A few hours into The Frozen Wilds, last year’s winter-themed expansion for Horizon: Zero Dawn, everything clicked again. As time slowed, my aim proved true. Arrows whizzed through the air, plucking components off the mechanical beast screaming in front of me. A deftly-timed dodge provided a brief opening to lay a trap in the path of a sprinting beast, the ensuing explosion buying us just enough time to catch our breath. Horizon was—is—a very good game, The Frozen Wilds is a very good expansion, and all that hung in my mind when my fight with a few snapmaws concluded was this idea:
“Gee, Horizon really got screwed by Breath of the Wild, huh?”
In my mind, the game never got proper due. It sold well, and everything indicates we’ll see a sequel, but as I look back on 2017, it feels like Horizon is one game that still manages to feel under appreciated. The Frozen Wilds coming out months later helped the situation—it crystallized the many things, big and small, I loved about the game—but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling it was a game undercut by circumstance.
Though we now perpetually live in a world where games are released nearly every day, 2017 is likely to remain an outlier. While putting together my favorites of the year, I was constantly cutting games that, in any other year, would have easily marked the top five. But never was this more clear than when Horizon, an ambitious first crack at an open world adventure by Killzone developer Guerrilla Games, arrived on Tuesday, February 28. Only a few days later—Friday!—Nintendo would launch its equally ambitious new console, Switch, alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Both should have benefited from expectation misalignment, the blessing and curse of being a "pleasant surprise," but one disproportionately benefited over the other. I was guilty of this, too, as my 30 or so hours with Horizon faded into memory, and I obsessed over Link riding a shield down a hill.
Horizon promised a Monster Hunter-esque combat system dropped into a trippy sci-fi world—and dinosaurs! Robot dinosaurs, sure, but dinosaurs. But little in Guerrilla Games’ history suggested they were a studio prepared to parachute into open world games, a subgenre built on developers learning from previous experiences, and shock everyone. Plus, the folks behind the Helghast were going to tell a nuanced story? There was reason to be wary of pulling both off.
And yet, there was equal skepticism about Breath of the Wild. There was no doubt Nintendo could churn out an "enjoyable" Zelda game, but the company had yet to prove it was capable of shaking up its stale formula the way Mario’d been reinvented (see: Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D Land). Breath of the Wild seemed like Nintendo taking important cues from the way other games embrace chaos as a design strategy, but Nintendo’s polish-focused ethos always seemed at odds with that philosophy.
Then, two things happened.
Guerilla Games knocked Horizon out of the park. Aloy was a triumph, a character equal parts empathy, strength, and charm; Horizon’s world was as beautiful as it was engaging, and the twists did what good twists are supposed to do: enhance your understanding of what’s around you; the combat was dynamic enough to carry the game start to finish, even after putting another dozen hours in with The Frozen Wilds.
The problem was Nintendo not just knocking Breath of the Wild out of the park, but doing one of those things where a home run goes soaring out of the stadium. (At the Giants' home in San Francisco, people actually camp out in boats, hoping to grab a ball that goes awry.) It not only greatly surpassed the cynical bar Zelda fans had for the game, but quickly became the kind of genre-defining experience in which people were buying a console in order to play a single game. People who weren’t interested in Zelda were playing Breath of the Wild. That’s the kind of reach Nintendo’s game was having.
Everyone around me was talking about Breath of the Wild, sharing screen shots and stories from Breath of the Wild, and generally only talking about Breath of the Wild. Horizon had literally been released only days before—and was super good! Granted, many of the people I talk to or follow are game critics and designers, so it’s not surprising they’d be obsessing over the extremely shiny object that was Breath of the Wild, but it made it seem like Horizon was a blip in the release calendar.
I say all this with a respect and appreciation for Breath of the Wild; it was one of my favorites from last year. But playing The Frozen Wilds, I was reminded how Nintendo’s game had successfully zapped away much of what I’d loved about Aloy and her robot dinosaurs. This is a really long way of saying, I guess, that Horizon is Very Good. I said that at the time, but The Frozen Wilds made me think that I hadn’t said it loud enough.
And so, here I am.
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