Horizon: Zero Dawn Impressions
I’ve never been able to write up good impression pieces, especially for video games. There’s so much to cover in games and so many angles from which to cover them that I tend to cross lines frequently and mid-stream so my posts are less “impressions” and more “that six year old trying to talk to you about Transformers after his fifth Pixie Stick”.
I’m going to talk about Horizon: Zero Dawn, then, in two phases: first, the mechanics. Second, the impression. Mechanics are facts that you can probably get from the developer’s site anyway and therefore spoil nothing. Impressions, however, are more free-form, and a lot of the time I find that it’s impossible to explain the extent of an impression without talking about specifics, which may mean spoilers. Personally, I don’t really shy from spoilers, and I assume that there’s two camps who read posts on subjects like this one anyway: those who are already in the car on the ride, and those who prefer to take the bus. In effect, you’ll either know what I’m talking about because you are also playing, or you have no intention (or ability) to play the game but want to know what the hype is all about. Yes, third party, I know you’re there: the ones who will wait for a sale or something. But for you, I have nothing but sympathy, as I won’t be the only spoilery outlet on the Internet.
The best shorthand I can offer someone who knows nothing about HZD is that it’s a post-apoc FarCry/Assassin’s Creed. For some, that’s a plus. For others it’s a condemnation. I only compare it thusly because there are some obvious parallels, but mechanics are only one (and even then, a minor) facet of any game. FC/AC mechanics WORK, so I think this is a bonus because of what HZD’s game world represents: open world, exploration, and accomplishment.
The Focus Vision
Early in the game, Aloy acquires a piece of old-world tech that she calls a Focus. It presents a holographic display of items in the world and is used as a kind of radar for game-play purposes. It can see a limited distance and can see through certain obstacles to outline creatures (organic and metallic) as well as lootable corpses in the world. Occasionally, it’s used to present additional information on narrative objects, like when Aloy first encounters a signal being broadcast from a nearby longneck mech. When in Focus mode, Aloy moves slower, and if she’s in crouch mode, she moves agonizingly slow. It is used often for info, and to make sure I don’t blunder into an otherwise unseen pack of mechs.
Aloy is a young woman who has trained her whole life to survive in a hostile environment. She has learned to use a spear and a bow, and most importantly, to move silently among the machine predators that inhabit the wilds.
Movement is smooth, and I haven’t had any issues with the camera whatsoever. For an action game, this is super important, because no one likes to have their vision screwed up as they’re trying to take down an enemy. There’s an analog speed mechanic with the left stick, a sprint, and a stealth mode.
I personally have issues in using the weapons (not as in “my personal gripe”, but as in “I suck at it”). The difference between using the bow and using the spear is a matter of context. If you use the left trigger, you zoom in with the bow and can fire with the right trigger. If you just use the right trigger, you take a light swing with the spear. Using the right shoulder button, you can perform a hard attack with the spear. Not a few times did I try and fire an arrow at relatively close range (i.e. not zoomed) and found myself taking a swipe with the spear which was just OUT of range. Beyond that, I simply suck at hitting things with the bow. Early on I bought the ability that allows me to slow time for a bit when using the bow, but it doesn’t stop the target from walking or twisting and putting the target zone out of reach before I could fire off a shot.
Crafting is a major part of the game and is one of the reasons I make FC/AC parallels. Not only do you have to make your own ammo (arrows, mainly), but you need to use resources to increase the capacity of your bags in order to hold more weapons, ammo, potions, resources, outfits, and traps. Thankfully, materials that you need early on are in abundance, but I’m hearing that more esoteric materials used for advanced items and upgrades are more difficult to come by.
Most of the gear is upgradable as well by using a slot system. You’ll extract items from machines that can be added to weapons and armor to increase their stats, and I guess there’s not a lot more to say about that.
Another FC/AC parallel is that the world is vast, open, and divided into points of interest. You start off in a region controlled by your birth tribe, the Nora. Within their walls, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Eventually, you’ll be sent on a mission outside those walls.
The map pinpoints your objective locations, giving you a route along the road to follow. Along the way, you’ll see icons for campfires (save and fast-travel points), side quests (green “!”), villages, merchants, and hunting grounds represented by an icon of the most prevalent mechanical game found there.
Because you’re working within a pretty mountainous region (best argument I’ve seen puts the game world somewhere in Colorado), there’s a lot of uneven terrain. I rarely had issues figuring out how to get to where I needed to be and was only occasionally impeded by unclear pathways. One mechanic borrowed from Uncharted has Aloy able to climb rock faces using natural hand-holds as well as artificial pinions and ladders. Sometimes, these elements aren’t as obvious as they should otherwise be; I’ve circled a few rocks a few times looking for handholds that I know should be present, only to find them rendered in a very close color analog to the rock they were embedded into. The good thing is that simply pushing the stick in a direction will make Aloy leap, so traversing the vertical is pretty quick and very satisfying.
