Horizon: Zero Dawn, by Guerrilla Games, has been available to buy and play since March 1st, here in the UK. It’s been touted as one of the best games ever, with mainstream reviewers awarding it, on average, a little over 9 out of 10, which in gaming terms does indeed make it seem like HZD could well be the game to have.
But does the game deserve such a high review score?
Well, in my opinion (and please bear in mind, this is just my opinion, it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things), no, it does not deserve such a high mark. I don’t generally rate games out of 10, as that is all subjective, but in order to bring my opinion in line with the reviewers’ way of rating a game I will, in this case, award the game a score.
After playing Horizon: Zero Dawn from start to finish (on hard), completing the storyline, completing all side missions and errands, destroying all bandit camps, clearing all corrupted zones, and collecting all collectables, I would give this game a solid 8 out of 10.
Cue the outrage. The gasps of horror. “But Alen, how could you be so mean to such an outstanding video game?”
The answer is simple: I’m not being “mean”, I’m just voicing my honest opinion. So, let’s get to it, shall we. Just why am I going against the accepted grain? Well, firstly, let’s look at what Horizon: Zero Dawn has going for it.
Horizon: Zero Dawn, without a doubt, looks amazing. The picture at the start of this piece was taken from my playthrough, and as good as that image looks, it still does not do justice to how exceptional the visuals in this game are. The first region you explore after leaving the tutorial is dominated by the ruins of a large city. Skeletal skyscrapers lean at drunken angles, rivers flow where bustling streets once would have run. As you explore you begin to feel the tragic history of this land, and it bodes well for what you expect to find and explore later on.
As well as the sweeping vistas, the main antagonists in the game – the Machines – also look fantastic. They are exceedingly well created, move with the grace of real, living creatures, and certainly look as if they belong in the landscape.
The sense of peril and danger you feel as you wander around this post-apocalyptic land is very prevalent. Each one of those finely crafted Machines can, and will, kill you. They have good sight lines and will spot you at a distance. None of them are friendly, and even the small ones, the ones you can kill in one or two hits, will gang up and take you out. Running away is, as always, an option, but you’ll quickly discover that quite a few of your mechanical adversaries come furnished with lasers, grenade launchers, flamethrowers, and a number of other just as lethal armaments.
And… well, that’s about it for the pros. A depressingly short list.
Referring back to the ruined city in the first region, and what it promises for the rest of the game… well, it fails to deliver. Apart from a very few isolated areas, ruins of ‘the Ancients’ are non-existent, and that, for me, was a big let down. It meant the map for Horizon: Zero Dawn was far too similar to many other games of the same genre. Yes, you have glorious sweeping vista, but you lose all sense of wonder, all sense of the tragedy that befell ‘the Ancients’, simply because you lose all sight of them.
The sense of peril and danger you feel as you wander around this post-apocalyptic land is prevalent… yes, it is, but that feeling soon evaporates when you realise that you can fast travel to any previously discovered bonfire. These bonfires are far too numerous, and being able to warp to them from anywhere on the map, at any time – well, where’s the fun in that? That dangerous expedition you’re thinking of taking to the far corner of the map, just to see what’s there? Well, how dangerous is it really when you can just fast travel back to safety whenever things start looking a bit dicey?
On top of losing the sense of danger, this system also breaks your immersion in this world. If Aloy can purchase fast travel packs from merchants, including the Golden Fast Travel Pack for unlimited travel, it stands to reason that anybody in the game can also do this. So why aren’t they?
I’m not saying fast travel is a bad idea, but if it’s going to be included in a game then it should be an integral part of that game. There should be a valid reason for this magical ability to exist for characters. For example – Aloy learns the ability to override Machines in order to ride them or make them non-hostile to her. So why not have her also ‘learn’ the ability to fast travel, using teleport hubs located at relevant points (bonfires). A small detail, but it keeps the immersion going.
The storyline of Horizon:Zero Dawn is interesting, but far from gripping, and I found it very difficult to care about what happened to the majority of characters Aloy met on her travels. There were even a few occasions where I found myself thinking why I was bothering to help any of the tribes, and if there had been the option to obtain a ‘bad’ ending where Aloy failed and everything was obliterated I would’ve definitely aimed for that.
The only crafting in the game is ammunition for your limited array of weapons, and various potions. You can’t craft your own weapons or armour, you can only use what you find or buy. You can upgrade weapons and armour by using one, two or three upgrade components on them, depending on the item’s level. You can’t, though, put your own stamp on weapons and armour, you can’t customise anything visually.
You have no choice what items are on your ‘fast use’ bar. If it can go on there, and you’re carrying it, then on the bar it will be. This makes for some very clunky mechanics as you’re trying to find your health potions in the middle of a battle. Coupled with the ‘fast use’ bar’s habit of resetting itself to one particular item after a cut scene, even if you’d left it set to the said health potions, and it becomes a very frustrating experience.
Later in the game you will be given a new lance, and, if you’ve been exploring everything as you go, you’ll be able to unlock the Shield Weaver Outfit. The lance is very, very powerful as a weapon, and the outfit absorbs something like 98% of damage, with a very fast recharge time. Using these two items makes the rest of the game somewhat of a joke. Of course, you don’t have to use them, but by the time I had realised just how powerful and overpowered they were, it was too late.
Horizon:Zero Dawn isn’t a bad game, it’s a long way from being bad. But the storyline, missions, side missions, errands etc. don’t offer anything you wouldn’t find in any of the other games in the same genre. The Machines make for a new and interesting adversary in a video game, but once you’ve figured out their weak spots and the best way to take them down, none of them continue to be scary or a major threat throughout the entirety of the game.
None of the ‘cons’, above, are game breaking, and of course it can be argued that a lot, if not most, are minor complaints. But that’s the point of this opinion piece. There are enough of those minor complaints that, when all of them are put together in the context of the game as a whole, make a score of more than 8 out of 10 out of the question.
All in all, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an agreeable and fun game to play. Take your time, explore the world, and you’ll have a good time, especially if you enjoy games of this genre (which I do). But if you’re looking for something that will blow your mind, leave you gasping and panting for more, then this isn’t the one for you.
There is ample room for improvement, and with the way clearly opened for a sequel, here’s hoping that the next version of Aloy’s Adventures in Machine Land will be the game to completely blow everyone away.
And there you have it. As usual, all of the above is just my opinion, and should be treated as such. You should do your own research, and make up your own mind, before spending any of your own money on a video game.
As always, that shallot.