The Witcher 3 is arguably one of the greatest games ever made. At least from a narrative and world building standpoint. I poured nearly 100 hours into that game and felt that I had barely scratched the surface. The sheer breadth of content in that game is staggering to the point of being intimidating. And the content wasn’t saturated with collect-a-thons but rather actually felt more “alive” if that makes any sense. CD Projekt Red had perfected in crafting a world that was deep in lore, characters, politics, and atmosphere. A world that was as intricate as it was massive. It seemed that this game truly was the pinnacle of excellence in open-world games and that every game to come after it would be undoubtedly compared to it. And that’s where reviewing a game like Horizon: Zero Dawn becomes ever so tough.
Horizon: Zero Dawn, is a game made by Killzone creators Guerrilla Games. It’s a game that had me in awe from start to finish. And a game that I didn’t want to leave. It’s the only game that, with my current schedule and ever-growing backlog of games, where I intentionally prolonged my dive into the final mission to continue exploring and side-questing. Even after 50 hours, having gotten over 80% of the trophies, reaching the level-cap, and collected practically every damn ancient coffee mug, I still kept making excuses to avoid the final mission of the game.
Where Horizon Falls, and The Witcher Excels: Narrative & World-Building
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt encapsulated me with its world and characters. Even though I had never played the previous games or read the books, I felt I knew what this world was about. I understood the goals of each character – whom were fantastically written and wonderfully multi-dimensional – and their relationship with one another. I loved the politics in every region, and how they compared to the others and your role and how you decided to handle each situation. But what captivated me most was the incredible depth of each and every side quest. What would start off as you simply going to search for a missing son of a worried mother in a small village, would turn into an entire, possibly multiple hour narrative tangent. Almost every side quest had a purpose, and characters that were interesting.
Horizon both succeeds, but also falls short when it comes to its narrative and world.
You play as Aloy (and I don’t understand the uproar about her name, I think it’s fine and even quite interesting), an outcast of her tribe, The Nora, raised as a huntress by her father-figure Rost. The world of Horizon is a fascinating one. This post-post-apocalyptic land has humans living in primitive states, where they live in tribal culture, separated by regions and ruled by the Sun-King Avad. The big twist of course is that…well…there are mother-f*cking robot dinosaurs! Yes, the only living remnants of the past civilization – or as the characters refer to them as, “The Old Ones” – are technologically advanced robotic creatures that live in the wild. I want to talk more about these creatures as they are easily the best part of the game but I’ll do so more in the gameplay section. When I first started Horizon, my jaw-dropped by how ridiculously beautiful it was. Let me say this now and I can’t emphasize this enough:
Horizon: Zero Dawn is the most visually beautiful game I have ever had the pleasure of playing. It is a feat in technology and nothing even comes close from a technical, graphical point of view.
For the first few hours of the game you are closed to a small section of the game, and though I was stunned by how incredible the game looks, I then started to focus on the other things that make the world come alive. My first walkthrough of the main village in Nora was a very pleasing one. I was happy to see how versatile the NPC’s were. They were interacting with each other, some playing music, others drunk and causing problems. Children playing, the hustle and bustle, and everyone preparing for The Proving – a competition of sorts where Aloy must win in order to rid her state as an outcast and become a Nora and find out the truth about who her mother is. After a series of events, you progress beyond “The Sacred Lands” and then have the entire map open to you.
