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We Destroyed the World, so Horizon: Zero Dawn Builds a Better One

At a glance, Horizon: Zero Dawn looks a lot like any other open world adventure game. There’s a large map covered with collectibles and a bunch of missions that are little more than fetch quests for characters that you would never bother to talk to save for the exclamation points above their heads.

In truth, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game about humanity’s troubled relationship with knowledge. It’s also one of the richest and most fully realized game worlds in recent memory. Guerrilla Games’ latest has an astonishing grasp of the ways in which cultures and individuals can manipulate intelligence, and it manages to cram a complex message into an entertaining story about a woman who beats up robot animals with a spear.

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Set in the distant future, Horizon is post post-apocalyptic rather than merely post apocalyptic. Earth as we know it has been destroyed, but the fall happened so long ago that humanity and the environment have already had thousands of years to recover. Save for a few crumbling skyscrapers, the world has reverted to a lush pre-industrial state with tribal factions that worship personified constants like the sun and maternity.

However, traces of the old world (and computer technology) are everywhere, most notably in the animals that prowl the landscape. The future does not have lions and tigers and bears. It has robots that look like lions and tigers and bears (and dinosaurs and crocodiles), with cannons and armor plating and other forms of high tech machinery. That makes hunting a bit more perilous, but brave warriors are willing to do so in search of parts and salvage.

The catch is that while the people can make use of scrap, they don’t fully comprehend the technology that it comes from. Horizon exists halfway between prehistory and science fiction. The wildlife is proof that humanity once achieved incomprehensible wonders, as well as a constant reminder that the secrets of that former civilization have been lost.

The game is interested in the split between the old and the new, and the way that different people react to the limited knowledge that is available. The protagonist is Aloy, a motherless girl left with a matriarchal tribe called the Nora. Shunned due to her unknown parentage, she is raised as an outcast by a man named Rost, and hopes that she will be able to win answers when she comes of age and proves herself before the rest of the tribe. With an assist from an ancient piece of tech, her search for the truth takes her beyond the cloistered valley in which she was raised and introduces her to people and ideas that were forbidden at home.

Strong-willed, curious, and independent, Aloy’s resolve makes sense within the narrative. She’s an outsider. Aloy was raised in the tribe but apart from it, and is therefore willing to question the value of traditions that never respected her humanity. Depending on the quest giver, she is either a champion, a savage, or the unholy spawn of future Satan. Those reactions allow Guerrilla to shape her personality. Aloy is a bit of a blank slate in the way that video game characters often have to be blank slates in order to slide into multiple side quests, but the world building is phenomenal and she is well located relative to the other characters.

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That texture is what makes Horizon noteworthy. Taken solely as a competitor to, say, Assassin’s Creed, Horizon would be competent yet unremarkable. For one thing, the game is a slow starter. Horizon introduces Aloy as an infant and again at six years old before allowing her to grow up to be an action hero. There are a lot of cut scenes and exposition before you reach that point. It sets the stage for everything that follows, but it’s still three to five hours before the adventure really starts.

The mechanics can be much more infuriating. The game is stuffed with flaws that range from minor annoyances (you can’t buy crafting resources in bulk) to legitimate aggravations (the target tracking system is worthless in melee combat). Many of those problems are more pronounced in the first third of the game, when you’re still learning the systems and the punishment for failure is much higher. There are no conventional boss fights, and every robot can be found roaming the countryside, often in greater numbers than what you’d find during mission. As a result, the set pieces in those missions are often significantly easier than the random encounters that you can get into while traveling the world.

The combat only compounds those issues. In most games, a ranged weapon with poor handling will be more difficult to control and require more skill to use. In Horizon, a bow with poor handling alters the correlation between the targeting reticule and the final destination of the arrow. You can line up a perfect shot with relative ease, but the arrow will sail five-to-ten feet away from whatever it was you were pointing at. It completely removes skill from the equation. You can miss the broad side of a Behemoth while standing right next to it. It makes several early weapons functionally useless because you have no idea where each shot will end up.

