Horizon: Zero Dawn is Stunning and Philosophical

Going into Horizon: Zero Dawn I was completely unaware of what I was about to get into.

I knew that it was an open world 3rd person game where you fight robot dinosaurs with a bow and arrows. However, the game is so much more than that. I knew this when the game opened with a 6 year-old Aloy discovering the mysteries of this beautiful world right along with the player.

The Story

 The Story follows Aloy, a motherless girl in a society where having a mother is just as important as a belief in God, who is known as the All-Mother. Aloy is an outcast from her tribe (The Nora). She is raised by a father figure, Rost, who is also an outcast. When Aloy turns 18, she is able to attempt The Proving, a ceremony where Young tribes members can become Braves, and Aloy can be joined back into Society. Tragedy at The Proving sends Aloy on a long and dangerous quest to stop a Machine Cult, and to find out who her mother really was.

The story beautifully unfurls from the small scale of the tribe and their superstitions to the larger world, with its deep, enchanting histories. As you journey across the land, you uncover the secrets and turn legend into fact.

The pacing of the plot is really well done. Missions switch the focus between the politics and relationships of the present day Tribes and delving into the past to uncover what happened to humanity.

It’s an obvious piece of the story, but Something devastating happened to the Human race which left only a tiny amount of the population left with the remnants of the old world. All though this is the overall premise to the story, the way the details are handled is quite elegant. It’s intriguing how each culture deals with what happened and tells their own myths, turning the past into religion.

The Nora explain that the Humans of the past took All-Mother’s bounty for granted and only focused on one of her gifts, the creatures of steel, the machines. The Nora say that they must treasure all the gifts and fear any sort of technological advancement. Hence the return to a hunter gatherer society.

This is an interesting take on post-apocalyptia. Over time, the fear and stress of the events of the past have surpassed all reason and understanding. No one knows quite sure why they should be afraid of the ruins of the old world, they just know they should, so they make up folklore and mythology to explain it. It works on almost everyone, except those curious enough to explore, like Aloy.

The Setting     

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an absolutely breathtaking game. The scenery you explore is drop-dead gorgeous. The land stretches from snowy peaks to grand desert mesas, all of which are teeming with life and breath. The game feels like it should; the villages and cities all have a sense of life and purpose to them. The first time I saw the largest city, Meridian, I stood still in awe of its beauty. And exploring it felt like walking down the pack streets of a real place. The wilds are filled with herding grounds for all manner of beasts Robotic, and otherwise. Even the transition between environments seems natural. The world is clearly where they invested the most love, and it was absolutely worth it.

Some of my favorite moments were just running around the world, in awe of its majesty. The developers knew that this was going to be the case and added one of the best features I’ve ever seen in a video game: Photography mode. You’re given the ability to take some really lovely screenshots with the photography mode. You can adjust the zoom and  focus of the picture to get the best shot. If you don’t want Aloy in view and just want to get some pictures of the environment, there is an option to do that. This is such a great feature; not only does it allow for some picturesque screen shots, but whenever you see something really amazing, you can take the time to capture it correctly without the HUD and character getting in the way. I’ve spent way too much time lining up the perfect shot. It’s like a game in and of itself.

 I love exploring. There is so much to do within the open world. Most open world games give you a large space, but never really fill it with anything. In H:ZD there is actually stuff to do. Hunting robots is always an option, but on top of that there are scores of side quests, and collectibles. In this game the collectibles are actually worth the time they take to collect. You can trade them in for valuable oot, rather than them just being there for collection’s sake. My favorite things to collect are the vantage points.

Vantage points are nice bits of climbing and free-running in order to get to a high up place and view locations from the past. The free-running in this game is pretty limited in where you can do it. You can’t just climb any mountain or cliff you come across, which is kind of nice. It doesn’t lose its excitement. When these sections come up, I’m looking forward to them rather than them just being something you have to do again. They are actually fun. And the rewards, in terms of the vantage points, are totally worth the climb. They give you a glimpse at where you are in the real world. You can piece together a map, and while it’s not totally accurate, the game’s environment pretty closely resembles the actual landscape.

The map is absolutely enormous. It keeps expanding and growing the farther out you get from The Embrace (the starting zone). It’s so easy to get lost, or to have to run across half the world to get where you’re going. That’s both good and bad. It’s nice to be forced to explore and navigate the world. You feel much more connected to it, but boy does it take forever to do so. However, there are ways of fast travel. You can get limited number of bedrolls, so the game teaches you to fast travel only when necessary.       

