“Damn wind. Never cared for being pushed around.”
The above words, spoken by Aloy, perfectly register the impetus for the PlayStation exclusive Horizon Zero Dawn. To break Horizon down into a simple narrative would read as follows: in a world shared by humans and machines, a young outcast seeks her origins and the identity of her mother, ultimately getting caught up in the politics of various tribes while discovering the darkness that led to the world’s current state.
This game’s true beauty can’t be adequately described using the typical terms associated with games (“open world,” “post-apocalyptic,” “rpg,” etc.) and their parts/elements. While I will delve into some of those mechanical elements, I will also discuss why I think Horizon is a well-woven (and surprise) near-masterpiece (not sure I can call it a masterpiece-that’s such a major claim!). Kudos to Guerrilla Games! Full disclosure: I’ve fallen absolutely in love with Horizon.
Horizon‘s protagonist is Aloy who is found as a baby by the matriarchal leaders of the Nora tribe and placed in the care of an outcast man named Rost. Although loved by Rost, Aloy lives a discontent childhood. It doesn’t take her long to realize the limitations of being an outcast, shunned by the Nora living around her. Even the local children tease and spit upon her. This situation causes Aloy confusion, frustration, and anger which leads to Rost preparing her for the Proving–a competitive event open to all Nora youth, even an outcast. If she completes the Proving, Aloy will become a warrior and her status as an outcast will be lifted. During her childhood, Aloy also discovers a piece of technology called a focus, which allows her to see things that Rost cannot and will eventually enable her to manipulate the machines living throughout the world and cue her into things related to the “old world.”
I’ll keep the plot to a minimum, but inevitably, Aloy passes the proving, However, an unexpected attack by a group of cultists thrusts Aloy’s life down a path where she will constantly be seeking answers about herself and her mother while firmly establishing her place in a constant battle against both machine and human to establish peace and essentially save the world from itself. Yeah, we’re talking small stuff here. Along the way, Aloy has the opportunity to make allies with the other tribes, to fight increasingly difficult machines, to explore diverse biomes, to collect an assortment of items, to learn skills, and to assist others with tasks ranging from finding a lost sibling to saving an entire village from an attack of corrupted machines.
For players, there is much to do and see. And boy, there is a lot to see in Horizon. The game is visually stunning and serves as an example of how far consoles have come to compete with the PC master race. Yes, a part of me is crying for saying that…While my screenshots are not of the best quality, they at least serve in showing the diversity of the game. In the above vista, you can see how gorgeous the game looks–there are forests, mountains, and deserts–and, for the most part, what you see you can reach. The game’s map is not separated by loading screens, unless you fast-travel of course, and the transition from a city like Meridian or a settlement like Mother’s Heart to the surrounding environment is seamless. In my 62 hours of play, I didn’t have any issues running the game. I didn’t see any noticeable fps drops or anything else that hindered the gameplay. My PS4 crashed once, but I think that has more to do with my PlayStation slowly dying than anything else.
Continuing with the visual quality of the game, Horizon‘s npcs were distinctive in appearance, voice, and character. One plus with Aloy’s interaction with them is that there are dialogue options, which aren’t as in-depth as some games but it’s a welcome system just the same. While the dialogue could be a bit corny at times, I didn’t notice an overabundance of look-alike npcs–enemy npcs tended to look the same–and their faces didn’t scramble or their eyeballs go off in odd directions when Aloy spoke with them. *cough Ubi* In fact, the glitchy-est thing I noticed was when I fast-traveled to a location and Aloy materialized on top of a camfire. Horizon is also somewhat forgiving to a player who tries pushing off the beaten trail. I’m pretty sure I climbed a few mountains in ways/paths they were not meant to be.
The appearance of the npcs is one of the things I am very excited about. Maybe my eyes have been closed, but I have never seen a game embrace women and diversity to the same extent that Horizon does. The mere presence of such variety in the game world was enough to be applauded, but Guerrilla Games didn’t stop there. Many, if not most, of the main quests and side missions included and featured characters of color. Finally, a game that is more realistic than the typical game featuring white, hypersexual males in their twenties and thirties. It is true that the first characters players are exposed to, Aloy and Rost, are white, but I’m not here to argue against white protagonists or redheads. Featuring a female protagonist is a big deal as is the Nora tribe being matriarchal. Having said that, I’m not claiming that the developer’s are making any statement about women or diversity. I think there’s a good paper or two that could be written about Horizon’s characters, but for now I’ll just say that I was pleased with Guerilla Game’s active efforts to produce a game with a realistic cast. Anyone who says male gamers don’t care for female protagonists and women in games should check out the sales for Horizon.
