Given that I’m a little late in boarding the Horizon: Zero Dawn praise train, I wanted to play through the game as fast as possible without losing any of what it has to offer. I climbed every Tallneck, accomplished every hunting trial, and completed each quest to earn its platinum trophy. And after experiencing every aspect of the game, including some leisurely exploration, I can see why there’s significant acclaim surrounding Guerrilla Games’ latest and finest, yet I cannot seem to remain on the praise train. I need to get off at the next station, criticize, and jump back on.
Before I begin, these points of criticism are the ones in which I feel deserve attention. Other, smaller, issues would be the lack of a consistent mount until the end-game, or the state of Aloy’s spear – it’s useless outside of stealth take-downs and toppling Grazer dummies for a trophy. However, it wouldn’t be a reasonably sized read if every point was elaborated on. Forgive me if I’ve missed anything. Because I have.
The story follows Aloy, an independent, witty, and, above all, interesting protagonist who has zero tolerance for other peoples’ drama. Usually, in these types of stories – exploratory with the implication of self-discovery – the central character is thrust into an unknown world, unprepared and exposed, following destructive circumstances. Yet, Aloy, who has been training with her mentor, Rost, for the better part of a decade to compete in trials with the goal of learning about her past, is already prepared. She may not know what’s out in the world beyond the Sacred Land, but she isn’t afraid to experience what it has to offer. And as Aloy explores the world, so will the player.
As I began my adventure with Aloy, I was worried the game would use the copy-and-paste template that so many other games have adopted in recent years. I traversed, ran, and fumbled through HZD’s narrative and gameplay. However, throughout my playthrough, I was frequently left both frustrated and amazed.
HZD’s world is truly magnificent. With graphics that are frighteningly advanced and a little distracting, HZD portrays an atmosphere which actively embraces its sci-fi history and Aztec present. As I was both hunter and prey, I was left giddy from fear and excitement; incapacitating mechanical dinosaurs in stealth is exhilarating and deserves every word of praise. However, the level of immersion that HZD presents is also silently taken away in the game’s smaller or forgotten details.
In HZD’s earlier stages, I was confronted with a Sawtooth and a few Chargers. I knew I needed to flee; I had zero health potions nor any medicinal herbs. As I proceeded to put boots to whatever was under Aloy’s feet, my enemies followed in pursuit. They relentlessly caught up and forced Aloy into a river. I attempted to navigate her away, but each foe could tread the water and attack simultaneously while I was left defenceless. While they violently thrash and ram Aloy to death, I could do nothing but attempt an escape. It didn’t work. Aloy died. This is why from here on, I avoided water wherever I could.
When Aloy is required to swim, whether that be through pre-determined situations or mere circumstance, it’s slow and heavy. There’s no reason to swim and it’s frustratingly unfair when you can’t apply a little skill or situational thinking to escape the mess that overwhelms Aloy. I would have preferred the game either take after Dragon Age: Inquisition, with water as deep as the player’s knees, or The Witcher 3, with oceans of depth to be explored. I see this as a sort of indecision, meeting between the two aforementioned examples but not capitalising on either of their strengths. Instead, the game drowns the player in an aspect that is best avoided.
The game incorporates elements similar to those found in a role-playing game, but lack the depth needed to be classified as an RPG. The crafting system is pretty bare-bones but nonetheless well-structured; the player can craft ammunition without having to enter the pause menu, and the modification system can be termed as ‘whichever one produces the most damage’. To put the leveling and crafting systems plainly: they’re basic and do what they’re supposed to do. Nothing more and nothing less. If you’re looking for any semblance of deep customisation, look elsewhere.
HZD’s combat gave me the illusion that one can take any approach they’d like to a situation and succeed regardless. This isn’t the case with HZD. In HZD, the only satisfying and realistic way to play the game is through stealth. Most machines in HZD travel in packs or herds – which is fitting when you consider their real-life animal counterparts – and instigating a battle with these numerous machines can frequently lead to one becoming overwhelmed. I would be forced to run, die, or find a place outside of a machine’s pre-ordained reach. However, if I took the time to scan the target for weaknesses, lay down traps, and adjust elemental damage on my weapons, I would be rewarded with a satisfying and easier fight. But sometimes I wasn’t looking for stealth or satisfaction; I just wanted to wing-it, hope for the best, and improvise to survive. By the end of the game, I found myself actively avoiding combat in favour of pure exploration.
If you’ve played the game, do you recall the first time you stumbled upon a Tallneck? It was a beautifully crafted encounter and is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in recent games. Leaping on to the towering behemoth – not the actual Behemoth machine – and climbing its frightening stature to gain a breathtaking view of the world you have yet to explore. It was a real ‘fuck me’ moment. Every time I reached the head of a Tallneck, I felt higher than I was, I felt as if I were on the tip-top of a mountain – a moving mountain at that. All I could think was: “Well done, Guerrilla Games.”
Taking this experience, I only hope that in the series’ next iteration Guerrilla Games implements a system where Aloy can climb any building, any mountain that can realistically be scaled. A climbing system to be used wherever and whenever the player sees fit. Do you see that ruined and crumbling 21st-century building? You can climb it. Do you see that small ledge that unfortunately doesn’t have a set handhold but sits at eye-level? You can climb it, and you don’t have to mash the jump button hoping to get lucky in a climb you weren’t supposed to make. It may seem like I’m being overly critical about a game I would call great, but in my opinion, these criticisms are warranted when a game is so close to being termed fantastic.
One part of HZD that I wasn’t expecting to admire quite so much, is Aloy herself. As I played through each quest, I really came to admire her quirky, awkward, and blunt matter-of-fact personality. She’s a great protagonist. The game constantly places Aloy at the mercy of another’s stupidity and the way she observes her surroundings gives her an emotional presence that is infrequently held by other video game characters. Her opinions regarding the ridiculous state of tribal society – she goes from being rejected as an outcast to being worshipped as ‘the anointed’ – are always outspoken. It’s refreshing to be a part of a journey where both the player and the protagonist can question the state of the world.
Even though I was worried about HZD being just another open-world adventure, bland in its entirety, it was able to shatter those fears and envelop me. HZD’s world is riveting, one that I would gladly venture into again for another run. And at its front, is Aloy – a protagonist who one can come to love and admire as much as Nathan Drake, or Crash Bandicoot. However, these points of praise can be interrupted by the game’s inability to capitalise on other areas, leaving the player wanting more of the brilliance that is present at the forefront of the game. HZD is great; it’s just holding itself back from being the greatest.