For the longest time my faith in the games industry has been severely tested. To me gaming has become complacent and less effective as a medium because of the dedication of exploiting the gamers fervent intimacy for product consumption, with the introduction of incessant and rather dubious payment methods. This growing defamatory has only been exacerbated by the advent of online gaming, whereby consumers are expected to pay full price for a game with only the basic of content and then additional charges for all the stuff that should have been included in the first place. Or worse withholding content behind paywalls?! You have pre-order incentives like a different coloured gun or a new “exclusive” hat if you pay the premium. It’s commerce over craft and I don’t like it. I don’t know, perhaps I’m just becoming an entitled, bitter old man with just as much hair on my chest as I have in my ears but I prefer the traditional method of commerce; buying a game – that has everything in tacked – playing the game and maybe eating a sandwich in between sessions. That’s it. I’m not opposed to the idea DLC when it benefits the individual with further content that expands on the initial product, not ones that feel as though they’ve been removed from the primary product and introduced at a later date at an additional cost. The kind of underhanded techniques employed by certain dubious companies to extract more money from us impoverished gamers. Sure we don’t necessarily need to purchase it, but whats the point in having a blank canvas if you don’t have all the necessary equipment required to complete your work of art. There’s a loss of purity, integrity or….something?! It’s difficult to define the precise problems. It just feels artificial. Yet sometimes all it takes is one beautifully crafted game, presented in all of its intended glory to remind you why you fell in love with gaming in the first place. “Horizon Zero Dawn” is that reminder.
The most profound compliment I can pay to Horizon Zero Dawn is that this is plagiarism at its most rewarding. Generally it’s a disservice to the identity of a game to make comparisons to other titles that utilise similar methods, but the fact that Horizon “borrows” so many elements from other popular franchises is really a tribute. The similarities become comparatively obvious as you play; you have the Arkham series, Dragon Age, Tomb Raider, Mass Effect and an abundance of The Witcher pervading through Horizon. Yet their evident familiarity only enhances the flourishing diversity of this spectacular world. It’s remarkable to think that Horizon Zero Dawn was developed by the same team that created Killzone?! We follow Aloy, a child banished by her matriarchal tribe – presumably because she is ginger – as she’s raised by her surrogate father “Rost” through adolescence and into adulthood, trained with proficiency to harness a bow in preparation for an apocalyptic landscape riddled with mechanised dinosaurs. It’s an abstract depiction of the future, but one that benefits from such an absurd narrative. It’s this conceptual absurdity of mechanical dinosaurs that invigorates Horizons landscapes, infusing a real sense of danger and isolation to its expertly crafted open world. Imbuing the vibrant level designs with artificial restrictions such as fortified gates that prevent immediate exploration of the entire map, which allows the player to explore in portions without feeling overwhelmed. But where did these creatures come from? Well the origins of these prehistoric replication’s is one mantled in ambiguity that as you advance will become even more confusing. Fun, but confusing.
