Saturday 31 March 2018

Opinion: Horizon Zero Dawn - A beautiful but familiar experience

Horizon Zero Dawn
Beautiful but familiar
As of February 2018, Horizon Zero Dawn, the open-world action-roleplaying game developed by Killzone creators Guerrilla Games, has sold 7.6 million copies worldwide. Not only has it amassed some impressive sales figures; the overall critical consensus has been "generally favourable" according to Metacritic, where it currently holds a score of 89/100.

It seems then that with Horizon Zero Dawn critics and gamers agree that the PlayStation 4 exclusive is one of the systems most outstanding titles. Indeed, aside from the critical praise and impressive sales numbers, Horizon Zero Dawn has won a host of 'Game of the Year Awards' from some of the industries most respectable outlets.

So, after recently finishing Horizon Zero Dawn, why do I feel like I'm the only one who didn't enjoy a game which everyone appears to hold so dear? Why didn't it captivate me as much as I thought it would?

Horizon Zero Dawn
The premise of Horizon Zero Dawn ticks every single box of my interests. I enjoy Sci-fi, and I love open-world games. An excellent example of those two genres combined is the original Mass Effect trilogy on the PS3, which is still one of my favourites.

Like Mass Effect, a science fiction fantasy twined in an open-world setting should leave Horizon Zero Dawn with very little to do to engross me for hours on end. But for some reason, it didn't hold my interest for that long. Truthfully, it was at around the ten-hour mark where I felt that my overall enjoyment of it had peaked.

Now, that's in stark contrast to say, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which kept me going for well over three hundred hours. Hell, I'd happily start playing it now just to explore and search for side quests I may have missed. As for other open-world titles; I completed Skyrim twice on the PS3. Fallout 3, I finished twice. And its successor, Fallout 4, took me more than 200 hours to exhaust. With Mass Effect, I have no idea how long I spent as Commander Shepard, but it must have been in a surplus of two hundred hours. The GTA series, again, I never got tired and can gladly play it anew. Going back further, Shenmue 1 and 2, both utterly fascinated me.

But with Horizon Zero Dawn, I couldn't even get past ten hours without feeling like the whole game was a chore. And unlike the games mentioned previously; I don't ever see myself replaying it. I've been thinking hard as to why this is. It's taken me several days to figure something out, and although I probably still don't know the entire reason, I have managed to come up with some kind of rationale.

Perhaps it's because I've seen it all before.

Horizon Zero Dawn
Now to be fair, the open-world concept is slowly getting worn down. As stated in my Shadow of War review, it's only the Middle-earth games that have recently done something unique in the genre thanks to the Nemesis System. Usually, though, the conventional approach to an open-world game is to make a big world and fill it with lots of content. Pretty simple. However, to make that work the material that fills each world must be engaging. Other than having utterly gorgeous visuals, there must be a reason to explore.

While playing Horizon Zero Dawn, all I kept thinking was "I've seen this before." Suffice to say, it all felt too similar. From the off, when the protagonist Aloy finds her focus, it summons her to participate in detective work identical to that seen in the Batman Arkham trilogy. Once she's given free reign to explore her surroundings, tagging enemies and liberating outposts like in the Far Cry series becomes a possibility.

While, on the subject of Ubisoft's flagship series, Horizon Zero Dawn does a much better job with its version of Far Cry's 'radio towers', by instead making you scale enormous moving robotic dinosaurs, each one providing a distinct challenge from the next.

However, on the whole, Horizon Zero Dawn's side-quests didn't excite me. The main narrative is decent enough, especially as it nears its conclusion. But captivating side-quests are what any great open-world game should have in abundance. In Horizon, they all felt like filler; like they exist as something to do for the sake of it.

In other open-world games, for example, The Witcher 3; each side quest felt like a vital component to the overall story. The same applies to the Fallout series, especially Fallout 3. And in Mass Effect, I felt compelled to stray away from the main storyline to establish relationships with my crew, knowing that any decision I made would have massive repercussions later on in the story.

Horizon Zero Dawn
Both Geralt and Shepard were likeable personas, and I enjoyed embodying them throughout both The Witcher and Mass Effect. With Aloy, I found her to be somewhat of a wearisome heroine, with little personality. To be fair, perhaps that's more to do with the script being tedious. There was never a time (not that I remember anyway) where we got to see Aloy's real personality shine through. Granted, the earlier scenes with Rost when she was a child were entertaining but other than that; I found her company somewhat stale.

Alas, there's only so much a vast, sumptuous open-world can do when the content of it is so mundane. Yes, there are a plethora of robotic animals to lock your proverbial horns with and unlike The Witcher 3 and Mass Effect, the fighting mechanics in Horizon Zero Dawn are rather good. However, it quickly becomes infiltrating when you're trying to transit from one area of the map to the other and keep getting blindsided by enemies that require a substantial amount of time to deal with.

Now, my gripe with the combat isn't due to its occasional complexity (there are options to tone it down if you wish), but more to do with its repetitiveness. At first, stalking, fighting and taming the machines feels unknown and exciting, but after a while, it becomes incredibly time-consuming, and like the coma-inducing dialogue, it goes on way longer than it should.

Fundamentally, Horizon Zero Dawn feels like a mish-mash of all my favourite open-world games in one. Almost as if Guerrilla Games scooped up all the best open-world titles in the market, threw them in a blender and then placed the remains inside a visually astonishing environment.

Horizon Zero Dawn
I wanted to love Horizon Zero Dawn, and although it may seem like the opposite; I do like it to a degree. I just don't think it's as good as several other open-world adventures. Overall, it hasn't brought anything to the genre that hasn't already been seen before. Is it a 10/10 game? In my opinion, it's far from it.

Naturally, my feelings are entirely subjective, and I completely understand why people adore it. And I must say that Guerrilla Games deserve a hell of a lot of praise for what was their first foray into the open-world genre. They created a visual masterpiece; there's no disputing that.

Ultimately, though, I wish I can say that I'd love to go back and play Horizon Zero Dawn one more time but aside from marvelling at the visuals, I don't think I'll get any satisfaction by acquainting myself with Aloy for a second time.

Twitter: @JimColesy