The lights are on
Now that I've set a new low bar for FTAP headlines, let's
talk about how awesome Horizon is, shall we?
Like many gamers, I've been looking forward to Horizon Zero
Dawn ever since its reveal at E3 2015. The gender politics of the Nora tribe and
Aloy's role in the matriarchal society as an outcast had my mind brimming with possibilities.
PSYCHE – it was the robot dinosaurs, obviously! I honestly can't even remember if Aloy was in the announcement trailer; it
could've been Ronald McDonald fighting that giant Thunderjaw, and I wouldn't
have noticed unless it stepped on his dumb red shoe and made a squeaking noise.
Anyway, the point is I've been excited about Horizon Zero
Dawn for years*, so when Joe brought up the possibility of playing it two weeks
early, I was more than happy to jump on the review. Well, I was mostly happy to jump on the review. I
realize that this pity party is going to be a table for one, but a lot of work
and pressure goes into reviewing a video game. Not only must you finish playing the game
before embargo deadline, you have to formulate a concrete opinion about the experience (that half the gaming
community is going to hate no matter what it is), and then turn those ideas into
words that don't sound stupid when you type them on the stupid blank page that won't stop mocking you with how stupidly blank it is.
This is all doubly true when reviewing a big game that
everyone is looking forward to, and not some bargain
hockey that would earn you the video game equivalent of a Purple Heart just
for playing it to completion. In that sense, playing a big game for review is
kind of like being handed a giant bowl of ice cream, then having your grandpa
point a gun at your head and tell you that you have to eat it all in one
sitting (I'm not sure why it has to be your grandpa, but you can't deny it adds
some emotional weight to the metaphor).
If you're thinking, "Can I go to those mountains?" You can! You probably also work in PR...
Naturally, a reviewer's job is to separate those kinds of
external pressures from their enjoyment (or lack thereof) of a game. That's a
whole lot easier when you have plenty of time to play through said game. It's also
easier when said game lets you live out the Robo Jurassic Park fantasies that
you didn't even know you had until Guerrilla planted the seed in your mind like
you're the crazy wife from Inception.
I had a week to play through Horizon, but I was still a
little nervous going in. Open-world games are the bane of my virtual existence. Whenever a
game lets me wander off the scripted path, I instantly transform from The Hero
The World Needs, to Nutjob You Don't Want To Share A Bus Seat With. "Wander
Aimlessly" becomes my sole quest line, until I eventually sputter out and move
onto a different game. My Witcher 3 progress ended shortly after Geralt banged his
first lady. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, it was meeting the elf version of Billy Corgan (I honestly
don't know how anyone played beyond that point, but whatever). I can't even
remember the last time I finished an Assassin's Creed, but it was well before
Desmond rolled out of the Animus in search of a shower. Bethesda games are my absolute
worst; for some reason, my distracted
misadventures leave me surrounded by piles of underwear-clad
corpses with alarming consistency.
Don't get me wrong: I love open-world games and the
free-form experiences I have within them. The adventures just rarely end with me
watching credits (or surfing the web on my phone while waiting for potential
Despite what this dubiously timed screenshot suggests, you unfortunately can't milk robots in Horizon.
Thankfully, my vampire DNA rendered any time concerns I had about
Horizon Zero Dawn unnecessary; a few late-night marathon sessions gave me a
huge head-start in the main story, and continued to fuel steady progress throughout
the week. Well, aside from the night I was continually falling asleep while
playing. My wife was busy watching tiny house videos on our tablet (we may or may not end up living in a home designed for Keebler elves when we retire), but kept dutifully nudging me back awake whenever she noticed the on-screen action had ground to a halt. I tried to throw her off the scent by surreptitiously pulling up the world map before nodding off, but she
didn't fall for it – even with my lousy sense of direction, no one has to stare
at a map that long.