This is where my comparisons to The Witcher 3 come in and my initial wonder-tinted glasses were replaced with a more critical pair. The game has its own versions of Radio Towers and Bandit Camps, and other video gamey things, which are all fun and good, but the issue is, as soon as I finished exploring the map of this world – which is definitely large, but reasonable – I felt a sense of…emptiness. Every new village or town I went to, they all muddle together. There was no real sense of character in the places I visited. That smile I got when I initially saw all those lively NPC’s in the main village of the initial region, was never seen again as I realized that, that was only the case for that specific moment in the opening game, and that the NPC’s and character that the town had, was not imminent when I returned later on. I remember every time I went to a new place in The Witcher 3 I was constantly walking around, observing people, the architecture, the music, and the paintings. Everything was different, every time. Yes the capital city in Horizon, Meridian, is beautiful in its architecture and design; but it feels hollow. Each village or town had the same generic guards, and same generic NPC’s doing the same generic routines. Sure a couple of them might differ with what they’re wearing, but that’s about it. I felt like I was simply walking through a Hollywood set with a few actors playing a few parts, instead of actually feeling like this place exists.
i felt like i was simply walking through a hollywood set with a few actors playing a few parts, instead of actually feeling like this place exists
In terms of Side Quests, Horizon does offer you a decent number of them instead of bludgeoning you with thousands of meaningless tasks given by every damn NPC. However, out of the dozens of quests I’ve done for a number of different characters, I can only think of a couple that stand out. And that’s less because of the actual quest itself and more because of the characters you do them for. There were times when the story of the character was interesting, but the execution and writing was not. And this can be said for the larger side quests as well. There were many characters that seemed very interesting during our initial encounters, and the writing was quite well structured and gave these characters more…well, character. But your time with these larger characters is only a couple hours long. Your time with them would last for a couple missions, and then, that’s it. And so when a few of them come back suddenly at the very end for the final fight, it was a little jarring as I didn’t feel that I connected or even knew them as well as the game wanted me to. This goes heavily for this one character named Sona, who plays a War Chief in Nora. She’s an enticing character who’s so interesting, and is brilliantly written and acted – and to have a character of her strength be both represented and acted by an African American women, is fantastic – and yet, we only spend one measly mission with her. And never get a chance to even interact with her afterwards. Moreover there was never really a surprising moment in the open world in terms of a narrative tangent. In both The Witcher and a game like Red Dead Redemption there were moments where I’d simply be moseying along the trail where all of a sudden a random character needs my help. And sometimes these moments would result in a full-on quest that had twists and turns that you’d never expect. These were the moments I were looking for in Horizon but never got.
And it really is a shame because I feel that Aloy as a character has slowly become one of my favourites in recent memory. She’s smart, witty, sarcastic, passionate, curious, and flawed; and not to mention a total badass who doesn’t need to wear a tight tank-top while being so. And Ashley Birch does a fantastic job voicing her. But I feel that, just like how Aloy feels out of place in this world, it’s supplemented by the subpar relationships she has with every other character due to the lack of content, interactions, and writing surrounding them.
Speaking more towards the main story, however, this is where things do get much better. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but will say that the history of how this world came to be is done impeccably. If there is one area where Horizon can compete with The Witcher 3 in terms of narrative, it is with its main plot. The twists and revelations that you find towards the latter half of the game is brilliantly done. And the amount of incredible writing that come in the form of audio-logs and journal entries – things that I usually despise in games – explaining further about the circumstances of characters that existed in the past civilization are so great to delve into and unravel.
Where Horizon Excels, and The Witcher Falls: Gameplay & Combat Mechanics
Gameplay and combat mechanics. This. This is where Horizon excels. And not by an inch, but a mile. This is what kept me playing this game for over 50 hours and wanting more. And this is the reason I had trouble continuing to play The Witcher 3.
Horizon plays like a cocktail of some of the best games. Its main combat stems from elements of the Souls games, but also has the satisfaction of the melee combat of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and even takes a lot of the stealth and trap mechanics of the Metal Gear series. And it’s here where you will spend hours mastering its combat mechanics. Because this game, though not as soul burning-ly difficult as Dark Souls, is challenging. Especially when fighting against these large electric, quadrupedal dinobot behemoths. But once you start getting the hang of things, facing these beasts is nothing short of thrilling. Each encounter is different. It requires thought, timing, and precision. You can’t simply mash the melee button or shoot a bunch of arrows and expect to win. There are a number of mechanics you must understand before you fight.
