Spoiler-Free Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

Previously: Spoiler-Free Review: Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (plus a Spoilerific section)Spoiler-Free Review: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

This review of a giant open world game is being written on July 7. That’s three days after the review of Witcher 3 was posted.

You can guess it’s not going to be a ringing endorsement.

Horizon Zero Dawn seems to be a Tier 4 game. I spent most of my time either frustrated, pissed off, or waiting for something interesting to happen. There were periods of satisfying combat, and some potentially interesting aspects of the world building, but my lord on reflection was that a bad experience.

I say seems to be because when one quits this early in a game, missing most of what it has to offer, and lots of others love it, one presumes one is likely missing something. I encourage those who told me I should choose this game next – it got 40%+ of a 4-way Twitter poll, and an endorsement in a comment – to explain why it’s secretly good.

Here I am going to talk about why it seems terrible.

This isn’t a ‘I criticize because I love’ post. This is a ‘I criticize because other people love and I can’t figure out why’ post.

There is a minor spoiler in the section for plot and character that couldn’t be avoided, there’s a brief warning before it.

Jump To Your Death, No Chance to Save

In general, if you fall, you die.

The game has lots of points early in the game where you have to jump in exactly the right place. If you jump elsewhere, you fall, and you die.

The game resets, often forcing a lot of doing things over. At least the load times were quick. If the load times had been slower I would have quit very quickly.

You see, you can only save at a campfire, or when the game chooses to save for you.

What finally caused the rage-quit was when I spent ten minutes replaying a quest sequence to where I jumped and died trying to follow the game’s narrative instructions, used a walk-through video to see what I was supposed to do, jumped slightly wrong trying to trigger something, and died again. I mean, I can’t take it. My life is too short and I have enough things to rage about as it is.

These three dimensional games need to decide if they want to be platform games or not. If they want to be platform games, then do a very, very good job of it and make it fair and interesting and reasonable, like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey did. If not, then stop giving us these terrible ‘guess which places you are supposed to jump’ ‘puzzles.’ They are the actual worst.

Resource and Inventory Management and Gathering

Even the game’s advocates warned that this was going to be terrible. They weren’t wrong.

For some reason, there’s a limit to how many different things you can carry, and how much of various things. And everything has crafting requirements that force you to go around constantly gathering stuff. And you have to hunt lots of animals, which is an exactly zero-challenge exercise to anyone not already dead in other ways, because the game demands those resources. And everything is exhaustible, which means everything is too awesome to use, so you go around using a basic bow and basic arrows and nothing else the whole time until something proves it’s going to reliably kill you.

Witcher 3 and Skyrim both had herb gathering going on in the background, but neither game seemed to care if you ignored it. In both games, I gathered lots of herbs and then used approximately none of them. In Horizon Zero Dawn, I didn’t have that option.

I do understand what they were going for here. By giving you annoying things to worry about, it felt more like being a real hunter and gatherer who had to worry about such things. And when you got to expand your carrying capacity and make things less annoying, it felt like an accomplishment. That was nice. But it’s no excuse. Doesn’t remotely make up for this.

To give an idea of how screwed up this game’s idea of fun is, fast travel requires something you need to craft. It’s one thing to charge a little money, but this? Seriously, fork this game.

Healing

I admit that it does feel somewhat cheap to have one’s health bar refill on its own every time no one is actively shooting at you. In AC:Odyssey, it made every task feel very pass/fail, and I did feel sad about that. In Witcher 3, you could meditate, which I head-cannoned as a bit of a time waster and thus something to be sad about, but same idea, and even at a higher difficulty level there would have been plenty of food for sale to get the same result, or one could buy Sun and Stars and then go get a drink of water.

In Horizon Zero Dawn, the only thing that seems to heal you is using medicine. Either you can hunt down lots of animals to make potions, or gather medical herbs. You can only store so many herbs, so every time you get hit you need to go around gathering medical herbs.

You have to find a campfire to save the game, but the campfire does not heal you.

Does this game think it is Dark Souls with a young adult female protagonist and world, with robot dinosaurs instead of skeletons? If so it seems to miss the point entirely. Either take saves away entirely and make me live with consequences in an interesting way, or stop pretending that you wanted to do that but something stopped you.

Tricks, Traps and Stealth

Everything felt arbitrary and took forever, and often didn’t work. There was a tutorial quest that involved laying a trap, the thing went straight through the trap over and over. If I hadn’t randomly gotten it to work the first time before dying anyway, I would have assumed I was doing it wrong, but no. The thing ran right over the trap like it was nothing, over and over. I ended up doing the hunt without it, using a skill I’d bought for a stealth attack instead.