There are day and night cycles, although it sometimes seems that they change for narrative purposes when the need arises. There’s also rain (which generates a dense fog) and some light snow (which is all I’ve seen so far). At night when there’s a low-lying mist, the lights from the mechanical creatures have the right kind of haze you’d expect animals with built-in headlights to have.
HZD is a beautiful game, and I don’t even have a PSPro. The landscape appropriately lush for a world where nature is running rampant, although I have to reserve the best praise for the character models, which I feel are second probably only to Naughty Dog’s stellar work in Uncharted 4.
Because Aloy is a hunter living among mechanical creatures who are stronger, faster, and (frankly) heavier than she is, everything about the prey is dangerous even when they aren’t actually attacking. Because of this, stealth is a major component in combat.
Crouching is augmented by hiding in abundant patches of tall grass which shields Aloy from the sight of most predators unless they’re right on top of her. She can throw rocks to redirect attention, but can also whistle to draw a target’s attention to her. Both of these are super useful because the name of the game is sub-system targeting.
Each machine has at least one weak spot, and it’s where you want to hit. For example, Watchers are like velociraptors with no front arms, and their one massive eye is their weak spot; get them to face you, and hit them once with a standard arrow to take them out. Other creatures may have a canister on their back in addition to smaller eyes, making it difficult to hit BOTH; hit the cannister and the creature will run away but hit the eyes and you lose visibility on the cannister. Some creatures have weak points in inconvenient locations, like the belly area, or move so fast getting a bead on specific body parts is difficult with advanced abilities. From what I can tell, then, the more visible or inaccessible weak spots a creature has, the harder they’ll be to take down.
Thankfully, there are more options than just rocks and whistles. Early on Aloy buys a tripcaster. This is a small crossbow which requires you to fire two ground stakes to string an electrified tripwire between them. Any mechanical creature of small or medium size that trips the wire is incapacitated for a time. There’s also the ropecaster which allows Aloy to secure targets to slow or immobilize them, but I haven’t bought that weapon yet and can’t speak about its effectiveness.
Aloy also has different ammo types. She starts out with a standard arrow but early on learns to craft flame arrows which explode and can set certain targets on fire. Even though they are mechanical, targets can be susceptible to elemental damage, and Aloy can discern this info using her Focus vision.
Beyond that, there are different damage types — fire, electrical, and a machine-specific CORRUPTION type — that can be applied to arrows, grenades, and traps.
A lot of NPC interactions are handled via cut-scenes and are driven by a Bioware-esque conversation wheel. Normal topics are listed unadorned, but critical path (i.e. decision making) options have a diamond icon next to them. On occasion, Aloy can choose from special responses designated by a brain (logical), heart (empathetic) or fist (strength) that have different effects on different NPCs from what I can tell. What the over-arching result of these decisions is, I don’t know.
Finally, you will be able to secure a mount. This system is most like the one found in The Witcher 3, with repeated taps of a button to increase and decrease speeds, and also the option (in settings) to have your mount stick to a path so you don’t need to constantly course-correct along the road (just when you reach an intersection).
Well, the clinical stuff is mostly out of the way, at least up to the point I’ve gotten (about 8% of the game after a few hours). Now we can talk about our feelings.
HZD is a great game. It’s already nailed what I’d hoped to get out of it, which is the narrative and the immersion in this weird world that Guerilla has created. I loved the Uncharted series as much for its depiction of the Drake’s home life as I did when Nathan was running and jumping through jungle ruins because there was that sense of sonder built in. Characters are remembered for their heroics, but they can’t be heroic without a reason to get up off the proverbial couch and to me that matters just as much as high-voltage cut-scenes.
Aloy was raised as an outcast by a man named Rost who opted to leave the Nora tribe for reasons we don’t find out early in the game. When Aloy was a child, she stumbled upon some “metal age” ruins — an old lab. Inside she finds several aged corpses, and a bit of technology she calls the Focus which allows her to interact with the world using holographic interfaces. She learns a bit about the dead through recorded logs that they left which give us just a bit of creepy insight into how the world ended up falling: there was apparently some catastrophe which caused these specific people to lock themselves away until their only decision was how quickly they were willing to die.
