Friday, April 7, 2017

Horizon Zero Dawn - Thoughts

Horizon Zero Dawn is perhaps the stupidest name for one of the coolest new IPs to come out this generation. It's a title so vague and meaningless that you could swap the nouns around and it would still produce the same word salad. Know what's a more fitting appellation? Posthistoric Robopocalypse: Rise of the Bowwoman. I wouldn't dare say that's a good name, but it most accurately represents what Horizon succeeds in doing—throwing the player into a tribal world overrun with robotic animals while also providing them the means to eventually overcome it. Across the +30 hour journey, you'll learn how to scavenge for parts, craft a multitude of ammo types, and hunt majestic machinations, until you become the master of this lawless domain. And by god, it is a gorgeous, brilliant, phenomenal experience that has (figuratively) blown my pants off.

The most unimaginative stunt that Horizon pulls is that it unabashedly copies from Ubisoft's open-world playbook. There's settlements to liberate, goodies to collect, raw materials to gather, side quests to stumble upon, and a nifty little skill tree to fill out, which all feels familiar if you've played any of the newer Far Cry titles. Luckily it's a solid blueprint to copy from, providing the player with dozens of hours of content to explore without going too far overboard (the icon-littered map may look crazy but your points of interest are relatively few). Had I not played and fallen in love with Far Cry 3 years prior I would've been head over heels for Horizon, but being able to recognize the tropes and gameplay loops of the open-world genre kept my enthusiasm mostly grounded.

Yet despite how familiar the structure of the world felt, it was the world itself that left me breathless. From the colorful, jaw-dropping vistas to the individual fibers of the robo-fauna's muscles, Horizon's resplendent landscapes exudes both majesty and marvel. The cybernetic critters don't feel strangely conspicuous or anachronistic, thanks in part to their elegant, animalian design, as well as the reverence Horizon's denizens show towards them. The way each tribe uses robotic components as decorative ornaments looks bizarre at first, but you slowly grow acclimated to it, eventually commending NPCs and their splendiferous headdresses (well, if you're me that is). There's a curious sense of fashion to Horizon's world that is one part ancient and one part sci-fi, two polar qualities that are never at odds as you venture from place to place, culture to culture.

Speaking of, each tribe comes with their own history, belief, and political clout in the world, leading the small state-sized landmass to feel like its own Mass Effect universe. True, you can identify archetypal fantasy civilizations in each culture (the Carja are patriarchal imperials, the Banuk are mountain mystics, and the Oseram are straight-up dwarves), but the way they're fleshed out adds some variations to each formula. Whereas collecting lore in a lot of other games tends to add personal/micro detail to the world, Horizon's scrolls act more like historical accounts of one culture's depictions of another, subject to whatever fallacies that may entail. And the quality of writing isn't merely just present in the plethora of text files—side quests routinely provide more of an incentive beyond "go fetch this thing because I said so". Perhaps you'll be looking for a lost lover that's been enlisted with the Shadow Carja, or needing to decide whether a mentally troubled man is a danger to his tribe, or infiltrating a deranged bomb expert's trap-laden valley. Even if a lot of the decisions you make don't have a massive impact on Horizon's world, the fact that you feel like an important player and actively want to learn more is enough to keep you poking around for hours on end.

One of Horizon Zero Dawn's most impressive feats (of which there are many) is that it makes the main mission as important and interesting as all of the side ones. This is no simple task; Bethesda games are rightly lambasted for having underwhelming main missions despite open world RPGs being their expertise. Guerrilla Games skirts this issue by pumping their central plot full of fascinating tidbits and lore, prompting the player to push onwards in order to uncover more juicy details (and perhaps save the world in the process). I won't spoil any of it, but the fact that Horizon takes time to convincingly explain why there are robotic dinosaurs prowling the land is something I totally wasn't expecting. Honestly, this is probably the most intriguing AAA plot I've played this generation.

Lastly, I suppose I should mention something about the gameplay, eh? As demonstrated by my enthusiasm, Horizon's world-building is undeniably its premier attraction, but the gameplay is no slouch either. There's a variety of weapons to use (each with their unique ammo types) and every enemy you face has weak zones to target, ensuring a combat depth that goes beyond "just shoot them in the head". However the more time you spend playing the game the more you have to acknowledge the its eccentricities: for instance, Horizon pegs itself as an RPG but the only way to increase damage is to find and equip damage modules, which is quite unintuitive at first (upgrading only gives you more ammo types). Some enemies are also too mobile for you to reliably hit their weak points, causing endgame battles to ultimately favor blast damage arms (tripcaster, shadow sling). The melee combat feels pretty loose and shoddy—I'm not asking for God of War combos but there's really only two "branches" of slow attacks the player can perform, leading to a lot of senseless button mashing. Oh—slightly unrelated—but gathering health for the health pouch is a chore (the gain you get per herb really needs to be doubled)

I call these eccentricities and not faults because for the most part, the combat works as intended. Once you learn to utilize the roll and its i-frames, facing off against Horizon's fiercest predators can be extremely thrilling, whether it be the ice-spitting Snapmaw or the boulder-manipulating Behemoth. The mighty Stormbird in particular is a feast for the eyes and thumbs; its devastating lightning and dive attacks serve as a suitable test for your dexterity; tying the colossal foe down a challenge for your aim. I didn't even mind grappling with Horizon's few humanoid foes, the base infiltrations a fun endeavor that I always somehow managed to mess up (got close to ghosting a couple of them!) The game is lenient enough that you never have to be on your A-game even on Hard, but it demands that you respect its robotic inhabitants, quick to remind you that their serrated iron teeth can tear you limb from limb. You'll achieve a sense of pride in slowly working your way up the food chain, toppling each unique metal monstrosity one by one, until you become the most dangerous predator around.

Horizon Zero Dawn isn't perfect, but at no point did I ever find myself chiding the game for its shortcomings. Every time I played it I was excited; every story beat I reached surprised me; every battle I fought engaged me. Horizon didn't feel like a product churned out to appeal to a specific "hardcore" market—it was a game crafted with great care that sought to captivate as much as it wanted to entertain. With its lush world, compelling story, and flexible combat, this debut has earned itself the honor of being the strongest title the PS4 currently possesses. What Guerrilla Games has pulled off is an extremely commendable feat; the worst part about having to write this entry is accepting that my time with Horizon is over.

Bravo Bowwoman, bravo.

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