Horizon Zero Dawn Design Review – Hype meets reality

I’m Kinglink and this week I want to look at Horizon Zero Dawn. Ok, it is not even that I wanted to dive deep on this one, but this game has been out a long time on PS4 and I kept hearing about it, it is now on PC, but… this is the great PS4 title everyone was raving about?

Let me start by saying I’m coming to this game in 2020, I’ve heard about it for over 3 years as Playstation fans bragged about what a killer title this is in their console war. Multiple critics have raved about Horizon Zero Dawn, and I was ready for a Sony masterpiece… I don’t know if I got that.

I think we need to do a little leg work here. First, I need to have a disclosure. I worked at Sony for 6 years, on the MLB team, I worked on 7 shipped titles of MLB, I had no contact with outside studios, though I think also at another point my resume did reach Guerilla Games through a recruiter in Europe. Neither of these should matter for my video on this game, but I feel I should make that clear so you can best judge my content.

Second, I played this on Steam, that’s why this video is coming in 2020. But I experienced only one technical issue with the PC version, the performance for the game was terrible after the shaders were compiled. I dislike the idea of compiling shaders myself, almost no other game does that, but ok. It feels like the developer isn’t familiar with PCs… which yeah this is Sony’s first port in a while, disappointing but I hope they try again. And It sounds like the one issue that affected me has been fixed in patch 1.04, fine, it wasn’t even a serious issue. So I’m unable to do a deep dive into the port’s qualities.

I also want to say I enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn, this video is not intended to be controversial, or rage baiting. I try to look at games fairly, but I have issues with Horizon Zero Dawn. Before we get into the meat of my thoughts on it. Let me just go over some larger pieces, that I probably could do another 20 minutes on or more.

The story in Horizon Zero Dawn is great at times, especially with the reveals of why the world is the way it is. The story isn’t told amazingly and there are several what I call false choices in the dialog tree, but in general, I liked the story.

The first five to ten hours, where Aloy, the main character, grows from a young girl to a woman and then tries out for the tribe is excellent, and most games would skip those moments to get to the big conflict in the game. However, those moments are perhaps the best in Horizon Zero Dawn, and if the game was only that section, I’d understand where people were coming from. That was just a fantastic opening, and well worthy of praise.

The robot enemies as well are amazing and feel fresh. Seeing multiple robots in beautiful detail and interacting with them is a thing of beauty. They are a fresh new enemy in an industry that tends not to innovate on what you attack. Yes, they’re still robots, but they’re interesting looking and acting and make the combat better.

The graphics are excellent, Horizon Zero Dawn just looks gorgeous. I am running this on a 2070, and it shines. Part of that is that the world also is beautiful with tons of vistas and locations to see, but another part of it is that just a huge level of technical prowess for the team.

I’m not going too deep into these because most reviewers have said it all before. Horizon Zero Dawn is a solid game… but I still struggle with the game itself and the experience so let’s talk about that design.

Let me start with a perfect example. Now again, the combat in Horizon Zero Dawn is solid and fighting enemies can be incredible. Every enemy has weak points that can be damaged and removed. That isn’t a perk, but the intended purpose of the combat. Not targeting weak points takes entirely too long and too many resources and much of the game points you towards these weak points.

Battles with players fighting one on one with a medium or large-sized normal enemy with the right gear are some of the best moments of gaming I’ve had.

But if you were listening closely, there’s a lot of qualifiers there. One on One, because adding too many enemies into combat, such as two or three medium or large enemies can be overwhelming.

Normal Enemies, because there are corrupted versions of enemies that feel like just an overcomplication of the formula.

And the right gear because different weapons and tiers of weapons have different attacks and the variety of attacks will help you quite a bit at times.

Here’s just one battle. This was an early battle where I was fighting against multiple Flame Bellowbacks, one of the first enemies that I found that became overwhelming. Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t as fun when you have to deal with a crowd of enemies. When you fight a crowd of the small enemies you can usually quickly dispatch those, but larger enemies become a pain.

There are solutions. Players can tie down one of the enemies or use various traps, but to me, crowd control classes never interested me in MMOs, and I haven’t grown to love them anymore here. You could also play heavily stealthy, but… that becomes a hit and run or another form of the crowd control style as well. Having to manage enemies isn’t as interesting as tackling a single enemy at a time.

