Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.
-Isaac Asimov, Foundation
I finally did it!
A full year and some change after its initial release, I finally played and completed Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla’s huge, gorgeous, sci-fi GOTY nominee from 2017. Playing a well-received big name game well after its release has its perks. Distancing oneself from the first waves of impressions, which in this case almost universally lauded the product in question, allows a critic some clarity of thought. It’s difficult to avoid influence from all of YouTube, Metacritic, Twitter, and the blogsphere, so far as maintaining one’s own views go, and this writer finds that reasonably important.
But since the moment I first saw Horizon Zero Dawn when it was revealed at E3 some years ago, I knew it was a game I wanted to play. Call me a sucker for sci-fi. Go ahead.
Therefore, it was with tremendous relish that I played it for myself and attempted to form my own opinions on it. Note that doesn’t mean being a contrarian; it means I am satisfied with arriving at my take on the game all on my ownsome. Staying away from nearly all info about the game and its content helps with that, my friends.
Our own founding member, the Timely Mage, already penned a glowing review for Horizon Zero Dawn but this time around I’m trying my own hand at dishing out some mage crit for the complete edition of the game, which includes The Frozen Wilds DLC.
Be forewarned that this is an in-depth critique. If you’re at all concerned about having the broad ideas of the game made apparent to you (aka “spoiled”), then may I suggest a variety of our other critiques to you? After all, this is a multiple-thousand-word article… if you haven’t played the game, you’re being risky, my friend. I’m about to talk premises and I’ll conceal any really big twists and turns in the plot in text that must be highlighted, but I’m just going to say SPOILERS ahead, just in case.
Still here? Alright.
Horizon Zero Dawn begins on some strange Earth-like planet where tribal humans cower under their superstitions and stave off hordes of mechanical beast-forms in a valiant effort of survival. Born into the tribe of the Nora, a baby girl with fiery red hair is for reasons unknown shunned and ostracized by almost all of the tribe. The girl is given to an exile named Rost to raise in the lonely wilderness. Rost names her Aloy.
Aloy grows up as an outcast, learning both about the hostility of the natural world full of its robot dinosaurs and the hostility of the human world full of its bigoted, dinosaurian traditionalism. She becomes a survivor under Rost’s gentle guidance, developing her combat and crafting skills but leaving many of her questions unanswered. As she matures into a young woman, she wonders why she is an outcast at all?
With no small amount of resentment toward the Nora, she wonders why Rost is an exile for life, why the world is the way it is, and, most important to her, who her mother was. The Nora are a matriarchal people who place much emphasis on the great All-Mother, their mountain deity, and so the mystery of the mum is at the heart of Aloy’s burgeoning desire for knowledge.
Mystery and unanswered questions are really what drives Horizon Zero Dawn forward. These certainly propel our heroine forward but they also kept this player playing the game. As good as this open world is, as rich and as detailed, and as enjoyably engaging and complex as the combat is, what kept me playing Horizon most was imagining what happened to the planet, why the machines were so prevalent, and how this dystopia came about, as well as resolving Aloy’s more personal questions.
It oughtn’t be much of a spoiler at all to say that this is actually planet Earth in the far-flung future, considering vistas of the skeletons of skyscrapers, shattered streets, and crumbling cities were a large part of this game’s marketing, even prior to its release. Discovering exactly why that is the case is part of how Horizon unfolds so beautifully, and I encourage anyone reading this to experience that for themselves without it being outlined here for them.
I can best explain Horizon Zero Dawn as a combination of Planet of the Apes and Asimov’s Foundation series with a dash of Skynet. It’s a delicious rendering of some of the best science-fiction ideas, and even by the end, not everything is completely explained.
Planet of the Apes should be familiar to most readers thanks to the recent reboot trilogy of films featuring the unparalleled physical acting of Andy Serkis, if not the classic film starring Charlton Heston. In short, it’s about an entire planet taken over by apes. Humanity becomes subservient and increasingly primitive, even eventually mute, as the intelligent apes form their own advancing civilizations, sociological caste systems, traditions, religion, and military force.