Stealth in this game in general feels super arbitrary. Things spot you, whoops, and there’s convenient crouching-teenager-height ‘tall grass’ around often when you need/want it. Game doesn’t create any illusion of creating real stealth situations and taking real cover. It all seemed way easier to stay out of the way of things and then do critical hit shots while rolling constantly.

Combat

Here’s how combat works.

Your A plan is forced to be ‘fire bow and arrow at the weak point before they see you.’ Stealth works nicely if you can get it.

If that doesn’t work, you roll around constantly so things can’t hit you and try to quickly rotate the camera so you can try to fire off an arrow when you think pausing won’t get you hit, and try to avoid running into walls or rock formations. If you fail at this, you get smashed for a ton of damage, which as noted above is super annoying to heal away.

The arrow plan assumes you’re facing machines. If you’re facing humans and you can’t snipe them, you can roll towards them, use the spear, then roll away, and repeat, and they’re dead, so long as you can find a path to their location. As usual, navigation problems are often the hardest part of any problem.

In theory one can also use traps of various sorts, but as I noted above, that seemed slow and boring and requires component gathering and also never worked, so no idea why one would bother.

If one wants to run away, one does not run. One rolls, constantly, for a long long time until enemies are done chasing after you. Same way that if you charge an enemy, you roll towards them constantly. Rolling is where it’s at.

The key skills involved are knowing where one can roll, figuring out how to rotate the camera, knowing how to press R3 to highlight weak points without getting attacked, and being able to aim at that yellow spot. It can be a rush to get it right, but mostly it’s super frustrating.

The game also forces you into utterly ridiculous scenarios from the start. Somehow you’re supposed to take down dozens of human attackers, or a whole bunch of attacking machines, all of which have ranged attacks but who luckily carry healing potions they never use. Two nights before that, you’re asked to take down a giant machine that realistically probably kills you, because that’s the kind of training a good father gives his daughter. Or something.

So basically you have to roll around a ton and hope to find openings to attack things, cycle and repeat, until you manage to aim at enough weak spots that things die.

Plot and Character and Worldbuilding

Plot? Character? Worldbuilding?

Your character is Generic Post-Apocalyptic Young-Adult Female Protagonist.

She’s strong-willed and tough. She doesn’t fit into the rigid categories. She listens to her heart. She plays by her own rules. She stands up for the little guy and helps those in need and questions tribal laws and traditions. She still gets help from mysterious good mentors whenever needed, who care a ton about her. She uses a bow, because of course she does. She starts her story with (ok, yeah, very slight spoilers about to start, except it’s totally not one because come on, what did you expect to happen here) a rite of passage that gets disrupted and threatens to kill her, when someone finds out she’s some sort of chosen one, but they botch it and she survives to be set out on her quest and gets to go where everyone is forbidden to go.

It’s not Divergent or Hunger Games or some other book, it’s Horizon Zero Dawn. Honest.

liked Divergent and Hunger Games more than they deserved. They were fun, although as time went on they got increasingly dumb. This wasn’t up to that standard.

The plot? The plot is ‘you are a post-apocalyptic young-adult female protagonist’ except the love interest hasn’t shown up yet.

The first side quest is to kill everyone in a bandit camp. Because of course there are bandit camps. Can’t not have bandit camps. Then everything after that seems super lazy and generic right from the start. The richness in the quests in the other games I’ve played is totally not there, here, main quest or side quest.

The main quest line presumably is going to tell the story of what’s going on in the world, how it got this way and how to make things better, but for now it’s such a young-adult version of a generic hero’s journey with quest icon tasks along the way that I can’t even.

The world doesn’t seem to make much sense on essentially any level, but it’s not trying to. It’s ‘look at these robot dinosaurs.’ Clearly making sense was not the goal.

Am I curious enough to look up what happens, once it’s clear I’m not going to be convinced to keep playing? Not sure yet. We’ll see.

Choices, Choices

Every choice I made seemed to be about ‘how does the protagonist express her feelings in the moment’ rather than about any consequences or real choices. That’s not me reading things into the game. That’s the game literally saying you have ‘moments of choice’ that involve different ’emotional reactions’ and then attaching emotion icons to the various dialogue choices, without any hint that your decisions actually matter.

Come on, everyone. We’re better than this.

