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Game review: Horizon Zero Dawn 🎮

7 November 2020 - Reading time: 9 minutes

I usually don't follow game release hype and almost never pre-purchase games. But I made a special exception for Horizon Zero Dawn's arrival to PC (Steam). It had a lot of my favourite things: epic story, strong main character, science-fiction setting, great combat, crafting and exploration -- to say nothing of hunting robots with a bow and arrow, how badass must Aloy be to pull that off?? When I first heard the acclaim from the PlayStation community I resolved to avoid all media and spoilers until I got to play it. I pre-purchased it on Steam, updated my PC with the officially recommended drivers, and loaded in on release day. (Trust me, no other game I've played has received this kind of red-carpet treatment!) So, was this going to be my game of the year?

The verdict: Horizon Zero Dawn is an outstanding game. However, it frustrated me in ways I didn't expect, there were parts I didn't enjoy at all, and I nearly abandoned the game partway through. I'm surprised to say that no, it is not Vega's game of the year, and it may not even make my Top 5 played in 2020. Why not? Let's find out…

The story of HZD is set in a future Earth, where humanity lives in isolated tribal enclaves, while high-tech robotic machines rule the wilderness, and remnants of the ancient "Metal World" civilization are strewn across the landscape. You play Aloy, a motherless outcast who grows up to become an archer and hunter. What begins as a question about her origins leads her on a journey that will change her life and her world.

HZD is an action game set in an open-world map. (It has a few "RPG-esque" elements such as crafting and some superficial choice in Aloy's dialogues, but it's not a RPG.) Being an action game, combat is the centrepiece. Aloy begins her journey with a spear (melee) and a hunter's bow (ranged), and she fights human and machine foes. Humans are straightforward enemies -- but who cares about them? We're here to fight machines. Each machine has distinct strengths and weaknesses, and they're found grouped up in all kinds of permutations. Different machines in different groupings means that you need to use a variety of strategies to defeat each hostile encounter.

Fortunately, Aloy has an equally diverse arsenal at her disposal: from sniper Warbow and Sharpshot bow, to mid-range slings and ropecaster, to short-range shotgun. Her spear deals heavy, "finishing move" melee damage that nevertheless leaves her vulnerable to stagger/interrupt. (Aloy will always be physically weak vs. machines -- even with upgraded armour she's still flesh-and-blood!) And she has a variety of traps for area denial and more strategic combat planning. Crafting/upgrading equipment and outfits are part of the levelling up experience, the crafting system is well-integrated into gameplay and compels you to hunt all enemies.

Combat in HZD is super engaging and the strongest aspect of the game. Stealth mechanics, terrain/environmental conditions, enemy groupings, and Aloy's weapon loadout -- all of these elements combine to make each hostile encounter unique and fresh. An encounter is always exciting: you never know when it'll move from well-planned and stealthy, to frenetic close engagement the next moment. In action games I tend to fall back to the same few weapons and/or combat moves I'm comfortable with using, but in HZD I found myself swapping constantly between weapons depending on the circumstance. No weapon or tool was dispensable. The fact that Aloy's entire arsenal was useful speaks to the calibre of the mechanics underlying the gameplay. Engaging hostiles, especially the apex machines, felt intense, and defeating them was very satisfying.

(Side note for PC players: HZD's combat is designed around a gamepad controller. I initially attempted a keyboard/mouse playthrough but found it an inferior experience. If you have a controller, best to play it as it's meant to be played.)

HZD is also praised for the story. Indeed, the main quest storyline where Aloy discovers more about the Metal World is thoroughly engrossing. But it had pacing issues, especially in the first 1/3rd: the story opens with tantalizing hooks, but the next stage of the quest -- getting Aloy from her homeland to the city of Meridian -- took me halfway across the open-world map. That journey felt like a long slog with very little narrative interest along the way, and I was tempted to abandon the game here. The story pacing started to pick up after reaching the location called Maker's End (approaching halfway through the main quest), and later, really gained steam when a certain mysterious supporting character is revealed (rather late in the story, IMHO). By the time I reached the final boss battle, the narrative hooks had all been satisfied and the story had paid off in spades. I was glad I stuck through to the end.

