So Far 'Horizon Zero Dawn' Feels Too Much Like Other Open World Games

Things are finally starting to warm up for me in Sony's new PS4 open-world action game Horizon Zero Dawn. After a long, tedious introduction to the game's post-apocalyptic world, which saw protagonist Aloy grow from a girl to a young woman through an extended assortment of tutorials, I'm finally free to go questing.

Note: This is a first impressions post, not a full review. I reserve the right to change my opinion as I play further into the game.

The game's early hours spend a great deal of time building up this brave new world of superstitious tribes, a distant empire, massive robot dinosaurs, and a mysterious high-tech past. We learn of Rost and Aloy, two outcasts from the tribe, and the struggles they face being shunned by their own people.

But things don't really kick off until a decent amount of time has passed, and a series of crazy events sends everyone's world spinning. This is a pretty great moment, but it takes too long to get there.

Meanwhile, writing and acting feel deeply unbalanced in the early hours of the game. Aloy is great and so are the coven of Matriarchs who rule her tribe, but many of the other characters are voiced horribly, from Rost, Aloy's adoptive father, to various other members of her tribe. The acting is surprisingly flat and wooden given that this is a major AAA production. I'm used to Sony games like Uncharted which offer superb acting. Horizon Zero Dawn's is hit and miss at best. Maybe some people will give it a pass because it's a video game, but I'm frankly dumbfounded by how bad some of the dialogue is.

Oh, and Aloy as a little girl just looks...super weird. I mean, no wonder she's an outcast just look at her! (I kid, but also seriously why does she look so weird?)

Actually, I'm not all that happy with a lot of the character models. Many of the NPCs look ridiculously similar to one another. Aloy as an adult looks terrific---she's basically Brave's Merida plucked out of the Pixar aesthetic and plopped down into a more realistic setting. The rest? Like so much of the game, very hit and miss.

When you finally get out into the open world itself, the game feels great to play, and it's absolutely gorgeous. The gameplay is smooth and it feels good. Climbing, zip-lining, fighting bad guys, all these things are slick and polished. It's that nagging sense that I've done all this (or at least most of this) before that gets to me.

I've climbed and zip-lined and collected and crafted in games like this before, from Tomb Raider to Far Cry to Uncharted. I've climbed similar cliffs. I've zipped down similar ziplines. I've beaten similar challenges and followed similar quests. I'm tired of crafting and hunting and leveling up. No matter how many details are tinkered with, it all feels like the same systems at play, over and over again.

For a brand new IP, Horizon Zero Dawn sure does walk a well-worn path. I may not be at the end of that path yet, and I definitely want to finish the game, and I hope I change my mind by the end of it, but right now I'm feeling a bit deflated. This was Sony's chance at not just a new IP, but a new take on a tried and true genre. At times it does this, challenging the tropes that it faces and evolving them in interesting ways. Too often, it doesn't.

Still, I don't mean to come across as all doom and gloom.

Sometimes Horizon Zero Dawn actually implements these systems better than many other games, which is a happy bonus. For instance, you're tasked with following tracks from time to time, using a mechanic that's very similar to Geralt's Witcher Senses in The Witcher 3. The main difference? It's much easier to actually follow these trails, and a whole lot less tedious. It's like doing the same exact thing from that game but in a way that's not even half as frustrating.

And as Paul Tassi notes in his article on how the game improves open world tropes, climbing map-unlockable towers (or Tallnecks in this game) is way more interesting and fun than in games like Far Cry or Assassin's Creed.

Where the game shines the most, so far at least, is the myriad robot dinosaurs you encounter.

You have a host of different weapons and traps in your arsenal, and there're tons of ways to take down dinos, either to kill them and scavenge them for scraps or to tame them and use them in combat or as mounts. This is where the game really breaks out from the pack and becomes something much less expected and more fun. I'm excited because I know there's lots of these I haven't even seen yet, so I know I'm in for even better encounters going forward.

Ultimately, the open world in Horizon Zero Dawn is executed pretty well. It's polished and well designed.

I suppose my problem with Horizon Zero Dawn is that it doesn't do enough with the concept of open world itself, piggy-backing off of what Square Enix and Ubisoft have already done so much of in games like Tomb Raider, Far Cry and Assassin's Creed.

Open world games shouldn't cling so ferociously to these gameplay mechanics and tropes, so it's a bit of a shame that even a brand new IP would err so much on the side of caution.

While there are changes to the formula, the formula itself is left intact. While climbing Tallnecks does change the "climb radio tower to unlock map" trope, that trope still exists. There are surface-level changes, but the template remains. You still climb something to unlock the map, even if it's more fun and less frequent than before.

