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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.