Firstly a word on Zelda: Breath Of The Wind - I haven’t played it yet but have seen it running on the Switch, it looks fantastic and all reports are that it’s great. Unfortunately I don’t own either a Wii U or a Switch but Switch would be my preference, eventually the games selection will hit a threshold and I’ll get one, Zelda will be towards the top of the games list, I’m sure.
It’s worth mentioning because Aonuma has made some significant and important moves with Breath Of The Wind that can affect the experience of Horizon: Zero Dawn, on which I’m about to wax lyrical, most significantly the lack of signposting or as many have commentated - check-listing. Arguably, Horizon still utilises what may feel like the traditional open-world form of check-listing found in most historical open-world games but I’m here to suggest that they make better sense in-situ in Horizon than they ever have in most other games. Still, it’s worth acknowledging that the feel of Breath Of The Wind’s openness is still, of a fashion, better. It finally respects us as curious, adventurous adults, that we’ll venture out into unknown lands, that we’ll learn from our mistakes and that we’ll understand where we can and can’t go based on our capabilities. This undoubtedly has been influenced in some ways by the Souls games by which learning is enforced by experimentation and experience, not hand-holding and tutorials, and Horizon also has been partially influenced in this way in parts. Alas, had Horizon been developed a year or two after Breath Of The Wind, I’m sure its map and world would have been shaped similarly. As is, I suggest we accept it as the in-between child - it’s not too much of a stretch - the visuals will help you get there…
On to Horizon: Zero Dawn then.
The stills I have posted above simply don’t do the visuals justice - the game has to be seen to be believed, and no online video will serve. You have to get a hold of someone’s console, if you’re not buying-in yourself, and see it in full motion. You need to step in and control it and have a wander - and then you need to mess about with the photo mode. Those four captures above are a small selection of about 20 I’ve taken so far, sometimes all you need to do is rotate 180 degrees and you find another stunning shot - the world is breathtaking everywhere you go, and not just at its heights either, often on the ground and especially during its weather effects.
Something I said on twitter though is worth repeating - it’s not just that the visuals are so amazing - the fact that almost everything is textured and/or bump-mapped, the fact that the world-relative lighting is the best on show to date, the fact that there’s cast-lighting at night and interactive lighting all over the place - it’s the fact that it combines stunning sound design, character design and narrative and that the whole thing just feels right - OK, to me it does but I’ll stop justifying that, you know I’m talking about my own experience so we don’t need that qualifier from now on.
I adore this narrative. For starters, the matriarchal social system of the Nora from which Aloy has grown beside (not exactly among) reminds me keenly of Sherri S. Tepper’s fiction, and that’s a fantastic source to be inspired by. The post-post-apocalyptic setting is believable in so many ways, the ways in which humans have reverted to semi-primitive tribal behaviour in the face of survival, how they regard the past, one-another, other tribes, traditions and indeed aspects of their current survival. The de-emphasis of the individual makes so much sense, as well as the misguided mysticism and all the misinterpretations of the past and present in lieu of a lack of information on what the artifacts of history actually are.
The cast of characters and NPCs are diverse in gender, colour, age and personality spectrum and may be the most broad ever to be created in a digital game to date - I’ve not played everything, but the diversity is brilliant. Yes, women tend to hold positions of authority and I know I don’t need to rationalise that here to you folks (I certainly hope I don’t), but there’s a wonderful depiction of every aspect of humanity here - as if years of struggle have erased the old distinctions that set us apart, and new definitions separate us - mostly of region where survivors happened to band together, which makes sense in a pre-apocalypse world where ethnic diversity would have been prolific.
The voice-acting for the most part is solid and natural, I’ve really enjoyed most of it. OK some of it gets a touch hokey but even some of that works - I feel like most of it works for the world being stitched for us, especially for characters whose motivations deviate from pure survival or altruism, which is good to see. Already there are some decent hints of subtle moral struggles that individuals have but that pass so far without further comment - sorry, worth mentioning I figure I’m about… a fifth? ways through the game? Maybe a quarter at most, but I’m taking my time.
So I’ve spoken a lot about theme but have tried to keep it light on detail - you need to discover it for yourself and see whether you immerse or not. Some mightn’t and that’s fine. There’s some logic behind the world of Horizon that fits for me and I’m happy to buy into it all the way so far, given the wealth of sci-fi fiction I’ve read and seen over the years, this shit’s well sourced and well respected.