That franchise created its very own kind of open world experience. A big city, cars you can drive around, missions you can complete and a crime element. This is distinct from the Far Cry/Tomb Raider style open world, which is rarely modern day urban or oriented around crime. (Far Cry is set in exotic locales; Assassin's Creed in historical cities; Tomb Raider and Uncharted in modern but exotic locations; Horizon Zero Dawn in a largely rural, tribal setting, etc.)

Now take a game like Watch Dogs 2. This game, or Mafia 3 or Sleeping Dogs or various other open world crime games, all do something different with the GTA template Rockstar came up with, but none of them really fundamentally change that template. That's how I'd describe Horizon Zero Dawn as it relates to the rest of its genre.

(This discussion gets a bit thornier when you start talking about the Elder Scrolls open world and how games like The Witcher 3 changed or improved on that formula, so we'll save that for another time...)

I'm also reminded of Guerrilla Games' other main IP, Killzone. Those games were also technically very impressive and looked great. But beneath that shiny exterior, Killzone had no heart. There's certainly more heart and soul in Horizon Zero Dawn, but not much more.

Try as the game might to get us to care about the characters in the game's plodding prologue, I just can't muster much give-a-damn. I like Aloy, but I'm still not particularly invested in her or her backstory. I hope that changes.

Thankfully, dinosaur hunting, climbing and riding do make up for a lot of this. And Horizon Zero Dawn, for all its unfortunate familiarity, feels great to play. Combat is engaging and chaotic. Capturing new dinosaurs and riding them across the gorgeous world Guerrilla Games has crafted is a lot of fun and super gorgeous to look at. It's a solid effort at a new IP, and I'm certain it's the beginning of a major new Sony franchise.

I'll have more thoughts as I dig deeper. No matter how critical I may be of the game's opening act, I'm excited to play more. As someone who is routinely bored by video games and gives up on too many to count, that's in and of itself fairly high praise.

Credit: Guerrilla Games/Sony


Horizon: Zero Dawn: Review

For years now, the latest console generation has been coasting on the idea that more raw power means better games. The PS4’s newest exclusive, Horizon: Zero Dawn, is the rare game that delivers on that promise.

To play Guerilla Games’ Horizon: Zero Dawn is to feel awe.

Awe over sheer technical wizardry and its ability to transport you into a new world. Awe over discovering gargantuan mechanical dinosaurs and gradually uncovering the mysteries of a lost civilization. Awe over the fact I have never seen so many kickass women in a first party big-budget game, much less this many people of color in key roles. I often found myself pausing the game just to marvel at it all.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a third-person action game that tells the story of a relentless young woman named Aloy, who, for reasons unknown, was cast out of the Nora tribe at birth. Instead of accepting her fate as an outsider, Aloy dedicates her life to combat and survival training. Her goal is to participate in a Nora ceremony known as The Proving, as custom dictates that anybody who wins the trial can ask for whatever they want. Aloy intends to find out the truth of her parentage and why she was never given a chance to be a real part of society.

Each monster has a preferred territory and comes equipped with its own strengths, weaknesses, and attack repertoire. Initially armed with nothing more than a bow, arrow, and spear, you must take on each Goliath before it tears you apart. Horizon: Zero Dawn usually gives you a few options for any given encounter.

Perhaps you are the roguish type who prefers sticking to the shadows, killing your enemies one-by-one without arousing suspicion. Maybe you like to override your foes, making them fight against each other. I preferred running headfirst into my encounters, unloading my ammo however I could—if it hit my target, great! This quickly invited disaster. Horizon: Zero Dawn requires precision and planning, asking you to consider your mark before taking it on. Using a technology called a “Focus,” you can scan your enemies to learn about vulnerabilities, allowing you to direct your attacks with purpose. There is some trial and error involved in learning what makes each creature tick, a quality reminiscent of Monster Hunter.

Horizon’s interlocking combat systems shine once you learn how to prepare for encounters. Before setting off on a quest, I would hunt small game to craft health potions and collect materials for traps. Scoping out the land, I would set up a proximity mine here, or an electronic tripwire there, all in anticipation of my target’s movements. Once I gained enough currency to afford it, I also considered the most appropriate weaponry.

It’s much easier to hit flying enemies by tying them down with a “Ropecaster,” for example, whereas close-combat guns help thwart rushing T-Rexes. Each weapon has its own feel, and while they are all enjoyable to use, I preferred the simplicity of the bow and arrow. Taking aim, pulling the bowstring back, and releasing each individual shot is tried, true, and classic.

