Friday, 17 March 2017
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
On paper, the concept for Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t really make it especially endearing. Beyond the gorgeous visuals and cool robot designs was yet another game that seemed to be built from the same mushy, formless open-world mechanics that have now taken over the multiplayer shooter as the dominant form of most AAA video game releases.
The game has crafting (because every game must have a crafting system), side quests (because there needs to be “content”) and various other watered down RPG mechanics in order to justify the fact that the game takes place in an open world. Like I said, on paper, the idea of this game being something unique wasn’t particularly promising.
Horizon Zero Dawn has all of these trademark mechanics and yet, somehow, it manages to rise above, use them, and mould them into something more interesting than dozens of other similar games.
The primary reason for this, is its focus on telling an engaging story. Horizon is heavily devoted to the tale it sets out to tell. Set in a future post-post apocalyptic Earth, the world has been ravaged by some long forgotten conflict and has now begun to grow back once again as a hunter-gatherer society.
The game follows the life of Aloy, a young outcast who’s shunned by the rest of her tribe for some unknown reason. I could go on explaining the set up of the plot, but I won’t bother. Not only is it worth experiencing for yourself, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it, it’s also long and slow-paced, in a good way. Developers Guerrilla take their damn time building up their central protagonist; slowly interweaving story and character developments whilst also gently introducing a myriad of different gameplay elements, from the crafting system, to the stealth, to how to hunt different creature effectively.
The hunting is the primary focus of Horizon Zero Dawn’s gameplay and combat. Robotic creatures inhabit various locations across the map and can be hunted for parts and different loot. Basic variants are typical grazing creatures and won’t pose too much of a threat; venture further out however and you begin to encounter Ravagers and Snapjaws, Glint Hawks and Lancehorns.
Many games hint at a varied combat system, one that claims to force you to shift your strategy to tackle different enemies, but very few manage to deliver on this promise. Horizon gets pretty darn close. Different parts of each enemy creature can be damaged and broken off, resulting in additional loot and the enemy likely losing access to to one of their attacks, meaning there’s strategic considerations for targeting a particular body part. Break off the machine gun attachment on top of a Ravager for instance, and not only will it no longer have access to a long range attack, Aloy can pick up the gun and turn it on the creature.
Moreover, each creature and the various bits and pieces attached to them have different weaknesses, encouraging you to experiment with Aloy’s entire tool kit. What starts as simply creeping around stealth-killing a few enemies and shooting them a with a basic bow, slowly expands to juggling multiple different weapons, status effects and various traps.
Likewise, the enemies themselves have a certain eco-system that makes them more interesting to fight and strategize against. Watchers, early-warning creatures with sharp eyesight and, later on, the ability to spot you even when you’re in cover, stalk the periphery of many of the game’s hunting grounds, preventing you from freely sneaking up on the bigger but short-sighted creatures.
This means that stealth, whilst not enforced, is gently encouraged through Horizon: Zero Dawn. Not only does it enable you to get all important critical hits and stealth attacks on more dangerous foes, vital against some of the bigger enemies in the game, it also helps you scout out the environment, make note of the number of enemies, and plan out your method of attack.
Whilst the monster hunting and looting might be the core of the game, Guerrilla bolster this with their range of side quests and additional missions. Again, this is nothing that we haven’t seen before, but by significantly cutting back on the number, and investing more time and energy into making the ones that are there more unique and interesting, they’re made all that more worth completing.
Here, the game takes notes from The Witcher 3, making sure the side quests are actually side quests, rather than simply icons on your map screen that can be grinded away to completion. Clambering up Tallnecks meanwhile, is Horizon’s equivalent of Assassin’s Creed’s towers; expanding the map as you complete them. Yet, these again are handled with more nuance and care than Ubisoft have given them in a longer time, for starters there’s only around six of them, and each requires more patience and forethought than simply clambering up them. First, you’ve got to navigate the environment and work out how to jump onto them in the first place.
Other side quests, such as hunting challenges and bandit camps are likewise familiar, but aren’t padded out to extreme lengths and so retain more interest. To be fair, fighting human enemies is never particularly engaging in Horizon. Whilst the robot creatures have their own attack patterns and strengths and weakness, human foes all basically work the same way and so aren’t nearly as interesting to fight.
The skill tree is perhaps the one place that the game doesn’t particularly expand on the open world conventions of the past five years. It’s the usual woolly, level up system that most similar games trade in and it’s not all that fun. There’s the typical vague, “make this attack a little better” or “get more loot” but it’s not all that exciting in and of itself and doesn’t do much to differentiate any particular playstyle from another. There’s some abilities that are clearly better than others, and you want to pick those up first. It’s not as if you’re building your own character.
Similarly, modifications aren’t particularly fun to use. All of them are very basic percentage boosts either to basic damage or elemental potency when it comes to weapons, whilst armour mods are the same but for damage reduction, resistances or stealth. The fact that, unless you’ve unlocked a particular skill, mods cannot be removed without destroying them, means there’s little incentive to mix them around and experiment. Meanwhile, some (most notably the armour modifications) have such minor boosts to your stats that it barely gives you much reason to care about the system at all.
These are mostly minor quibbles mind to what remains an enjoyable yarn from beginning to end. Horizon Zero Dawn has genuine scale, and is gorgeous to look at to boot. Travelling from one end of the map to the other, which you’ll have done by the time the main quest is through, feels like a genuine adventure in its own right. Guerrilla know how to create some cool looking sci-fi contraptions, and the sight of older, mechanized monsters buried in the desert or frozen on a mountainside is genuinely impressive and feeds into the game’s focus on a civilization that’s trapped between an uncertain future and a past that it knows very little about.
Aloy’s journey is a surprisingly moving one. Coming from a developer that’s spent the last decade making games about gunning down wave after wave of men and machines, Horizon Zero Dawn takes a surprisingly progressive and emotional look at humanity’s last days. Without going into spoilers, this is as much a story about the last survivors of Earth prior to the apocalypse, as much as it is Aloy’s, and the game places a sharp focus on the world’s capacity to co-operate, learn and adapt rather than on its ability to build weapons and shoot them at one another.
It’s smart storytelling in other words. It has a few hiccups now and then, the story itself is great but suffers from a few pacing problems (as do most open world games), where the bits and pieces of the story can feel too episodic and not particularly interconnected. Likewise, despite having a bevy of cool robots to fight, the last few bosses in the main campaign are the same two robot variants with bullet sponging health bars that don’t nearly show off the creativity of the combat system as much as they should.
All of these relatively minor criticisms don’t take away from Horizon Zero Dawn’s successes, however. This is a lovingly crafted game from its story to its gameplay.
It’s ironic in many respects, considering that the game shares a lot of ideas with Far Cry Primal, the absolute nadir of Ubisoft’s open-world design. Much like The Witcher 3 however, Horizon elevates the genre, and shows that, with a bit more care and attention (and some judicious editing), you can still craft something fresh and engaging out of the same old mechanics.