A Brave New World
Guerrilla is a studio most notably known for Killzone, a heavily first person focused shooter franchise entrenched in a gritty and dark future civil war, which makes their debut into the open world third person genre such a surprise. New IP is always exciting all by itself, and more so when it takes on such a fantastical setting as Horizon: Zero Dawn. A post apocalypse not of rusted browns and arid wastelands, but one of reclaimed nature: of green forests, sprawling jungles and ice capped mountain tops. A world where towering mechanical beasts roam the lands barring deadly cannons for teeth and jet engines for wings, while primitive human tribes hunt them for metal scrap. Horizon offers the player a delightful mystery of who, what, when and why wrapped up in stunning visuals and innovative gameplay. It's a wonderful breath of fresh air in a market full of sequels and gritty shooters, even if ultimately all too many rough edges clearly shine through in Guerrilla’s ambitious first step out of their comfort zone.
The world of Horizon
With the story being one of the main drives of the entire game, the less said the better, but the setup is both simple and effective. The player takes on the role of Aloy, a child outcast shunned to live out the rest of her days on the periphery of the Nora tribe, raised by an old hunter sharing a similar fate. This initial bit of mystery sets the gears in play for much bigger revelations to come, but it also marks the beginnings of intelligent story telling that hooks you with unanswered questions from the very start, and drives the player forward to seek out the answers that both yourself and Aloy so desperately want revealed.
It’s a shame that Aloy as a character seems to be completely at odds with the narrative. Raised in seclusion, in a tribe that actively fears and shuns technology, she is wise beyond her years and miles above all the other machine-God fearing primitives she meets along the way. In a world full of lore and mystery, she doesn’t feel like another character in the story as much as your typical videogame protagonist plucked down from any other game, there to save the day and right all wrongs. There are plot based arguments to be made for why she is the way she is, but ultimately it doesn’t make up for the anachronistic divide you feel throughout your journey. It’s not that she’s an unlikeable character, although she’s not especially endearing either, it’s just that in this carefully crafted world she’s a completely unbelievable one.
The story itself while initially engaging, takes several detours into tribal subplots that feel neither inspired nor interesting making you impatiently await the moment it gets back on the sci-fi track of things. When you do finally get there, the game lays the exposition down thick and heavy in the worst possible way: through a series of text and audiologs. These recordings get so numerous towards the latter half of the experience that you’re literally forced to stand in place, waiting for each to finish before exploring any other part of the level in fear of ambient dialog gratingly overlapping with the audio recording you’re already listening to. Likewise much of the heaviest exposition is told not through engaging cutscenes, but by watching stiff characters monologue at one another while you run donuts around the room. It’s a real shame that such an interesting story, and arguably the strongest aspect of the entire game, is ultimately presented in the dullest way possible.
At the core of Horizon is combat. Equipped with a set of bows and some primitive tools, engaging with the menacing machines can seem intimidating at first until you learn the clever mechanics driving each engagement. Rather than simply dealing damage over time to meaty health bars the game tasks the player with systematically stripping down the defenses of your enemies in the most literal sense possible. Every machine you encounter has weak spots that are usually covered in armor plating, and through the use of her various tools Aloy can strip that plating away to expose, for example, explosive elemental canisters that can be ignited for massive damage. Like a seasoned bull fighter you dance around the beasts, wearing them down with precise pokes and jabs until the momentum of battle has turned to your favor and the once ferocious Sawtooth is now hobbling about, throwing off showers of sparks from damage, barely strong enough to support it’s own weight.
These encounters can be quite thrilling and the diverse set of tools at your disposal lenda lot of variety to fighting even the same enemies multiple times as you fine tune your approach with each encounter. Apart from her bows which feature varying elemental projectiles, there is a harpoon gun that will tie machines down for a while giving you room to breath or a tripwire launcher that will shock, explode or set ablaze any machine charging blindly through it. All your weapons serve an intelligent purpose and it’s learning how to properly combine your arsenal against specific foes that is key in solving the “combat puzzle” of each encounter. Tramplers, huge mechanical bulls that furiously charge in your direction, are very susceptible to the tripcaster, stampeding blindly into it’s tripwires. The ferocious Sawtooths can be easily taken out by setting their blaze canisters on fire and watching the subsequent explosion rip armor plating off their bodies in a satisfying shower of scrap for you to salvage.
Unfortunately the other side of the combat medal, so to speak, is fighting against other humans and that is where things take a turn for the worse. There is no real nuance to fighting other human beings in Horizon. Apart from the minimalistic stealth system that allows you to hide in tall grass and lure unsuspecting foes within range of your stealth strike all you are left with are prolonged bow fights, potentially lobbing a few grenades here and there, or worse yet engaging with the horrible melee system. Melee in Horizon is something of an enigma when compared to the carefully crafted mechanics put in place for fighting the machines. It is truly hard to imagine that someone over at Guerrilla played the game and said “yah this works great” which must mean that other extenuating circumstances led to its sorry state. Aloy has a light and heavy attack utilizing her spear, the only melee weapon in the game, both of which are very animation heavy, and make use of an invisible lock-on. At best you aim our protagonist in the general direction of your assailant, machine or otherwise, and hope that your attack will land before they hit you or simply that it will land at all. The wind-up on both swings is so slow that often times it will get interrupted mid animation, or worse yet you won’t magnetize properly to your enemy and go off course stabbing at thin air. There are upgrades that make your heavy swing a viable option for felling medium sized machines into a stunned state, but it is so wonky that you’re actively detracted from using it.