Rost trains Aloy because he hates that she has to live as an outcast and knows that some day she can participate in the Nora ritual of the Proving, when any young person who finishes can join the ranks of the “braves” of the tribe. For outcasts, this means an opportunity to return to the tribe. For the winner of the ritual, though, he or she can make a single demand of the tribe that must be granted, and Aloy already has her’s lined up: she wants to know who her mother is. She’s not Rost’s child but was given to him to raise for reasons we barely understand: Aloy wasn’t born, she was found inside the sacred mountain in what the Nora call the Temple of the All-Mother, their most sacred space. No one knows how she got there, or who her mother really is, but once the village is attacked by an unidentified cult who seemed to be specifically after Aloy, she leaves the Nora homelands for the city of Meridian in order to track down a lead on a traitor who might have some answers.
The mysterious birth angle isn’t anything new, but the direction the story points us in is really how it should be judged. Aloy was left at a literal doorstep: a massive sealed door in the Temple, behind which is a complete and utter mystery. Aloy believes her mother exists behind that door. We’re given the hint through her Focus that Aloy is descended from someone specific who is recognized by the door’s security system and who lived before the apocalypse, but if it’s her mother, her original template, or something else, we don’t yet know.
One of the things that I think would be critical to nail is the feeling that Aloy exists in a stone-age world alongside both the shadow elements of a fallen humanity and the hyper-advanced living machine ecosystem. While the Nora aren’t the most technologically advanced humans we see, they’re not paralyzed by ignorance. They understand some technology but don’t have the faculty or know-how to recreate old-world technology that can work for them. More to the point, we get the sense that they don’t want to. When Aloy returns to the Nora village of Mother’s Heart, she can watch a storytelling session given to children where the speaker talks about how the elder humans left the teachings of the All-Mother and embraced the technology which lead to their downfall. The Nora see technology as evil and don’t want any part of it outside of what little they can repurpose for their own use — armor and weapons that are most effective aginst machine creature attacks. In this, I think Guerilla did a great job of making Aloy and the Nora the believable “contemporary” civilization, with the ruins of past humanity suitably ruined enough to be mysterious while being stupidly familiar to us as players, and the presence of machine beasts consistently feeling as alien as they first did when we saw the original reveal trailer, in part because Guerilla puts actual organic animals in the world as both a ground (“this is what hunters would normally hunt”) and a necessary as a crafting reagent.
I love the character models. Up close, we get the uncanny valley of design that tries too hard to make things look authentic: scrubby hair, shiny moisture, and massive pores. At speaking distance, though, the character faces are significantly different so it’s extremely easy to give characters physical personality beyond what comes out of their mouths. It looks to me like major characters were each crafted as individuals, and not cobbled together from a limited set of face shapes, eyes, brows, mouths, noses, and facial hair.
The voice acting is pretty damn good as well for most of the characters. They have the kind of cadence and inflection that you’d expect from someone in normal conversation, based on their personality and the situation they’re speaking about. The only stumbling block is Aloy herself when it comes time for her to respond based on a player-made conversation decision, a failing I call “Shepard Syndrome” because of the same result in the Mass Effect games. Normal conversation sounds fine, but when the character needs to say something in response to a player decision, the delivery sounds wooden and very “prompt-like”, as if they’re querying a voice-activated computer and aren’t expecting a human response. For how it’s done right, consider Star Wars: The Old Republic’s voiced player-character responses.
I see a dangerous precipice, though: the need for repetition. HZD’s conceit is that you’re a hunter who has to hunt robots for survival and for parts used in survival. At that level, a lot of games would push you hard into having to constantly farm targets even beyond the point where it’s fun anymore. Once I got the ability to “tame” certain creatures and got one as a mount, I just wanted to run full speed ahead to the next story destination but found myself having to dismount or slow because I had to avoid detection by roving mechanicals placed too close to the road. On one hand, I need the materials and the XP and — quite honestly — the practice, but on the other hand, I am playing on EASY mode because I’m all about the story and not any sort of chest-thumping that would accompany anyone taking issue with my choice. I know that in games past when I reached the point where content was becoming annoying, it was a harbinger of losing interest. While I also had moments comparing my time in HZD to my recent time in Uncharted 4 where I said “yeah I can see myself putting all else aside to return to this game until complete”, I don’t want to supersede THAT feeling because the design thinks fighting robots is too cool for anyone to NOT want to do it over and over and over.
I suppose the question for anyone looking for info on whether or not to pay full price or wait for a sale is “is it fun?” I hate that question because fun is subjective. “Is it worth full price” is a resounding YES from me because even though I don’t care for the Assassin’s Creed-as-inspiration vibe I get which short-circuits whatever OCDness I have when it comes to task management, I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed with HZD’s implementation. At the point where I’m at, I feel that there’s enough to do without it being a burden or without too many side-quests becoming the “main quest”. The game has striking visuals, great acting, solid mechanics, an engaging story, and enough to keep players busy for hours without stopping (not that I recommend or endorse that kind of binge).