The play dynamic.
Where to start.
The world is so gorgeous but so interesting - I’ll tell you - when I first ventured out into the wild and hunted my first boar, I thought to myself, “Wow, it’s a shame all this fully animated flora isn’t more populated with fauna…” - heh - lo and behold, activate your Focus (your scanning device) and you’ll find that it is thriving with wildlife, it’s just naturally hidden in grasses and trees. You just have to have a particularly keen eye, move quietly without making noise and/or potentially highlight an animal with your focus to track it.
Enter hunting and crafting.
I’m not entirely fond of too much crafting, but thankfully it’s fairly straight-forward here. You’ll be picking various plants which are in great abundance and hunting various animals - you’ll get to know what you need and when. Interestingly, one of the reasons I mentioned Souls earlier was that you can craft certain things and not really know why - I mean, you’ll know what they do, but not know why you need them or when to use them… until the game smacks you in the skull with the necessity for them, and I really really like this. No tutorial, no hand-holding, just a lesson learned through harsh experience. I suspect there may be tutorials late in the game somewhere, either that or I completely missed them but the game is better for me having done so. What you’ll mostly be crafting is of-course arrows.
As per Souls, beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee patient and don’t lose your cool. You want to control combat as much as possible, and when - and it will - the situation slides out of your control, try (snicker) not to panic. As per usual, at some point in the game you’ll get mobbed. Enemies call out to one-another and as far as I know aren’t zoned so no kiting, folks - they will hunt you down for as long as they are fully aggro’ed and have a bead on you. This means flight isn’t an option unless you’re unreachable and can stay so for an extended period of time - that’s probably the closest to kiting you can achieve. Even then, later in the game I’m pretty sure they’ll introduce enemies that can overcome environmental challenges and then you’re proper fucked. I love love love this dynamic.
Oh sorry, we’re talking about machines.
Let me deviate for a second.
The machines are gorgeous.
I really, really like the design of the machines in this, and I believe they’re intentionally meant to be aesthetically appealing in various ways. From the cute Watchers to the aggressive Sawtooths (so far), each has its charms - and yes, there are horses you can eventually charm (override) called Striders. Anyway, don’t get too comfortable with those Watchers because a mob of three of them can take you down fairly quickly. You’ll need to utilise dodging, your spear-melee, probably one or two of your special abilities/skills like slowdown and usually a potion or three at first. Eventually you’ll be able to combat Watcher mobs easily (if you aren’t easily taking them down via stealth one at a time) without potions, but when you get mass-mobbed by Watchers and all manner of other machines they might call on you, you really will have to be on your toes. These things can bring you down in seconds. Watch, learn, dodge, remember what tools you have at your disposal, you can do it. Combat in this game is great.
As I’ve also mentioned on twitter though, I never feel as though Aloy bears the machines any malice, at least not fully or willingly, hence part of their intentionally visual design. Also why I took that photo in the snow which I titled “Mourning Of A Machine”. There’s something sorrowful about having to kill them that also works in-situ in the game. Hunting and killing in Horizon, even against inevitable human baddies/thugs you’re definitely not supposed to sympathise with, is always a matter of survival and necessity. While you won’t mourn bandits, and won’t necessarily feel guilt about slaying machines, I don’t feel Aloy delights in slaying anything, and I certainly don’t celebrate it either. I like that, I like a game that doesn’t beat you over the head with over-wrought guilt about killing, but can justifiably discuss it with subtlety - I feel it’s working here.
I’ll finish by mentioning I ended my last play session with my last Cauldron, inspiring my tweet that every time you think Horizon can’t surprise you any more, it does - hugely, and just steps things up.
There’s tons I’ve left unsaid (The first Tallneck!), so much more for you to discover. There may be a slight, tiny issue with people (like me) enjoying the world so much that we spend more time than intended adventuring and ending up slightly OP when it comes to the tasks at hand, but I feel that it’s still been exquisitely paced so far - I have enjoyed every minute of the game and am super keen to keep going.
If Breath Of The Wind is the game that carries open world games beyond tradition into a new era, then I feel Horizon is the pinnacle of traditional game design.
Another dedicated Wall Of Text.