I've never been so speechless when it comes to reviewing a game as now. For a lack of better ideas to describe the game I have to start with this stupid analogy: What will the offspring be like when you crossbreed Tomb Raider with Mad Max? You guessed it: Horizon Zero Dawn. No, I don't mean the franchises in general, but the recent games. Now you could say where are the similarities to Mad Max, did I go crazy? No, I didn't. Mad Max came up because the game feels, looks, and plays so much like Mad Max that I thought if it isn't using the same engine it was at least developed by the same people. But to my surprise neither of those two things are true. Anyway I digress. Let's get back to the game.
What is Horizon Zero Dawn about? It's set in a world where humans live in primitive superstitious tribes and the lands are covered by strange animal like machines. You assume control of Aloy a young Nora girl who was exiled from her tribe for "having no mother" therefore raised by another exile an experienced by the rules hunter called Rost, who is kind of a father figure. The game quite brilliantly I might add, doesn't start in medias res. But first picks up Aloy's story when she is only 7 years old. This is when she is first exposed to the relics of the "old ones". The title as the tribes refer to the people who lived some centuries before and left behind numerous relics scattered trough the world. I'm a sucker for a good mystery of this kind, so I was hooked right away. Clues on what might have happened are mostly given by voice and holographic recordings that remained intact trough the years, like in System Shock 2, another favorite of mine. But what will be the game about if the world is only populated by docile machines and primitive humans? Well as it runs out those machines are not as docile as first thought. And there are some other forces scheming in the background as well when the game really begins there is a rumour going around that the machines were getting more and more aggressive trough the years first never hurting humans, then only attacking when provoked, but by the time you get there most machines will attack humans on sight.
So without going into spoilers the story revolves around three major plot points: 1. Find out who were your parents; 2. find out what happened to the old ones; 3. find out why are the machines acting more and more aggressively and try to reverse the process. Of course for me the most interesting part of the game is the second, not that the third is not an important goal as well, but that involves a lot of fighting and very little exploration. When I first started the game it seemed, or at least I had hoped that the exploration and combat will be well balanced. Sadly this is not the case. The exploration and actual clues are concentrated around a few choke points in the main quest. And outside of those you can hardly find any worthwhile information or explorable ruins. Sadly these quests where you actually find answers are few and far in between. But when you are doing them you get an overload of information sometimes. Like you go into a room and find half a dozen recordings that is a little boring to sit trough all at once. Some of the recordings are pretty long as well 2-3 minutes or even longer. I didn't mind them, but I fear to some people they might have been too much, and even I felt at times that they should've been spread out much better. Instead of having all clues on the same 3 main plot missions, why not scatter smaller, less revealing recordings throughout the entire game world?
So the game is clearly dividable into segments of exploration and segments of doing chores and harvesting resources. Most of your crafting materials comes from machines, so you have to hunt them as pray as well as fighting for your life. At first I found the hunts exhilarating and fun, but it got old for me after a 8-10 hours of doing nothing else. The combat is one of the least favorite parts of the game for me. Most machines, especially, the larger, tougher ones, only have a few tiny weakspots that you have to hit in order to cause any significant damage. And with my innate hatred of console controllers, (stemming from the fact that I can't aim for shit with them) most fights in the game, were no fun at all, but exercises of utter frustration and rage. I started the game on medium difficulty then had to lower it to easy when I encountered my first cauldron. Cauldrons are giant automated manufacturing facilities where you can learn how to override machines (turn them into allies), and are always guarded by a huge boss machine that you have to fight in a relatively small confined space where you have nowhere to run or hide. It was at this point where I almost broke my controller for the first (but definitely not last) time. So I decided pride be damned I'm switching to easy. And I have to say even easy turned out to be more than what I bargained for. In this first cauldron easy didn't even feel easier than medium. I think they missed the mark with that one. Between story mode (which is basically a joke) and easy there is a Mariana trench in difficulty. While between easy and medium there might be a little 2 foot ditch. I don't even want to know what hard and ultra hard feels like, when on easy you can be one hit killed by many machines (but not from IX) The easy difficulty only started to feel actually easy after I massively over leveled compared to the recommended level for the quests. After I finished the Frozen Wilds (where most of the bosses I was only able to defeat on story mode) and I went back to the main quest I was 20 levels above the recommendation, so then easy really was as easy as an easy difficulty level should be IMO.
