I think that Horizon does some things right. The most obvious and most striking thing about it is that it’s downright gorgeous, and that’s coming from a guy who spends a lot of time playing PC games. Guerilla games have implemented some insane technical wizardry before, to make games like Killzone 2 and 3 look miles better than anything the competition could dream of, but this is something else. Breathtaking vistas are never more than a hike away, vegetation is plentiful and active and blows in the wind and moves whenever someone or something runs into it. Mechanical beasts with many moving, individual parts of their own populate these lands, providing both awe and fear to any player who hasn’t become an expert yet. And there’s no shortage of organic wildlife, either, though the biggest living animal you’ll ever shoot is a boar. All of this runs at a smooth, generally stable 30FPS on a slim PS4. I don’t know what resolution the base version of the game runs at, but every bit of this beautiful game is clear, largely unmuddied by aliasing or fog or texture pop-in. If you’re looking for a treat for your eyes, this is certainly a great candidate.
Looks aren’t the only thing Horizon: Zero Dawn does right. It’s also a lot of fun to just play. Aloy is a very responsive character – she can sprint, jump, roll out of the way, and slide with the best of them, and I have never felt like there was a noticeable delay in any of my actions. This smooth movement translates to combat really well – I never felt like I died because I couldn’t control things well enough. I was initially concerned that shooting only a bow-and-arrow for the entire game would be grating. Analog sticks, after all, aren’t generally so hot for aiming. Horizon is one of those games that proves that aiming can be good in console games, with just the right amount of auto-aiming and aim-assist to make your mechanical monster-slaying feel precise and accurate. If you ever feel like something’s too small or fast for you to hit, the game gives you some bullet-time to play with. It’s only a bit, but if you need a fast adjustment, it’s there and extremely easy to access. This all results in some gameplay that generally feels really good and often enough feels pretty great.
There are several ways in which the game falls apart to me. Most significantly, the story just doesn’t have any punch to it. When thinking about the story’s moving parts from a purely mechanical perspective, it all fits together well enough, and there are some elements that I’m generally interested in seeing through. For instance, I’ve only been through one ruin, but it was one of the highlights of the game for me so far, and it served to reinforce how much I’m interested in finding out what happened to the world. But it’s been difficult to maintain that level of interest when I have to put up with the Nora. The beginning of the game introduce the Nora as a representative of what civilization has become in this post-apocalypse. Aloy, the game’s protagonist, has lived her entire life as a Nora outcast alongside Rost, another Nora outcast. Nobody from the tribe will talk to a shunned outcast and Aloy has no idea why she’s an outcast. It seems like the Nora will outcast anyone for any crime, from violent murder (no problem with that) to even so much as visiting somewhere outside of the Nora’s sacred lands (you shun anyone who dares to have an interest in other groups? That sucks). The Nora Matriarchs see you talking to an outcast? You’re now outcast yourself. They catch wind that you went to an area called Devil’s Thirst? Say goodbye to the tribe! You were captured and dragged away from your homeland? Don’t even attempt to go back, the Matriarchs won’t accept an outcast. It’s annoying, and the Nora’s blind and superstitious fear of anything mechanical made them almost unbearable for me by the time I left their sacred land.
Fortunately, Aloy gets away from the Nora within the first ten hours of the game and you then start interacting with the Carja. In an attempt to make this succinct – the Carja used to be total dicks to everyone but they have a new king and are all really sorry and they just want to help everyone. It’s saying something that I find the Carja much more acceptable as people when they were bloodthirsty slavers and war-mongers just a few years before the game begins. Unfortunately, this doesn’t result in more interesting characters, only more bearable ones. I haven’t made it much further into the story than this, but thus far Horizon is a clockwork story. It’s ticking along with perfect time, but it’s not really doing anything more memorable than that so far. I really would like at least one character to show up that I’m interested in, but no one really has any charisma thus far. Erend is OK, I guess, but I also had to look up his name just to type in this sentence if that tells you anything.
Let’s go back to gameplay mechanics, all right? The moment-to-moment gameplay feels good, sometimes great, as mentioned above. But the larger character progression doesn’t. And this is more a problem with the “all-game” that every AAA game is becoming. You know, how every single player game released by a major publisher these days is a psuedo-RPG, with leveling and gear and crafting and none of it really feels like it comes together well. The same holds true for Horizon, though to its credit it comes together better than most. You fight, you do quests, you level up, every level gets you some more health, and every level gets you another skill point to dump into another ability. I would like to see this game take the extra leap and become an RPG-proper, where I can dump points into Strength and Dexterity and Vitality and stuff like that. As it stands, I don’t feel like leveling up itself is a good measure of how strong Aloy has gotten. Level 19 Aloy doesn’t feel that much more powerful than Level 3 Aloy, aside from having more health. Instead, all improvements have come from crafting new packs for new items (for the love of God, either let me hold everything or give me a carry weight, I hate going “I can hold three potions and three traps and thirty “resources” and five modifications and three outfits and so on and so forth) and from buying new weapons.
One of the reasons a studio might decide to go with a “psuedo-RPG” approach to developing a character might be to simplify things a bit while still having some form of character growth. Part of a proper RPG, after all, is examining and developing stats so that you can grow a character in a specific direction. But Horizon throws a lot of stats at you anyway and they’re all in the gear you’re using. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but these stats are mostly represented by symbols that the game flat-out doesn’t explain. Seriously, where the fuck am I supposed to find a list of these symbols, and what do they mean? I can guess fire, ice, and electricity, that’s easy enough, but there’s one that looks like a hand and one that looks kinda like a broken heart. What do those mean and why should I care? Can I please, please just get a flat damage stat? And maybe also a range and fire rate stat? Those things would be extremely helpful in determining that this merchant is selling a better bow than the one I currently have. Yes, “damage – range – fire rate” are all extremely boilerplate stats to put on a weapon, but they are so damn common and so conventional because they’re so easy to understand and require virtually no explanation. If you want weapons that do different things then you can definitely add other stats. You could, for instance, have elemental weapons that don’t do as much damage but are more likely to catch guys on fire. These same complaints apply to armor, too, here called “outfits” which is probably a more accurate term. Every stats needs a more clear explanation and it’s nowhere to be found, outside of loading screen hints and looking them up on the internet.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game I’ve been enjoying. I don’t doubt that and neither should anyone who might read this. At the same time, nothing about it is really “clicking” with me. I want to like this game, and nothing about it is pushing me away enough for me to really stop playing. There’s a promise of something I might love somewhere in here, but if it’s there, it’s elusive, and I’m not a hundred percent sure it’s worth it. I plan on playing more of it. If I ever find the special something I’m looking for in this game and it pushes me to finish it, then I’ll post another blog or a review of it. Otherwise, these thoughts might wind up being my final thoughts on the game.
What about you guys? Did anyone else feel this way about the game and later find something that made it way better?