An Improbable Game of the Year Contender
Even after playing over fifty hours of Horizon: Zero Dawn, I still can’t believe Guerilla Games were capable of making something like this. There was no good reason too, really. The Killzone franchise had its moments, but the only thing anyone remembers about those games is how incredibly brown they were. You could’ve convinced me pretty easily that the creative heads of the studio had never heard of the color wheel, let alone seen any of these hues with their own eyes. But hey, it was the mid to late 2000s. Everyone was chasing authenticity, or at least the appearance of it. Desaturated palettes were all the rage at the time, thanks to the cultural dominance of machismo-laden war games (Call of Duty, Gears of War) and, tangentially, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Increasingly powerful technology and a lack of imagination led to a pervasive beigeness that afflicted much of the last decade. But while Killzone was far from the only series featuring such a palette, it was certainly among the more egregious proponents of the style.
That history made the reveal of Horizon at E3 2015 all the more shocking. Here was this brand new IP, brimming with creative energy, that looked so unlike anything else, with a world that was immediately looked like the coolest thing in the world… and it was from the people who made a mostly forgotten series about shooting depersonalized space fascists? I don’t know how we got here, but I’m happy we made it. The pre-release showings that followed afterward kept that excitement level high, but too many games have looked excellent before letting hopeful fans down once they were out in the wild. It’s one of the main reasons why I didn’t pick up the game when it was released six months ago - well that, and a severe shortage of disposable income. There’s no way the game could be live up to the hype, right?
For the most part, it totally does. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that constantly induces and indulges curiosity. Open-world games have become increasingly ubiquitous over the last couple years, perhaps as a way for developers to keep single-player games off of the used game market. Persona 5 has more flash, Grand Theft Auto 5’s cartoonish parody of modern America is more recognizable, but the world of Horizon is the most fascinating open-world I’ve explored since the capital wasteland of Fallout 3.
The design of the robotic animals never got old to me, and discovering how creations this futuristic exist in the same stretch of time as these tribal humans compelled me to see this story to its conclusion. I just had to know. Even doing nothing is a worthwhile exercise. To say Horizon is one of the best-looking games ever made is as obvious as saying Rihanna is attractive, but it still bears mentioning. Photo modes have never been much of a value add for me, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures of every skyline, every mountain top, every moment where the moonlight glided across the top of the grass at the perfect angle. If this universe had Instagram, I would be completely insufferable.
It still has the feel of a developer’s first attempt at a genre in a few ways. Horizon features several systems, but they don’t intermingle in the ways I hoped they would. I can count the number of times I saw the robots attacking anyone other than me on one hand. I was really hoping for more instances of tramplers chasing after lancers or some other examples of emergent gameplay that wasn't directly connected to plot beats in missions. These restrictions on the game’s spontaneity were at their most glaring when I made my way to the city of Sunfall. Sunfall is a very important place in the context of the game’s story, a capital city in the desert area of the map, full of people who don’t think highly of the exploits of your player character, Aloy. But you can get there before the story deems it necessary for you to go there, and the game doesn’t really account for this possibility. All you get is a message from Sylens, a mysterious man played by Lance Reddick who guides you throughout the story, suggesting that you steer clear of the place. There’s no obstruction from entering this place, no barrier to show you that you really shouldn’t be here. It’s just another city carved in the rock, with a merchant to do service with and a fire where you can save your progress.
The gameplay provides plenty of cover for the game’s few deficiencies. Horizon’s mix of resource management and cinematic combat in an open world based in nature is obviously derivative of the Far Cry series, but the fact that you spend most of your time battling robotic creatures is a substantial twist on the formula. There is a real emphasis on strategy and planning that I really appreciated. Even as you become more adept with the controls and gain access to more skills, the game maintains a more-than-adequate level of challenge. Most of the enemies can still kill pretty quickly if you’re too sloppy. The Thunderjaws are the most extreme example of this idea. Every single one I faced took at least fifteen minutes to finish off, their absurd array of weaponry made my death a persistent worry, and their demise brought about a sigh of relief that I rarely feel in games. It was awesome.
Whenever the game restricts your movement, the game slows to a halt. Horizon is a game built on open spaces, and the more cramped environments of places like bandit camps or the cauldrons only succeed in turning the game into a generic third-person shooter. I started to become sick of the combat near the end of the game, but that was after I had spent over fifty hours with the game. Docking the game for that would be like complaining about a stomach ache after eating a dozen cupcakes in one day. Your discomfort is the result of too much of a good thing in a small amount of time.
All of this hunting is in service of a story that finds both you and Aloy seeking for answers as to how the world became like this, keeping the simmering tribal tensions of the present from boiling over, and the relationship between those two storylines. The former is much more interesting than the latter.
The plot machinations between each of the tribes are just too generic to have any impact. You spend so little time in the cities designating each faction that I found it hard to care about most of their issues. It is both a compliment and a problem that the best characters in Horizon: Zero Dawn have been dead for centuries. There are a few living highlights - Aloy’s surrogate father Rost, the grieving alcoholic Oren, and Patra, a charismatic forger I happened upon literally on my way to the final mission - but the rest are forgettable plot devices. Even Aloy is more interesting because of what she means to the world rather than her personality. Stories in open-world games will always begin at the base of an imperious mountain. The amount of freedom given to the player to move at their own pace makes it incredibly difficult to maintain a narrative that plays out over dozens of hours. I spent a good few hours doing one-off side quests and climbing tallnecks to reveal the map as soon as possible (climbing up those giant, cyborg giraffes never got old by the way. Such a cool design). But there’s no way I was the only person to play the game that way, so they should’ve done better.
In contrast, the sci-fi elements of this game are drawn out extensively, plucking out modern issues surrounding humanity’s use of technology and extrapolating on them in ways that seem logical despite the robot alligators skulking along the riverbank. The environmental storytelling is really excellent, giving you just enough information about what the world was like prior to the apocalypse without explicitly telling you how the world ended up this way until the game’s final hours. This is a game that does collectibles right. In most games, audio logs act as a clumsy world building device. Even in the most fantastical of environments, it strains belief that so many people would have the idea to capture their final moments as death actively encroaches on their being, lending a helping hand to someone they can’t ever know is coming to clean up the mess. In Horizon, the snippets of life that you find come from more appropriate places, old news stories or emails of top-secret projects. There are a few messages clearly meant as final statements from their authors in the game’s third act, but they make total sense in context. The artifice of this world always stayed intact.
I was actually worried about how Guerilla would handle the moment when they finally give up the ghost and reveal the truth behind the origins of this society, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well they pulled it off. It certainly gets a tad verbose at times, but considering the game has to wrap up a story that mixes themes of tech culture gone wrong, the future of AI, fragile masculinity, and humanity’s role as nature’s steward, I’m not sure what other option they had. The fact that the fantastical explanations are as coherent as they are is remarkable considering the developer’s track record.
Horizon’s conclusion ties up the most important loose ends before revealing an incongruous tease for a sequel. It feels out of place, like a new scene tacked on for a special edition DVD. Maybe Guerilla wasn't sure this game would take off. I wouldn’t blame them if that was true.