...Speaking of cauldrons. WTF? I mean literally WTF? This game came out almost at the same time as Mass Effect Andromeda did, and I have to say there are some uncanny similarities between them. The cauldrons of HZD are almost carbon copies of the vaults of MEA, or vice versa whichever you prefer. Their designs, their purpose and their function all overlap much more than what I could chalk up to mere coincidence. I don't know and I don't mind just something to think about, and it's strange there wasn't a bigger fuss made out of this. Perhaps because no one actually played MEA? (and even liked it as I did).
It is with a heavy heart and some bitterness that I admit this but this games is one of the best looking I've seen in recent times Why is this a problem? Because this is a freaking console game, running on sub par hardware. This means the PC gaming industry is either sitting on its hands or completely lost.
The only game that can contend with this on PC is Wildlands. OK, I think that still looks better, but I'm definitely not comfortable with this. What's next, the console master race?
Another thing worth writing home about is the musical score. The story is already great, but some musical underscores with the right timing give it a huge boost emotionally on top of that. The music never becomes annoying, but there were some issues with sound design. Or it is not even sound design but game design. For example Aloy mutters to herself many times some useful remarks during exploration but on many occasions I couldn't hear it because I was listening to a recording at that moment or the dramatic music just kicked in and there is no way to repeat these. Another issue I've noticed are the conversations with NPCs. They've done fucked it up. They copied the conversation wheel design from Mass Effect for no damn reason. Because most conversations feel like they were written with a very specific order in mind. And if you select them in the wrong order the whole conversation turns into incoherent rambling. Because some option presumes that another one was already exhausted and serves as a continuation of that thought. Why give the opportunity to choose if the conversations weren't written with that in mind? This bothered me beyond measure.
...But not as much as the freaking lootboxes. Everything is a lootbox, the whole game world is a lootbox. You get lootboxes for completing quests, but also can purchase them from merchants. This is completely stupid. This shit got to go. I want no stinking lootboxes in my games. This means there are not even unique or special items in the game, you just get a random reward for your efforts every damn time, most lootboxes just contain common junk, some has rare items, but never unique ones. You can't even craft unique items, all you can craft is supplies like ammo and health. Weapons and outfits you can only modify with mods that add for example damage or status effects to it. Or in case of outfit it can add resistances.
The game is only 44 hours long, at least it was that long for me with the frozen wilds included. I say only because it felt at least twice that. As I've mentioned by the end I got bored with the frustrating combat, and just wanted to get it over with. I just found out that it was only 44 hours and some minutes according to the latest save. I've played almost 8 hours today but I was finally victorious.
There is one particular quest in a the game that is representative of everything that's wrong with games today: Fetch quests. But this is no ordinary fetch quest, this is a troll quest. The ancient armor quest. You come upon a bunker in the game where locked away there is a power armor of sorts. But the door is locked and you need to collect a few power cells to open it. They're very hard to come by, almost impossible to find them all, but when you go back with the required amount and the door opens you get a slap in the face, because inside you'll find another lock, that requires even more power cells to open. At this point I said fuck it, and ignored the quest. The power cells are hidden in places that you only visit once like the FARO hq and if you have to backtrack that's mighty inconvenient. I don't mind running a few errands but this is as close to the designers showing the middle finger to the player as it gets.
- Lack of worthwhile (living) characters apart from Aloy (well arguably Olin, Eerend and Sylens, but you interact with them very little and only for a small fraction of the game, not enough to get too attached to them)
- no unique items
- easy difficulty should've been positioned closer to story, and farther away from medium
- some AI difficulties (well actually when the stormbird got stuck it helped a lot in taking it out, but still a bug)
- hunting for resources and replenishing crafting materials quickly turns into a chore
- if you run out of ammo crafting materials during a fight you're fooked
- Bungled up conversations
- the balance between exploration and combat is not ideal
Overall impression: 8/10
After the first few hours I'd have said GOTY but my enthusiasm slowly diminished as I realized that between each exploration and secret I find there will be 8-10 hours of fighting, collecting crap and running errands without much reward. If I never ever see a lootbox again it will still be too soon.