|Developer: Guerrilla Games||Released:|
|Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment||Reviewed: PC|
(Distributor provided review copy)
Released originally on the PlayStation 4 in 2017, HORIZON ZERO DAWN came seemingly out of nowhere and took the gaming world by a storm. An original IP, featuring a female protagonist, set in a world populated by machine animals like we hadn’t seen before; it surprised everyone by selling over 10 million copies on its original run, making it one of the best-selling games of this generation.
Now, three years later, it finally arrives on the PC in its complete form. Included is the expansion pack FROZEN WILDS, which adds an extra ten hours of story and exploration to the already massive game. Everything has been polished to perfection, and the game has never looked or sounded better.
But three years is a long time in the gaming world, and much of what was novel in 2017 will arguably feel dated now. Can HORIZON still charm despite this, or will aging prove to be the greatest enemy for one of the shining stars of the past decade?
Set in the far future thousands of years from now, HORIZON finds humanity devolved back to caveman-like patterns of tribalism and sun worship. In a matriarchal society called Nora, a young girl is born without a mother. She’s immediately outcast and left to the care of a loner called Rost, who trains her in the ways of the wild. Years later, the girl has grown into a woman named Aloy, a smart and passionate explorer who doesn’t fear the ruin of the world left behind.
When a tribe of cultists attacks the Nora tribe, Aloy is forced to use her knowledge and abilities with old world technology and set out on a quest for answers. Her journey takes from the idyllic forests of Mothers Heart to the vast tundra of the north, where remote tribes have shut themselves away from the rest of the world.
HORIZON is still a stunning game, easily one of the best looking (now) multi-platform experiences of this generation. Everything from the lighting engine to the character and animal animations are exquisite, now rendered in crisp 4K on the PC. On lower resolutions the game runs beautifully at high frame rates, leaving you wondering how on earth it could have been played any other way. The widescreen support is also an extremely welcome addition, as the gorgeous set and art direction provide ample opportunities to get lost in the beautiful world of the future.
Only minor things stand out as less than perfect. Facial animations have taken massive strides in the last three years, leaving HORIZON looking a touch flat in places. Aloy herself looks still great, but her child model is a thing of nightmares, and anyone who isn’t a major character might as well have a bucket on their head. Controls will occasionally fidget in a weird way, causing Aloy to stop as if hitting a wall even on flat surfaces, leaving her open to attacks.
More aggravating are the missions where Aloy needs to follow someone, which happen quite regularly. There is no button or automatic function to match your speed with the NPC’s, leaving Aloy starting and stopping in an effort to let the game run its script without stopping. Going any further than you’re allowed to causes the characters to stop what they’re doing and wait for you to come back. It’s a relic that was already fixed in the wonderful GHOST OF TSUSHIMA, and experiencing it again feels like a massive step backwards.
The menu system, originally designed for a controller, doesn’t translate as fluidly to keyboard and mouse. There’s also the occasional stutter, even on a high end system, but that’s nothing a patch can’t fix.
The same applies for the sound design as well. Played on a good headset HORIZON sets the bar for immersive and beautiful soundscapes easily, even after years of competitors filling the market. It’s only with combat that the game stumbles. Hit markers and grunts are repetitive, and there’s a particularly noticeable “crunch” effect used when a larger creature attacks, leading to a series of unintentional hilarity when it repeats over and over again.
Luckily the music and voice acting are a gold standard, and especially the performances of Ashley Burch and Lance Reddick stand out as terrific. Burch carries the game as Aloy, instilling the character with both wide-eyed wonder as well as outspoken determination that make her an endearing hero for the ages. Reddick brings his authoritative voice and demeanor from shows like THE WIRE into his character of Sylense, creating an interesting frenemy for Aloy to bounce off of.
Superficially it would be easy to say that HORIZON ZERO DAWN COMPLETE EDITION is the best version of the game, now on a platform that can allow it truly stretch out and run freely. It would also be true. Purely on a technical level the game has never looked or played better, and despite the occasional hiccup that can easily be patched later, there is no better way to experience Aloy’s journey for the first, or even a second time.
Every aspect that has been polished only shines a light on the things that haven’t aged as well. Namely the mission and open world design, both which feel their age even after three short years from release.
As an open world game, HORIZON is beholden to certain tropes and mechanics that have plagued the genre since its inception. Things that were originally devised to cloak the technical limitations of their time have now become such millstones around the genre that they risk sinking it entirely.