Horizon Zero Dawn is set sometime in the 31st century after an unknown event resulted in mechanical monstrosities prowling the wilderness and humanity regressing in civilization, technology, and collective knowledge. Substitute the apes for the machines and you’ve got Planet of the Robots, though the catalyst for this future isn’t a time loop or an Alzheimer drug. Just to get that out of the way.
The second part of the combination I mentioned seems to me to be more of a specific influence, though it may be less familiar compared to Planet of the Apes. Isaac Asimov is more widely known for the oft-cited Three Laws of Robotics and I, Robot, though his Foundation series is a sci-fi epic unlike any other.
Foundation is the compilation that lends its series its name and it weaves an overarching narrative across interconnected short stories about the Foundation, an institution dedicated to preserving humanity’s knowledge, technology, and civilization after a mathematician/psychologist named Hari Seldon develops psychohistory, a field of study that can predict the future based on assigning mathematical principles to potentialities within societies. The stories detail how Seldon predicted far in advance the fall of the Galactic Empire and a coming Dark Age thirty millennia-long, as well as the predicaments that the preservationists of the Foundation positioned at opposite ends of the solar system would encounter.
It’s really a fascinating set of stories and I have never actually finished the series, there are so many books in it and Asimov wasn’t exactly a concise writer.
In Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy quickly begins to delve into the ruins of the Old Ones, the collective name that the primitive peoples of her time call the ancient people who lived long before, whose structures lie in ruins and who are tied to the machines. As Aloy explores the world, she uncovers a Focus, a bluetooth headset-like device that allows her to interface with the Old Ones’ machines and holograms. She soon learns of the ancient world and its struggles to preserve the human race against impending extinction, much like Asimov’s Foundation.
As it turns out, the game is named for Project Zero Dawn, which involved (SPOILERS: highlight to reveal) creating a prime AI entity with a set of subservient AI programs who were charged with preserving human knowledge, storing embryos, re-terraforming the planet after the initial Faro Swarm destroyed everything… Maybe it would’ve just been easier to create multiple, reliable escape ships and terraform other planets, or move humanity underground like in The Matrix instead of inventing entirely new and admittedly unreliable AI terraforming technology, but then the game and its premise wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting.
Then, of course, there’s the Skynet reference, just one example in a number of prophetic science fiction stories about the dangers of technology advancing ahead of ethics, that is scientists asking “how do we do this?” before asking “should we do this?” I take this reference to mean less of an influence (compared to Foundation) and more Horizon tapping into a general concept within science fiction literature. Skynet was the name of the malicious AI from the Terminator film franchise that eventually decided it was going to wage war on humanity, sending a curiously Austrian-accented muscle-bot back in time to terminate the mother of the future hero that leads survivors in rebellion against the machines.
With Horizon, the AI play a larger part in the story than I initially suspected. Hades, one of the prime AI’s (Gaia) has begun to show some Skynetty signs. This comes to explain the rising maliciousness of the machines, and maybe the original creators of the AI entities should have seen this coming after naming one of the programs “Hades”, but the tribespeople of the 31st have no way of understanding this rising evil other than through the lenses of their religious and spiritual traditions. It’s up to Aloy to face the future with a clear head but getting past the rigidity of her people is going to be just as big a hurdle.
While the above describes a majority of the main game in Horizon Zero Dawn, I played the complete edition which included the game’s DLC, The Frozen Wilds. This side story is one I finished after the main game and I am glad that I did. By its conclusion, it answered some questions left hanging after the main story was over and it gave me hope for value in a sequel.
The Frozen Wilds takes Aloy to the far North of what we come to discover was actually (SPOILERS: highlight to reveal) Yellowstone National Park to the land of the Banuk, a highly spiritual tribe that treats the blue light of the machines with great reverence. Aloy shows a lot of disdain for her kin’s religiosity without much empathy throughout the story, so I suspected Frozen Wilds would hit some interesting character beats. Instead, I found more of what I truly relished in this game: more sci-fi stuff!
