Horizon Zero Dawn was my most anticipated game this year alongside Mass Effect Andromeda and Persona 5. What didn’t it’s trailers have- the protagonist beating freaking “T-Rexinators” with a bow & arrow, outstanding visuals, an awesome theme song and of course an interesting setting. Now that I have completed the game, personally I think that the game in the trailer is as good as it gets and the most epic moments in the game were when I was not participating in the story, but rather when I was roaming around in the open world, doing random stuff.
So, what is Horizon Zero Dawn?
Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world action role-playing video game developed by Guerrilla Games and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. The game was released on 28 February 2017 for the PS4.
Horizon Zero Dawn
(+) Heart-Stopping Visuals
Horizon Zero Dawn is hands down the peak of the combination of artistic and technical brilliance in any game till date. In that department, it is going to be unparalleled for a long time and if you are not a nit picker (Unlike me[Edited from: “Like I am”]), there is a lot that will keep you enthralled throughout the journey. From the terrifying looking machines, to the dynamic looking world (Looking is the key word here), the landscapes, the buildings, the excellently rendered foliage, the well crafted city ruins, this game looks gorgeous.
(+) Machine Design/AI
This aspect of the game needs special mention, because this is what carried me through to the end. The machines/enemies have been meticulously designed and well implemented, be it the smaller enemies like the watchers or the bigger enemies like the thunderjaws. Each and every nook & cranny of these machines is well detailed and it feels extremely satisfying to see armor components fly off of enemies.
Machines, being machines, are well equipped on top of being pretty strong. There were moments in the game when I was certain that I was well hidden, only to be surprised by an enemy having some kind of scanner to detect me. It’s always a thrilling experience while trying to get past a group of enemies.
Horizon is one of the few open world games games that creates a tension while exploring the map. Even at considerably higher levels like the mid- 20s you can’t go full on Rambo mode in the thick of an enemy encampment. Yes the game is tilted towards making players approach every encounter stealthily, but I landed in quite a few situations where my cover was blown and I had no other option than to Rambo my way in which was quite challenging.
Coming to AI, as I progressed through the game, I encountered various machines, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Many games, especially open world games have a tendency to put similar enemies together, which while it makes sense from a logical standpoint in their cases; for Horizon, enemy variety within any area on the map is commonplace and perfectly fits the logical spectrum.
This keeps the game fresh in many encounters because dealing with a combination of- Sawtooths, Snapmaws, Longlegs or Ravagers, Longlegs, Scrappers, isn’t exactly easy and needs quite a bit of planning. There are very few enemies that’ll be roaming around solo, but they are mostly the big daddies like the rockbreaker(Ocassionally found in pairs), behemoth, thunderjaw etc.
In these encounters, there’ll be a few enemies that’ll charge head-on and a few of them will try to flank the player. I noticed that weaker enemies such as watchers, long legs or scrappers went for my blindspot while the heavy ones like the Ravagers, Rockbreakers charged head-on. So, as a player, I needed to be on my toes while facing various enemies.
(+) Sound Design
The sound design on display here is complete, congruent, decently diverse and complements the overall game very well. The gentle humming of the tribal, techno and techno-tribal music really makes the game world come to life. There are not a whole lot of memorable tracks apart from the main theme tune, which is exceptionally distinct in my opinion and is effectively used to create a feeling of revelation, achievement and emotional satisfaction at various critical moments in the game’s story.
But, the aspect where the sound design of Horizon really shines is the in-game SFX. The way each and every machine moves or reacts with that metallic screech or jankiness really immerses you into the world. One fine example is when watchers are on alert and are looking cautiously over every grass to spot an enemy, the metallic sounds that emanated from the machines’ various movements felt highly authentic.
The varying weights in the steps of machines of various sizes pulled me into the world and created a tense atmosphere of danger. My default audio output were a pair of headphones and I was able to clearly hear the presence of a machine and could approximate it’s size as well. The good sound design also helped me while in combat, because I was able to identify the heavy steps of a flanking watcher/longleg in time to make a successful dodge.
Apart from that, the voice effects of each and every machine have been done well- be it the high ear splitting shrill shout of a stormbird/glinthawk or the rock cracking effect by the rockbreaker, all these sound effects come together to create a sense of tension found in very few games these days.
Last but not the least, the voice acting is OK, it gets the job done with a few hiccups here and there, but overall as a package, the sound design is pretty solid.
Gameplay is a mixed bag for me- on one hand it is easy to pick up, takes elements from at least 10 games that I can identify and is very simplified while on the other hand, the overall game lacks any sense of depth.
Taking the positive elements first, as I progressed through the game and reached the 5 hour mark, Horizon had already taken bits of- Assassin’s Creed’s platforming, Tomb Raider’s archery, Batman’s/Witcher 3’s detective vision/witcher sense etc and it sure does have that initial appeal of taking elements of some of the more popular games of the last decade and mashing it into one single game which acts as a double edged sword, as I’ll explain in a bit.