Another possibility is to override one of the enemies, the quick version of overriding is an ability which lets you turn any enemy into a friendly unit for a decent amount of time. If you have that ability for a type of monster that would be a solution. The problem is that it turns an interesting fight where you have to handle two monsters, into sitting back and watching Godzilla and Gamera duke it out, or you assist your friendly unit and easily beat the enemy. That works, but it removes the combat all together until you get a heavily weakened enemy

I also think the combat isn’t that fun after you take down three or four of the same enemy as well. They just become routine where you use a specific attack, aim for a specific weak point, or use a specific series of arrows to neutralize enemies.

Combat has another problem. There are clear winners and losers in the discussion. If you want to be a warrior or barbarian and push Melee attacks, that’s not going to work well here, at least not until the very end of the game, and melee is still a limited strategy.

The opposite problem is found with the Concentration Mode offered by the game. You click a stick and time slows down. It sounds useful but its use is mandatory, I doubt players could have avoided using this on the PS4, but on PC, maybe Keyboard and Mouse players will have better luck. You’re going to be using that slowdown mode a lot, it’s a required feature.

I just personally feel the combat which is excellent when fighting a single monster lacks something when there are larger groups and at times you will have to fight larger groups like the corrupted areas. Most of the main missions avoid this or give you ways to avoid tackling two enemies head-on, but other parts of the game will require this at times.

I’m leaving a lot out here but my issue is not the ways that you can fight, but rather that the open-world format works best when more variety is offered. If melee, bows, bombs, and ropes could all be used, players can choose their strategies. Of course, not every strategy would have to work for every enemy, but there’s not the same open nature of the combat here.

Just as a quick example of what I would be hoping for, try to think of GTA where there’s usually multiple ways to take out targets, whether it be normal shooting, vehicular combat, drive-bys, rocket launchers, even remote control bombs can have their place. This is not to say GTA is better I think for a single encounter Horizon Zero Dawn is a far better system, it is just that one you find your secret sauce for the combat in Horizon Zero Dawn that will work for almost the rest of the game and there’s not as much fun in exploring other forms of combat because most don’t work out.

Moving on the second area I want to focus on is the economy, or rather the lack of it. Now I want to start by saying, I applaud Horizon Zero Dawn. This is a sixty dollar title that has no microtransactions at all. It has a SINGLE piece of DLC, which is a decent-sized expansion and is included with the PC game. Kudos, I want to take a moment here for this because, sadly, this is becoming a rarity, and you know, I appreciate that. Let’s give some applause.

Applause over. Why the hell are there loot boxes in this game? Like seriously? Loot freaking boxes? I hate loot boxes as I dislike microtransactions and they come hand in hand… except not here. I don’t think there was a nefarious plot to one day try to monetize this game… I think there is something else at the core here, bad design.

A quick side note, some people call these any term to avoid calling them loot boxes. Listen they are randomized items, known as loot, in boxes that you open. To be clear, call them what you want, my issue is not with loot boxes. The real issue with loot boxes is the microtransaction that inevitably comes with them. My issue here is this loot system is weak.

Let me give my quick theory on why Horizon Zero Dawn has loot boxes because I think there’s a reason. The player has a limited number of resources, gear, and upgrades you can carry. If you had a full pouch of resources, you might beat a mission and be given some rare resources but can’t carry them, and then… what happens?

There were so many options that could be made. Give a bonus space that is removed at the first opportunity. Allow players to rearrange their inventory on the quest completion screen. Have resources you can’t carry right now delivered to any merchant, a specific chest, or a home base system. There’s a lot of ways this could be solved.

Instead, you get a loot box, and you can carry a … well, an infinite number of them?

As I started the game, a cynical part of me thought this was designed to make players more agreeable to microtransactions in the future and accepting of loot boxes in any game, and maybe that’s the goal but after finishing the game, they did a terrible job. You’ve been watching me open loot boxes on the screen, this is every loot box that was given in my entire playthrough. I only opened three during gameplay and they had very specific loot.

The thing is the loot here is freaking TERRIBLE, not only is most of this loot almost trash quality, there’s very little purpose to have any of them. The loot boxes are neither interesting nor important to open and I never felt the need. About halfway through my playthrough I realized, this was just a design to try to deal with giving players random loot when they also had a full inventory. The real problem with this choice is there’s no enjoyment for getting or opening these boxes because it is all generic items.