In order to view the map, to see where you’re going in this wide world, you’ll need to find the Tallnecks, which are giant robotic Brontosauruses stomping around the land. Each one of these is a puzzle. You need to figure out ways to get up on to its back and then climb to the head. It’s totally nerve-wracking to be hanging  off the side of one of these gargantuan creatures and look down to see the ground way below you, but once you do make it to the head, the sight is sublime. From there you can open up the map and view things like herding grounds and villages. It takes the concept of map unlock watchtowers to a colossal new level.

The Wildlife

Speaking of the metal dinosaurs, the variety of creatures is so great, and the design for each are brilliant. They aren’t all Dinosaurs, which I kinda like. There are a bunch of normal looking ones too, like horses and deer. It really flushes out the variety of robots running around. It feels like there was actual adaptation to the environment. I mean, of course, there are Dinosaur ones too. There are crazy huge T-Rex’s and saber tooth tigers. Seeing all the normal stuff just makes the dinosaurs and weirder robots that much scarier.

All the species of robots will behave differently; while they are all more or less aggressive, some will wait to see what you do before acting. If you’re just passing by, they don’t care too much. Others will relentlessly follow you until you or they are dead. The more herd-like robots will group together as soon as you approach, and if you don’t leave quickly they’ll all start stampeding toward you at once. Which I thought was kind of an interesting little touch.

Apart from the robots there are other creatures running around although there aren’t any living animals that are hostile. They are important for gathering resources from, but apart from that, they don’t do much. Really the only other enemy are humans… and there are a lot of humans to kill.


The Mechanics

The combat in this game is great. The game does an incredible job of transitioning between approaches to combat. When fighting humans, things tend to be a bit slower–a more stealthy methodical crawl through an encampment of people, picking them off one by one. Fighting machines, on the other hand, is much more crazy. The fights are wild and exhilarating as you run and dodge, avoiding attacks while trying to hit the small weak points in the creature’s metal hide with deadly accuracy. The fights are totally chaotic. And there is always a nice mix of the two in any mission. The game will transition nicely from the stealthy angle to the wild monster hunting style. And this transition never feels jarring; the flow from one combat style to the next is really well done. And both are incredibly fun.

My biggest complaint is with the camera. During those intense monster fights, controlling the camera can be a bit difficult, to say the least. There are so many other things that you need to pay attention to; including a lock-on feature would have been a pleasant addition. As it stands, it’s hard to focus on things that move around really quickly. This definitely adds to the chaos of it all, but anything that jumps high or flies can easily be lost track of. You can be fighting one enemy while another will, out of nowhere, dive bomb you from above. Some will jump and quickly land on your head before you have a chance to look up and react. This is a relatively small criticism to an otherwise beautiful game, but it has lead to some rather annoying sections in combat.

In addition to your standard bow, there are a ton of weapon types and traps to play around with. You can set up elaborate traps and lure the beasts in to gain an advantage to the fight. You can selectively tie down some enemies in order to focus on higher priority ones. There is so much to do in this combat system, and although I didn’t do too much experimenting I’m excited to see what contraptions and obstacle courses people invent.

Final Analysis

Aloy was born without a mother. She was rejected by her tribe of people who put their mothers above all else.  When she is sent on her long journey to solve a mystery, she thinks this is how she’ll learn about her mother and be accepted by her tribe. But really this is a journey to find out who she is.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game about the rejection of the past and its traditions. The Nora reject the traditions of the ancient peoples and “The Metal World.” Aloy rejects the traditions of the Nora. The Carja, another tribe and the rulers of Meridian, are going through a huge liberation from their recent traditions, to start anew.

This game plays with the ideas of what we consider the past and future. Technology is an ancient relic, superstition and fear are recent practices. What happens when we reject the past? A rejection of our recent past is the preservation of our ancient past. A look into our ancient past will help us in the future. Aloy is fascinated with technology because it is forbidden, but holds knowledge. She is rejecting how she was brought up, but embracing what is rejected by others. The past is our only tool to prepare us for what’s to come in the future. We must reject the past and not linger in it, but use it to our advantage. History repeats itself, and Aloy is that tipping point.

In Horizon: Zero Dawn there is no present. There is the past and the future and the interplay between the two. There is day and night, there is no transition between the two. When we go searching for what created us we don’t find anything. We only find the remnants to help us move forward.


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