Aloy has a bunch of toys at her disposal (and no that’s not a dildo joke, get your mind outta there, ya pervy f*cks). From different types of arrows for different types of enemies, to elemental traps (fire, shock, blast), to an incredibly useful rope-blaster that ties your enemy down for a certain amount of time, to throwing bombs, and so on. And each group of enemies will have points of weaknesses that will be weak against different elements or different types of arrows. You also will learn to use your lance to override enemies, which basically rewires them for a small amount of time to fight alongside you. And the more caves you explore – or in this case, Cauldrons – the more enemies you will be able to override. Speaking of enemies, there are so many different types of beasts in this world. All of them inspired by real life creators. From little robot dinosaurs, to fully sized T-Rex’, to Bulls, to Alligators, to even turkey’s, whom by the way, can f*ck right off. (Seriously, screw Longlegs).
Everything about the beasts are incredible. They’re designed impeccably, and are very smart and react to your play-style. The human enemies on the other hand…not so much. They’re simply okay in terms of their AI and overall design. You can find a hiding spot, whistle them over one by one and tick them off one at a time. And even when the pile of bodies grow larger beside you, none of them seem to notice. But they’re involvement is minor, so you can continue enjoying having adrenaline filled bouts with the fantastic beasts.
I can’t say enough about the combat in this game. It’s nearly perfect. From how Aloy feels to control, to the aiming controls, to dodging, it’s all very smooth and a joy to play.
Sometimes the camera does get in the way, but that’s a minor gripe. This is where The Witcher 3 was very disappointing for me. Geralt seemed to enjoy twirling more than hitting, and when he did there seemed to be a lack of “impact satisfaction” in the game. I didn’t like the potion system for swords and Geralts spells were sometimes simply not helpful. There was much to be desired from the combat and overall gameplay of The Witcher 3 in my opinion, and is definitely the highest point for Horizon.
My biggest issue with Horizon in terms of gameplay, however, is its heavy reliance on crafting and health system. You have to craft EVERYTHING. From arrows, to potions, to ammunition for other weapons, to everything else. And it’s never just one thing you need, when you need to craft what you want, you need MULTIPLE of MULTIPLE items, which aren’t always the easiest to find. And because of this you also reach the cap for your resources inventory, and managing that can be a huge pain. In regards to the health system, this game doesn’t have regenerating health; which is totally fine, except that potions aren’t easy to come or to craft, and the other way to recover health is by picking up plants, which give you barely anything. And when you’re fighting every 5 minutes, and enemies can take quite a large chunk of your health away with each hit; the whole process can get quite tedious. At least let my health recover at a save spot ya f*cks.
Lastly, and I almost forgot about this, which goes to show how much it matters in the game. There are dialog options in the game. Which is completely fine and good when you simply are talking to the character and want to know more information. But Guerrilla Games added the whole Mass Effect style: “choose to reply smart, with kindness, or aggressive” which sounds interesting, but the problem is, these options are few and far between and moreover, don’t have any effect to the game, making them a tad pointless. It creates a sense of false agency, trying to make you connect to the Aloy you want to be, but doesn’t really come through.
I adore both these games. Guerrilla Games have delivered in giving us a fresh new IP that looks stunning, has a protagonist that’s both relatable, but also multi-faceted; and has created gameplay and combat mechanics that’s a fast, enthralling, and fluid jambalaya of inspiration from some of the best mechanics of some of the best games. Its narrative and overall immersion of its world fades in comparison to CD Projekt Red’s behemoth; as The Witcher 3 had many more narrative highs and fantastic side characters, as well as intricacies in its massive world that, combined with its beautiful soundtrack, simply captivate you and make you feel as though you are walking in it.
It may not be able to dethrone it yet, but Horizon: Zero Dawn is a magnificent adventure, and one every PS4 owner needs to embark on.