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Funny To A Point – Horizon Zero Dawn? More Like Horizon Zero Daaaang!

by Jeff Marchiafava on Feb 24, 2017 at 09:01 AM

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 bin horse 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 post-credits stingers).

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 unlike 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 Events
Let'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 It
Like 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 In
Here'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!

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 Everything
Another 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)