One aspect I very much liked about the game was the healing system. Basically there are two ways of healing- through herbs and through potions. While potions heal just like any other game, the herbs healing system is used as per the requirement. I didn’t have to worry about filling 20 points of health with something that would give 100 points but still be completely removed from my inventory.
As I have mentioned above, encounters with machines were the best parts about the game and over the span of about 40 hours, encounters with machines were always exciting and strategising plans such as- laying traps, overriding machines, luring them, stealthily taking them out etc really felt gratifying when everything went according to plan.
It didn’t take long for the fatigue to set in though, because 10 hours into the game, I had more side quest markers than the number of times a competitive Counter Strike player would have pressed the fire button. And I am up for side quests, I love side quests that are gratifying on the emotional scale and give us an inside look at maybe the character or the lore, rather than just being XP earners.
The type like- “Please save my brother/father/sister/wife/daughter who was last seen 500-600 steps from the place” or “Please get me my spear back/Collect this item and bring it” etc really have become quite cliched and maybe, just maybe, if I hadn’t played all the Assassin’s Creeds till Unity and FarCrys till 4, the side quests in the game would not have felt so tiring. If I hadn’t played Witcher 3, I wouldn’t have expected side quests to be filled with story and content. And fast travel wasn’t exactly a viable option because the ‘normal’ fast travel kit gave me only one fast travel allowance for some reason. I did get the ‘Golden fast travel kit’ later on, but for the first 10 hours, it was a heck lot of backtracking.
Another feeling that sets in after the first 10 hours is the shallowness of all the gameplay elements that have been spread thin to accommodate others. Starting with Assassin’s Creed type platforming, if I am not exaggerating, I am pretty sure I came across more than a hundred perfectly climbable looking ledges which I couldn’t climb. This resulted in me dying a few times because some ledge, which was about my height could not be jumped over and would have made for a great escape route.But the designers thought it would be hilarious to make those kind of ledges. Many a times I would jump towards a completely hold-able looking ledge and would fall to my death which felt so much like the developers were trying to troll me and saying-
“Hue hue….. You were not supposed to jump there”. Thankfully checkpoints have been wisely placed which prevents frustration.
Combat is one area that Horizon will appeal to the masses because it’s simple- a bow and arrow with different effects such as shock and fire, then there is the spear which has a light and heavy attack. The skill tree has been directly lifted from Shadow of Mordor or FarCry 3. Apart from that, there is not much going on. If you are going to rely on head first confrontation, you’ll be chipping away at the health bars of enemies and if you are opting for stealth, then you’ll be hiding a lot in the very cleverly placed red grass. It’s being called an RPG, but there is almost little to no character customization- I can’t change Aloy’s personal looks and armor & weapon selection is extremely limited.
Mission structure variety is another element missing from the game. Every main quest, side quest and dungeon (This is what I like to call the Cauldrons in general terms) has the same structure. Defeat a group of weak enemies, then move on to the next arena & defeat a set of relatively tougher opponents and make your way through to the mini bosses. And every time I was nearing a sub-boss or main boss, the game would have lots of healing items suspiciously placed in the area, right before the encounter.
Oh and talking about bosses, the boss variety just screams non creativity. All three of the main game bosses are the same- Static Deathbringer with half health, Moving Deathbringer with full health and Corrupted Moving Deathbringer with full health. Boss battles, in my opinion are supposed to be a culmination of the skills that I have acquired throughout that time in the game, not some enemy that I have beaten before, who has come back with vengeance to be defeated yet again.
Initially the game has a lot of padding and backtracking since you are limited on resources and hence have limited fast travel kits. The missions are made so that after each mission, there is a trek of generally 500 map units. I found myself going back and forth between two places which were 2000-4000 map units apart until I got the golden fast travel kit which allowed me unlimited fast travel thankfully.
Crafting has to be the weakest element about the game in my opinion because while I was able to craft pouches, consumables and modify weapons & armor, none of the weapons or armors were craftable, rather they could be bought off merchants and the funniest part about it was that most merchants carried the same items. For example, the merchant just outside meridian, the lady merchant we run across while attempting to take down the focus network and the merchant near the quarry in Meridian all carry the same items. Another key example is that the two merchants inside Meridian who give side quests related to collecting items that contribute little to the lore, sell the exact same set of 4 maps which just feels lazy.
Since most of the armors are just buyable, I didn’t feel a sense of satisfaction which armor hunting or gathering parts of armor gives, when I knew I could meet most of the requirements by just killing random monsters. Also the armors are put in sets, so you either have one set or another, no mix n match can be done which left a sour taste in my mouth considering that it is being called an action adventure RPG. The only RPG like aspects about the weapons and armor are that they are color coded- the strongest ones are purple and the weakest ones are green and that minor modifications (Or runes) can be applied to them.
