Developer: Guerrilla Studios
Release Date: 02/28/2017
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Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game I have struggled to finish for 5 years now. It’s not that it’s a bad game or a boring one, it just has a lot of promise in the beginning third of the game and you quickly learn it has shown everything it has to offer by then. I got frustrated with the game more often than I wanted to. I found the game had felt bloated with too many activities and very little reward for them. However, it’s the game’s less-than-stellar combat that made me continue to turn the game off many times over the last five years.
I even repurchased the game on PC and thought the higher fidelity would get me to finish the game. I even tried it on the Steam Deck, but it wasn’t until I bought my PS5 and wanted to dive into Forbidden West that made me finally complete the game. I did complete most of the side quests and explore the world for various collectibles, but in the end, the in-game economy is so small and restricted that there’s no reward worth the effort. You can buy the strongest weapons and armor about 1/3 through the game and you can’t find more powerful weapons or acquire them. The same goes for armor. There are merchants spread throughout the game, but they mostly offer stuff you can craft, but it’s imperative that you buy and save for the most powerful stuff early on.
I saw all of this because the combat while interesting is frustrating and fairly uninteresting. The entire game’s premise focuses on these machines that made humanity go extinct. While I don’t want to discuss too much of the story as it will spoil it (the story is really good) I will say that the entire idea of weak points breaks the combat. You can use your Focus, which is a device Aloy has on her ear that can scan the world, and this will show breakable weak points on machines. Each weak point might have different elemental weaknesses. It’s essential to break these down to attack the machine and kill it faster. Otherwise, you will only chip health away. While this sounds fine on paper, the execution is poorly done. A lot of the game wants to focus on stealth by sneaking around tall grass and using your tripcaster to shoot out trip lines for machines to walk across. Early on this is fine as single wires can take down enemies. Later on, the bigger ones won’t fall for this, and the entire tripcaster weapon becomes useless. The ropcaster is used to tie down machines, but it is useless against humans. There is a sling that throws out bombs, and then a heavy bow and a bow for elemental arrows. That is it. The only difference in price for each weapon is how many augmentation slots you get, now so much power, and different elemental ammo types it can use.
The flaw stems from combat being too chaotic to accurately break down weak points. When multiple machines are coming at you the instinct is to just throw everything you have at them. Forget melee attacks as these only work against smaller machines that are maybe twice your size. Attacking massive Deathbringers up close will result in instant death. The bigger the machine the more you have to roll and dodge around and shoot elemental arrows and really have the ammo for that weakness. The second big flaw comes into account with the crafting system. You have to either buy or craft everything and it’s imperative that you have plenty of material on hand or you are left hanging. You can’t ever hold more than what you can craft and crafting bigger ammo pouches doesn’t help much. You always feel like nothing is enough. Health upgrades with each level up aren’t enough, the skill tree takes way too long to get to more useless skills and it always feels like it’s not enough. You can’t upgrade your base power as weapons rely on augmentations to make them more powerful. It just never feels like what you do is good enough and can’t get better no matter how much you level up. I was always dying easily, guzzling health potions, and relying on cheap exploits to get through tougher battles.
It’s sad that the combat is so flawed as the rest of the game is fine. The open world is beautiful and I have fun climbing mountains Tomb Raider style and wanted to explore more, but there’s no reward for any of this. In combat, you can control smaller machines and you learn to control new ones by finding Cauldrons throughout the game. Think tombs in Tomb Raider. These require taking down bosses to learn a new ability, but I never needed to ride an animal once. It felt pointless and the reward wasn’t justified. Why would I go through all this trouble for a new skill I will never use? Side quests in this game are fine for the most part. The other big flaw in the game is the lifeless and boring characters. Sylens and Aloy are the only characters I had any interest in outside of discovering the mystery of what caused the human apocalypse. Most of the side characters feel like mannequins and the voice acting is spotty for them.
Some other gripes are the healing system. You have to run around picking up every little flower you see to keep filling your medicine pouch. This is a health system separate from potions. However, if you want to keep potions stocked you need to hunt animals which is really tedious and gets old fast. The same five animals are spread throughout the game and you need different meat types to make potions. Some pouch upgrades require animal skins which require hunting multiple times before they drop one. It’s a very tedious system and there’s no relief. After the 100,000 flower I picked up I wanted to scream. The medicine pouch is annoying because combat is flawed. If I didn’t have to guzzle health items so often and actually felt like I was getting stronger it wouldn’t be an issue. Each system feeds off of itself and it brings the whole game down quite a bit.
The visuals are actually quite impressive. While the base PS4 model is pretty rough the game looks great on PS4 Pro and even better on PC and PS5. The character models look a bit plastic-like, but overall the entire game just looks good and colorful. I didn’t run into any slowdown or glitches at all. It runs really solid, however, the game isn’t well-optimized on PC. It requires more powerful hardware than is really needed.
Overall, Horizon: Zero Dawn has a fantastic story, and world-building is done well, but the game has many systems that feed off of each other and each one is severely flawed. Combat is hectic and requires breaking machine parts to take them down, and that type of precise combat isn’t fun here. Stealth is flawed as it requires trial and error and you don’t get powerful enough weapons to ever feel like you can get any job done right. The weapons are mostly uninteresting and the skill tree is a grind. Side quests and NPCs are a bore and there are no worthwhile rewards for getting collectibles and doing said side quests. It sounds like I hated this game, but I didn’t. The story and world are interesting enough to keep playing, and Aloy is a great character herself. I just felt like the first third of the game builds everything up too much and you’re let down when you realize that’s all the game has to offer and you keep playing expecting things to change and they don’t.