Horizon: Zero Dawn is by far the best Triple A game I’ve played in recent time. I could review it for you, I could explain in great lengths how gorgeous it looks, how stunning its vistas, I could explain its beautiful music, the kind that haunt you through every load screen. I could also spell out its criticisms, knock off a point or two from some arbitrary numerical score… but I won’t. Instead I’m going to tell you why this game needs to be celebrated.
A Full Story
Straight away it’s worth noting that when Horizon: Zero Dawn hit stores it was the full game. Due to positive sales, Guerilla have announced they’re working on Expansions for the game, but this will solely be extra content. The game doesn’t lock anything behind a paywall, the game doesn’t insist you need to buy a season pass, the game doesn’t punish you for not preordering. The bonus content I got, through buying the game Day One, is, as far as I can tell, access to some armour and weapons already available in the game… just a little earlier – I didn’t even use it.
There’s no extra weapons here, only available to certain people. There’s no console exclusive mission, though it would be a moot point as it’s a PlayStation exclusive. It’s staggering that this is a point worth celebrating, that we’ve come to a time when this is an exception, rather than the norm, but still. This shows that a game can do well without insisting you have to buy it day one, that you have to order it without reviews, and that you have to pay 150% just to get the full experience.
Diversity in a Loving Environment
How often do you play a game where the world doesn’t feel as fully fleshed out as it can be? Where anything outside of the story is unintentionally vague, or has little place. In Horizon the love the creators had for their story, their world, shines through in almost every aspect. Each biome you enter feels and looks remarkably different, each tribe you meet has a well-defined culture, and each village you enter reflects all of this. I could completely believe the race wars between these completely fictional tribes, I could understand the fear of outsiders, I could make sense of their beliefs. I could see how the tribes, after emerging through different environments, would behave the way they did.
This diversity extends into the Gameplay. Being a third person, open world, action role play gaming seems to be part and parcel with many Triple A’s nowadays, it’s almost being the selling point of most games and sometimes as needless as the usually tacked on multiplayer. It’s a formula that Ubisoft in particular have, not so much perfected, but have standardised, not through quality of product and more through sheer quantity. Guerrilla Games have taken this worn, overused formula and stripped it to use only some of the more necessary, and more thematically suited components. This diverts from the tick-box nature of Ubisofts game design for a game filled more with love. Yes, Horizon: Zero Dawn has those High-Climb Map Reveal Sections, though it uses them sparingly and to a good effect, Yes it has Crafting of Ammo and Carry Pouches, but it blends it seamlessly with the rest of the world. Horizon: Zero Dawn is building on the foundation of a tired formula, but it doesn’t just build upwards as much as deconstruct the unnecessary parts and fling them aside. Horizon believes in switching up the gameplay, rather than just switching up the environment/time period. The game also doesn’t tack on anything that feels thematically jarring. The activities you do, outside of the main quests, all feel realistic in regards to the worlds lore. Your hunting quests are part of a hunters lodge, your exploration is part of discovering the history of the world… The game keeps you interested by diversifying the activities you do, but whilst never making you feel like you’re leaving the world behind to take part in these.
The game also diversifies with the enemies it sets you up against; the humans and the machines. Whilst the humans never really change, and are about as samey and bland as the combat can get, the thrill of discovering new machines and learning how to combat them an experience akin to nothing else in the Triple A game space.
On top of that, during these combat sections you’re given a selection of different tools, from bows with different types of arrows, to ropes and traps with different effects; the game lets you take on the enemies your way, it lets you pick off their weak points. Do you freeze them and make them brittle? Do you tie them down so you can strike with a melee attack? Do you lay traps and lure them into it? The diversity in both opponent and method make for thematic gameplay that doesn’t get as old as quickly.
