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Let’s list out the red flags that came with Horizon: Zero Dawn. The heavily hyped, unproven franchise and a developer that had never attempted anything in this genre attempted to sell a weird idea with a weirder title based on a presentation that was almost entirely based on graphics and visual effects. Sound like a disappointment yet? At worst case, this could’ve been an Order 1886. At best, things were shaping up to be a better version of Far Cry: Primal. As PlayStation’s fate would have it, Horizon is a generation defining, console selling exclusive that immediately joins the ranks of gaming’s most exciting properties.
A Next-Gen Role Model
To clarify, generation defining doesn’t mean this is the best game in the last or next five years. It’s simply what next-gen (if we still call them “next”) games should strive to be. Most early PS4/XB1 era games sold themselves on visuals and big, empty worlds with no ideas to fill them. Shadow of Mordor took a great combat system, a core idea, and forgot to build a game around it. Far Cry 4 made a big, beautiful world and gave it zero meaningful context. Many next-gen games fell into this category. Horizon: Zero Dawn takes a similarly impressive framework and fills it with content that’s actually interesting and worth your time. Guerrilla Games could’ve stopped at tribal huntress battling robot dinosaurs. They could’ve lazily packaged that surface-level idea and sold it to millions in a skeleton open-world claiming, “oh you make your own adventure. Now look at this grass!”
While my entire point is that there’s more to Horizon: Zero Dawn, it’d be a disservice not to dedicate some time to talking graphics since the team clearly sunk so much of their own into getting everything right. Horizon is the best looking game to ever hit a console. PC gamers can optimize their settings and turn some old copy of Skyrim into real life but, in terms of base performance, Horizon is the greatest visual accomplishment in gaming history. The world looks slightly better than the many great-looking worlds we’ve seen. And the people are miles ahead of the competition.
Usually, games provide stunning landscapes and settings but you have to forgive them for characters that look about five years behind. Assassin’s Creed has been cranking out attractive vistas for years, but their human beings still look lifeless. I swear the characters in Horizon make eye contact. They look bizarrely real, and the team knows it. They never shy away from close up shots or extended conversations. In addition to the sheer quality, no two people look alike. I did my best to find a pair of clones between any characters Aloy has a conversation with, but there were none to be found.
So once you have a beautiful game in which your protagonist can hunt a robot T-Rex, it’s ready to be sold right? Not just yet. I was worried Aloy would be a bland hero, which is often a byproduct of games that are more about the surrounding world. But the shocking amount of depth in Horizon’s dialogue options turned her into one of my favorite leads. Most games use dialogue in a hackneyed attempt to force the story’s decisions onto the player. When you play Mass Effect, a series that does contain quality dialogue, you’re ultimately choosing your lines based on the consequences. Do you want to be the good guy, or the bad guy?
Gaming’s traditional dialogue options have little to do with how you’d actually respond, and more to do with your intended path through the game. Some people may prefer consequence-driven dialogue, but I prefer Horizon’s decision to simply dictate Aloy’s personality. As a result, my character felt less one dimensional than a hero who’s simply pushing towards the “good ending” or certain rewards. Aloy’s confident and malleable personality did the impossible, which is make this game as fun while exploring settlements as it was to tie up a Thunderjaw and wrestle it into submission.
I’ve played a hefty amount of Final Fantasy XV, and am certainly a big fan. But it was very refreshing to go back to a game that has meaningful side quests. The Witcher 3 did many things to appear in literally every article that discusses what games should be, but the one that vaulted Geralt’s latest adventure highest above the competition was the quality of these secondary adventures. Each one could’ve been its own game. Horizon, while not quite on that level, shares the ability to make players care about the many things that happen outside of Aloy’s central journey. Any true gamer plays through the available side quests before journeying down the critical path, but in Horizon: Zero dawn this doesn’t feel like a chore.
No love lost for XV, a game I still play, but following the heartfelt stories of Horizon’s fellow survivors and tribes was just a little more interesting than searching in circles for thirty different frogs. Side quests make an open-world game worth coming back to. Dragon Age: Inquisition had a great main story, visuals, character development etc. But some of the least inspiring side quests I’ve ever experienced chased me away from an otherwise great time. Horizon: Zero Dawn made that effort. Everything about Horizon screams high-effort, but that was the aspect of the game I didn’t expect to enjoy so much.
