Horizon: Zero Dawn is far better than it should be, given that it’s the developer’s Guerilla Games’ first time making an open-world game. Previously, Sony has shackled these guys to whatever Playstation is currently missing its Halo. Hence the long line of Playstation-exclusive Killzones. But it’s clear from playing Horizon that Guerilla has done their homework, studying what it takes to make an open-world work.
And then they apparently dropped out of class.
The who and the where are fundamental parts of an open-world game. The best of them also have the best whos. Grand Thefts Auto, Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V, Xenoblade Chronicles, Arkham Knight. Alternatively, forego the who entirely. Make it a blank spot where I can insert a character of my creation. Skyrim, Fallout, Crackdown, Saints Row. Games with a lame who can lean on their where. Assassins Creeds, the latest Far Cries, and the Watch Dogs have terrible characters in settings full of character.
Horizon: Zero Dawn has a terrible who but a promising early where. A bunch of clumsily earnest cutscenes introduce the latest chick action hero with a bow: Katniss “Brave” Croft will be playing your Ellie in this post-apocalypse. She has been raised by a Viking caveman Joel. For the tutorial, she almost literally falls down a well. She finds an iPhone with a Far Cry app that lets you tag enemies, an Arkham Asylum app that lets you play Batman detective sequences, and a System Shock app that lets you see holographic ghost cutscenes. So far, so harmless. Now let’s have some open-worlding.
But Guerilla Games will not let up. They write as if they were Rockstar, sure that you’ll be fascinated by the awkward exposition for every random stranger who needs you to find his missing sword/wife/jewelry. Their story is cringe worthy for its seriousness, for how it’s oblivious to being awkward, drawn-out, and blatantly derivative. The heroine’s Hunger Games get interrupted by some bad guys with an Insidious Agenda that must be Investigated via a string of Story Quests. With the help of a Mysterious Stranger, you will discover her Secret Backstory and then her Worldsaving Destiny. Godawful dialogue and clumsy cutscenes abound, each worse than the last, each longer than the last. Horizon plays out extended puppet show conversations as if it were Mass Effect. It locks you into rooms to watch purple hologram ghosts having conversations. It constantly stops to explain itself, even when it should be winding up. If there’s one thing worse than being front-loaded with exposition, it’s being back-loaded with exposition. Horizon, fraught with turgid exposition dungeons, is both.
Look, I realize that not every game can be The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, or Bastion. But not every game needs to. You know what game had good writing? Last year’s Doom. Because I never had to see it. The first rule of videogame writing should be “do no harm”. But if your writing is so up in my face and so bad that it makes Lance Reddick sound like a chump, you’ve failed that fundamental rule.
So that leaves Horizon’s open-worlding. The where of it. The early parts are promising. Not the silly caveman stuff, which is even sillier than Far Cry: Primal for how seriously it takes itself. But the parts where Horizon segues into another overgrown post-apocalypse, where ruined cities are choked with vines and tall grass. Post-apocalypses used to be grey cityscapes or blasted outback deserts, because apocalypses used to be nuclear annihilation. But today’s post-apocalypses are gardens of Eden reclaiming cities, because today’s apocalypses are collapses instead of fiery holocausts. From I Am Legend and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, to the more recent Last of Us, Nier, and Girl with All the Gifts, the post-apocalypse is lush and green. When civilization fails, nature will still be here. It turns out we aren’t going to incinerate all life on the planet. Instead, we’ll just show ourselves out.
But then the rest of the map happens and, hey, you’re in the Barrens from World of Warcraft. There’s a main city that looks like something from Dragon Age. You know, Neoclassical Desert Biome Fantasy. There’s a patch of jungle. There are lots of snowy mountain areas. There are even ruins out here. Not the ruins of modern cities, but ancient ruins with columns and arches and everything. When did these get built? My tribe has been building thatch huts in the vicinity of former Denver and these guys next door have their own Persepolis? It’s one of the few things Lance Reddick doesn’t explain. For whatever reason, Horizon’s viney post-apocalypse is just the starting area. The rest of it is a collection of Skyrim biomes.
But for all the failings of the who and the where (the “world” part of the open-world), this is a solid game (the “open” part of the open-world). Guerilla Games imagines a dynamic robot dinosaur ecology, which sounds ridiculous, but it works. Whirring clanking creations stalk the apocalypse instead of the usual zombies or mutants. Their headlamps turn red when they see you. The really powerful ones have red hydraulic fluid running through their tubes. They have various kinds of attacks. They’re vulnerable to different kinds of weapons. They stumble obligingly into whatever traps you set. Kill them and harvest their parts to craft more fire arrows, to make your stealth suit stealthier, and to get a fancy new slingshot that shoots freeze bombs. Turok never had it so good.
The ecology of the increasingly daunting robot dinosaurs is better than anything you learn in the story. This is a world in which the life forms neatly segue into prey, distractions, mounts, and then monsters: from rats to raccoons to boars to robot horses to robot mountain goats to robot saber-toothed tigers to robot stegosauruses to robot T-rexes to robot brontosauruses. In Skyrim, a wolf chases a rabbit and we’re all, “ooh, ooh, living world, living world!” But in Horizon, a robot velociraptor bushwhacks a herd of robot ostriches. Paul Reiche, who made Star Control 2 and then went on to make bank with the Skylanders series, once said in an interview that “weird things beating each other up” is his game design formula. Horizon eventually gives you the power to turn robot dinosaurs over to your side. The weird things beating each other up is now a part of combat and not just the world building.
The character progression succeeds partly because Horizon doesn’t need to balance itself for the breadth of “choose-your-own character” gameplay. A game like Prey doesn’t know if you’ll get to the end with a combat build, a hacking build, or a stealth build. For better and worse, that’s the legacy of Deus Ex. But in Horizon, my high level Katniss Croft will look exactly like your high level Katniss Croft. Guerilla Games knows exactly what tools we’re bringing to the party, and it can throw the party accordingly. It maintains a solid balance between stealth, combat, and dirty tricks with a smart combat system. Bombs, backstabbing, traps, thwacking, and sniping are all viable throughout.
I have some issues with the interface, but Horizon mostly gets it right. It especially deserves kudos for how it uses fast travel and minimaps. Fast travel is crucial for convenience and anathema for geography. So Horizon makes it a part of the economy. You have to craft fast travel packs. Minimaps in the corner of the screen are crucial for situational awareness and anathema to immersion. So Horizon opts out of the usual minimap and lets the terrain do the talking.
For most of what it’s doing, Horizon knows how to borrow from other designs. The Ubistuff stops just short of being too busy. The Batman detective stuff, as pointless as it is, goes by smoothly enough. The Far Cry 3 “I need a trout jaw to craft my quiver from a carrying capacity of 10 to 15 arrows” keeps things moving in enough directions to fill out the character progression. Mounts from The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption are always a gratifying way to get around. The unfortunate fact of Horizon is that most of what it does well, other games have done better, and they did it with a compelling who and where. This is the game you play after you’ve finished The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and Far Cry: Primal. It is the greatest hits compilation of open-world games. Yeah, sure, you might want to own it, but the real connoisseur has the original albums.