It took me a very long time to get through this game. Everyone said that the story sticks the landing, so I stuck it out too. They were right. Horizon Zero Dawn has a fantastic story and beautiful enough cut-scenes to be a great animated movie. It’s the gameplay that I’m not too sold on, both in comparison to its open world contemporaries like The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild, or even as a standalone franchise.
There’s something not sticky enough about Horizon‘s combat. It always feels loose and lackadaisical. Critical hits and type advantages never seem to do enough damage. Every combat mission is basically the same, so it’s never clear whether it might be wise to use a blast sling, a tripcaster or even my melee staff. That’s up to my discretion, but unlike in Arkham Knight, my multitude of gadgetry feels more like a utility belt packed with balloon animals. Fights with big beasts, the selling point of the game, are often brutal and tedious affairs. Beasts are the post-apocalyptic equivalent of bullet sponges, eating arrows and bombs until you’ve brought up your scanner and pinpointed their weak points.
The scanner is really lousy too. It’s like Arkham Knight‘s detective vision, but it slows your movement speed considerably, so you can’t effectively use it mid-combat. You have to be crouched nearby, in pre-fight surveillance. This would all be well and good if the weak points on the beasts stayed highlighted. That effect fades. Rather than sending out a pulse mid-fight like the scanner in The Division, the scanner in Horizon oddly segments strategy and combat into stages. That would be functional in a game that felt strategic, but at the end of the day you’re still firing a hundred arrows into a giant robot crab.
The story is really, really good though. Don’t let my gripes about the combat fool you. It is an epic sci-fi tale with heart. Things start slow, but get considerably better by the three-quarter mark. That being said, the dialogue is not as strong as the story, often sounding wooden and awkward. There aren’t any memorable laughs or real moments of levity. Usually the game’s humor is grim, a cynical reminder of mankind’s weakness. Likewise our hero Aloy is a humorless, by-the-numbers, future-cavewoman-detective. Aside from Aloy, the only vaguely interesting performance comes from Sylens, an uncanny valley version of Lance Reddick who is constantly encouraging you to succeed while chastising you for doing it wrong.
A great game like The Phantom Pain feels like a buffet compared to the minuscule ill-sustaining meal prepared by Horizon Zero Dawn. There the gameplay was the meat. Each location was a chance to open up your toolbox and be creative. The gameplay loop of Horizon boils down to hoarding plants and fire arrows and walking through the bushes to your next destination. Aside from the story, everything in Horizon: Zero Dawn was better when John Marsden did it eight years ago.