However -- and this was a big letdown -- the main quest about Aloy is the only good story in HZD. Now, I like involved narratives and interesting characters, and the sidequests of HZD introduced many side characters and lore about that "present-day" human civilization. While the gameplay was fun, somehow I couldn't bring myself to care at all about all those side characters or their needs. It got to a point where a new sidequest felt like another boring task to tick off. I chalk this up to the fact that Aloy's engagement with the Metal World forms the proper meat of HZD's interest and lore, while all the sidequests were about people who didn't interact with the Metal World at all. Still, I was surprised and disappointed that those human stories were so forgettable, and felt like tedious work in the end.

The open-world exploration was another source of frustration. Now I love open-world RPGs like Skyrim and The Witcher 3, and often take time out of questing to explore a map, hunt for collectables, and just walk around and enjoy the scenery. But I think HZD's open-world is functionally different from, say, Skyrim. Skyrim's open-world is primarily filled with quest and collectable locations, broken up by the occasional hostile encounter. HZD's open-world is the opposite: primarily filled with hostiles, punctuated with the occasional quest location like a hunting ground or a collectable site. It's very hard to walk a step in Aloy's world without bumping into a hostile situation, and if you don't want to fight, you have to sneak or ride through. This makes HZD's wilderness feel dense with activity and fraught with danger, which I think is a strength. (Skyrim and The Witcher 3's open-world feel sparse in comparison.) But travelling frequently felt like a chore, and sometimes all I wanted to do is walk around and enjoy the sights, without having to worry about fighting/not fighting all the time.

Perhaps it's different strokes for different folks. But again, I was surprised and disappointed at how much I disliked the open-world exploration. I ended up curbing my exploration impulses and just focused on hurrying to the next quest location. These were the parts I enjoyed the least, and where I was most tempted to abandon the game.

That said, the world is simply breathtaking, the graphics are magnificent. The actual quest activities -- hunting grounds, bandit camps, Tallnecks, and Cauldrons -- are quite enjoyable. I especially loved exploring the Metal World ruins (which are all linked to the main storyline), and the machine Cauldrons. There are genuine "wow" locations and moments all over the wilderness. My most memorable moment was discovering my first Tallneck in the Sacred Lands -- first hearing its machine noises and footsteps, and then seeing its full glory, was an incredible experience. Personally, I've also travelled to the real-world locations that Aloy's world is based on, so it was a real treat to see how they were translated into her setting.

Is Horizon Zero Dawn a good game worth that Day 1 purchase? Definitely. It's an outstanding action game with endlessly engaging combat, engrossing main quest, and gorgeous, immersive world. In that aspect it lived up to the hype and acclaim. But was it enjoyable? For this gamer, not entirely. The lack of enjoyment came mostly from the sidequests and open-world exploration, which got tedious to the point that I would've abandoned the game right there and then. But the very compelling main quest kept me going -- indeed, seemed just about the only thing worth doing. (Combat is great, but I need a break from combat after a while.) I often evaluate my enjoyment of a game by whether I want to start a New Game+/second playthrough right after the credits roll. But when HZD's credits rolled, my primary thought was, "Finally, it's over! Now I can tick it off and play something else."

So that is why Horizon Zero Dawn is not Vega's game of the year. Perhaps I'll start a NG+ later and actually reach the Frozen Wilds DLC, which I never touched. Just… much later, probably whenever I decide to play Horizon: Forbidden West. For all the game's flaws, Aloy and her adventures have hooked me in.

(Side note for PC players: As of writing this review (November 2020), some PC/Steam players report crashes, freezing, and other instability that make the game unplayable. The problems seem dependent on PC configuration, and Guerrilla Gaming has been releasing regular patches to deal with this. The Steam release was 100% stable for me and I never experienced any crashes.)

Cross-posted at We The Players.

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