Graphics and Sound

They’re fine. I’m told that at the time they were a great leap forward. Which is cool and all, but they seem pretty standard to me. It’s a pretty game as far as it goes, but nothing special. The voice acting is functional but uninspired. Sound effects work fine, but again, not much of a value add.

Other Things To Do

You walk around a lot clicking on icons to store resources. This is slow because to have a mount you have to do a bunch of work, and fast travel costs resources, and running means continuously pressing down on the left stick in a way that low-level hurts your hand.

Beyond that, what is there to do in this world? So far, nothing really.

Conclusion

That all sucked. I probably played a total of ten hours, died a ton, yelled at the game a ton, spent a ton of time walking and doing resource gathering, things felt arbitrary enough I had to Google about five times, and I spent a ton of time going through a C-level dystopian young adult novel’s early chapters.

I don’t get why people think this game is good. If you have a case, by all means share it in the comments. Unless the case is made, the game has a day or two before I delete it from the PS4, at which point it isn’t coming back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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18 Responses to Spoiler-Free Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

  1. womble says:

    Okay, fine, I’ll bite.

    Some of this seems pretty accurate. Yes, it’s a YA dystopia, the choices don’t matter, the worldbuilding is pretty lampshadey, and the combat is dodge-heavy. I like that stuff. Sue me.

    On the economy, er, no, what? It’s not “forage for scraps”, it’s “sell loot, buy ammo”. Much like Fallout? You can pretty much ignore the herb-gathering unless you screw up your trading somehow. Some of the inventory bumps do help, but they’re not that hard to get.

    Likewise, yes, health and fast-travel require items, but those items are pretty cheap. I found the resource constraints more of a “do I have time for one more quest before I go home?” affair, rather than “oh god how will I survive”.

    Fairly early on, you (spoilers) get a mount, so you don’t have to run across the whole world on foot. Sure, climbing is tricky at first, but the holds are painted bright colours, and I found the auto-saves pretty generous.

    I guess I just… didn’t die that much? I do not expect this to meaningfully change your experience, but hey, you asked.

    • TheZvi says:

      Good notes, thanks.

      I got the mount, but then the mount went away, and it didn’t seem worth the trouble to go get a new one every time I wanted to ride somewhere, since I had to forage along the way anyway. Your override expires after a while – another design decision I don’t understand.

      It’s possible that I was just supposed to buy everything I needed and stop trying to find it, but in most games there’s a huge multiplier on the cost of that so I assumed I should go the other way. Would help matters, but not enough to bring me back on its own. Note, I didn’t expect to actually be worried about dying to lack of stuff, just to be super annoyed.

  2. Andrew Hunter says:

    What quest were you on with the terrible jumping issues?

    I am really, really quite bad at games, especially console ones, and I can count the number of times I died to jumping on…not both hands, but pretty close to it? After 100+ hours played. Other than the Proving quest, I hardly even remember mandatory jumping (and that quest had save points every 10 seconds.). The parkour sections highlight everything touchable other than actual ledges in yellow, and mostly just involve pushing up.

    I have the same puzzlement about combat. The spear is very, very effective against machines. After a few level upgrades, even large ones. It’s mostly just about timing and not getting smashed in your windup…but this is not that hard.

    I agree that the healing is frustrating (keeping the pouch full was a bit of a chore.). I agree traps are next to worthless; I used my bows and the slings and basically nothign else. Farming was…medium fun to me? Unless you get obsessive about every upgrade, you just spend twenty minutes once or twice to get a few more boar skins, and other than that it’s mostly find a pack of dinosaurs (the point of the game) and farm *them* for a lens or a heart. (In the main city, by the way, you can buy a infinite-use fast travel pack for a small investment in easily farmed drops.)

    Are you playing on Ultra Hard or something?

    I don’t know, this just feels like you played a very different game.

    • TheZvi says:

      Weird that you were unable to reply to this post.

      I was playing on Normal, but it’s also normal for the very early sections of such games to actually be the hardest in my experience; the actual difficulty is ‘game is bad at teaching you how it works and what the controls are’ is the hardest puzzle in Witcher 3 and the hardest puzzle in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, at normal difficulty settings, as well. Once you turn the corner it’s more of a journey – but I had the option to turn up the difficulty and didn’t, so in theory that’s revealed preference. Odyssey had some hard fights at the end vs. mythological stuff and such, but none I got stuck on.

      I definitely died a lot in the proving, then several times in the first metal world side quest, when I’d done almost nothing else of interest in the game.