Having the ability to infuse weapons with elemental affinities adds another dimension, allowing you to detonate metal canisters with fire shots or freeze your target with ice. Horizon might be an action game, but it requires the mind of a tactician.

Each kill grants Aloy XP, and each level gained grants you skill points. Skill points can be used to unlock new abilities for combat, such as increased damage or the ability to fire multiple arrows at once. I’m fond of the “concentration” ability that slows down time, allowing you to pinpoint specific parts of enemy armor for added advantage. Admittedly there are so many options for approaching combat that I sometimes forgot make use of them until I hit a new wall in difficulty.

Horizon’s story insists that Aloy is an extraordinary woman who does whatever it takes to save the day, but the writing characterizing her does not convey that as effectively as the heat of combat. Sometimes, I could feel my heart racing as I made Aloy duck and weave against seemingly impossible odds. In a particularly memorable encounter that took hours for me to grok, I took down an enormous rock worm that had been terrorizing a nearby town. At the end, Aloy stood above its smoking carcass. It was dead through the sheer force of her—and my—will. I found myself catching my breath.

The first time you take down any of the game’s creatures is usually remarkable. That novelty fades after repeated encounters with those same types of monsters later in the game. The main Horizon storyline ramps up by throwing more of the same at you, a strategy that technically heightens the difficulty while robbing the mechs of their distinct flavor. Still, the dinosaurs are by far Horizon: Zero Dawn’s crowning achievement, and I found myself exploring new areas of map in the hopes of encountering something I had not seen before. By comparison, fighting humans, which is something players will do a lot, is boring and unwelcome. Unfortunately, Horizon’s main quest relies on those human encounters too heavily. I found myself taking refuge in the sidequests just to avoid other people.

Traversing the world is treacherous, but fortunately Aloy is very nimble. You might draw a comparison to Tomb Raider or Uncharted as you climb structures of dubious structural integrity, or spelunk ruins and “Cauldrons” with hidden treasures. Actually, Horizon seems to borrow mechanics liberally from many other games. The dialogue system feels a little Mass Effect, for example, in that your choices are accompanied with intention icons, and sometimes, there are even future consequences for your decisions. Then there’s the Focus vision, which you can use to investigate scenes more closely, Batman-style. Guerilla Games implements these systems solidly, but none reach the heights of the combat mechanics. They get the job done.

Horizon does shake up one familiar design trope. Many open world games include towers that you must climb to expose the surrounding area, and while those are present in Horizon, a tower in this game is an actual wandering dinosaur.

The game builds an interesting sci-fi world. Even though I anticipated a few of the game’s plot developments, Horizon kept me hooked through believable, flawed characters who live in a world they do not fully understand. It’s curious to hear people theorize about the way the old world used to work: you have tall tales woven around objects like coffee mugs, and religious beliefs formed around technology that seems indistinguishable from magic. It also helps that Horizon’s mix of high-tech and low-tech makes for a killer aesthetic that is further accentuated through the game’s distinct tribes.

The aesthetic richness of the world is undermined by a lack of interactive diversity. I was always thrilled to find new settlements, especially given the painstaking detail of each individual building block, but I wanted to do more in them. Towns and cities felt more like static dollhouses where I only stopped to save and stock up on supplies. I couldn’t really interact with anybody outside of a few key characters in a meaningful way, nor did Horizon provide locale-defining activities to enjoy. Individual cities feel distinct from each other only in an abstract way, when characters describe the politics going on in the background. You might learn, for example, that one city is currently at war or on the verge of collapse, but you don’t really see or feel any of that while walking through its roads or talking to its citizens. Everything is just a springboard for you to get back into the world to kill dinosaurs, and thankfully, that’s where the game shines brightest.

Instead, where Horizon blew me away was in the majestic and untamed beauty of its canyons, mountains, and open fields. I often found myself booting up Horizon’s robust photo mode just to take stock of it all. This generation has seen its fair share of gorgeous games, sure, but the artistry at work here is staggering. The mere act of walking through this lavish world is enough to make me fall in love with individual rocks and clouds. Horizon provides a compelling case for how, in the right hands, computing power can be leveraged to bring a setting to life. Each area feels distinct and lively through a combination of art direction, and the unique dinosaurs roaming the biomes.

Unscripted moments where different entities would clash with one another in unexpected ways added to the sense of wilderness. Sometimes, I’d stumble upon humans fighting against errant dinosaurs, or watch as robots turned on each other. I observed robotic vultures pick apart the body of another robot. During another segment, I racked my brain trying to figure out how to sneak by some human enemies, only to have a titan unexpectedly swoop from the sky and wreck everyone’s shit. Problem solved! Horizon is at its best when it upends my expectations like that.

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