Along with the melee comes the somewhat unreliable dodge mechanic which seems inadequate for evading a lot of attacks even after you’ve upgraded it’s stride. Almost every single machine in the game is capable of quickly leaping at Aloy from across the screen, often following up with even up to two more consecutive attacks - and you take a lot of damage from these attacks. Since Horizon doesn’t feature any real lock on for enemies a lot of encounters with the more ferocious and mobile foes turns into a series of hectic dodge rolls in the general direction away from the enraged machine, followed by frantically trying to re-orient the camera out of the bushes or rocks you’ve more than likely wedged yourself into. Even on normal difficulty the machines give you very little breathing room, constantly pouncing at you from great distances, which seems to be at odds with the measured and precise nature of all your weapons. Combine this with a health system that regenerates only the first segment of your health bar after you’ve exhausted all your healing items, the incredible amounts of damage that even the smallest machines can deal out with a single attack, and the awkward checkpoint system that sends you back to the last bonfire you’ve saved at no matter how long you’ve been playing when you’re outside of main missions, and combat encounters can be incredibly frustrating just as often as they’re exhilarating.
Fueling all this fighting is a fairly clumsy crafting system. Every type of ammunition is crafted from at least two types of resources and needs to be continuously maintained as you make your way through this hostile machine infested world. You will quickly grow accustomed to mashing the triangle button at a consistent rate as you run by branches you need to harvest for arrows, plants you need for health and elemental ammo, animal skins you need to increase your quiver size and inventory space, machine hearts, metal, blaze canisters, echos, shards, bones, lenses.. It gets pretty exhausting. You’d think with this many crafting components used to not only fashion arrows and bombs, but also expand your carrying capacity and even your ability to purchase new gear from vendors, there would be a comprehensive and intricate inventory system - well you would be wrong. Managing all these components is a mess, and sooner or later you will have to manage them as the game will stack different resources into arbitrarily designated stacks and fill your precious slots up with useless bundles of blaze when you need room for that boar skin that will be used to increase your carrying slot capacity in the first place. Prepare yourself to stand above a rabbit or turkey and see the dreaded 50/50 icon on it’s carcass right next to the component you’ve been trying to obtain for the past hour indicating a full inventory and the need to open up that mess of a screen and decide what to drop this time. I won’t even get into the whole weapon wheel and having to pause the game and swap out weapons in your inventory in mid fight because someone thought it would be a great idea to have 3 different bows that all deal different types of elemental damage.
The biggest problem with Horizon though is that there is a real lack of variety in the activities you engage in for an open world game. Every single thing you do will either boil down to fighting machines or fighting other tribals, which grows first predictable at first and then just tiresome. There is no real puzzle solving apart from some extremely basic lock combinations you encounter a handful of times throughout the game. From beginning to end you will engage with the same basic formula of finding tracks, highlighting them in your detective vision, and following them to, you guessed it, a fight with humans or machines. For such a stunning and geographically varied world there is no real verticality to your movement or any real platforming aspect to engage in. Aloy can only climb onto designated ledges and handholds appropriately color coded for the player to recognize to the point where at times it feels like a game from the early 2000’s where a knee high ledge would bar your progress because it wasn’t a ledge your character could specifically climb over. The few climbing segments that do exist, mainly involving a clever take on tower climbing minigame to reveal parts of the map, are so simplistic and automatic that they can be performed with your eyes closed. There is no real exploration either as there isn’t anything interesting to be found in the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful world, but there are no mysterious ruins or unique weapons to be found. The entire world is built to serve as a series of interconnected battle arenas for the various mechanical wildlife roaming about, which all ties back into the extremely cluttered crafting system.
Guerrilla built a really fun and varied combat system which they should be complimented for, but then didn’t build out any other aspect of the game, and as fun as it is to fight machines (and machines only) having every single other aspect of Horizon funnel down to those encounters against the same set of mechanized enemies again and again and again grows weary no matter how fun it is. To end on a positive note you can’t not mention how great this game looks. Horizon seems to be almost made for taking screenshots as everywhere you turn there is either a stunning sunrise casting shadows over rocky cliffsides, or a dreamy haze drifting between the mossy tree trunks under a full moon. The machines look spectacular and animate in an oddly lifelike manner - prowling low to the ground like actual cats before pouncing forward or digging their hooves in the ground and rearing their armored heads as they charge at you. The lighting is phenomenal and on top of all this the game performance never suffers even on a base PS4.
Horizon is a really fresh and interesting idea, and a phenomenal IP debut from the makers of the Killzone games. While playing the game I’d remark in equal measure “wow I can’t believe this is made by the same people that made Killzone” and “oh yah this is definitely made by the same people that made Killzone.” That said, it’s hard to ignore all the rough edges that are clearly a result of the studio being new to the genre. A game can’t ride it out on the premise alone no matter how great that initial premise is, and it would be strange to overlook in Horizon all the same things we admonish in other open world games. If nothing else Zero Dawn makes me that much more excited for what Guerrilla will eventually make next.
Despite all my criticisms if you have a PS4 it’s a game I would definitely recommend. Some will take to it’s combat better than others, but at the end of the day I think it’s a world worth experiencing.