Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4)

1,253 words.

I would have sworn that I’d written a post about Horizon Zero Dawn at some point in the past two years, but apparently I haven’t. So here it is.

In 2017, everyone lost their minds over Horizon Zero Dawn, a game which was a PS4 exclusive at the time. I thought it looked cool, but I couldn’t play it. In 2018, I bought a PS4 Pro on sale, and Horizon Zero Dawn was one of the exclusive titles that I intended to play on it (along with Bloodborne and a slew of Naughty Dog games). I got a “complete” edition of the game for some $20.

Looking over at The Spire, a place that I never knew about until the end of the game.

I enthusiastically began playing in late 2018. I got some six hours into the game, liked it, then I just stopped. I don’t remember exactly why, possibly some other game arrived that I wanted to play, possibly it was around the time that my thumb completely fell apart and I had to stop using controllers to let it heal.

Fast forward to April of 2020, and, as all the PC launch talk started, I started up Horizon Zero Dawn again as part of “Operation: I’ll Play Just About Anything To Distract Me From Overthinking About Real Life.” I started over so I could get a good recording of the whole game, which I failed to do in 2018. I got some ten hours into the game, then I just stopped … again. (This time I was distracted by my backlog of Assassin’s Creed games.)

I drifted away from the game, again, around the point where Aloy leaves her home and goes out into the wide, wide world. In mechanical gameplay and story terms, it’s the point where the game stops being a linear narrative experience and turns into an open world experience, somewhere in the level 10-15 range. I stopped both times at the Seeker At The Gates quest, to be precise.

I resumed playing Horizon Zero Dawn again in August with a firm determination to finish the game, but it’s been a struggle.

I really wanted to love every second of Horizon Zero Dawn, and I was led to believe by all the 2017 hype that it was The Perfect Game. The reality is that it’s … not. The beginning is great. But overall, it’s okay, and it has a fairly long list of gameplay foibles that add up to a lot of annoyances when trying to play “the way the game was meant to be played.” (Meaning: On Normal difficulty.) Somewhere around level 15 I just gave up and switched back to Story difficulty, but that was too easy, so I eventually settled on Easy difficulty, which, for most of the remainder of the game, was plenty frustrating enough for me. (Until I “figured out” the game, which occurred somewhere around level 30, near the end.)

Last night I got to the credits on the main game (which were amazing-I love it when games put a lot of effort into their end credits, it’s such a nice reward), so I can finally say I finished it. There’s a lot to like in the story.

There’s also a lot that’s … kind of silly. It has a very strong Blockbuster Marvel Superhero sort of vibe to it, where everyone is impervious to falling damage, everyone is an expert at everything the first time-expert martial artist, expert scientist, expert diplomat, expert military strategist-quips are plentiful and sarcastic, nobody has any character flaws, and nothing bad ever happens unless it has to happen to advance the plot, when suddenly the genetically perfect hero gets knocked out for no apparent reason so we can fade to black and change settings. Twice. That sort of thing.

The credits also looked like they came from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There’s also a strong Young Adult Novel vibe throughout the game, in that Aloy, the 19-year-old, is better and smarter and stronger than any of the old fuddy-duddy traditional adults she encounters. But in the end, the story has a nice message, I suppose: If you try really hard, and you’re born in exactly the right way, and you happen to look like the kind of person who might inspire tons of cosplay and character art, then you, too, can save the world. (Or something like that.)

I personally was drawn more to the backstory of Horizon Zero Dawn than the time period shown in the game. The story of Project Zero Dawn, and the people involved in it, had about a thousand times more potential for human drama and character development than anything Aloy experienced. A handful of flawed and fallible people with disparate backgrounds thrown together in a desperate (and frankly, unbelievable) bid to save the human race from extinction: That’s the kind of story that’s more up my alley. Unfortunately we only got to see little snippets of it in audio logs and holograms and text. (There’s probably a book somewhere available for purchase. There’s always a book nowadays to fill in the parts that are conveniently missing.)

This will be a memorable game for me because it’s been such a journey getting through it. I loved the first five or six hours. Then the game just fell off a cliff for me, somewhere around level 15, and it turned into a slog, and I complained about it a lot. The combat became ridiculous and unfair for the longest time, and the middle part of the story was boring (thanks to “let’s stretch the game out so it’s more open world than linear”), so there was little incentive to persevere. Then the story picked up again as we (finally) got to learn more about Project Zero Dawn. Then around level 30, my character started to feel powerful enough to handle combat (still only on Easy difficulty), as I started to learn some tips and tricks and use more useful skills, things that are never taught to you in-game, and you only learn either by studying external wiki guides or by careful trial-and-error or accidental discoveries. (This is a game where there is definitely a “right” way to play, and a “wrong” way to play.) Rost taught me to throw rocks and hide, but he never taught me about the incredible combat value of frickin’ heavy Deathbringer and Disc Launcher guns.

The journey of playing this game also included numerous video production technical issues that I had to work through, which I won’t go into here. Don’t buy a Razer Ripsaw, kids.

Playing this game has solidified my new 2020 viewpoint that “open world” games need to stop. This would have been a much better game if it had been linear narrative. Forcing linearly-written stories into open world, level-gated settings degrades the overall experience. The exact same thing happened with both Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey.

I still don’t know what the name “Horizon Zero Dawn” means. I was waiting the whole game for that.

UPDATE 10/3: I ran out of writing energy for this post and just kind of threw it out the door to get rid of it. So I forgot to mention that I really enjoyed playing the game at the end, and somewhere around level 35+ the Easy difficulty setting actually does become “easy” and it’s really fun to engage in combat. I’m intending to continue onward to play Frozen Wilds and maybe even start an NG+ game.

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