Loving The Land in 'Horizon Zero Dawn'

Waypoint Senior Editor Mike Diver on 'Horizon Zero Dawn' and its wide-open promise and terrifying critters.

by Mike Diver
Feb 20 2017, 4:00pm

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, and stay tuned for Danielle and Austin's letters on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Yo, Danielle, Patrick, and Austin,

Like Patrick, I got suckered by the tribal politics of the game's present, a lot more than the threads that connected it to the past—as in, our world, or at least some 50 or so years from today. How the Nora—which rejects Aloy only to later see her as, essentially, their last hope—is regarded by its neighbors, and the turmoil that rocked relations just a generation earlier. There's some surprisingly non-black-and-white-ness to conversations, not that the "good" and "bad" approaches apparently matter much, grand scheme (unlike, say, Mass Effect's moral system).

It's cool to see Aloy treated so very differently by people from the same tribes, the same societies, in the game—some revere her, others revile, some are just confused by the whole idea of this Nora setting off across the world to find... to find...

And that's the "biggest" problem for me, 14 hours in and 40% of the game "down". I'm so drawn into Horizon's world, or at least I was for the first ten hours or so, that I'd happily go galavanting off on any and all side quests, errands, bandit camp clear-outs, Tall Neck hacks, and so on, and so forth. I get the impression that the main story side of the game is probably fairly streamlined; but after tackling "extras" for the longest part of my play time to date, getting back on the road to the map's big city (or, biggest so far, anyway) of Meridian was a little awkward.

The optional missions—which are essential for XP and climbing those levels, thus making some of the machine fights a little more weighted in the player's favor (holy shit, the first time I saw a T Rex-like Thunderjaw—or rather heard it trampling towards me before I'd clocked it—I nearly shat myself)—leads you here, there, everywhere, often on massive hikes in the "wrong" direction. Suffice to say that when I thought it was about time to hit the city, I'd completely forgotten what my mission was.

Header and all Horizon Zero Dawn screens courtesy of Sony

That clicked back soon enough—hit a marker and it's not like this is an old Final Fantasy or something, where breaks between sessions cause all manner of narrative disconnects. Supporting characters are all too keen to bring Aloy up to speed, which I appreciate. Something like The Witcher 3's Dandelion-penned diaries would really help, though, in the menus—to summarize what's been, and why it matters.

Despite some irritations, I am loving it. I'm yet to fast travel anywhere, overriding machines to move faster across the varied terrain. I've not bought any maps—I'm simply seeing what's over that ridge for myself. I've bought myself some sweet threads to protect against corruption and freezing and so many other things; and enough weapon upgrades that I can dish out some substantial damage when I have to take a machine apart. I really enjoy the combat, which is so much chunkier and explosive than I expected, and appreciate that you cannot just rush in most of the time. Not only is stealth important, and tracking the machines' movements, but so too is preparation—using potions to steel Aloy against fire, or whatever else the beast in question is going to throw at her. 

With that in mind, the first crocodile-like Snapmaw I came across, on a side-quest, I downed in no time whatsoever—I was shielded from its attacks and understood its weaknesses. I almost felt sorry for it, the poor thing. If only I'd been that way minded when I took on the game's first cauldron (though I'll say no more about these installations' purpose, because spoilers). That final "boss" fight in there almost had me. I triumphed with a sliver of life left and no more health potions to hand. That was a thrilling, exacting, turbulent encounter unlike anything I've experienced in, say,  Final Fantasy XV—the other big RPG I've stuck time into post Witcher 3.


I totally get the Tomb Raider aspect to the game—in terms of it playing like the reboot and its Rise sequel, in terms of the asset/resource acquisition from the map itself. I'm into the foraging. I also dig, as cliched and kinda worn out as they are, the tracking missions, which are breadcrumb trails using Aloy's magic-like Focus power/s—Witcher Senses, basically. I'm constantly clicking that right stick to highlight what's around me—what's useful, what's not (but obviously I'm picking up every digital watch left over from the Old Ones, and scanning all the audio/holo-logs I find, building up that lore and collecting tat to sell to traders). And more importantly I'm targeting the machines more thoughtfully, aware of what loot they can spill on destruction. More hearts, fewer lenses, please.

On that note, the skills upgrade tree is nice and simple—which I appreciate after the rather more jumbled one found in Yakuza 0. Everything makes sense and taps in, again, to that feeling of the game being more streamlined than other RPGs—I haven't felt like I can only develop one side of Aloy, but instead should make her a capable all-rounder. That said, I do favor the stealthy approach, so heavy weapon mobility's not as big of a deal to me as soft landings and silent strikes.

There are some glitchy things that briefly break the immersion for me. Some of the one-to-one conversations aren't as smooth as they could be in terms of camera placement, with weird twitches here and there. Aloy's insistence—again Tomb Raider style—of only grabbing a ledge when there's a bright yellow piece of rope attached to it, or some other obvious marker, is a pain in the butt when so many other parts of the game's elevated map could/should be more readily accessible (that said, it's fairly forgiving when it comes to sliding down steep declines, and bounding over rocks with Aloy's legs neatly tucked against her chest, which I really appreciate). 

But honestly, I've found nothing I've really been bothered by in here, so far. Horizon has that instant-click, slippers-like comfort to it, for me. Perhaps that is because in so many respects it is evocative of both (Rise of the) Tomb Raider and The Witcher 3—two of my most-loved big games from the past couple of years. Yes, it's got a lot of originality in there, not least of all these almighty, magnificent machines (I could watch a Tall Neck for hours); but there's nothing bad about a new game borrowing from greats that came before it. I know I'll be playing this long beyond the main story's completion, and can see Guerrilla going down the expansion pack route later in 2017—assuming they're not already on it.

I dropped the rock, by the way. 

- Mike