In which I wrap up a game that wasn’t bad, but ended up not being nearly as awesome as I had hoped (someday I will learn to ignore hype).
So here’s the thing about Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a map game. That means that the majority of the gameplay revolves around traversing this absurdly large overworld that’s just teeming with all kinds of hidden nooks and crannies and creatures of all sorts. It’s incredibly beautiful and lush with everything awash in this palette that runs towards vibrant pinks and oranges and blues, all the colors you expect to find in those really magnificent sunset pictures that flood Instagram or whatever. The designs of the machines are incredibly intricate and meant to evoke this sense of pseudo-biology while the humans dress in this intense array of outfits that are vaguely reminiscent of real-world cultures but which you just have to overlook because in this post-post-apocalypse nothing of present day human culture has survived (I’m not exaggerating; it’s a plot point). The whole thing is a visual feast!
And that’s kind of all it is.
After some thirty or forty hours (it’s hard to keep count when there’s a two month break between picking up a game and finally finishing it), I found that I just wasn’t that enraptured with the combat; fights against the really big machines were a little fun, but as any gamer knows, the impulse to maximize efficiency leads to a really repetitive play style. You find your thing that works generally well against everything, and you just do that over and over again (for me it was heavy reliance on tearblast arrows to remove machine components followed by aggressive use of the high damage sniping arrows; if it was a big crowd, I’d set up a bunch of blast wires, pull aggro, then run and hide before repeating the process). The variety of weapon types and elemental weaknesses to exploit just didn’t draw me into the deeper intricacies of the combat system. Every fight was more a task to accomplish so I could get on to the next bit of story (more on that later) than a bit of fun in and of itself.
Besides the combat, the other main component of the game is the exploration (remember: map game), and it honestly felt pretty lackluster to me. I suspect part of this was being spoiled by the incredibly polished design of Breath of the Wild (that was a game that I went into feeling skeptical about having a giant map to explore and ended being really delighted by the idea of going to an area I hadn’t been to yet). There’s so much variety in that game that the relative same-y-ness of Horizon‘s overworld (you have deserts! and canyons! and mountains! and snowy mountains!) just felt underwhelming by the end. I made very aggressive use of fast travel because I had no patience for traversing the same territory over and over again. The conceit that you’re this skilled hunter who can survive off the land fell by the wayside while my desire to finish the story took precedence. I was not in the mood for another painterly sunset.
So the gameplay wore on me; what about the story itself? When I first started playing there was all this hope and intrigue with the promise of a world that might explore some interesting themes surrounding faith and being an outsider and whatnot. The Nora and their religion genuinely fascinated me at first, even if it was built out of some problematic tropes about mysticism and non-Westernized religion. This was because it’s obvious to the player and Aloy that the Nora’s religion is based on worshiping a different kind of machine, but those early hours spent a lot of time building them up and providing the figure of Matriarch Teersa who always seemed to be a true believer who was also at least a little aware of the nature of her deity. Once the game let you out of the starter area though, that all fell by the wayside; the Nora are considered backwards fundamentalists by the other nearby tribes, and Aloy generally agrees with that assessment even as she acts as the Nora’s representative in the wider world. When you reach the penultimate main quest, Aloy finally discovers the nature of her origins by entering the bunker that doubles as the Nora’s holy of holies, and her return leads the Nora to try to worship her as a divinity herself. Aloy is not pleased with this turn of events. There’s no reconciliation between Aloy and the Nora faith because she knows that it’s just based on highly sophisticated technology that was created a thousand years before by people. Perhaps this was the only direction the story could have gone based on where it started, but I had hoped there might be something more interesting in store.
The story we do get is about the end of life on Earth. Like, all of it. A rich jerk with more money than sense has his megacorporation develop self-replicating war machines that can run on any sort of biomass, and an error in the programming causes one of the swarms of these things to go rogue and start eating everything on the planet so they can make more of themselves. It’s a total lost cause, but thanks to the ingenuity of Dr. Elizabet Sobeck (the woman whom Aloy is a clone of), humanity pools the resources of its best and brightest to create a self-directed AI that will rebuild the planet’s biosphere and repopulate it with humans and other animals created from the genetic material that’s stored away in the bunkers. It’s a near success, but rich jerk has a total nihilist self-loathing moment and destroys the cultural archives meant to help humanity rediscover its origins in the vain hope that he’ll allow them to develop as innocents. Following that mess (it culminates with him remotely murdering all the leaders of the project in the bunker where they’ve planned to finish fine-tuning the AI for the remainder of their natural lives), there’s some sort of glitch in the system that causes the chief AI, GAIA, to lose control of her subroutine in charge of resetting the biosphere if something goes wrong before humans are ready to be reintroduced, HADES. HADES tries to purge the entire system and destroy the biosphere a second time using the deactivated swarm machines, and it’s up to Aloy to reboot the system since her genetic identity as Elizabet Sobeck gives her full access to GAIA.
It’s a bleak story, and there’s a lot of time spent meditating on the nature of existence and legacy. All of the recordings that you pick up along the way carry this implicit dread that the entire Zero Dawn project will utterly fail and Earth will remain a lifeless rock after the swarms run out of biomass; the fact that Aloy is listening to all these deep thoughts is small comfort because the voices on the other end don’t know that they succeeded in having an audience. The whole thing was enough to freak me out a little bit the day after I finished the game and saw a thread on Twitter meditating on the nature of capitalism as a system dependent on endlessly expanding to consume all available resources. No joke, I spent about half an hour feeling anxious that we don’t need swarm robots that replicate by eating biomass because we’ve created an economic system that will do the same.
It’s probably good I finished Horizon: Zero Dawn when I did.
Ultimately, the best I can say about my experience with Horizon is that it had a very engaging story that I had to slog through a lot of other stuff to get to. The game ends with a post-credits scene that teases the set up for a potential sequel, and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about revisiting this particular world. It felt like a story of that magnitude was enough.