Aloy and her story also caught my attention. Aloy is serious, sarcastic, funny, sentimental, fierce, and even brash at times. She doesn’t liked to be pushed but pushes back against society and social norms, reveals its contradictions, and questions everyone. Sometimes she’s right and sometimes she’s wrong. Aloy is complex and feels real. Many role-playing games provide the player with the shell of a character so that the player can become that protagonist and virtually step into them, but with Horizon, I felt in a very good way that I was experiencing Aloy on her journey. As the player, I may have dictated what quests to complete and when or which machines to engage head-on or slink away from, but Aloy’s snark and comments reminded me that Aloy is independent and doesn’t need any projection of my self. I’m okay with that.
I felt for Aloy when she struggled with the realization of her mother’s identity and Aloy’s own purpose–her creation and fate. And I smiled when Aloy’s quest to find her mother resulted in Aloy becoming an unstoppable guardian–a parent in her own right–to each of the tribes and all that that means with the messy complexity of humanity’s faults and triumphs. Aloy’s story is generally well told. Some of the narrative turns are predictable, but Horizon doesn’t waste much time on these moments; it keeps pushing you through the plot with enough twists and turns to keep Aloy’s quest intriguing.
Players will find plenty of diversions if they want to put Aloy’s main story on hold, or slow the inevitable end as I did. I have the desire to 100% the game as the world calls for exploration and discovery. I don’t think I’ll ever find all the text files or audio logs, but I have received plenty of satisfaction from the attempt. Horizon‘s world, at least partly located in Colorado, is home to many ruins, villages, and astounding views. With the game’s photo mode, I found myself absorbed for minutes at a time trying to capture the perfect shot; Horizon‘s photo mode is only bested by Uncharted 4‘s, in my opinion. Sometimes the environment was unnerving and eerie, especially when I could hear a machine stomping around but couldn’t see it, and other times it was moving. The developer’s seemed to have gone for density and quality over breadth. Having said that, the map feels huge and full of life.
Speaking of life, when I first heard about Horizon, I was initially excited and then skeptical. The first trailer at E3 elicited a “that’s seems cool” response, but I also wondered how a game with bows and arrows would work with robotic animals. It turns out that the contrast blends together well enough to make Horizon unique on that element alone.
The machines come in a variety of sizes and types. They’re all potentially deadly and have their own weaknesses that allow for different approaches based on the player’s style and skill. In the beginning of the game, I tried to be stealthy. This was a necessity to a certain extent since I was easily killed by machines that would eventually become nothing more than a fly-like nuisance when I reached mid-game. It’s almost laughable how easily I crumbled to watchers and striders in my first few hours of play. I quickly leveled up Aloy and was able to handle many fights against a swarm of machines or two thunderjaws, once I realized how powerful Aloy’s traps could be. Mid to late game, I was a lot more confident, which sometimes resulted in an unceremonious death, and would run straight into a machine. I didn’t anticipate that I would say this considering the bow is Aloy’s primary weapon, but combat against machines is satisfying. Unfortunately, fighting humans is a lot more banal.
Horizon Zero Dawn genuinely surprised me. I hadn’t given it attention since it was announced at E3 in 2015. When this February rolled around and people started talking about it again, I mostly ignored the excited rumblings thinking that Mass Effect: Andromeda would be the game holding my attention for hours and blowing me away during the spring. I’ll soon find out if that’s the case, but Horizon is easily a 9 or 9.5/10 without question. I would really need to think about giving it a 10/10 because I’m not entirely sure a 10/10 game exists.
Horizon Zero Dawn has a strong, likable protagonist. The story is solid, the characters are quirky and distinctive, the combat is generally satisfying, the map is big but not too big, the campaign is an appropriate length, the weapon and armor choices are varied, the music is fitting, and there is plenty to see and do. The only negatives I can identify would be the typical over-abundance of items to collect in an open-world game, though Horizon doesn’t grievously sin in this area compared to other games, and the human-to-human combat is uninspiring.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a must play. It’s a masterpiece that I will be thinking about for a long time.