With my time-crunch fears more or less allayed, I was able focus
on what's truly important: picking every plant and twig I came across in
Horizon's massive world. The NPCs were polite enough to not say anything, but
they had to be offended. "Sure I'll help you avenge your sister's death! I'm
just going to walk down next to this river and collect some flowers and rocks
on the way, okay? No need to get pissy, we're still moving in the right general
direct – an ancient relic site! Hold on a minute; if I bring a merchant a set
of old mugs, he'll give me a loot box!"
But it's not just me – the Pavlovian response gamers get to
completing simple random tasks is a key design principle in open-world games.
Collecting stuff? Fun! Uncovering areas on your map? Fun! Upgrading your
inventory space? Fun! So what if it looks like an icon monster barfed all over
your map – look at all the crap you can do!
Warning: Just looking
at Horizon's map may give you Attention Deficit Disorder.
The thing is, most of Horizon's familiar tropes are still fun (well, not following
around "detective vision" trails, which is the virtual equivalent of the the classic mom game, "Who Tracked Mud In The House?!"). Am I tired
of sneaking into bandit camps and meticulously implanting arrows into everyone's
heads from a distance that is most certainly impossible given the craftsmanship
of the bow I'm using? I sure ain't. Am I tired of backtracking through said
bandit camp trying to remember where all the enemies were so I can loot their
corpses like the most non-heroic hero ever? Actually, I am tired of that – but
not enough to stop doing it.
Thankfully Horizon's story missions pick up the slack – but
that doesn't mean the storytelling is flawless either. For a hardline tribe that will
exile members simply for talking to an outcast like Aloy, it seems like everyone and
their mother breaks the Nora's rules all the time. Every conversation starts with
"I shouldn't be doing this," or "I shouldn't be here," or "Don't tell anyone I
talked to you" – which implies the next person you meet is also going to break
the rules by talking to you. What's the point of even having dumb rules if no
one follows them?
Unfortunately, none of the Nora tribe's banishment laws cover
dress code. Jeff Cork and I had an impromptu competition for coming up with an
apt description of how lame everyone looks. Contenders included: post-historic
hipster; Stone-age stoner; Burning Man attendee, and Brendan Fraiser circa Airheads or Encino Man. I eventually went with "roadie for a post-apocalyptic
grunge band" in my review, but there are plenty of alternative
descriptions that wouldn't make it past our swear filter.
There's also "one-eyed Shia Labeouf," which sounds like a euphemism, but is quite literal.
And yet, none of the stupid-looking characters or story flaws
prevented me from becoming utterly engrossed in Horizon's lore. Most of the time, audio
logs and diary entries in games are like gas receipts; sure, I'll never not
grab one, but I'm just going to shove it in the little compartment between the
seats (you know, the gas-receipt compartment) and never look at it or think
about it ever again.** Thanks to Horizon's deeply rooted mysteries, I actually
looked forward to reading and listening to every message I came across. Horizon's
story is so interesting that my wife would periodically ask me for updates, and
most of the time, I was actually able to convey the plot to her.
But none of this has to do with Horizon Zero Dawn's main
selling point: ROBOT DINOSAURS. As far as I'm concerned, Guerrilla missed a
major opportunity by not simply calling it Robot Dinosaurs – or Robot Dinosaurs:
The Game if they were afraid consumers would be confused. Horizon's
mechanical creatures absolutely steal the show: They make the combat feel new
and unique, they inject the world with danger and wonder, and they constantly
keep you on your toes. Simply put, they're awesome, and if you don't want to
take my word for it, I've pulled together a few gameplay clips from my playtime
to make my case.
Exhibit A: A Series
of Unfortunate EventsLet's break this encounter down, shall we? It starts with me
excitedly running toward the Tallneck, because boy oh boy do I want to climb
that thing! In fact, I'm so enamored by the prospect that I don't see the
Watcher at the top of the stairs as he homes in on me (in my defense the boar
running alongside me was also hella distracting). I realize my mistake a few
steps later (you can practically hear the "Oh crap!" when Aloy does an
abrupt U-turn), and promptly get blinded by the humble Watcher's orb attack. A
few seconds later, I pull off a wicked headshot on the boar standing behind the
Watcher (totally meant to do that),
then follow it up with a shot on my attacker – only to get plunged into a
hectic melee with three more alerted foes. Ultimately, I walked away from the encounter
with a few scratches, but other beasts are far less forgiving...
