Horizon Zero Dawn (or as I call it Screen Shot: The Game) released it’s Frozen Wilds DLC this month which gives me an opportunity to very quickly review the DLC but also, more importantly, analyze the base game itself.
So first of all, how is the DLC?
Well.....it’s more of the same, which is to say it’s excellent. In fact in strictly game-play terms I think it’s superior. The Frozen Wilds has you fighting almost no humans which were the weakest parts of the base game. And destroying massive robot dinosaurs with a bow and arrow is as fun in November as it was last February
The facial animations in the DLC are significantly improved after frequent patching and the detail in the DLC environments are impressive. The DLC takes snow print rendering technology to exciting new heights and the new enemy type features perhaps the most impressive animations in the entire game. It’s well worth the price of admission and a welcome chance to play the game again just in time to remind everyone why it was a game of the year contender in the first place.
Playing the DLC crystallized a few things enough for me go back and re play the base game. First of all, on replay the thing that jumps out even more than it did at the time of it’s launch is that Horizon Zero Dawn is a very standard open world game that manages to be fantastic not because it does anything particularly new or interesting but rather because it takes all of these ideas that have become tiresome in other releases and polishes them to a mirror sheen. The game never feels bloated despite including all the usual trappings that have begun to plague the genre. And while Horizon’s story works on a very basic level (a chosen one figure must save the world) just beneath the surface it manages to make some very heavy philosophical, religious, gender and race statements without being explicitly about any of those things. It’s story and world are meticulously crafted and thought out. In a time when AAA video game narratives are becoming increasingly trite it’s important that we recognize pop narrative done well.
In early reveals Horizon Zero Dawn looked promising but also like something to remain a bit skeptical about.
It’s name seemed terrible and early footage showed what appeared to be stunning graphics and smooth game-play but also the possibility of suffering from openworlditis. [Openworlditis: Def: The compulsive need of developers to cram in mountains of formulaic meaningless content so they can have PR people tell IGN their game is the largest and densest blah blah blah etc] Meaning a long checklist of open world game conventions had to be crammed in, vision towers, audio logs, text logs, bandit camps, mini maps resource gathering, simple crafting and every single other thing that has become standard in open world action games.
It even has a Ubisoft style map positively over flowing with icons.
So one can be forgiven for thinking this game would be just another open world game. I though that myself. Then surprisingly. I absolutely loved it. Loved it enough to consider it on a very short list for game of the year despite the fact that Horizon Zero Dawn is quite derivative. It’s core game-play is really just a collection of things that other games have done.
So....why? Why does horizon take almost every single trope and trick that makes me yawn when playing most other AAA open world affairs and use them to create a game that I’d call a must play? Hell with Bloodborne I’d call it a console seller.
Well it’s because Horizon takes all of it’s obvious influences and implements them near flawlessly. Keeping everything good about the genre. Honing the things that need improving and ditching or severely limiting (with some exceptions...looking at you bandit camps) the things that are boring in the genre.
The Only Time You’ll Hear Me Talk About How Graphics Matter
There are a few key decisions that made Horizons gameplay so fun. And one of them, strangely, has nothing to do with the actual gameplay itself. The visuals in Horizon are so stunning, so arresting that they create level of immersion unlike almost any other game I’ve played. This includes small things like Alloy’s hair, the lighting and particle effects and the ridiculously gorgeous backdrops and world design. But the real hook lies in the animations.
The enemy variety on offer isn’t all that large but the design of these enemies, both their look and scale and more importantly their attack animations are so amazing that they imbue each encounter with tension and realism. Bucking bulls, leaping crocodiles, massive buffaloes, T-Rex’s and Thunderbirds and in the DLC perhaps the best animated enemy in the game the ICE and Fire Claws.
These animations are exquisite. And small touches like a perfect amount of screen shake during fights add tremendously to the immersion and tension in the gameplay. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever thought, while playing a game that the graphical power I was experiencing did tremendously improve the quality of the game.
Then there is the core combat itself. Now take a second to try and imagine this game without any time slowing ability and with enemies that only had critical damage spots on their head. That’s a much more hollow experience isn’t it?
