The announcement of Horizon Zero Dawn came as a huge surprise. Its developer, Guerrilla Games, has been known for the Killzone series of games for years, and while the series had a reputation for being a graphical showcase, it wasn’t much else. The series has its fans, but it’s never been the wide success that Sony wanted and it never garnered the critical acclaim people hoped for. Then, Horizon came along as a sharp left turn for the studio. Instead of a dark and gritty military shooter about military bros, we have this bright, green and blue open world game starring a red-haired woman with a bow and arrow. The two could hardly be more different.
There was worry that the game wouldn’t live up to its promise, but somehow it managed to live up to just about every bit of the hype. It’s nothing short of stellar. It’s both one of the PlayStation 4’s best games to date and it’s definitely Guerilla’s opus.
Yet still, there are signs here and there that this is their first open-world game. They don’t keep it from being great, but they’re reminders that the team has some stuff to improve on when the sequel comes along a few years from now.
Too many resources, too much flower picking
Picking flowers is a part of open-world games. Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher 3, and Horizon Zero Dawn all feature resource collection as part of their stories. For Red Dead Redemption, it’s simply something to do. Collecting flowers doesn’t funnel down into item crafting or anything like that. It’s simply a way to get players more interested in the world. In The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia is a professional monster hunter who crafts a wide variety of potions and oils to assist with fighting the many different monsters that inhabit his world. It’s a constant reminder that he is the type of person who prepares for the fight ahead, rather than diving headlong into it. For Horizon’s Aloy, it’s a reminder that she lives a primitive life that requires she survive off the land. Picking flowers and branches to make wound-healing salve and craft arrows hits that home.
In Horizon, though, there’s simply way too much of it. When you’re not picking flowers to fill up her health pouch, you’re collecting stuff off animal carcasses or machine husks. Or opening item boxes and supply packs. There’s a whole host of flowers and animals alongside an incredible number of machine parts that are used for crafting, selling, and trading. Inventory management becomes a nightmare at times, so much so that I often found myself dumping stuff from my inventory mid-battle because I needed to pick up more stuff that I knew would be necessary in battle.
Each machine has its own lens and heart alongside more general components, and tracking all of it becomes a hassle even in the opening hours of the game. While you want your players to feel like they’re in a living world rather than a playground designed for them, if they’re constantly diving into menus to sort items or going back to town to sell stuff, they’re not exploring your world – they’re running errands.
Fast Travel is weird
There’s fast travel, and sometimes it’s quite handy, but it feels as if the team at Guerrilla decided to change how it works near the end of development.
In the early hours, you have to build your fast travel packs out of resources you find on the ground – stuff you might otherwise use for health potions and such.
Then, just as your stockpile of items starts to reach a critical mass where you can build those in bulk, an unlimited fast-travel pack pops up in shops. It’s not even expensive. It feels like someone decided at the last minute that having to craft travel packs is annoying, but then didn’t take the option out when they added in the unlimited fast-travel pack. What’s more, that fast travel pack takes up an inventory slot and can be sold at any moment, rather than having its own spot amongst your outfits and weapons. Fast travel feels half-baked in Horizon, and for an open-world game, that’s weird.
The “Natural” world breaks
Some parts of Horizon’s open world are better than just about any open world since The Witcher 3. The natural world looks amazing, but it often feels ‘designed.’ It’s mostly little things, but they stick out as a sort of nature’s uncanny valley.
The game takes place over a broad area that comprises snow-swept mountains, desert regions, and grasslands, but no matter where you go, the same plants dot the landscape. The same goes for the animals. There’s a good, spoilerriffic reason there aren’t too many animal species, but the same animals are everywhere. There aren’t any lizards among the cacti nor are there wolves or bears in the cold of the mountains. There’s just raccoons and turkeys, as far as the eye can see (except when you need one to finish crafting an ammo pouch). There’s also no moon cycle. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Horizon takes place on Earth, and I can tell you that there’s a moon just about every dang night, and there’s definitely no cycle to it.
This is hardly game breaking, but it’s something I hope to see Guerrilla work on in the inevitable sequel – make sure the world stays gorgeous, but make it feel a bit more alive.
No one is freaked out by Aloy riding a machine
Aloy can, after obtaining a specific item, “tame” machines to work in her favor. A few of those can even be mounted and ridden around. That’s not weird. A big open world without some faster-than-foot transport seems like a good idea.
What’s weird is that the people of her tribe and others, who see machines as wild, dangerous predators, the absolute top of the food chain, don’t see it as even slightly weird that this woman is galloping around the world atop one. You can’t ride into settlements on them, but you can ride right up to the gates, and you sometimes encounter other people while traveling, but I don’t think even once did anyone mention it. While not everyone in the game lives the same hunter-gatherer life as Aloy, nearly all of them should see what she’s doing as absolute witchcraft. It should inspire fear. Instead, it inspires nothing. It’s just there. A fact of life.
Audio logs are grouped way too closely together
As you begin to discover the dead world that preceded yours, you’ll begin to find remnants of the world. Among them are old audio logs. Now, the game doesn’t commit the sin of making you pause the game to listen to them, so I have to give it credit for that.
However, where there’s one audio log, there are five or six more. They’re placed contextually so that they make sense – that’s not a bad thing. But because of that, you end up either missing out on hearing the logs in the context in which they were meant to be found or you end up just standing around listening to ghost voices.
Audio logs can be a great way to add flavor to the world, but decisions like this only slow the game down. It turns what should be a moment of discovery into a moment of boredom.
Weapons and outfits have no clear unlock path, and most of them feel unnecessary
There are lots of weapons in Horizon Zero Dawn. There’s something like eight individual weapons and five outfits, but each one has three levels. Instead of leveling up your outfit, though, you just buy the beefier version of it, and while not every merchant sells every level of the outfit, it happens pretty quickly that top-tier outfits are available while you’re still in first tier. Even worse, I only ended up using a couple outfits regularly, and another one or two maybe once.
There’s no clear upgrade path for either outfits or weapons, and most of them end up feeling unnecessary. They become screen filler so that the shop and item screens don’t look quite so empty.