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Fortunately, most of the weapons don’t require that kind of precision. It’s a lot easier to shoot a fuel cell when the robot is tangled in a web of harpoons, and it is immensely satisfying to take a metal dinosaur apart one piece at a time. It just takes a while to reach that point. The game is balanced for high-level play, and many of the larger machines assume that you have access to the game’s best weapons. That’s great for the late-game – random encounters are still challenging for a maxed-out character – but it makes the mid-game unusually unforgiving.

The point is that even at its most frustrating, I never wanted to walk away from Horizon. I kept coming back to these characters and this world. Aloy wants to know where she came from. She wants to find out what happened to the civilization that created the machines. I was willing to follow her because I wanted those same answers, and Horizon does not disappoint on either front. The game builds an eerily convincing future with nothing more than audiologs scavenged from ancient ruins, and the events that led to the apocalypse are nothing short of terrifying.

With that in mind, the flaws become tolerable because they complement the broader themes. Aloy is not a soldier. She’s a hunter, and her tools reflects that. You need to study the machines, stalking them and utilizing the element of surprise to incapacitate them before removing their armor to expose their weak points. I still think a good hunter should be able to use a bow and arrow, but combat is about fighting smarter, not harder, and the overall approach is very much in keeping with Aloy’s general quest for knowledge.

The game ultimately thrives because every mechanic has received the same consideration. Horizon is cohesive in a way that is rarely seen in games of similar scope, demonstrating that the “best” mechanic is not always the right one depending on the project. Gameplay that works in service of a story and a protagonist often makes a more lasting impression, so Horizon crafts a game world that allows it to explore various hypotheticals. If our world collapsed, would our successors make the same mistakes we did? What kinds of tools would people build in a world with wires but without household electricity?

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Guerrilla has answers to all of those questions, as well as other questions that most people would never think to ask. The cumulative effect is reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road. In the same way that George Miller could explain the story behind the Doof Warrior, Horizon’s design documents almost certainly include detailed accounts of things that only briefly show up on screen. The world is much greener, but every new revelation suggests that there is more to the world and the people living in it.

The result is an environment that feels alive. When you walk through cities, random NPCs will gossip about you and the quests you completed. Many members of the supporting cast make a lasting impression with minimal screen time. The machines represent an entire ecosystem that sustains itself independent of human intervention. At every turn, the game communicates an extraordinary amount of information through costumes, architecture, and other visual details. The Oseram are tinkerers who experiment with new technology, so they wear leather aprons and work in forges. The Carja are skilled architects who live in the desert, so they worship the sun and their king wears a crown that looks like a ball of fire climbing the horizon.

It makes for a sharp contrast with a game like Dragon Age, which doles out its intricate lore in massive blocks of text that are prohibitively long to read. Bioware builds its world with just as much care, but many of the details never reach the player.  With Horizon, nothing is over-explained. The cultures are so well drawn that any deviations tell you everything you need to know about the individuals who break from the norm, while the dialogue – though often straightforward – always hints at more than is being said aloud.

It all draws you deeper into a world that has a powerful ring of truth. Though the circumstances are fictional, the way that people respond to them is uncomfortably plausible. For every Aloy, there are a dozen characters so blind in their beliefs or so afraid of change that they refuse to acknowledge basic facts. Many of those characters are decent people, but others would rather slaughter everyone else on Earth than admit that they were wrong in their convictions. Deliberate or not, that message feels very relevant in 2017.

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When I first started playing, I fully expected that Horizon would be another fun yet insubstantial diversion, and for a while that seemed to be the case. I’m glad to say that I was wrong. I haven’t stopped thinking about the game since the credits rolled. Horizon is aware that knowledge can be dangerous when used irresponsibly, but it marries intelligence with empathy and argues that knowledge is a necessary source of awe and inspiration. Ignorance might feel safer, but it is often untenable, as is the case when the world is infested with robot dinosaurs that bear witness to humanity’s brilliance and its destructive capabilities.

That unexpected thoughtfulness speaks to my sensibilities, especially when it’s presented within the context of an enjoyable third person action romp. Guerrilla offers a harrowing glimpse of one possible future, but the game itself is the best argument in favor of a more inquisitive human spirit. Horizon: Zero Dawn was made with honesty, creativity, and craft, and that combination will prove more durable than rivals without that same ambition.

Our review copy of Horizon: Zero Dawn was provided by Sony.

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