Second Chance: A Latecomer’s Perspective on Horizon Zero Dawn
Inspired by its 3-year anniversary and the new, healthier relationship that I have with my gaming backlog, I’ve spent the past month or so exploring the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. As with many games in my collection, it’s one that I’ve owned and been meaning to play for quite some time – after all, I love gorgeous-looking, critically-acclaimed, action-packed, single-player adventures almost as much as I love a hyphen. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out quite as I’d expected.
Coming so late to the gaming party usually has a number of advantages. Having skipped the PS3 entirely, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Nathan Drake, Kratos, Joel and Ellie – all well after those games originally dropped. Bugs have been squashed, prices have plummeted and (thanks to remasters and the arrival of the PS4 Pro) I got to meet them when looking their absolute best. For multiplayer games I think you need to be there at or near launch to get the best experience, but I now wonder if there are drawbacks of waiting on single-player games too. Because while spoilers can usually be sidestepped, the hype is pretty unavoidable.
So, my expectations for Horizon were incredibly (maybe impossibly) high. It wasn’t just the good reviews that got my hopes up but the near-constant recommendations that I would hear from other players. And they were clearly not a minority, given that the game sold over 10 million copies in its first two years – an extraordinary achievement for a new franchise let alone one that launched in the shadow of a brand-new Zelda. No, my anticipation also stemmed from how much I’d enjoyed the rest of Sony’s recent first-party portfolio, something that I now feel was perhaps a little unfair, given I know more about the game itself. Let me explain.
First off, let’s get this out of the way nice and early – Horizon Zero Dawn is a very good game, it was just not the great one that I was hoping for and expecting. I loved Aloy’s character and was quickly invested in her quest and backstory. The world itself was just as intriguing, as well as being undeniably beautiful – particularly when played in HDR and when the sparks really fly. And the central combat was often thrilling, from the initial tension while planning out on attack to the satisfaction of finally taking down some of the harder robo-creatures while I clung to my last sliver of health. None of these are small things.
And yet, for all the aspects I enjoyed and the acclaim it has received, I often found Horizon to be a strangely frustrating experience. For a start, it was one of the most “videogame-y” of the titles I’ve played in a long while and, for me, that jarred against both my expectations and the living (kinda), believable (mostly) world that Guerrilla had crafted. Favouring the kind of focussed, narrative-driven adventures that Sony has been absolutely nailing for this past generation, I think Horizon’s more open-world action-RPG kind of experience was the source of many of my complaints. Ok, maybe I’d avoided reading about the game a little too well.
Taking some of the worst aspects of Ubisoft’s model – Horizon has a map that’s absolutely stuffed full of icons, making it feel less like a world for the player to explore and more like the worst kind of out-of-control email inbox. Go here. Do this. Collect these. Screw that. I guess at least Horizon’s “towers” have some life and personality but I found the awe and wonder of scaling my first tallneck quickly wore off when each encounter played out the same. Horizon also introduces some niggles of its own including an overly-aggressive navigation marker that turned what could have been epic journeys into a join-the-dots series of 50m sprints.
And, in what was otherwise such a fascinating and believable world, I found it so disappointing to meet those immersion-breaking ten step transitions from ice-town to desert-land to jungle-ville as I trekked back and forth across the map.
Plus, speaking of trekking, I was surprised but just how much of it there was. Yes, you can commandeer one of the local inhabitants to make those journeys quicker but I found that it only sped things up so much. Too many of the missions pointed me to the other side of the map – only to have to make me then schlep all the way back just to tell someone that I was done. As the story approached its conclusion, this was particularly frustrating and felt mainly like an exercise to extend the game’s playing time and “encourage” (or maybe force) me to take notice of more of those icons that I’d been trying so hard to ignore. And while you can fast-travel, I’m pretty sure it from this that found myself woefully underpowered and forced to grind before I could take on the final few missions.
To be honest, it was during the grinding period that I think I really lost patience with the game. I’d been playing for hours and had gone from awe and excitement to “rinse and repeat”. However good the core combat mechanic was, I found myself tiring of a gameplay loop that I had previously enjoyed. Gather, craft, scout, fight, run out of ammo, swear, die and reload. Gather, craft, restock (ha!), scout, fight, battle with the terrible button mapping, swear, die and reload again. Go off to tackle some side mission to find some variety before remembering they also tend to consist of either more hunting or using the “focus” to follow a lit-up trail until reaching another fight. Die again, but this time on the inside. And so on.
So, as I finally approached Horizon’s credits, I found myself having lost some of my momentum and interest in Aloy’s quest and wishing for a tighter, shorter experience. I’d become just as keen to play something else as I was to know how this fascinating world had come about. The game’s huge and beautiful world had lost its lustre and I found myself noticing more of the cheesy dialogue and on-the-nose character names than the story being told. Despite owning the “Complete Edition”, I have little desire to venture into the Frozen Wilds which is something I find disappointing but also a bit of a relief – with only limited time and so many other games I’d like to play.
Which is strange, because even though I didn’t love it, Horizon is clearly a very good game. I wonder if I’d have been more forgiving of these issues without the burden of such high expectations. Would I now be chomping at the bit for a sequel like so many other gamers seem to be? It’s an interesting thought and one that led me here today. I had no intention to feel this way or write this piece and take no satisfaction from being contrary. But when something is so popular and so well received, perhaps it’s just hard to ever live up to the hype?