What I'm Playing: Horizon Zero Dawn

George Boatfield tells us all about this colourful post-post-apocalypse as he catches up with this 2017 release.

George Boatfield
25th February 2019
Image Credit: IGDB

If you know me, then you know I’m quite the fan of Sony’s first party studios.The work of Naughty Dog, Sucker Punch and Sony Santa Monica, just to name a few, has always ended up creating some of my most memorable gaming experiences. But Guerrilla Games, the studio behind the Killzone franchise, had never grabbed my attention with their work on the PS3. It was only when they began showing off the world of Horizon Zero Dawn that I really began to take note of the talent contained within the walls of the Amsterdam-based studio.

That’s not to say I was quick in getting to playing the game, mind you. Released in February of 2017, playing it almost two years later has certainly allowed for plenty of hype and anticipation to build around it. And while I have some reservations regarding certain aspects of the storytelling specifically, it’s a rare treat to see a successful first attempt at such an ambitious game from a first party studio. Open-world action RPGs exclusive to one platform - save for Nintendo’s Zelda series - just don’t happen!

Guerrilla have always made games with a striking art style, beginning with the bleak fields of Killzone populated with the piercing red glow of Helghast foes. In Horizon, these wastelands are replaced with lush cityscapes reclaimed by nature over the course of hundreds of years, and immense mechanical beasts now roam the former concrete jungles of our world. The developers often referred to this as the ‘post-post apocalypse’, and it is one of Horizon’s most captivating elements.

Compelling gameplay and inviting world design have resulted in an environment that I am eager to explore

The way Guerrilla have laid out a breadcrumb trail of compelling lore and story content is also impressive. As a studio who has never had much experience developing story, responsibilities fell onto Narrative Director John Gonzalez and Benjamin McCaw, writers on Fallout New Vegas and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor respectively. Naturally, as people who have worked on open-world games previously, it makes sense that Horizon’s story is paced so expertly, while side quests clearly also had significant consideration from the writing staff.

Despite all this, there are some problems with how the narrative is delivered. While the use of voice recordings and text files is a welcome inclusion thanks to the meaningful content they hold, it reaches a point where they almost become the core method of storytelling. It’s disappointing to see a game with such a striking aesthetic not make use of this with amazing cinematic moments.

While incredible cutscenes do make appearances throughout the game, they are not utilised nearly enough. The in-game conversations with NPCs are another example of an overused method of delivering the narrative. While there are some genuinely compelling conversations to be had with characters, many bring down the pace of the game and do so with often-ropey facial animation.

But it’s the gameplay of Horizon that gives it real longevity. Using arrows, bombs, and harpoons of various different specifications paired with numerous tiers of weapons to incapacitate and scavenge from the world’s metal machines never stops providing unique combat challenges.

It’s disappointing to see a game with such a striking aesthetic not make use of this with amazing cinematic moments.

The dynamics of the machine AI across their various forms alongside the range of options to approach defeating them gives combat such an energetic, living feeling. Perhaps this is where Horizon’s real cinematic moments reside. Although things can get a little hectic at times and verge on feeling clumsy, it’s rare when a combat system provides so much depth in an accessible frame. Following that, the variety of the mechanical beasts to hunt is the cherry on top.

And that’s why, even though I’ve experienced all the story content the game has to offer, I’m still going to be exploring the game world in the pursuit of collectibles and side quest completion. Compelling gameplay and inviting world design have resulted in an environment that I am eager to explore, and the opportunities to expand on the trappings of Horizon Zero Dawn are numerous - it’s impossible to imagine that Guerrilla are not at work on Horizon 2 right at this moment.

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