Exhibit B: Just Roll
ItLike this Ravager, for instance. The catlike creature does a
great job of batting the crap out of me (but I was totally kicking its butt
right before the clip begins, believe you me). Like most fights, this caused me
to fall back on Aloy's most important ability: rolling like a complete maniac.
I don't know why the combat roll is such a staple in games, because I'm pretty
sure it would be totally useless in real life; even if you didn't break your
neck diving headfirst into the ground, you'd be as sturdy as a drunk toddler
when you got back up on your feet, which ain't great when you're trying to aim a bow. Still, it's a literal life saver in Horizon though,
so never stop rolling.
Exhibit C: Fools Rush
InHere's another pro tip for ya: Don't run up and try to whack
a giant enemy with Aloy's spear. I know it's exciting to knock a towering foe
off its feet, but even if it is stunned, it won't be for long. This is
especially true for corrupted enemies like this fuel-spewing Bellowback, as the
corruption causes continual damage if you run into the glowing red areas and
stand there like an idiot. Heck of a finishing move though – you earned that
casual stomp-off, big guy!
THUNDERJAW!What a battle this one was! I'm only including a small clip
from my first encounter with a Thunderjaw to show how powerful a single hit from the mighty beast
is, but the full confrontation was basically a 30-minute, Moby Dick-esque
battle of attrition. I picked off chunks of armor with pinpoint precision. I
hid in the tallgrass and tried not to flinch as he fired off blindly like...well,
me in every shooter. Eventually, I detached his powerful disc launcher and used
it against him – the awesome and totally unscripted showdown represented
Horizon at its finest. The kicker? After slowly whittling him down to a sliver
of health, some jackass Carja soldier wandered in and scored the killing blow,
robbing me of the kill. Not only that, he had the gall to walk up and quip how
easy it was***, adding insult to XP-less injury.
Exhibit E: When In
Doubt, Shoot EverythingAnother small clip from a much larger battle, this
alligator-like Snapmaw was giving me a real hard time, even though I set out
more traps than a demented...layer of traps (not every simile can hit it out of
the park, you know). Sometimes though, you've just got to throw caution to the
wind, grab the nearest Ravager Cannon, and shoot at everything until one of you
dies. For once it wasn't me!
Exhibit F: Team
Rocket Is Blasting Off Again!Actually, this is just a video of one of the only bugs I
encountered while playing Horizon – enemies don't usually explode and then soar
majestically over a mountain like this. Still pretty damn awesome though, amiright?
And that in a nutshell is why I love Horizon Zero Dawn so
much. Sure, many of the activities are rehashes from other games and the
constant need to scavenge crafting items gets old. But there's also no shortage
of fun and challenging combat scenarios awaiting you, which more than make up
for all the plant-picking. Guerrilla has crafted a compelling adventure that
also happens to be one of the best-looking games of this generation – enough to
actually justify having a photo mode (Aloy's vacant stare tends to ruin
portraits though, so you'll probably want to stick to zoomed-out pics of the landscape). After 50+ hours, I still haven't gotten tired of taking on giant mechanical creatures.
Sometimes first impressions are right: Horizon Zero Dawn – and
probably the end of humanity – all comes down to robot dinosaurs.
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* It's technically only been a year and a half since the game
was announced, but it feels like
years. (back to top)** Past exceptions include: using them to wipe dirt off my hands, clean off the oil dipstick before putting it back in the engine, and once as a woefully subpar Kleenex substitute – because that's what men do! (back to top)*** I can't remember his exact phrasing even though I recited
it verbatim to my wife at the time, who didn't share my sense of disbelief and
outrage for some reason. (back to top)
Email the author Jeff Marchiafava, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.