Post-Apocalyptic Gender Roles
Speaking of diversity… I can’t say I, personally, have seen Gender dealt with quite as well (in a Triple A title!) as Horizon: Zero Dawn, and that’s mainly because the issue isn’t an issue, and it’s never addressed as one. Aloy, our main character and clear candidate as a face for Sonys future, is a once outcast, turned hero with a mysterious background and destiny. I don’t need to mention here, that Aloy is a woman, nor does it truly get mentioned in the plot. She is never really looked down upon for being a woman, never treated any differently by her peers. Times when her abilities are brought into question, it is done so because of her age, or because of her place in the society (First as an outcast of one tribe, then as a visitor to other). By the end of the game, it becomes clear that Aloy is absolutely respected by her peers, her tribes, and even her enemies; to many she is regarded as the best.
I also noted during my gameplay, that this equal use of gender is frequent through all NPCs; from your enemies to the people you meet. I was actually surprised to be fighting some of the faceless enemies to be met by female screams. Normal enemies of different body sizes. It was nice to play a game where you weren’t just fighting men, or where the female role wasn’t reserved to scantily clad ninjas (I’m looking at you Batman Arkham Series). I find it shocking that something like this is actually so jarring, when it should really be the norm.
And on that note, it was refreshing to find that the outfits you choose for Aloy do little at all to sexualise her, seeming to favour a more practical approach of protecting her from the elements rather than insist that wearing less is equal to more defence. It gave me the sense that Aloy was a real person, not a sexualised object as many (poorly handled) female characters seem to become.
It’s also true if when you start looking at the male figures in the game – really the amount of subverted tropes in this piece is fascinating. Sure, you have Rost, your big lovable father figure, just as you have at tribe lead by the words of wise Matriarchs. This is fantasy after all, so it’s nice to have some non-offensive stables there. However, there’s also a male side character who gives up becoming a warrior, to pursue the life of a tailor, there’s a King who is thoughtful, considerate, sure of himself but still willing to take council. One of the main side characters is a man who, put simply, seems like a normal guy, struggling to live in his sisters shadow, and set his own example in the process. This is a game with no expected male/female roles. Where characters just feel fleshed out, even in their minor interactions. This is Bioware level character design (though sadly I’m referring to Bioware of the past). I often say a game will win me by its characters, it’s certainly true of any big RPG, and I am glad to say Horizon doesn’t fall short.
This Isn’t a Love Story
Building on the gender roles, the NPCs we spend most our time with in this game are not potential love interests for Aloy. Sure, they flirt at times, some more subtly than others, but Aloy never maximises on these advances. This drives home that she isn’t a character who is sexualised, nor is she a character that has to be completed by her partnership to another. I say Another, rather than favouring a Heterosexual interpretation, as due to this lack of Romantic Subplot, Aloys sexual identity is left up for interpretation. Does she ignore the flirtatious comments of her male peers, because she’s not interested in men? Or because she’s just not interested period. Some women make the same advancements and are met with just as little reciprocation. I like to think she is just here to get the job done, a warrior with a purpose, with no time to fall in love or at least no time to act upon interest.
This is a big deal to me, as so many games/stories try to push a romance option. Hell, even films try to squeeze in unnecessary love stories. Do they have a place? Of course! But do they have a place in everything? Nope!
The Biggest Point Worth Making.
It’s a new IP… does anymore need to be said? In a world where companies are so eager to create sequel after sequel or, when reaching exhaustion, reboot after reboot, it’s refreshing to play a game full of new ideas. Combine that with all my previous points together and, well, this is a truly beautiful piece of work. Here you have a game, that isn’t just a new IP, it has a Female Lead, it has equal gender roles, it utilises existing mechanics without fear of leaving behind what doesn’t work and improving on what does. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that is sure of the experience it intends to bring to the player, and delivers it. This is a powerful message to every games company out there, it’s a message to investors making decisions simply to ensure profits. Horizon: Zero Dawn topped the UK chart, it was wildly received as a great game. When a game shy’s away from female leads, this proves that doesn’t matter. When a game only wants to feature big burly men, doing big burly men things, this shows there’s more diverse room to manoeuvre. This shows that a game can be brand new and, as long as it’s given the attention and love it deserves, the people will lap it up and insist on more. It showed that a game, with all these pieces in place, can be worthy of making DLC for and thus increasing future profits… rather than the other way around.
There we have it, 5 reasons Horizon: Zero Dawn should be celebrated. Do you agree? Anything else you think it should be celebrated for? Let me know in the comments below!