Frozen Wilds finds Aloy confronting a Daemon which turns out to be (SPOILERS: highlight to reveal) the rogue AI Hephaestus wreaking uncontrollable havoc across the icy tundra of the Cut. She befriends a female shaman and fights for the right to lead against a male chieftain, underscoring the strong feminist themes in Horizon, and sets aside her distaste for spiritualism to save the land of the Banuk from destruction. She even gets to learn a little about one of her more mysterious allies, the manipulative Sylens, the only other person who knows as much about the Old Ones as she does.
The DLC adds a new mechanical beast, a new ability for Aloy’s skill tree, and some new items and outfits, too. Getting the complete edition gave me a cohesive experience and I am glad I waited both to get the DLC and to distance myself from the hype after a full year (at least a little).
The 8-bit Review
Ultimately, I would have scored this a 9.5 out of 10 for visuals but that’s below the capacity of our grading system here, so I just rounded it up to straight 10. I’ll get it out of the way right away: this game is drop-dead gorgeous and the only thing standing between it and ultimate visual glory is the facial animations. Now, not all of them are the worst and the game features a range of quality between the main cast (which isn’t really that big) and the NPCs. The NPCs are of course where the poorest quality animations lie. Many are much more than passable but that one guy that bites his lower lip oddly at the training grounds…?
You look like a turtle.
When she ask to use the training grounds
but you gotta pee so bad you prairie doggin’.
Compared to Aloy’s details, it’s jarring. One of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen: individual strands of hair silhouetted in the light.
Ahem, now that that’s said, let me say immediately that Horizon is one of the most visually beautiful games I’ve ever played. I was constantly in awe of its settings, especially. Comparatively, I took many more screenshots in Horizon than I did in practically any other game on my PS4. The dynamism of weather effects and changing light throughout the day, and a fetish for lens flares that would make even Zack Snyder blush, make Horizon’s one of the most stylish and instantly recognizable worlds of 2016. It’s a powerful argument for the capabilities of Sony’s PlayStation 4.
Further, there are the robot designs. Now, being a fan of sci-fi, I’ve seen a lot of robot designs in my time from the Maschinenmensch to Gort, Schwarzenegger to Robin Williams, but Horizon’s are some of the most intricate and interesting. Pipes, tubes, hydraulics, steel cords like muscle fibers form these parodies of biological lifeforms: deer, steeds, crocodiles, avians, bulls, jackals all reproduced in elegant, garish, glistening metal. The movements of these monsters and their behavior make them stand out even in the packed crowd of so many other sci-fi robots. Heck, have you seen the trailer for AXL? No contest. HZD wins. The visuals support the thematic subtext of the beauty and hostility of both nature and technology.
It’s a screenshot paradise.
The soundtrack is phenomenal. Let’s break down that vague praise and find out what exactly I’m saying.
First, the soundtrack is the collaborative result of several talents: Joris de Man, Niels van der Leest, Jonathan Williams, The Flight, and vocals performed by Julie Elven with Lucas van Tol serving as musical supervisor. Having worked on many projects that had “too many cooks in the kitchen”, I’m impressed that Horizon’s music doesn’t come off as having been designed by a committee. Collaboration can be a powerfully creative process but it can also created some stepped-on toes and some hurt feelings, yes, even among professionals.
In music, there’s so much personality and flavor involved but this soundtrack illustrates that multiple talents can come together to create a single personality and single flavor. Horizon has great harmonic cohesion and that’s on top of its experimental nature. Comparing this soundtrack to the typical orchestral score present on the AAA scene today, you can hear the creativity.
The composers experimented with creating non-traditional, more organic noises. This of course highlights the tribal peoples trying to survive in this deadly world, but there are also a variety of metallic, percussive sounds which steadily remind us that this is a science fiction story full of frightening machines. The result is music that feels tangible, which is tied thematically to its game world; it’s the music you’d expect to hear, delivering on its premise.
My favorite thing about the soundtrack, however, is how it ties together a string of melodies throughout the game. There is a motif I can hear in my head that I can attach to this game, which evokes sensations and feelings I developed as I played it, and I can bring these back to mind whenever I hear the music. It’s recognizable in that sense and in many ways instantly iconic.
