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A solid experience hindered by trying to do too many things at once.

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    Horizon Zero Dawn

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    A solid experience hindered by trying to do too many things at once.

    I posted a video of the review on Youtube: https://youtu.be/yZFZD5dwuKc

    Last year, I missed out on Horizon Zero Dawn. Well not exactly, I played around five hours of the game and then lost interest. It didn’t stand out during the time I was playing. I just wasn’t feeling it at the time. Now in 2018, I’m back for more with a full review of Horizon Zero Dawn. The game is a breath of fresh air in some ways, but it’s also primarily recycling well-established ideas in a unique manner. Guerilla Games have finally stepped out of their Killzone-centric comfort zone. Personally, I’ve never played any of the games, but they’ve always been sitting there in my backlog. The first thing that stood out to me about this game was the non-sexualized female lead. Their choice of the lead protagonist was certainly a step in the right direction for the industry.

    Horizon Zero Dawn has you playing as a young hunter named Aloy. She’s born as an outcast of the Nora tribe. Aloy is raised by another outcast named Rost. The game begins with a young Aloy finding a strange device called a focus, which provides her with a technological edge. The post-apocalyptic world is filled to brim with robot dinosaurs. When I first played the game, it felt bland. However, now with a more analytical approach, I appreciate how well the world plays into the themes presented within the story. My favorite part of the game is how well it presents a world with such a jarring contrast. It juxtaposes tribe based civilizations with remnants of futuristic tools and creatures. There’s also the strong thematic presence of nature and technology. In this world, technology has become an artifact of the distant past, yet it’s ever present in the form of the robotic wildlife.

    Horizon Zero Dawn is essentially a chameleon in the form of a video game as it’s certainly a product of its time. Mechanically speaking, the gameplay is a melting pot of current generation trends. In this game, we have the climbing from Uncharted, the Detective Mode from Batman, the crafting from The Last of Us, the Witcher sense from the Witcher 3, the morality based conversation pie from Mass Effect, and even the generic open world approach. All these mechanics work as a decent whole, but I can’t help but feel like each aspect was watered down in comparison to the games they came from. It results in a jack of all trades approach to the gameplay. Even my complaints are watered down due to sheer number of derivative mechanics embedded in the game. For example, rock climbing feels pretty smooth, but there are times where it’s not very clear where to climb next. It gets very bad at times, but climbing doesn’t have that much of a presence in the big picture. The problem with Horizon taking so many mechanics from other games is the inevitable comparisons to the sources of each mechanic. For almost every one of these borrowed mechanics, it’s executed worse in Horizon. The mechanics suit their source games more naturally simply due to the nature of design. The systems in place function well enough to set the stage, but they fail to provide a solid experience in the long run.

    My experience with the combat was subpar as there was a genuine lack of thrill. I played on the game’s normal difficulty and had a passable experience. Fighting robot dinosaurs certainly sounds like an action-packed experience, but in execution, it felt like it was missing impact. Eventually, combat simply became a vehicle for the narrative as it felt like I was simply going through the motions. Aloy has a whole arsenal of weapons, but I quickly just focused on the hunter’s bow and the sharpshot bow. All the robotic enemies have weak points that are highlighted when Aloy uses her focus. However, problems arise with the focus as the highlighting fades away after a while and activating the focus forces Aloy to move at walking pace. This kills the flow of movement, while making absolutely no sense as the focus is a small device that doesn’t seem to require much effort to make use of. There’s also an element system, but the only element I consistently relied on was fire. It was just so effective against so many enemies that it became my primary element. There were moments that felt exhilarating, but the arrow-spongy enemies quickly resulted in monotony. Aloy is unable to take many hits from enemies without dying, but the health system allows the player to craft health potions wherever, whenever. Death isn’t even that bad as the checkpoint system is very forgiving. This results in there being no true weight to combat.

    Exploration is crucial in Horizon Zero Dawn due to its nature as an open world game. Aloy gathers healing plants to add to her medicine pouch, acting as a health pool. Honestly, I’m not fond of the health pool because it resulted in medicine farming similar to farming for blood vials in Bloodborne, but to a lesser extent. The world is sprinkled with save points in the form of bonfires, but they don’t heal the player. It’s ridiculous because restarting from checkpoints returns Aloy to full health, so I would save and then restart from the checkpoint to regain my health. Otherwise, I’d have to waste some of my saved up medicine to be at full strength. Traveling on foot is a genuine highlight of the game as Aloy runs, slides, and then rolls in a magnificently smooth manner. On a mount however, it’s a nightmare as steering these clunky creatures is a headache inducing disaster. For some reason, the mounts move in such a way that they can easily head towards the camera and get confused on which way the player wants them to go. Admittedly, mount movement is serviceable if the player just moves forward in a straight line, but traversing the open world often requires a lot more than just running straight ahead. The world is full of robot dinosaurs, but after a while, I just ran past them all and went straight to the next quest destination. It really highlights the inherent padding in the open world genre. Personally, I’m quite tired of having to run all the way to the next mission location just to progress the plot. During quests, Aloy can follow tracks from her focus. This works like the Witcher sense sort of, though it’s more convenient as the player just toggles the track that they’re following. There are many collectibles in many forms. Unfortunately, they often require the focus to slowly scan them, while also resulting in Aloy having to move at walking pace. It makes exploring derelict ruins a chore as the player needs to break movement consistency for the sake of finding and scanning collectibles.