A Mid-Distance RPG
There are few more satisfying combat experiences in gaming than tactically dismantling Horizon’s machines, then returning to a place and people you actually care about to find out more about why you’re doing all this. The game allows players to be as hopelessly aimless or compulsively focused as they want. One thing that may actually disappoint more hardcore players is the map’s size. I was very surprised by how quick Horizon actually is. There’s plenty to do, as well as large areas to explore. But in comparison to other games in this genre, it is a deceptively smaller world. I’d like to see this kick off a subgenre of mid-distance RPGs that realize not everything has to be either as vast as The Elder Scrolls or as linear as Uncharted. There is room and a taste for middle ground games if they’re executed well. With all that said, don’t go into Horizon expecting a hundred-hour file. I literally did all there is to do in less than half that time.
The game’s length isn’t a complaint so much as it is a matter of preference, and I was actually refreshed by a game that didn’t just throw in nonsense for the sake of tacking on extra playtime. Thank you, Guerilla Games, for not making me find the world’s 25 special monuments or whatever other garbage you could’ve planned. And thank that company for everything because, if nothing else, this game is an accomplishment in game development. I wont fake any technical expertise, but the game goes out of its way to not inconvenience the player at any turn while providing memorable things to do and beautiful places to see. Crafting is easy, travel is easy, the many menus are easy, which allows the player’s focus to remain fixed on the task at hand. They even addressed my lifelong pet peeve against game’s in which your friends to absolutely nothing to help you because you “just have to do this alone. This is my fight,” and every cliché you can remember. Horizon actually smacks that trope in the face when some of Aloy’s more loyal friends outright deny her request to approach some of the story’s more important stages alone.
It Isn’t Perfect
I made it through 99% of the game without a real complaint, which is a modern miracle. Turns out they saved all the nitpicking for last. The finale, while satisfying, does tease a boss that you don’t actually get to fight. They’re presumably saving it for a sequel, but it would’ve been much better utilized as this first game’s exclamation point. I trust these developers to come up with a great many fresh ideas for next time, so there was no need to tuck that one away. Secondly, there’s a frustrating sequel-bait scene after the credits that goes so far as to diminish the finale itself. If games want to sell a sequel, do it by making a great first game. I’m pretty sure players were already sold on Horizon’s Part II as the credits rolled because they love the game. It was a cheap minute that hardly ruined anything, but does end the game on an odd note.
Those are just nitpicks. One last thing, however, was genuinely frustrating. I hate when games turn back time and place you before the final quest after the game ends. Sometimes, there’s an excuse. If the main character dies, you obviously have to go backwards in order to continue exploring and adventuring. If the world was drastically changed to the point where the developers would’ve had to create a completely new landscape, there may be grounds for a rewind. But Horizon’s world would’ve been a perfect fit for post-game content. So much of the game’s final act surrounded how the world treated Aloy in response to her many good deeds. Knowing the events of the finale, and taking into account this game’s quality dialogue, there would’ve been so many more great conversations to have with some of the game’s more heavily featured characters. They could’ve even added a few quests that are only accessible after the final mission. Instead, they just plop you back as if the previous half hour never happened. It’s a deflating, but most importantly unnecessary, feeling for a game that has room to see what life after the story’s climax would’ve been like.
This isn’t exactly my favorite game of all time, but Horizon: Zero Dawn is an example of what happens when a game gets the absolute most out of its own potential. I welcome DLC, and the feuding tribes nature of the world certainly lends itself to bonus conflicts. But the game itself is complete, fulfilling, and is absolutely worth the time of anyone who either owns of would even consider a PS4. This joins The Last of Us and Uncharted on that list of games you simply must have if you own this system. It is now required reading on the PS4 curriculum. I can’t wait for a sequel, but am in full support of Guerrilla Games taking their time because they clearly know how to use it. 2017 is going to be a fantastic year for gaming, and Horizon: Zero Dawn will be among 2017’s best.
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