What can go wrong if you start a fight with a robotic creature bigger than you, equipped with mainly a spear and a bow with arrows, right?
So recently I got around to playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, the surprise hit by Guerrilla Games (whose previous works consisted of mainly FPS games). While I was already interested in it from the start given its interesting setting, as is often the case I first waited for a good deal and then I was distracted by other games. But hey, around 2 years after release, that’s not too bad. Recently I beat the game’s main story, completing the expansion’s story and several optional side-quests along the way.
Let’s start out with the things that I liked in the game. What first caught my attention of course was the setting, when they first revealed the game. A “post-apocalyptic” world inhabited by mechanical beast that resemble different kinds of animals and even dinosaurs? Why haven’t more games like this been made already? Exploring the world, seeing the ruins of what was before, finding small trinkets in debris to sell… more of that please!
The main plot of the game was really nicely done and well integrated into the game’s world as well. One of your main tools is something called a “Focus”, a tech-device from a long time ago that you find at the beginning of the game. This tool allows you to scan a lot of your environment, find out details about the mechanical beasts roaming the world, devices in ruins and other things. In those ruins you can also find holo-projectors that tell you parts of the story as a sort of window into the past. Additional details can be learned by smaller devices containing either text or audio. After you scan each of them, you can either instantly play back the audio or look at the text or review them through the game’s menu.
The further I got around on the map, the more of the enemy designs I encountered, the game paces that out decently. You don’t exclusively fight against mechanical enemies, of course. There are quite a few groups of humans you’ll have to contend with as well, but the machines are the main draw. Each machine has its specific weak point(s) that you can find out by scanning them. Combat focused machines are equipped with more aggressive weapon systems that you will have to deal with, but that doesn’t mean the other classes are harmless or to be underestimated. Rushing in without a plan rarely works out well for you.
That is why the game gives you a nice variety of tools/weapons to use against the machines. You start out with just a spear and a regular bow, but over time expand your arsenal with a “sniper” bow, slings with different kinds of bombs, an elemental attack focused “War Bow” (including a kind of ammo that can cause enemies to fight among themselves) and more. This allows for a decent variety of tactics to be used depending on your play style. Besides the various ranged options, you can also employ stealth to your advantage. If you manage to sneak up to an enemy undetected, you can use a “Silent Strike” for either a direct kill or at least a high damage hit. With some character levels and skill unlocks you can use this attack in more variations (to remove an enemy below you or while hanging on a ledge or ladder below an enemy). The “Frozen Wilds” expansion area also gives you access to both some new weapon types and a few upgraded versions of weapons from the base game. Armor is similarly varied and can be adapted to your play style / current situation. Some armor gives you specific resistances (fire/ice/corruption/etc.) while others give you improved sneaking or even some health regen. If you keep both eyes open you might even unlock a special armor just before the final quest of the main story.
That’s not all though, the game gives you another option in your toolkit: Overriding enemies. What this means is that from that point on the machine is (temporarily at first, but permanently once you unlocked the necessary skill) friendly towards you and fights other machines on its own or can be used as a mount. But careful: if you damage an overridden machine yourself, you undo the effect with some hits, so make sure to either keep your distance or that the machine is already damaged enough for you to easily give it the killing blow.
Quests you get besides the main one fit quite well into the world, the variety of what you have to do is obviously limited, but they are nicely used for world building overall. The quest log separates them into a few categories to give you a better overview and to keep one list of side-content from growing too big. Depending on what you fancy, you might skip some of the stuff, I certainly did. For example I hardly did any of the Hunter’s Lodge quests, which are timed challenges that get you some improved weaponry once you beat them all. There are 3 levels (one for each weapon), each with its own time completion requirement). Since I’m not a fan of this kind of quest, I only did the absolute minimum that was required for another quest-line.
Let’s start out the section of what I don’t like with… melee spear combat. Light and heavy hit is all you get and there is no lock on. In fights against human enemies this usually works out ok, but against the more mobile machines, not so useful. Especially the bigger/more powerful machines deal far too much damage for this to be of any use, especially since you have to actively position the camera AND yourself while attacking and the enemies often don’t tend to stand still a lot. Some high-tier skills improve the damage you do and allow you to know over enemies more easily, but for a lot of the game, best not bother with that and keep to your other weapons if you want to have fun.
Another part is the climbing and this is especially noticeable for someone that has just relatively recently come from Breath of the Wild. You can only hang on to predefined spots. These come in two variations mainly. One is human-made climbing aids that are often highlighted with yellow rope or are painted yellow. The other is specifically colored/shaped parts on mountain-sides that you can hang on to. Once you found one of them, you pretty much “auto-climb” as long as you point the left analog stick into the right direction, though this is also context-sensitive depending on how the camera is positioned and can be finicky in some cases. There are also quite a few cases where one would think “I’m sure that’s a perfectly sensible spot to climb up at”, but it’s just not prepared by the game to be one. This can cause “spot hunting” in general, sometimes combined with fighting the camera since you are close to a mountain side (at worst with no possibility to move much further back because that would mean a fall downwards). Depending on the time of day in-game, these “highlighted” spots can also be pretty difficult to make out.
While I did put the enemy designs in the “Likes” category, that does not account for ALL of them. The Rockbreaker (a large mole-like machine that might be inspired by Dune worms in part, since while underground it detects the noise you make while moving in its vicinity) is an extremely annoying enemy to fight and even though I only had to fight it twice during my playtime, that was still too often…
While we’re on the topic of fighting enemies: I definitely wasn’t a fan of some of the pre-set combat “arenas”, especially the ones at the end of each dungeon (or “cauldrons” as they are called in this game): small and mostly empty. This was especially bad with the Thunderjaw (the biggest possible enemy) boss room. In some of these arenas the camera can be an additional annoyance, during the required manual adjustments.
As is the case with pretty much any open world game, crafting is a necessity for quite a few things, from ammo crafting to expanding your inventory sizes, creating potions, traps… with all the different materials, the max 100 slots that the base game gives you (after expanding the resource inventory to its highest capacity) are very limited. Even with the 120 that you get with one of the skills added by the expansion you are constantly trying to weed out things you don’t need.
Now finally, let’s get to the one point that almost got me to quit the game ahead of its time: the final dungeon of the expansion’s main story. One of the problems starts right when you start it: It is completely linear and split off from the open world. While the “normal” dungeons in the main game are like that too, here it becomes more of a problem due to its sheer length. At first you have to either fight or sneak through a few areas. Then you get a Thunderjaw “boss fight” dropped on you. THEN starts the cauldron part of the dungeon (with a climbing section that contains a pretty much instant death trap), which is the biggest cauldron of the game overall, containing sneaky areas, jumping puzzles, the works. As usual it also ends with a boss-fight. Fighting a new enemy type that you haven’t encountered before directly as a boss fight is already not ideal, but there’s also at least one instant death fire in the arena as I painfully had to experience.
To round out the list, a short look at what’s just in between the likes and dislikes. For one, they could definitely improve the load times of the game when you quick travel over greater distances, but that’s at least an understandable limitation of the game, given the size and details of the world combined with the hardware of the standard PS4. Another thing that is noticeable in terms of its limitations is the enemy AI, especially while clearing out the bandit camps. Overall this didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the game, but it made enemy reactions pretty predictable.
Putting it all together, I definitely enjoyed this game and am looking forward to the sequel that will likely be an early PS5 title by my guess. I do hope that they improve on most of the negatives though. So with the caveat of the main story content of the expansion, I can give this a solid recommendation.