    The story was solid, but I had some gripes with it. The slow start, mostly shallow characters, and poorly executed ending definitely held the narrative experience back for me. However, the setting is well realized, and I certainly got more invested in Aloy’s plight as I progressed. The lore was somewhat interesting, but it was presented in walls of text and long audio logs. The origin of this post apocalypse was more interesting than the post apocalypse itself. I wanted to know more about the world before the apocalypse had occurred, but I didn’t want to search far and wide for these lore bits. Aloy isn’t very interesting as a character to me. She’s just not very fun or charming. Her interactions with other characters usually don’t stand out, which may be due to her upbringing as an outcast. There’s no real moral choice system, but they still have choices that do vary in levels of morality. The game allows the player to make some decisions for Aloy, but they never feel very significant in terms of consequence. There was a time during a side quest where if the player already had what an NPC was looking for, Aloy would just give it to them without allowing the player to decide what to do. If they didn’t have the item, they’re given the opportunity to go get one for them like a submissive dolt or to kill them like a vicious murderer. Here, they took away my freedom as a punishment for happening to have a specific item. One can argue that Aloy would want to prevent unnecessary bloodshed if she already had what they wanted. However, that makes absolutely no sense as there’s an instance where she just straight up kills them if she’s too lazy to find what they’re looking for.

    Horizon Zero Dawn makes use of a skill system that relies on points that Aloy obtains through leveling up, specific quests, and open world activities. Aloy gains experience from most activities in order to incentivize participation in the open world. The upgrades are well balanced as there always seemed to be appealing skills to work towards. From stealthily running to stacking arrows on a bow, the game provides an interesting pool of upgrades. Despite the quality of the skill system, there still wasn’t enough to maintain my interest in the side quests.

    The side quests simply failed to draw me in. They were shallow bits of gameplay that lacked in narrative depth, interesting tasks, and memorable characters. Put simply, the side content had a notable absence of substance most of the time. The bland side characters usually failed to grab my interest and the events that took place in the side quests were just run-of-the-mill. I lost interest in most side content by the midway point. There was never that Witcher 3 moment of being enticed to go on a crazy completionist run. One particularly bad side quest moment had Aloy successfully rescuing a young boy and his mother. They sail away with some cinematic music in a poor attempt at feeling epic. It evokes feelings of being on a journey with a group of people, but it’s completely out of place and tone deaf. One of the side characters tells Aloy about all the good she did. Aloy responds with a serious one-liner as they look off into the distance. Soon after, they reach their destination followed by a generic thank you from an NPC. To me, this acts as a key example of how Horizon Zero Dawn often fails at crafting memorable moments, especially during the side content.

    Aesthetically, I was rather mixed on Horizon. The environments are visually impressive as the artists at Guerilla Games managed to present nature in a beautiful way. Some of the more mechanical areas feel oppressive and somewhat Alien-inspired. When it comes to character models however, I’m not very fond of them. The costume designs were decent, but the facial features for a handful of the characters felt off. Many of the female characters seemed to have Botox injections, while a lot of the male characters looked bland. However, there are highlights such as Aloy, Sona, Varl, and Rost, but they’re important characters in the main story. During dialogue, the character animations were poorly done. This is coming from a fan of the Mass Effect series, which has been often cited to have bad animations during dialog.

    In terms of audio, the music really lacks presence. I spent some time listening to some of the soundtrack on its own and I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. The sound design definitely needs work as it held the soundtrack back. It also hinders the combat experience as it doesn’t feel all that satisfying to damage enemies. When it comes to the voice acting, it’s very hit-or-miss with the very inspired lines from War-Chief Sona to the more lackluster dialogue from an uninteresting character like Erend. It doesn’t help that the lip-syncing is abysmal by modern day standards. The lip-syncing is almost as bad as how it was during the early PS2 era.

    As a sum of its parts, Horizon Zero Dawn manages to provide a solid experience. However, if you look at it piece by piece, it’s certainly a chaotic mess. Regardless, I managed to enjoy the game quite a bit during its latter half as the story got more engaging. The world is well realized, but the characters lean towards the forgettable end of the spectrum. Though the narrative begins at a snail’s pace and ends in a mediocre manner, unraveling Aloy’s story was quite a treat. Even with all the systems that make up the gameplay, it just ended up as a means to an end, with the end being the story. Overall, I’d recommend the game to those that are willing to put up with the open world experience and are interested in robot dinosaurs.

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