Here’s where you can tell that seemingly small decisions like the one to have damage numbers appear after an attack were really thought about with care. The damage values floating out of enemies has been used in tons of other games as well but rarely has it felt this good. In the new Assassin’s creed game it feels immersion breaking. The numbers look like very little thought was put into WHY they needed to be included. Horizons numbers matter because each enemy has a huge variety of areas that take different damage when using different weapons. AC Origins seems to have included them because Horizon had them. The satisfaction of shooting a robot dinosaur and seeing numbers like 11 and 15 rise from the character model before finally targeting a hard to hit section and seeing 100+ numbers float up? It’s a design choice that might not seem like it’s making a difference but it is. Horizon has layers and layers of subtle and intuitive player feedback that makes each encounter with the robot enemies a constant state of probing and recalculation.
After one gets comfortable with the use of time slowing by jumping and sliding it opens up gameplay possibilities that make enemy encounters feel like seat of your pants fights to the death.
Focusing on different body parts to disable enemy attacks and ultimately stun them makes the combat have a depth to it that allows for different types of gameplay. On easy mode somebody who isn’t good at games can simply shoot arrows at dinosaurs and still have a grand old time. The animations and slick controls ensure that the blandest most base experience is fun exciting and different feeling. The Far Cry style bow controls are still the best bow combat system put into a game and Horizon doesn’t reinvent the wheel here. Instead it does what Horizon does best. It iterates. It takes that Far Cry bow combat and adds layers to it. Elemental attacks aren’t just important for different enemies. Different parts of enemies themselves require different attacks. And the game generally has you tracking and fighting several dangerous enemies at once.
Then there’s the crafting system. Horizon doesn’t have you crafting arrows in a menu screen Guerrilla has taken something that bloats and infects many lesser open world action games and makes it an interesting gameplay mechanic that ends up crucial to the action. It’s obvious that care and attention was put into how many arrows Alloy can carry. Enough that the combat keeps flowing but few enough that each Robo Dino battle requires constant switching of weapons and slow motion fleeing to craft arrows on the run. Does it make sense from a realism angle that Alloy can meticulously craft 30 arrows in 4 seconds while fleeing from a robotic Tyrannosaur? Nope. But it adds to the gameplay and when developers are presented with a choice between realism and fun they’d be wise to do what Guerrilla has done and choose fun.
The robotic enemy encounters in this game are like a thousand mini boss battles. Aside from the bandit camp stuff (which I can only guess are kept in for the sake of pacing) there are very few fodder enemies in Horizon. Every single battle is an intense jumble of screen shaking, rolling, weapon switching crafting madness and it’s glorious. At it’s best he game plays almost like an open world boss rush.
So the combat is fluid and fun and exciting. But Horizon succeeds on more fronts than that.
Wait..I Actually Liked the Open World Stuff
Almost ALL of the cliche open world activities work. It has Ubisoft vision towers. Except they are huge hundred foot high giraffes surrounded by large groups of robot dinosaurs. The simple climbing puzzle works here because the amazing spectacle of the climbing puzzle ends up being both it’s own reward and a gorgeous way to drain the tension that built up simply fighting your way to it’s feet. And, thankfully the game doesn’t ask you to do it every six minutes. I was actually a bit bummed when I realized I’d climbed them all. Even in Assassins Creed the first 3 times I jump off a tower into hay it’s cool. The 30th it’s getting old. But Horizon pays attention to not wasting your time. The map doesn’t feel like the developers pasted it to the wall and then randomly threw icons on it. Everything is spaced and paced to keep the experience fresh all the way through. Which brings us to another bane of the genre.
Collectibles, Audio Logs And The Importance of Deep Yet Easily Understood Narrative.
It’s hard to remember that there was a time when audio logs felt fresh and necessary. Games as a medium need to tell their story without bogging down gameplay. So cut scenes need to be used only when the developer thinks they are absolutely needed. And because developers can’t really be sure that any particular audio or text log will be viewed by a player this means that critical plot information generally isn’t left to chance. You can’t explain who the villain is in a text log because a significant percentage of players might not see it.
As a result the vast majority of open world games use text and audio logs for LORE rather than story. These collectibles have been used as a way to flesh out the game world for players who seek them out. A bit of world building as reward for exploration. While the worst examples of audio logs in games today are used more as a way to simply extend playtime or as a box that must be checked The first BioShock game used audio logs to flesh out a very simple story that just beneath the surface was also a complex examination of Objectivism and the tension between society and individual liberty. And when it comes to narrative Horizon is more Bio-Shock than Assassins Creed. In fact, Horizon’s narrative style, shares a surprising amount with Bioshock.
