This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Horizon Zero Dawn.

Transcript Edit

First, let me say it's a bit unfortunate that I'm doing Horizon (HRUUH) Zero Dawn right after Legend of Zelda: Death on the Nile. To go from one epic, open-ended wilderness where deserts and snowy mountains can be close enough together to be in the same school catchment area to another, that's just asking to come down with a bit of the old "Majestic Landscape Fatigue Syndrome", or "M.L.F.S." Yeah, it sounds nice to have a villa with big windows overlooking the French Pyrenees, but after a few weeks, you start getting bored of it and increasingly paranoid of snipers.

So I want to make it clear to Sony before we begin that it's not you, it's me. It's not your fault I've played so many sandbox games that I expect a section of map to become visible every time I get a stiffy. I'm just sick of traipsing through miles of lovingly-rendered vegetation that I can't fast-travel through because I need to forage stuff on the way and I don't want to show up to the next boss fight vastly understocked with healing herbs, crisp packets, and dog shit. Also, I'm probably still the only person who cares about things like this, but the title of your game is complete rubbish, as much as it would fetch a pretty good score in Scrabble.

Horizey Zozey Dozey is the game you'll probably be more familiar with as "that thing with robot dinosaurs and the archer girl from that one Disney film". In a post-post-post-apocalyptic future, really weirdly ethnically diverse tribes of future humanity live a subsistent lifestyle in the overgrown ruins of their forbears and all knowledge of their history has become shrouded in myth. There are also robot dinosaurs for some reason, although all of this does get eventually explained by the main plot, including the "weirdly ethnically diverse" thing. There was definitely a lot of thought put into the story of this one, which is gratifying; I do slightly get the sense that the explanation for robot dinosaurs was rather blatantly working backwards from "let's have robot dinosaurs because they kick ass", but I'm not complaining!

Our protagonist is the slightly-misspelled Aloy, which I rank just below Joule from ReCore in the "On-the-Nose Protagonist Naming" event. One wonders what these writers would call the strong female protagonist of a game set in a sewage treatment plant. Pissabeth? Ellen Shitley? Well, anyway... Speaking of weird smells, Aloy is an outcast from her tribe due to the circumstances of her birth, and can only learn those circumstances by proving herself a hunter. But this is only the beginning, as Aloy finds herself setting out into the wider world to unravel the mystery of her existence and discover the true story of what happened to the planet.

See, what they're doing here is starting with a narrow focus on Aloy and her personal issues so that the scope can naturally broaden out over time to encompass the fate of the whole world, in a manner that reflects how our personal scope of the game world gradually broadens as we explore it and uncover more of the map, a bit of ludonarrative synchronicity that will be appreciated by anyone who can determine what the fuck I'm on about. Putting aside the robot dinosaurs for now - difficult as that would be without industrial lifting equipment, I'll grant you - Horizontal Morning doesn't have very many original ideas in its head, but it admirably takes time out to justify the tropes it falls back on, like how it subtly established that Aloy growing up as a shunned outcast is why she does the usual solo protagonist thing of constantly mumbling exposition to herself like the homeless nutter she technically is.

I hope you haven't put that industrial lifting equipment away, because we're bringing the robot dinosaurs back in, it being the unique selling point and all. It's the Far Cry 3 and 4 arrangement where animals roam the land to act as little walking loot dispensers and occasionally sneak up and headbutt your tits off while you're trying to do something else. Obviously, the number of flimsy wooden arrows it takes to pull a chrome exoskeleton apart would jeopardize the rainforests all over again, so you have to use Detective Vision, I mean, Focus Vision, I mean, that thing where everything of importance glows like the warning lights in your head when the in-laws bring up politics at Thanksgiving dinner, to determine the weak points and what weapons to use on them, so you can find a good position and make pinpoint strategic attacks, Monster Hunter-style. And it is fun, once you've taken down a robot alligator or one of those things that look like giant roast chickens with their bums in the air with strategic hits to the sensitive regions; it's easy to get overly impressed with yourself and march with undeserved confidence into the range of those cunting flying motherfuckers, and swiftly discover what it's like to be in a duck pond during a gale when you're a piece of bread.

But hunting robots is just one aspect of the game, and that brings me to another thing I'm sick of about these constant sandboxes, and that's having 500 different gameplay mechanics in the usual, "Ooh, take the approach you want to take!" attitude that usually means, "None of the individual mechanics could carry a game by themselves and we're hoping that stringing together enough C+'s will somehow add up to an A." Let's start with the long-range combat: the hit detection is for shit, unless some of these bandits have learned the mystical technique for making their heads non-corporeal for brief moments, and the game has introduced every available long-range weapon by the time you hit the second village, so there's less evolution going on than in a rural school curriculum. Same applies to melee combat: you start and end the game with one slow and annoying attack that seems to arbitrarily miss half the time and one really slow and annoying attack that definitely arbitrarily misses half the time. The climbing is restricted to rigidly-determined climbing paths and all other terrain can only be navigated by making furious two-footed jumps at it like you're throwing a tantrum over how perfectly climbable this ledge appears to be.

And then there's the inevitable stealth. How that works is, you're visible when standing and invisible when crouching in a specific kind of grass. I'm all for keeping the rules simple - after all, most of Sony's audience is - but it does mean that we can be up to our neck in plant matter and the enemy still spots us because it's not the special designated "stealth grass". I suppose it's because the stealth grass is red and Aloy is a ginge; she needs the one specific camouflage that matches her pubes.

I should stress that none of this is a deal-breaker, but it's also not helping me muster the same enthusiasm most of my peers seem to have for Erection Nice Breakfast. The story aspect's all right, although it never answers the question of how someone who grew up shitting in creeks and sleeping in slit-up robot horse carcasses every night can be so well-adjusted and, perhaps more to the point, "clean". And the robot hunting is a highlight, but it's all held back by the baggage that triple-A open world games now seem to find impossible to shake off. But as I said, maybe it's just me; I've avowed to play something other than a wilderness sandbox now, so if you're expecting me to do Ghost Recon Wildlands next week, then feel free to go suck the spiders out of Tom Clancy's dead, gray cock.

Addenda Edit

  • Berkshire hunt: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • I suppose Horizon Zero Dawn would make sense if we were listing our favourite documentary series, Mega Man character and dishwashing liquid
  • Who else remembers 'Zoids'
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