So many games that portray apocalyptic futures depict them with very melancholic palette, devoid of any congenial empathy. They are always grim and disdainful environments reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel, if he were depressed. Here though the world is almost pleasant, embracing bright colours with a verdant desolation that belies centuries of perceived human struggle. Structures from a bygone era pierce the skyline, with the atrophy of these hollowed buildings now embraced in nature’s limitless grasp. And I love that Earth’s future is actually one of primitive disorder. That human endeavours hasn’t culminated in a cerebral world, furnished with hover cars, space travel and a cure for death but has actually reverted back to a more primitive environment. A place of bows and arrows not lasers, the former of which being an invaluable asset against creatures with a penchant for consuming red-headed females, and presumably contracting gingivitis. The rustic simplicity of a bow an arrow, enhanced by augmented projectiles that give your weapons a distinct aesthetic that you can’t help but adore are hugely satisfying to use. Ammunition ranges from standard arrows to more elemental projectiles such as fire, ice and shock, which have various strengths and weaknesses depending on what enemy you’re battling. Many have resistances to at least one type so being amply supplied with all forms is advised. For the most part stealth will be the most effective means of culling the local wildlife. Hiding in tall grass and beckoning humans or smaller machines to your location will dispatch most moderate threats with ease, spearing them for instant kills. Though larger sentient dinosaurs will require further preparation including laying traps or retreating as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
The spear itself, other than turning humans into a shish kebab in some dubious Turkish restaurant can also access locked doors to the old world, smash components off beasts and most importantly hack said creatures so they become passive, allowing you to mount them (steady) and traverse areas with more expedient intent. Soon the landscape will be littered with the mutilated corpses of these carnivorous automatons, harvested for vital resources that can be sold for shards (an in-game currency) or forging more ammo. During the games formative stages, in this case a rather wearisome tutorial you’ll acquire a device much like a Bluetooth headset called a “Focus”, that when activated can identify the weaknesses of highlighted enemies, track their movements and create a visual trajectory that’s allows you to anticipate the necessary strategy to take down numerous enemies with efficiency and without detection. And believe me you’ll want avoid direct conflict as much as possible because some of these machines pack a punch, kick and vicious headbutt! Horizon Zero Dawn really is one of those games that encourages you to divulge in your transient proclivities. To explore rather than be restricted by the confines of mediated narrative. But because it is an RPG it’s constantly reminding you of those limitations.
Much of the games systemic adherence’s follow rather predictable routines, with familiar RPG mechanics ticked off like names on a school register; crouching provides better coverage and avoids detection, harvesting berries increases health. It assumes that you have no facilitation with an RPG before, so it’s vital that we are given a labour intensive tutorial to aid us, like a mother holding her daughter’s hand across a busy road. Despite being a deadly exponent in melee you can just purchase an upgradable bow with increased accuracy from range, exploit a surreptitious position far from harm and pick off enemies one by one without arousing too much suspicion. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – because it does make you look awesome – but it can reduce the level of excitement, if one were so inclined. Much like in BioWare games you get a trivial dialogue wheel too which let’s you dictate tone of the conversation you may have with specific residents. But when you’re confronted by a grieving lover besieging you if their prospective spouse suffered before they died you’re hardly going to respond “Oh my yes! She suffered greatly. I made sure to kick her in the uterus just before she died for good measure!” I’ve never understood the significance of having options that are ultimately derivatives of the same response or pose no discernible relevance to the characters nor the narrative?
But all of these above critiques are merely irritations that can be ignored, like eating that one strangely coloured crisp at the bottom of your packet of McCoy’s (other brands are available), it isn’t going to upset you gravely, if at all. You’ll only be concerned with the feral mechanised dinosaurs that will be marauding across the detailed and stunning environments, contrasting the sophisticated hardware integrated into these hostile yet rudimentary beasts. The animalistic design of these creatures complements the high-tech concept of these mobile weapons. We see tanks and other vehicular armaments and think nothing of it, but imagine if an actual dinosaur had the military capability of launching a nuclear missile from an RPG strapped to its spine?! It really is terrifying. Horizon Zero Dawn has the unfortunate business of being released at the same time as the Nintendo Switch as well as a new Zelda title, meaning it will probably be overlooked as GOTY contender and that’s a shame. A game as inspired as this, that covets so much adoration for its design and concepts deserves significant exaltation. Horizon Zero Dawn achieves something only one other title has accomplished this generation – that being Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End; by exceeding my expectations. I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what this game has to offer, and I’ve ploughed almost 40 hours into it and I can barely fathom what mysteries are yet to discover. In short Horizon Zero Dawn is a console defining game. It is truly spectacular! If this had been made by some other money grabbing developer it would’ve been stripped down to its underpants and told to perform the macarena, until it was told to pay more money for some clothes, shoes and some dance lessons. Thankfully Horizon Zero Dawn has been treated with the respect it deserves. Integrity, I’ve missed that.
What game have you played that have restored your faith in gaming? Let me know in the comments below. Cheers.