With so many developers and studios attempting to create that next bit of viral marketing or memorable gameplay experience, the value of music that’s unique is monumental.
Horizon Zero Dawn manages to stave off open-world fatigue with an environment that’s so clearly rich in detail and in gameplay opportunity, a setting that demands to be explored. By minimizing the impact and importance of sidequesting, fetchquesting, and generally wasting time, the player can navigate the world and enjoy the game’s delightfully complex (ranged) combat system.
Playing through the game, I decided right away that I wasn’t going to complete every single sidequest but only those that I found interesting or had rewards that I needed. Time is a huge factor in what games I get to play and there’s no time sink bigger than getting swamped in too many sidequests. As such, I played through a bunch of sidequests for the resources and dialogue I wanted but left out the rest, and I adore that the game didn’t penalize me for doing this.
One other open-world game I played recently, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, gave me the gist that I essentially needed the experience points from completing extremely menial tasks from NPCs in order to advance and succeed in the game (this was at launch, I understand the game’s been patched since then). I utterly resented the fact that I had to collect mushrooms for some jerk whining about his life story because experience from battles was virtually supplementary. Not so in Horizon, thank the heavens.
One of the best elements about Horizon’s gameplay has got to be Aloy’s versatility. Note that she can can never get so powerful that she’s ultimately unstoppable. Even late in the game, or on different difficulties, making stupid mistakes could still cost me victory. Certain enemies remain tough right up to the end of the game, no matter what equipment you had. That said, the emphasis is on Aloy using her somewhat limited skill set in versatile ways.
With the larger machines especially, you’ll want to think about your method of attack: relying on traps, insisting upon status ailments or effects like freezing, corruption, or fire, brute forcing your way through with your best damage dealing weapons, or picking the mechanical creature apart by armor-severing tools.
To make a direct comparison with Batman in the Arkham series, it seemed to me that the Caped Crusader in each game could eventually gain enough power through tools and damage output so as to make nearly any confrontation a breeze, especially after the player develops some skill in linking together his attack patterns seamlessly.
In Horizon, the battles against the machines can play out like fast-paced action-puzzles where Aloy’s speed, stealth, reliance upon precision and resourcefulness make her seem more like a glass hammer than an unstoppable force of nature. Typically, it takes a variety of different kinds of attacks and approaches to take down a big group of enemies that are mixed up of different machine types. Each machine has different weaknesses, parts and pieces that can be knocked off their bodies, and choice targets on their frame. It’s much more than just getting into position for a silent takedown. You have to think about what type of arrow to use and where to use it.
Unfortunately, beside all this ornate ranged combat design, there’s the melee combat. It is pretty meh and encompasses one fast, light attack and one slow, heavy attack. Aloy doesn’t even get more than two close combat weapons in the entire game: one spear and one better spear. Because the ranged combat is so good, I’d just consider Horizon a ranged combat game. It seems like close combat was almost an afterthought.
Then there’s inventory management… I don’t know if anyone reading this finds that fun at all but I don’t. Not particularly. It was well before the middle of the game that my inventory was already completely full. It was expandable and I made sure to craft (which can be done on the fly) as frequently as possible to limit my stockpiles but there are too many items in the game and not enough room to store them. Fortunately, the designers anticipated this so they put a system in place where you can eliminate items and convert them into currency from anywhere in the field. That’s great, but I’d prefer to not have to make a value decision on what items to keep nearly every time I felled a robot.
It’s just time taken away from experiencing this immense and impressive game world. That’s what everyone wants to do in Horizon. Why else buy it other than to take down some huge dino-bots in a crazy sci-fi future? When the game allows you to do that without constraint, it’s at its best, and that “best” is really, really good.
Potentially SPOILER heavy territory ahead here. Beware! Ctrl+F Replayability if you want to skip to the next section…
I already talked about the science fiction stuff as much as I really want to. It is so great that it deserves to be experienced on its own, first-hand, without some mage telling you about it in so many words. If you’ve played this game, you’ll know what I mean. The little twists and turns, especially in regards to the fates of the Old Ones, is something I just ate up.
