Horizon Zero Dawn Review — Foregone Heroism

by Jed Pressgrove

Horizon Zero Dawn boasts yet another modern open world, but given the unquestionably moral protagonist and cookie-cutter quests (such as killing bandits and wiping out corrupted machines), it would be more accurate to say the game features a big world in which it’s fairly fun to shoot things with a bow. Due to her deer-in-headlights look during dialogue exchanges, Aloy, the red-headed hero at the center of it all, is more interesting for her combat skills than her personality. All of this ultimately makes Horizon Zero Dawn a straightforward action game where the goal is to take out a lot of bad guys as efficiently as possible. And while this simplicity is refreshing when compared to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s more intense pseudo-survival aspects (such as constant weapon breaking and stamina depletion), developer Guerrilla Games doesn’t do enough to ensure drama in the game’s many fight scenes.

With its warring tribes, light settlements, and abundant wildlife, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn recalls that of Far Cry Primal. The main difference is the role of technology: Aloy has a device attached to her ear that can scan her surroundings (think “detective mode”), and the most noteworthy animals in the game are 100 percent machine. Using both natural materials and components salvaged from the mechanical beasts, you produce ammunition for a variety of weapons, which range from a slingshot that fires bombs to a crossbow that slings down ropes that trap enemies. You also wield a spear for melee and stealth attacks, and you level up to activate all of Aloy’s capabilities, the best of which is an ability that slows down time when you aim your weapon while jumping.

Although this game, like Breath of the Wild, opens with tutorialization and exposition rather than a daring invitation to the wilderness, Horizon Zero Dawn surpasses the latest Zelda at keeping the protagonist in exciting motion. There is no stamina meter to distract one from the allure of kineticism, extra ammo can be crafted in the middle of a fight, and Aloy, unlike Link, has weight to her leaping (she can entertainingly scale some mountains in this way if you time and place your jumps well). Horizon Zero Dawn also has an exquisite arrow-shooting system: the longer you hold the fire button, the more Aloy pulls back the string of her bow (you can feel this difference as the controller lightly vibrates), which can improve the trajectory of your shots. Guerrilla Games does misfire by slowing your movement to that of a turtle when you use Aloy’s scanning device, but otherwise the action of Horizon Zero Dawn is allowed to soar.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Aloy’s advantages in combat turn Horizon Zero Dawn into sort of a comedy. The best way to defeat most enemies is to sneak to higher ground and jump and shoot (thus activating slow motion) again and again. This strategy has some challenges, such as anticipating your opponent’s movement and adjusting your aim so that the arrow strikes one of the enemy’s weak points in regular motion once the slow-mo stops, but once you get the hang of it, you are not likely to be taken down, especially if your medicine pouch is leveled up and full. At first, I was delighted to incessantly thrust the game into fits of crawling action, and the pleasure of hearing and feeling Aloy’s feet hit the ground after each John Woo-inspired mini-clip is unlike anything I’ve experienced.

Yet this approach takes the wind out of the game’s dramatic intentions, as the higher ground that you need for the slaughter can be, depending on the threat(s), something as short as a big rock. Watching vicious, technologically souped-up animals circle around a physical structure — one which they should be able to knock me off of — becomes an empty joy, as it exposes Guerrilla Games’ limited kinetic imagination. This problem renders the ho-hum, save-the-tribe story even more inert: in one main quest, you have to fight a giant corrupted machine at a fort, but I dispatched this guardian from a mountain ledge of barely moderate height, despite the monstrosity’s boulder throwing and before I even eliminated all the smaller foes. Aloy is too powerful and too casually heroic for Horizon Zero Dawn to register as anything more than a fleeting curiosity.

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2 comments

    1. That’s part of it. Think about it this way, too: if the game had more strengths than combat, it perhaps wouldn’t peter out as quickly.

      We must also consider the fact that being easy is not necessarily a bad thing. Look at Kirby’s Adventure, which has enough variety in its action and enough charm across the board to be very pleasurable.

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