'Horizon Zero Dawn' Is a Roller Coaster
Waypoint Editor-In-Chief Austin Walker concludes our letter series with his highs—and lows—with Guerrilla's game.
The Waypoint crew is (tall)neck deep in Guerrilla Games' open world action game, Horizon Zero Dawn, and writing to each other about it. Check out Patrick's thoughts here, Mike's letter here, and Danielle's here.
Mike, Patrick, and Danielle,
Hi, my name is Austin Walker, and I also dropped the rock.
Don't get me wrong, my Aloy wasn't always the compassionate hero. I took a lot of joy in confronting some of Horizon's antagonists head on, or demeaning them with a twist of logic. Those moments—which were way too rare—were some of my favorites because they offered a chance for the game to characterize Aloy in a way that went beyond "optimistic outsider eager to help you with whatever problem you might have." (You might notice I'm using the past tense. That's because I actually wrapped up my time with the game this morning: Thirty hours and 88.05% in, and I've completed just about everything I care to at this point.)
And after thirty hours with Aloy and the post-post-apocalyptic world, I'm... God. I have really mixed thoughts, y'all. I haven't been this torn on a game in ages, and I don't just mean that I have a handful of conflicting thoughts about the game in retrospect. The entire experience was a wild rollercoaster of ups and downs. I'd end a frustrated and bored play session one night swearing I'd never pick the controller up again, then start the next session off, find something evocative and surprising, and kick myself for being so dismissive. This cycle continued throughout the entire game—and to its credit, I think it ends on a fairly high note.
Like everyone else in this email thread, much of Horizon's draw for me is its fiction. Its unique setting, beautiful environments and and some of its more developed characters are all appealing in their own rights, but its even better when Horizon uses these elements to produce a sort of ongoing thrum of mystery. Its the questions that drove me forward: How long have things been like this? What's up with that weird tower? What the hell is a "sin eater"?
At its highest points, these questions address the theme of origins: Mothers and fathers, matriarchs and kings, creation myths and coming-of-age stories. Why are we who we are? To what degree do we owe our "self" to biology, to history, to something else? As societies cohere, they have to ask these fundamental questions, and Horizon "gets that"—and better, it's almost anthropological in its decision not to moralize or judge based on cultural difference. It's interested in depicting people of various walks of life more than it is in championing one, good way to live.
Horizon is also smart enough to make all of this messy. Things happen for a complex web of reasons. The cultures of Horizon's world are different because of a mix of material factors and specific choices led them to where they are. The best characters, too, struggle to understand (or hide) their complicated origins. It's particularly smart how Horizon's characters are often selfish about all of this, much more interested to explore their own personal mysteries than the enigmas that led the world to reach this strange state. Who cares about the robot dinosaurs, man, what's the deal with my mom? Yes. Good. That is how people are.
When I say that "questions drove me forward" in Horizon, I should actually note that that's true for the game's combat as much as its story. My most memorable fights in Horizon were those where I stumbled into a battle against a new sort of mechanical beast and had to slowly figure out how to tackle it. Where is the enemy weak? What are its attack patterns like? How should I disarm it? Can I use its allies against it?
At its highest points, these questions address the theme of origins: Mothers and fathers, matriarchs and kings, creation myths and coming-of-age stories.
But there is a problem here, and everything I dislike about Horizon comes from this key issue: These questions are answered early and rarely raised again. I put 30 hours into this game, but fought nearly every enemy type within my first dozen hours. Worse, the ones that remained weren't dramatic surprises that pushed me to my limit, they were speedbumps that required the same strategy that every other fight in the game did. Scan them, check the menu to see which damage type is best, hit them with the arrow that removes all their armor, drop a few traps, go into bullet time and fire the right weapon, rinse, repeat.
Outside of a few special "Hunter's Lodge" trials—which explicitly force you to utilize the more interesting corners of the game's combat system—nothing pushed me to break from the optimal strategy that I developed within the first third of the game.
This repetition is also found in the quest structure (and often in the quest content, too). You'll talk to someone in the environment who will send you to find a person. But, oh wow, the person is gone! So you "investigate the area," find a trail, and chase down the target until you either find and fight them or find and fight someone else who is trying to fight them. Seven out of ten times you'll also climb something and then descend on a rappel line at the end. And whatever, that's just how video games go, right?
Except that when other games do this well, the structure evaporates. I don't remember the individual steps of my first investigation into a Noonwraith in The Witcher 3, I just remember the surprise and the dread. I know that all of Mass Effect's planetary structures were built from the same pre-made modules, but I'll never forget when I found Geth transmitting a strange Quarian Song. But because of the lack of enemy variety and interesting scenarios, I won't remember most of Horizon side quests as anything other than like dull chores.
(It doesn't help that so many quest rewards are just gacha style blind boxes filled with boring rewards like health potions, cash, and some crafting resources you could easily get elsewhere. Seriously. With rare exception, don't expect anything interesting for finding that guy's lost daughter or for stopping the machines from attacking the village.)
Worse of all, this feeling of repetition is also true of exploration. When I left the game's opening area I should've lit up with joy. The biome shifted to something new and... very quickly, I realized where I was in the world. In our world, that is. And it was somewhere so familiar as to be deflating. More importantly, while the game's various towns and peoples have unique cultural backgrounds in the game's dialog and database entries, those things are rarely made material. Nearly every merchant in the second two thirds of the game sells the exact same inventory of weapons, armor, and resources. In Horizon's story, the Oseram are supposed to be expert tinkerers and craftspeople. Yet, they sell the same stuff I could buy from just about anyone else in the world.
God, I sound down on this don't I? But the thing is, I sort of want to finish that remaining 12% of the game. What if there's more gold there? What if I finally get to meet one of those "sin eaters"? What if there's a database entry that goes even deeper into the tribal politics that are so interesting? What if there is another new enemy type to learn and master? But I think maybe I need to just be honest with myself. I've gotten what I'm going to get out of this one. It just isn't the open world game I want it to be.
My favorite open world games feel alive—this is not news to anyone who has read my stuff before. Horizon aspires to be like the best open world games, but can't quite reach them. It never breathes like that one corner in GTA III, where the Yardies, Cartel, and Yakuza fought endlessly; it's never haunted the way that The Witcher III's Velen is, where even the enemies flittering around the open world suggest a past of injustice and appetite); it never demands to be understood, like Hitman's clockwork seaside town of Sapienza; it never surprises the way Far Cry 2, 3, and 4 do, where every fight threatens to spiral into a rolling action-comedy.
In all of these games, I'm left wondering what will happen in the next moment of play. And while I was always curious about Aloy's story, I spent most of the game bored with the rest. What I wanted from was a game that would invest me in solving the mysteries of both its world and mechanics. Instead, Horizon is an answered question.