Conversely, while I really loved the sci-fi high ideas, I didn’t care at all for the present day world-building. I suspect I’m not entirely alone here, not in disdain but in comparative disinterest. I didn’t find all the tribal names and the fluff regarding the surviving peoples and their traditions and histories all that interesting. I’m suspicious some share in that sentiment because when you hear someone excitedly telling you about Horizon Zero Dawn, talk about the Carja, the Red Raids, the Nora, the Oseram, the Banuk, and all that is barely a part of the conversation. The focus is on the machines and the combat and the open-world.
What is this? A visual novel?
I make a point of this because, call me old fashioned, I don’t enjoy having to read Wikipedia-sized articles at every corner of a “dungeon” or sit through 15-minutes of exposition to get the story and the world-building, yet Horizon is at times impenetrable with the stuff. Open-world games have got to think of better ways to flesh out their worlds. I thought early on (as soon as Aloy tries to enter the Proving) that the dialogue was somewhat over-long.
By the end of the game, I was forcing myself to get through all the dialogue options available in the many, many interactive conversations. I know all that lore isn’t going to build itself but by the nature of its open-world phrasing, you’ve a lot of plowing through optional story content and world-building to sit through, stuff which actively works against the sense of freedom and the drive to explore. Spelunking in a subterranean ruin which was once a 21st century laboratory is one of the most exciting things in the game, until you’re confronted by a scrolling article about someone from thousands of years ago complaining to human resources. Considering the story is so interesting, I read most of this content until I couldn’t take it anymore and resumed playing the game itself.
Really, my take on the structure and methodology of Horizon’s story, and my disinterest in its sci-fi cultures, bar it from a perfect score. Because the rest of it is so great. It’s propelled by mystery. Each time I reached a big story-moment in the game and had just a taste of the full tale revealed to me in cryptic hints and relics of the past, I wanted more. I wanted to rush from the Faro skyscraper to the next area immediately just to find out what happened, but that’s all spread out over vast distances.
And sometimes I wondered if Aloy was a kind of Mary Sue.
I did appreciate that she wasn’t typically over-sexualized, though.
Many times she seemed like the perfect character with an attitude, and looking over the whole of the game I know she made some factual realizations about who she is and about the past, but if you asked me how she grew as a character, then I don’t know. She always seemed ready to do the right thing and she didn’t grow out of her disdain for traditions, the traditions she was exiled by. I understand that and think it’s a part of her character, I just can’t crystallize how she grew. Does she have flaws? Does she overcome them? She’s never flat out wrong, right? Perhaps manipulating the dialogue-choices could mend that, but those are infrequent.
On occasion, I thought her attitude bridged upon being contrarian and abrasive, if not actually frustratingly one-note. That seems less a character flaw and more a storytelling one. “Jerk Sue” is actually a term, wouldn’t you know, but I better not say any more before I say something too controversial about beloved Horizon. Besides, lots of video game characters are Mary Sues, too perfect or strict avatars/windows for the player, so really I don’t want to be too harsh on Aloy. I don’t think she deserves it. Maybe the ability to influence her personality too makes her more of a window-character than a fully fleshed out one separate from the player.
Anyway, to summarize, I think the narrative is really great. It moves at a good pace if you’re skipping the side stuff and focusing on the story. The mysteries pull you onward and keep the game from dragging. There are simply instances in which the open-world structure of storytelling becomes a brick wall, but even then, you can play Horizon and blow past all those articles, if your curiosity will allow it.
If you are a science fiction fan, though, there’s no game I’d recommend more to you, right now. Faro is one of my most hated video game villains now!
With plenty to see and do, Horizon Zero Dawn measures its replay value in the intricacies of its wide world. There are underground machine-factories to plunder, training grounds to master, vantage points to descry, items, artifacts, and equipment to collect, and of course, the sidequests. Any player can easily drop over a hundred hours into the game and once it’s all said and done, including the expansion of Frozen Wilds, there are still numerous difficulty modes galore and a new game plus feature if you want to re-experience things again with tweaks to the gameplay.