  3. Andrew Hunter says:

    (For some reason. I can’t post this as a reply to the first comment…)

    Overrides expiring matters in combat for obvious reaåsons. I think it actually just *doesn’t* expire for mounts, but you have to resummon (it’s one of the things in the d-pad menu). I think this is just so they don’t arbitrarily follow you through dungenous.

    (I also didn’t care much because I used mounts for 5% of the game, I just…didn’t think of them as necessary? The world was pretty enough I mostly didn’t mind walking, and I was stopping often enough to murder convenient dinosaurs. For long distances I just fast traveled.)

    • TheZvi says:

      All I know is (1) there’s powers that make overrides last longer, and (2) my mount vanished along with any option to call it, with no warning. Dunno what else I’m supposed to think.

  4. D M says:

    Since this review comes about two years too late, and the author didn’t bother to actually play through the game, I chose not to read the entire review. After a couple of whiny paragraphs I can say with certainty that he would most likely have a greater appreciation for the game had he, you know, played it through, maybe even to the finish. The few complaints I saw are actually addresses as you progress through the game. It felt like someone complaining about not knowing how the book ends in chapter two and putting it down. Having played through the entire game to 100% completion I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed it and that it didn’t offer a supreme challenge in any way. Even if it were that tough for him, there’s a story mode that sets the difficulty as low as you could imagine. Perhaps he should try it that way. On the matter of ‘having more important things to do’, it seems that this is kind of his living, or at least it’s a main hobby. So please excuse me for not having pity for someone who wants to try an open world game that’s been out for years with walkthroughs available all over the internet and play time estimates for how involved you would like to be in said game. That being said, if you are looking for an honest, and fair, review of a game, you should probably look elsewhere. Just about anywhere, actually. They’ve probably played it for more than a few hours.

    • TheZvi says:

      No one gave this post to you as assigned reading. I’m happy you didn’t use your time on something you didn’t find enjoyable or useful – I felt it would be more useful to write it than not write it, given my conclusion that I wasn’t going to continue. And it’s good to know that you think so highly of the game that you think I’d have appreciated it if I’d kept at it; most replies from people with more experience made me strongly believe that’s not the case.

      Making combat easier, when the combat is the fun part while other things are much bigger issues getting in the way, is the opposite of helpful, plus I refuse to get into the habit of playing games on explicit easy/story modes for any reason.

      I am confused by the idea that one can’t have better things to do *even within the genre of playing open-world games* given how many of them there are and how long they take. It’s impossible to play all the good ones fully, even, as one’s primary activity.

  5. RichF says:

    It’s been a while but I believe there’s an infinite fast travel item you can buy relatively early.

    Ultimately it’s a game about fighting crazy robot dinosaurs, which is pretty damn cool. if that doesn’t do it for you, maybe it’s not the game for you.

    • TheZvi says:

      Yeah, didn’t do it for me – I’m not opposed on principle or anything, but didn’t do it for me as the justification for the game. E.g. someone who liked it when asked why said ‘great graphics’ and great graphics are good but if that’s your argument for a game then that’s a really bad sign.

  6. Dan says:

    Actually included spoilers in spoiler-free review of a game your didn’t even finish. Dumpster tier review tbh.

    • TheZvi says:

      Adjusted the wording to give warning on the non-spoiler I presume you’re referring to, out of an abundance of caution.

      And I don’t get the hate for not having finished – it’s not like I don’t say that up front. Shrug.

  7. Jorge says:

    Thanks for saving me the time and money. Currently immensely enjoying Monster Train- bonus, my SO loves it too. Free new content out in a couple of weeks!

    • TheZvi says:

      Oh, sweet on all three counts, I had no idea more content was coming.

      Will eventually write about MT again, but waiting until I beat covenant 25. At 24 right now.

  8. NeonProphet says:

    I played ultrahard from the beginning, switching to hard to consume the story faster, now replaying new game + on ultra. Perhaps the lack of aim assist is how I ‘discovered’ the simple and low level upgrade that straight up slows time when jumping. You can aim during this period and you can shoot during this period. You can also jump milliseconds after landing and in game time returns to normalcy.

    The U.I. has no tutorial and for good reason: it’s so simple that one can have it down well within the very secure two hour minimum opening act.

    If you want to avoid the fight you have to roll maybe once or twice through the abundant grass areas before sprinting away. That is if you genuinely cannot survive being spotted. Otherwise, avoiding and aborting conflicts is as simple as roll then sprint in the direction you prefer. Maybe zig-zag and get to rocks, buildings, or rivers. Think taking on or escaping giants in Skyrim at level one.

