When I first saw the announcement gameplay/trailer for Horizon Zero Dawn, I pegged it as one of the greatest games of the current generation. It featured a strong, capable, red-headed warrior with some badass archery skills using a ropecaster to tie down machines and shoot the components off them. When I finally got a copy of my own, I found that the combat was everything I hoped it would be.
For about three hours. After I’d progressed sufficiently in the story to unlock the elemental sling, and then the blast sling (which I accessed easily for reasons I’ll discuss momentarily), I realised that I could defeat even the mightiest foes in a few seconds by freezing them, loading them up with timed bombs, and then watching them explode. I might need to repeat this once, maybe twice at the most, but after that combat lost most of the thrill. There was little pleasure in engaging with a giant foe, defeating them with barely a pause to look in their direction, looting them and then moving on. Even when I imposed a ban on myself from this meta (Most-Efficient-Tactic-Available), I found that I was still only using three or four weapons (and only a handful of the same skills) because everything else just made the fights drag on needlessly long.
One of the main problems with the game was that it gave me access to almost all the resources I needed right from the very beginning. After a few hours, I’d shot enough wildlife to max out most of my resource and ammo pouches. I had hundreds of every component, so I could afford to use a few dozen grenades per fight because it wasn’t an issue to just craft more. By the time I’d got a quarter of the way through the story, I had the highest ranked outfits and weapons available, and spent the rest of the game gambling for slightly better modifications. By the time I was three quarters through, I had hit the level cap and wasn’t able to get any stronger.
Coming right off the back of playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, the juxtaposition was harsh. Where it felt like the developers of RotTR carefully crafted every enemy encounter, precisely how many resources you could access at any one time, and therefore intentionally restricted how many levels you could gain and how powerful you could become, HZD felt sloppy by comparison. The sheer abundance of resources was like the game shooting itself in the foot, because once I had maxed everything out, combat held little joy to me.
I turned my attention to the collectables next, and spent some time trying to get them all. After I found the merchants who would trade for them, I did a quick google and was upset to learn that if I’d bothered to spend several hours collecting rare and wonderful artifacts, the rewards were a handful of common resources that I already had dozens of.
So the only remaining attraction for me were the quests, and unfortunately most of those pissed me right off. No one acknowledged Aloy’s incredible feats, and seemed very self-important by talking down to her, giving her orders, and generally bossing her around. Everyone treated her like she was an errand girl rather than giving her the respect and awe she deserved for literally killing a thunderjaw right before their eyes in a matter of seconds. It drove me nuts!
And yet, despite its many flaws, HZD managed to pull itself back from the brink and earn itself a place among the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had. How? The story.
As the mysteries of Zero Dawn unfolded, I was chilled by what happened to the Ancient Ones, and the choices they’d had to make to ensure the survival of the planet. I was stunned by the brilliance of their solution, and suddenly every unspoken problem I’d had with the world design suddenly made sense: the designs of the machines, the limited types of wildlife, the corruption mechanic… I could never have imagined that a game with such mediocre gameplay could tell a story so well, and I still can’t believe how much I enjoyed spending hours listening to audio logs as I slowly made my way through ancient buildings.
While Horizon Zero Dawn has a multitude of problems, all of them I can forgive for its incredible plot and masterful storytelling. If you haven’t played it yourself, I recommend skipping most of the exploration and keeping to the main quest lines, because it’s one hell of a story and one I suspect I’ll think about for years to come.