are the graphics and the main story beats. I’d say it’s more like something you can play while waiting for Elder Scrolls VI or something like that. And yes, I’ve made comparisons with many games throughout this little rant, but Horizon almost asks for these comparisons to be made – you can’t borrow so much and have no one notice. This is not an amazing game, but it’s definitely refreshing to see a really big budget, brand new IP with a great female protagonist have success in this current economic climate and I do look forward to what Guerrilla can do with it in the future.

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Thanks for taking the time to read. When I first played this game, I tried hard to look past the many flaws and try and see the game that all of those reviewers previously had apparently seen. But this did not happen, so I kind of felt the need to moan about it a little. It’s still good though… I’m actually playing it as I write this (it’s paused in the background, duh). Have you played it? What did you think? Whether you agree or disagree with me, let me know because I’m interested! Follow me @snakeintheplane for more and I’ll see you on the next Snake in the Plane!

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2 thoughts on “Horizon: Zero Dawn – As good as it looks?

  1. Good post. It’s okay if you experience with the game doesn’t line up with what others have experienced. I haven’t played too much of Horizon as yet, but it was pretty darn great from what I’ve tried. I also blame Breath of the Wild for taking me away from this game. Once I’ve finished the campaign and had my fill of Hyrule, I’m definitely coming back to hear the rest of Aloy’s story 😀

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  2. Oh for sure. Like I said, it’s good enough to keep me playing and experience the story, but it’s the slightly more frustrating elements of it and the fact that I feel they’re saving more for the next outing that keep me from wanting to platinum the thing for example. I wish I had the funds for a switch right now, but I can’t yet justify it for BOTW alone, though I’ve seen it in action and it’s fabulous.

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