Is Horizon Zero Dawn Overrated?

Aloy takes aim at a Sawtooth. Credit for the image goes to Guerilla Games.

Hello everybody! When last I updated this website, I had just finished a series of articles about the CBS show Big Brother, some of which were more well-received than others. I then took a nine-month hiatus to work on my PhD, which, I can now gladly report, turned out to be a worthwhile use of my time. This summer, along with researching for my dissertation, I've decided to return to this blog both as an outlet and as a means of keeping my writing sharp (you can be the judge of that). So without further ado, here's my first article of the summer of 2018: my thoughts on the PlayStation 4's exclusive killer app...Horizon Zero Dawn.

And yes, I do realize that, at this point, it would be more surprising to write an article that lauds Horizon Zero Dawn than criticizes it, since it's been out for over a year now and has had praise showered upon it from just about every corner of the gaming industry (and beyond).

But, having played and finished the game, I feel obligated to throw my voice into the ring of dissenting opinions, if only because it might save you twenty bucks. That's not to say that I dislike Horizon Zero Dawn, but I do have several reservations, most of which stem from the fact that I feel like I was lied to when I was promised a "revolutionary" experience.

Specifically, there are three reasons why I would argue Horizon Zero Dawn (heretofore referred to as "HZD") is overrated...

1. Its Graphics Aren't That Beautiful

This is the part of the game reviewers cite as its most impressive asset. Yes, the game looks good. While traversing the world as Aloy, the game's protagonist, there are several points within the first few hours where you will feel compelled to stop and take in your surroundings. That said, there is nothing here that feels head and shoulders above the rest of the industry, as least in my opinion. 

Indeed, there are certain aspects of the game where, in terms of presentation, it falls short of the industry standard. This is true especially of the game's facial animations, which are stiff and archaic compared to something like Uncharted 4.

Moreover, PC Gamers will be disappointed by HZD's lack of clarity, especially on the original PS4. 

2. The Open World is Mediocre

I couldn't care less about the open world in HZD. It's just...boring. It feels like a watered down version of Fallout 3, what with bandit camps and ruins to explore, mixed with a quest system haphazardly copied and pasted from The Witcher 3. 

When I say "haphazardly," I mean in the sense that HZD tries to pull off Witcher 3's compelling story-centric quest system without really nailing the key ingredients of that formula. You never really care about the people you're helping in HZD, and you're never presented with meaningful choices. In fact, you can't change the direction of the main quest or the sidequests. The best you can do is choose how Aloy responds to a handful of situations, but these are few and far between and have less of an impact than your average paragon or renegade response in Mass Effect

On a more mundane level, I find HZD's world to be a chore to traverse. The quests are usually placed far apart, and, due to how the fast travel system works, you'll often find yourself wasting the majority of your time sprinting from quest marker to quest marker. Unlike Fallout or Skyrim, HZD doesn't earn the right to force players to trek across so much open space to get to where they need to be. There simply isn't enough to the world besides boring bandit camps, herds of machine enemies, and ruins. Making the journey from point A to point B isn't worth it. 

Above all else though, I'd say my apathy towards HZD's open world stems from the fact that I played the heck out of The Witcher 3 and loved every second of it. It does so much of what HZD does, but better, and has far more engaging characters, choices, and settings. And seeing as Witcher 3 came out in 2015, I'm loathe to give credit to HZD for doing things that other games do better. 

3. Combat is a Chore 

The novelty of shooting arrows at vulnerable areas on machine monstrosities wears off after the first couple of times you do it. And if you're not shooting arrows, you're waiting in some bushes, whistling to attract machines, and stabbing them with your spear. If you happen to miss your shot, or fail at stealth, you're in for an awkward dance as you try to barrel roll your way to safety against a herd of rampaging metal beasts, hoping to either set a trap for them or get in a well-placed shot that brings them down. 

And, because machines are generally far quicker than you are and are proficient at dodging, missing shots and/or breaking stealth means that you're in for what I've found to be an annoying rather than satisfying combat experience. Aloy is fairly nimble (especially compared to Geralt), but there are several times where I'd try to dodge an attack and she'd either get stuck on a rock or go in a direction I didn't want to go in.

If fights against machines can feel a bit unforgiving, then fights against human opponents are the opposite. As long as you mash buttons or aim for the head, you can easily sweep through bandit camps with few issues. 

I will give the game credit in that it does allow you to pursue several interesting combat strategies. I enjoy using the tripcaster to set traps, and overriding machines to create mechanical allies is always fun. That said, the core mechanics of the combat, to me, just aren't effective, and the wonky camera doesn't help either. 

Closing Thoughts

Perhaps one of the reasons why HZD has been such a flat experience for me stems from my enjoyment of story-heavy roleplaying games. Classics like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic defined my childhood, and games like The Witcher 3 have carried that level of quality and world-building into my adult years. HZD has the fa├žade of a roleplaying game, but lacks the characters, choices, and lore to pull it off. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the barebones dialogue wheel the game employs, which is so simplistic and infrequent in terms of offering the player real choices that it makes Mass Effect 3's gutted dialogue system seem comprehensive in comparison. 

Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that doesn't have a clear identity. It feels like it was at one point designed to be a far more linear experience, something like Uncharted or The Last of Us. But then somewhere down the line it was transformed into an open world RPG-lite experience intended to cash in on the Skyrim/Witcher craze. Now, not only does it not feel as polished as Naughty Dog's games, but it lacks the level of detail that the best open world experiences are known for.  

Would I recommend that PS4 owners purchase the game? At its current price of $19.99 for the complete edition, sure I would. It's not a bad game. In fact, I've had a lot of fun with it. But don't go in expecting something revolutionary. It certainly is no Witcher 3. And indeed, for many gamers, it may not even live up to Assassin's Creed: Origins