Consider the mission structure. Each time is nearly identical to the other. Aloy arrives at a location where she’s presented with a limited area to explore. To do so she must activate her Focus, a device that lets her see past the physical world, in order to find clues. This mechanic is taken directly from the ARKHAM ASYLUM games, where Batman used his technical wizardry to catch villains on their own turf. Here, Aloy must do the same, and nothing has changed from the near decade old action game.
After finding all the necessary clues, Aloy will then either fight an enemy ambush, or follow tracks to create one herself. There’s little to no deviation of this formula, and it’s repeated countless times throughout the game.
This kind of lazy level design isn’t inherent to HORIZON, nor is it entirely its fault for utilizing the tired tropes. Open world games are notoriously hard and expensive to make, and as gamers cry out for larger worlds to explore, it becomes even more difficult to fill them with things to do. Personally, I’d always take a smaller playing field with more unique missions at hand, but I seem to be in the minority on this one.
A large open world also leads to issues with pacing. Most missions will require Aloy to run back and forth between vast distances to just start a quest, and the experience gets tiresome quick. The game even seems to acknowledge this problem by offering Aloy the chance to purchase an infinite fast travel pack very early on, which just raises the question of why even have such an open world if you’re going to encourage players skipping out on it?
Missions suffer from largely the same issues. Looking at the world map you might think that there are hundreds of quests to select from, but in truth the actual variety is limited at five. These are exploration, hunting, errands, ruins, and the main storyline. Hunting is exactly as it sounds like. Ruins require you to travel deep into the heart of mechanical caverns to find a local boss from which you can learn to control animals. Errands are busywork, mostly the same repetition as outlined above. Exploration is the funnest part of the game, as you hunt down massive beasts called Tall Necks, reminiscent of giraffes, that serve as a futuristic GPS system for the wilds. Sadly, there are only five in the entire game, leaving very little to do once their navigation has been hacked.
It’s good then that the main storyline is nothing short of fantastic. The writing is sharp and inventive, and even though the tribalism aspect is severely naive and underdeveloped, characters themselves are fleshed out and interesting. Aloy herself reminds me of old school heroes from comic books and films, where their ideals guided their every move and insisted on readers and viewers to follow their example.
Sadly HORIZON also stumbles on the same dated cliche of background logs and journals, which are peppered around the world. These snippets of information have to be scanned and then read from the digital library that Aloy’s Focus holds within. It was dated back in the days of MORROWIND and it hasn’t gotten any better today. Learning things about the world you’re playing in should come organically, not from reading excerpts from notes that couldn’t be inserted into the story itself.
Interestingly enough, the one aspect that HORIZON does subvert to its favor is the audio and video logs. Unlike their written counterparts, these ones are hard to find and only show up in the very early and late stages of the game. Their existence makes sense, as they’re mostly communication recordings between people, or final goodbyes left behind by those facing the inevitable. By the time the story begins, the world as we know it has faced an apocalyptic event of some kind, and discovering the extent of it on a human level is deeply affecting.
It’s so strange that a game can have both the best and worst of a single aspect. The written lore of HORIZON is utterly forgettable and easily disregarded, but the audio narrative is finely crafted and immensely touching. They bring the player into the fold in a way that feels like we truly are explorers discovering a piece of the past we can’t change.
Despite grumblings and nitpicks on dated mechanics, HORIZON ZERO DAWN is a game that is easy to recommend. Yes, it does suffer surprisingly much from how quickly games of this type date themselves, and yes there are noticeable technical glitches that really should have been ironed out by now.
But look past all that and HORIZON reveals itself a compelling, mature, and thoroughly captivating adventure story. One that never ceases to amaze in scope and style. This is a world that is a pleasure to explore, even as the busywork threatens to make it feel unapproachable. It has one of the finest leads of any game out there, one whom we’re happy to follow to the ends of the earth.
I had already finished the game and the expansion pack on the PS4 by the time I started my review of the PC port. I had figured I would spend just enough time to see how the technical merits work the games favor, and if the game still played how I remembered it.
So it was with great surprise that I found myself deeply immersed in the experience, 20 hours later, as I finished the main campaign and began the expansion. Just like that, HORIZON drew me in again, and I was more than happy to comply.
If that isn’t the sign of a great game, I don’t know what is.