Both have a very similar and quite simple premise. A “chosen one” figure becomes embroiled in a conflict larger than themselves and must go on a quest to both understand their origins and role in the conflict while simultaneously solving the problem the narrative presents. This isn’t particularly surprising. It’s a tried and true narrative structure because it’s engrossing and allows for the game player to discover the secrets and backstory of the protagonist simultaneous to the character him or her self.
Because both games had significant budgets and were, ultimately, consumer products that had to make a profit they had to thread a very small needle of being engaging and understandable to a very large audience but also complex enough to allow for a deeper artistic exploration of the themes the respective developer teams were interested in exploring. And while Bio-shocks laser focus on determinism probably allowed for a much deeper dive into that philosophy, HZD’s wider focus might just allow for more independently directed examination of some topics that are no less thought provoking.
HZD’s collectibles not only do “world building”, they include some of the most powerful emotional moments in the game. And these moments expand the depth of the narrative. On my replay this week I was stunned to realize that almost all of the powerful emotional moments I remembered were found in the data points and hologram collectibles. Voice acting isn’t universally great (though often it is) but it’s always good enough.
About 2/3 though the main quest line you’re sent to a location called the “Grave Hoard”. Where you will find a series of data points and audio logs left by the soldiers and commanders who have been unwittingly convinced to fight a hopeless cause to the last human alive.
The story of Ames Guliyev is particularly moving. We first encounter Sgt. Guliyev’s corpse at the door of the level. A few of the audio logs here give us the last moments of him and his unit. It’s effective and sad and most games would have wrapped it there. Quickly show us the effects of the war on these soldiers and move on to the main story threads. But HZD doesn’t leave it there. The game has drilled down and thought about more than just the soldiers tragic death.
The suffering of a soldier fighting a battle he knows he is going to lose is easy to imagine. So Horizon then examines his relationship with his wife and then goes even deeper by examining how the government has to weigh the greater good and censor the relationship between him and his wife.
So we see his death, then hear his tormented letters to his wife. Then hear his wife’s letters to him questioning if he’s still alive, then hear the edited versions of his letters the government has been sending out. And this story is told competently enough that you don’t find yourself angry at the government. There’s no villain here. Only ordinary people in a terrible situation. Horizon does things like this again and again. Taking an obvious story beat any competent writer would include and then expanding it enough to take it from trite and obvious to compelling. If I convince you to give it a replay and you didn’t pay much attention to the data points the first time. I implore you to check them out on replay.
The holographic collectibles in the base game also add a surprising bit story depth. The holographic journal Apocalypse Tour in particular was so riveting I actually traveled the map seeking them out. The story of a middle aged man’s journey from addicted youth to successful adult and his relationship with his mother. The idea of a man taking off and recording journals in all of the most important moments of his life before the world collapses is incredibly poignant. Even the metal flowers contained interesting poetry.
Horizon Zero Dawn Examines So Many Issues You Probably Didn’t Notice A Few
Now that we’ve examined the basic gameplay and how Horizon handles it’s open world elements lets take a second to address some of the issues HZD takes on. Horizon Zero Dawn not only handled gameplay right. It handled it’s story and it’s politics so well one can be forgiven for not even realizing there was a somewhat radical social statement being made. Horizon Zero Dawn creates a strong story in an interesting world and then uses that world to subtlety but profoundly comment on Race, Religion, gender, environmentalism and unrestrained corporatism. It’s an awful lot to take on so it needs it’s own video. And while the carefully crafted levels of Rapture were perfectly suited to examine Objectivism and Randian Libertarianism by creating an entire open world populated by several different peoples HZD is able to imagine and examine all the important issues within it’s world, which is of course, an artistic commentary on our own. While the environmental and corporatist narrative threads are obvious enough that one can’t miss them their well done enough that they are still compelling.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s world spans the Western half of the United States hundreds of years after a technological apocalypse that futurists call the “Grey Goo”. Self replicating AI nanobots consume all life on the planet leaving behind nothing. IF you haven’t played the game part 2 of the video is going to pretty much spoil everything as I can’t examine the themes without ruining much of what makes the narrative excellent. So I’m giving you about a week to turn this off and play the game. It’s well worth full price. In fact just this game and Bloodborne alone are well worth the price of a PS4.
Up next for Old Pliny The Welder is an analysis of both gameplay and the tonal effectiveness of the extreme violence in Wolfenstein 2 and a review of the fantastic Early Access Rougue-like-like-lite Dead Cells.
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