Just a little bit of nit picking before I move on to the story part, as I had mentioned above in the visuals sub sections, emphasizing on the word “Looking”. Everything is just rendered to look good, most of the objects don’t even react to your presence. For example, while I was wading through any kind of foliage other than the red stealth grass, none of them show any kind of interaction.
Most open world games do in fact have a limited amount of interaction with the foliage, be it Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, GTA V or Witcher 3(I have fact checked these games). It’s all static in case of Horizon with respect to the player which breaks the immersion for me. There were a heck lot of super cool looking objects in the ruins that I visited, but 90% of them were non-interact-able. I don’t expect a huge world to have everything interact-able, but sacrificing interact-ability which is the biggest appeal of gaming for graphics isn’t exactly right in my book, especially in a game where I was extremely curious about the state of the world.
Now the game does make up for the lack of interaction with foliage by making the world destructible, which is a decent trade-off with the only problem being that machines are the ones capable of doing all the “Hulk smash”. I tried hitting a tree about 10-20 times with the spear to no avail, but the machines made it look like a piece of cake. Same is the case with rocks and any kind of debris I came across in the world.
I feel that Horizon wanted to be everything, but as a fan of RPG games with deep narrative, emergent gameplay, choice/consequence based story, I found none of those elements in Horizon and the fact that it takes ‘elements’ from many other games, but only touches the surface of all those ‘elements’ really didn’t compel me to move forward in the game. I couldn’t walk ten steps in the game without being reminded of the game mechanics it has partially copied from other games. Horizon shouldn’t be called an RPG, it is an action adventure game with RPG elements, it simply doesn’t have much depth to be called an RPG.
Yet another aspect that I have mixed feelings on. It seems that most game developers are just stuck to some limited ideas on how to create a background story/theme for some situations, the most common of which are- war, corporate decision gone wrong, zombie apocalypse etc and Horizon’s back story is an example of some huge corporate making the wrong decision and putting the world at risk.
Not only that, but the main storyline is very much predictable, be it related to Rost or Avad or Helis, I could see what was going to happen in the main storyline much before I reached that part of the game, in short the game didn’t have surprises. I mean death, in-kingdom fighting because of dethroning of some king, some highly superstitious sub villain and a very gruffly toned main villain who wants to sound scary, nothing really surprised me, rather it even more solidified my apprehension that the game was built on a huge pile of cliches of modern gaming.
But I must admit, the lore makes up for it, though not in an ideal delivery, but still. The origin of Aloy, the whole terraforming event along with GAIA and HADES is a unique backdrop and is in fact very intriguing. I was expecting there to be some cryogenics involved, but surprisingly enough it was not the case, and after the whole dramatic dragged out reveal, I thought it was worth the wait, in spite of being based off some corporate mismanagement.
As for the narrative, most of the story is told by cut scenes and inconsequential dialogue choices. All dialogue choices are just an illusion to make the player feel a sense of agency over the narrative but the dialogue options do nothing to change the story in any meaningful way. In key situations, all you’ll get are a different set of dialogues and that’s it. In most other situations, dialogue wheels are there to get a backstory which could have easily been made into a cut scene.
The pacing of the story is iffy at best. Everything starts off as the opening cut scene shows the naming of Aloy, then moves on to when she is 6 years old which basically serves as the tutorial and obtaining the focus which is basically the detective vision of the game which shows everything that is important, a skip of another few years and the actual game starts. Now I dunno if it’s just me, but it shares a stark similarity with Assassin’s Creed 3’s story- a tribal person (Basically the outcast of urban culture), at young age he uses Eagle vision to play hide n seek, grows up a bit, proves himself to Achilles via a mission and then sets out on a journey to practically save the world as Desmond.
Returning to the pacing of the story, I never even realized when I completed 75% of the main story without any armor or weapon upgrades. And then the last 25% was a drag, because of the number of audio and text logs that were pushed in the last 4-5 chapters, which really felt like an obstruction to the flow of the story. None of the lore details are drip-fed or integrated into the story, rather the game overwhelms you with a superfluous information during the climax of the story.
Sure, the stories that those logs revealed were interesting, but there were more than 20-30 audio logs which could easily span anywhere between 2-4 minutes excluding the cut scenes, and I found myself roaming about in a single small room for more than 10 minutes, so as to not leave out any important bits while listening to the logs. And all of this was excluding the text logs.
The last thing, I would like to point out about the story is the end game cliffhanger and sequel baiting. The game ends on a very cliche note- the main villain getting revived somehow and Sylens, the shady guy who helped me in defeating Hades, capturing him for selfish ‘knowledge’ based reasons. Now tell me that’s not been done a thousand times before.