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Horizon: Zero Dawn thoughts

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the plot of Horizon Zero Dawn, up to and including its ending.

Horizon Zero Dawn is an outstanding game, and if you own a PS4 then you owe it to yourself to play it. It really is as simple as that. I’ve got plenty of thoughts on the game, and will elaborate on many of them here, but the honest truth is that if you overlook this title, you’re denying yourself one of the best gaming experiences of the year. I wish I’d made time for it sooner, but luckily, the fact that Horizon has sold over three million copies since its original release in June means that it was a deserved success with or without my help.

We’ve seen a deluge of post-apocalyptic fiction over the last decade, but Horizon brings something refreshing and different to the genre. This isn’t a story about our civilisation falling apart, but a tale of the people who’ll inhabit this earth long after we’re dead and gone. It’s eventually revealed that the game takes place around a thousand years into the future, with protagonist Aloy learning more and more about 21st century humans and our strange quirks like ‘computers’ and ‘corporations’. Humanity was wiped out by war machines of its own creation, and it has taken nearly a millennium for conditions to reach a point where human beings can once again safely exist. It apparently hasn’t taken long for humanity to default to its destructive tendencies, though, with humans dividing themselves into tribes and fiercely protecting their own territories. Born under mysterious and unnatural circumstances, Aloy comes of age and endeavours to finally gain the respect and acceptance of her own clan, unaware of the greater role she’ll soon play in deciding the fate of her entire species.

That much backstory could easily bog a plot down, but developer Guerilla Games (of Killzone fame) wisely leaves much of this lore for the player to find organically, rather than shoving it in their face. Mementos of the past are abundant throughout the world, from objects as tiny as broken digital watches buried in the ground to the skeletal remains of skyscrapers towering over the landscape. The bodies of humans and animalistic machines lie in clearings, the battles that felled them given new life in the player’s imagination. This game is a masterclass in environmental storytelling; Guerilla has created a beautiful world and filled it with secrets and mysteries, each of which represents a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. When you throw in a host of mechanical monsters roaming through the fields, mountains and rivers, each sub-species of which reacting to and attacking you in a different way, you get a world where anything seems possible. Anything, up to and including this:

Hahaha, what the hell.

It’s not just Horizon’s world and story that make it a joy to experience, but its gameplay too. It’s not that any of the individual gameplay elements are notably unique in and of themselves: Aloy’s Focus device grants her the equivalent of Detective Vision from the Batman: Arkham series, dialogue options are selected with the conversation wheel from Mass Effect, and the skill tree and item crafting system aren’t anything that hasn’t been done in many other RPGs. The blend of all these systems, however, does provide an extremely fresh gameplay experience. There’s an element of puzzle-solving involved in fighting the machines, with each species having different strengths and weaknesses that must be exploited in order to dispatch with them as efficiently as possible. The combat itself is so versatile that my approach to it hugely over the course of the game; while I started out using mainly bombs and arrows, by the end of the game I was overriding and corrupting enemies and manipulating them into taking each other out while I hid safely in the bushes nearby. I’m a sucker for games that allow for seamless switching between stealth and all-out combat, leaving it to me to decide what tactics to implement in each encounter, and Horizon offer this variety and flexibility in spades.

It’s a pity, then, that the game’s final moments left me with such a sour taste in my mouth. There’s no cheaper move for a story to pull than to immediately undo the events of its climax, but sadly that’s exactly what Horizon does. In a post-credits scene, it’s revealed that HADES, the malevolent AI that serves as the big bad and final boss of the game, is still alive. Okay? So what did I just spend an hour fighting him and his minions for? If this reveal had been saved for the all-but-confirmed Horizon 2, with HADES’ resurrection being revealed early on in the game, I’d be more willing to accept it. After all, it doesn’t feel like a cheat when Darth Vader appears alive and well at the start of The Empire Strikes Back. The last time we see him in Star Wars, his ship has been blown to shit and is spinning out of control into the black void of space. It’s not looking good for him, but his survival feels possible without being assured. That ambiguity is the key; I doubt Star Wars would be as well-loved or iconic if it included a stinger scene of Vader trying to hitch-hike his way home from the Outer Rim. I think Horizon should have employed a similar tactic here: if they really have bigger plans for HADES, then let us feel like we’ve achieved something before bringing him back.

That’s a relatively minor complaint, though, and it certainly didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the game in any significant way. I’d put around 60 hours into Horizon by the time I finished the main quest line and would have been glad to see it go on longer, if only to spend more time in Guerilla’s gorgeous world. I’m greatly looking forward to the Frozen Wilds expansion, which promises add new quests, machines and areas to an already gigantic experience. That a game can go on for so long, and pack in so much content, without outstaying its welcome and even leaving an audience begging for more is a sure sign of something special. If you’re a latecomer like me, then please don’t wait too much longer. Horizon is an incredible game and, presumably, the start of something even bigger and better, and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor of what promises to be Sony’s next enormous franchise.

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