Ultra hard is quite hard. Still, most players aren’t going to spend much time having their keisters handed to them in the highest difficulty. For the more normative modes, Horizon can still pack a punch. I played through it on normal and had plenty of resources at my disposal at all times, including most crafting items (minus the ever-useful Blaze), with healing items to spare. However, that didn’t keep me from seeing my fair share of game overs. Making a stupid mistake in approaching an enemy or trying to rush a battle, being generally foolhardy, ensured Aloy got gored, trampled, and rent limb from limb. The enemy AI ought to keep you on your toes most of the time.
And this is where I want to talk about the inevitable: comparisons between Nintendo’s Horizon Zero Dawn and Sony’s Breath of the Wild. The fact that these two juggernaut games came out in the same year and duked it out for the GOTY title at the Game Awards (and in people’s hearts) makes the comparing even more irresistible.
Then again, it’s not like they’re at all similar: one is an open-world epic with science-fiction themes and tribal peoples spread out across a vast land featuring diverse ecosystems and ancient machines, with a nimble, resourceful, versatile protagonist who finds themselves thrust into a far-flung dystopian future. And the other one is… yeah okay so they’re basically the same game.
However, there are marked differences and I think it’s fascinating to consider how Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn compliment each other and almost fill in the other’s weaknesses. Horizon has less freedom, less emphasis on experimentation, and less emphasis on dungeons and puzzles. Breath of the Wild has less emphasis on ranged combat, less detailed environments, and less narrative. One is visually dedicated to realism and the other is much more cartoonish. One is more linearly structured and the other is more open to emergent gameplay.
I kept wishing in Horizon that I wouldn’t run into invisible barriers where the game sections off its setting and I wanted to climb absolutely everything and experiment with tools more easily. Conversely with Breath of the Wild, I could absolutely see how it could benefit from Horizon’s deeper storytelling and engaging ranged combat.Wild seemed bigger but Horizon seemed more complex. Mash them together and create a perfect game.
The latest Legend of Zelda game was a title in a long-running franchise and an attempt from Japanese developers and a Japanese publisher unfamiliar with the more heavily westernized arena of open-world games, whereas Guerrilla games, especially in terms of its console context, came from a long line of tradition in regards to open-world gaming but it was a brand new IP. I think they took different approaches to creating what ended up being somewhat similar games. One was lauded for its innovations within the open-world structure whereas the other was praised for its story, graphics, and setting. Both fell into their respect ruts at some points but both, in my opinion, did much to push their collective genre forward. They’re different but the same.
And now that I’ve played both Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild, I can safely answer which game is better, but please save all questions until 3021.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
The most important thing that The Frozen Wilds needed to do for me personally was get me excited for the inevitable HZD sequel. And it did, I’m happy to report!
I am one of those people who is automatically skeptical about sequels. In a world where almost every piece of entertainment sucks really badly, it’s a rare instance that a product can make me hungry for more. Upon completing Horizon Zero Dawn, especially upon completing The Frozen Wilds, I felt like the future was broken wide open in front of me with all kinds of possibilities for storytelling available. True, Frozen Wilds recycles the main story on a smaller scale with its corrupting Hephaestus instead of Hades, so I’d hope that a sequel could plow new ground, but the fact remains that I’d be exhilarated to see a sequel fleshed out.
Maybe they could really dip into other rogue subservient programs under Gaia and see what’s become of them. Maybe they could turn it into a kind of quasi-pantheon of artificial minds out to take Aloy down. I want to see what’s up with Minerva, Aether, Poseidon, Demeter, Artemis, Eleuthia, and hear more about Apollo. I want more info on Sylens (who I thought halfway through was the incarnation of Apollo).
Horizon Zero Dawn quickly became one of the best-selling PS4 games and now I know why. Guerrilla Games crafted a compelling science fiction scenario bigger than the 100+ hour game that frames it and fleshes it out. I have no problem calling Horizon Zero Dawn a masterpiece and maybe the sequel can be even better. This game was absolutely worth the $20 sales price I paid, and much more.
It may be familiar fare for sci-fi fans and open-world gaming gamers but it does both very well. Here’s hoping it becomes the Foundation for a whole new series.
Aggregated Score: 9.6
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Categories: Game Review