    (Spoilers)?

    Also, the story is a great take on (substitute whilst waiting for) Halo’s philosophical ideas.

    • TheZvi says:

      Never played about Halo so that doesn’t tell me anything about HZD – if anything it’s a tiny spoiler for Halo? Which is totally fine.

      Makes sense that this is a One Weird Trick game, where if you figure it out the combat and have the right upgrade/skills it gets super easy. I’ve certainly played games like that, where suddenly I figured out the thing and after that I could add on several difficulty levels if I’d cared to.

      Ah, well. A game full of aiming bows at giants isn’t my jam, and I’m comfortable to have moved on. Guess I should read what the plot was.

  9. acorwin says:

    I think you should give the game another try unless you find something about the core combat loop impenetrably annoying after trying several approaches, in which case there’s no point in suffering for 70 hours or whatever to enjoy the rest of it. I played the game a few years ago, so I’m sorry if my memory has faded some things to factual inaccuracy. Some points of explanation.

    The game is not “ultimately … about fighting crazy robot dinosaurs.” Crazy robot dinosaurs are, I admit, very cool, but they are also relevant to the world, and the game is *about* discovering how things got this way. The game is about fighting robots in the same way that any RPG is about fighting monsters: it’s what you *do*, but it’s not the *point*, with a few ludonarrative exceptions (i.e. plot battles).

    Your complaint that it’s about a teenaged chosen one strikes me as probably not your true complaint given how much you liked Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which can be described in basically the same way.

    > “The world doesn’t seem to make much sense on essentially any level, but it’s not trying to. It’s ‘look at these robot dinosaurs.’ Clearly making sense was not the goal.”

    The world *does* make sense; you just haven’t played far enough to learn why yet. It is possible you will learn the story and still think it sucks, but a sci-fi setting not making sense at first glance is not unexpected. Much of the joy in sci-fi stories is gradually learning what happened to get us there, intermixed with some current-day plot.

    I think your gameplay complaints are mostly correct. The potions thing is annoying. The fast travel thing is a massive unforced error. The beginning of the game is the worst part (well; the very beginning, with the escape from the cave, is delightful, IMO; after that the Proving stuff is bad for a little while). Platforming is always bad outside of dedicated platformers, although I don’t remember doing much of it in HZD.

    The combat system didn’t bother me; I liked it much more than Witcher 3 and at least as much as ACO, for reference points. I enjoyed stalking the machines and being careful to kill the scout ones (Watchers?) first and take advantage of the AI of the other ones. I also hated traps at first, but late in the game I started using them more just for variety and ended up thinking they were pretty cool. I also used my resources pretty freely. Maybe I didn’t start doing this immediately, but I remember using a lot of elemental arrows and such. Maybe try just spending your resources, and not shutting yourself off from fun combat for scarcity reasons? Games are more fun when they don’t impose ammo scarcity, but if you’re gonna quit playing anyway you might as well burn through your stock first and find out if that makes it fun.

    But in the end, despite some flaws, I think the game is wonderful. It’s a beautiful world; it’s got both a lush, green side and a weird sci-fi side, it’s filled with cool robots (that have a satisfying* explanation!) and stuff to explore. It’s well-paced in terms of finding out the history while also living out Aloy’s story. The past and future are both relevant. As you find things out and put pieces together, the world gets more and more interesting; you can do this in big chunks via story quests and by exploring and finding clues. The characters’ motivations are (mostly) sane, and in one case an unusually good exploration of a concept you will be familiar with but that is not much explored in popular media. I don’t want to say more about that last point for spoiler reasons, but it is _really cool_ IMO.

    *satisfying enough for a video game, at least; probably for all but hard scifi stories in general.

  10. OriginalSeeingO says:

    I played the game and thought it was really fun. Then I played Monster Hunter World and my opinion of Horizon Zero Dawn plummeted.

    The game lacks the quality of life and improvements in video game design that other modern games employ. It’s behind on the times. If you try to play an old monster hunter game or any games similar to Horizon Zero Dawn from around 2010 (excluding skyrim), then you’ll run into the same problems. Game design wasn’t as developed back then so it was all more tolerable.

    Games like The Witcher 3, Monster Hunter World, Skyrim, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are all far better at what they aim to do. All of them are also the Nth iteration of their series and have repeatedly improved on their formula. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the most extreme since it’s the 11th Assassin’s Creed game.

    The one truly badass thing about Horizon Zero Dawn were the “trip caster” trap arrows. Those were awesome. I wish I could use them in other games.

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