So I think typical loot boxes are bad because they’re manipulative and try to push people towards microtransactions. I think the loot boxes in Horizon Zero Dawn are also bad, but mostly because they’re uninteresting rewards for quests. And before you ask if there’s a better solution, I think there is.

You see, there’s also a level system in Horizon Zero Dawn. But the thing is, I don’t love that system either. In fact level systems tend to be on my hit list, but not today. However, the skill points and system that is the purpose of that level system doesn’t work. The skills feel very detached from Aloy and her progression. She just gets random points, and as you get more points, you can unlock four skills and get something special.

But what if each side quest and main quest gave Aloy a skill that she could use for the rest of the playthrough. Suddenly, tackling the sidequests has additional value because it helps Aloy become a more skilled warrior. Some of the quests could tie into the offered skills, and the quest giver could now become a valued part of the story of Aloy because they helped her on her larger quest. There’s also the possibility of longer quest lines that give specialized or powerful equipment. I’d love to see that.

If you hate the idea of having to find a specific quest giver, then make the rewards for quests be the skill points themselves rather than experience points, but I think earning specific skills would be more interesting if the skill felt like a part of the story.

There are early quests that do this, including the first trip to a Cauldron, where Alloy gets the power to override. This is one of the most important skills in the game, and it came from a quest progression. Getting specific gear, outfits, and skills would make each quest feel far more rewarding than they are now. The stories themselves in the quests are good, but the result is what is lacking.

Instead of meaningful progression, Horizon Zero Dawn gives generic XP, and even more generic loot. That means you gain a level and get some skill points, but both of those are gameplay systems, rather than a tangible reward that Aloy could earn.

Both the loot and the skill systems feel empty and having the ability to carry all the boxes and select skills break the immersion the game has built for itself.

The economy itself relies on players getting specific loot which combined with the main currency of the game that allows you to buy better weapons and armor. The issue is players can buy those top tier bows relatively early in the game. The real challenge is getting to a specific city that doesn’t take too long if you know where it is, and then taking down specific enemies for the right loot, which also is relatively easy, especially as you gain more and more of these top tier weapons.

The thing is, there’s very little feeling of progression outside of the artificial skill tree that just involves leveling up and getting skill points. Players will also have to go to Cauldrons levels to earn new overrides for new enemies but that’s it. The progression of Aloy feels like it drops off a cliff quickly.

The open-world aspects of Horizon Zero Dawn also feel weak. What does an open-world game have? Towers to climb, they’re here, though this time they’re moving beasts, they’re moving beasts you can’t anger or damage, so they’re just moving towers. There is a change where they’re helpful but not required except for a trophy.

There are tons of collectibles, but even collecting a group of them gives you… a loot box again. Some of the collectibles are interesting but many of them loot a specific pile or item. The story collectibles, such as what happened before the collapse of the world are the ones worth hunting but the others are just because you need collectibles in an open world for something to do.

The world is beautiful and vibrant and filled with locations to explore. This is what I wanted from Death Stranding, and it works here. But with maps of collectibles practically given away for free, there’s not a ton of reasons to explore, mostly due to the weak collectibles.

Everything that Horizon Zero Dawn does well is not because it’s an open-world game. If this game was completely linear, much of the praise I have for it would remain and increase.

I think in a way studios are moving to open-world formats for a few reasons, and the big one is that they sell well, have a large amount of playtime, and is a reason for a studio to get a massive budget and headcount. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but. I don’t know.

Maybe I’m getting burnt out. I’ve counted up my list and would say I played or talked about at least 10, maybe 15, open-world games this year, that’s more than 1 a month. I like the idea of open-world games, but it has become a format that’s popular yet it feels like a majority of them go through the motions and Horizon Zero Dawn feels like that.

But what bothers me more is the amount of hype around this game and maybe there’s a reason, but it is not a good one. Listen. If you love Horizon Zero Dawn, that’s perfectly fine, there’s nothing truly terrible about this game and it could be improved on but it works. But similar to Guerilla’s previous franchise Killzone, I don’t fully get the love. Or maybe I do. Because I don’t get the love of Halo either, especially of that original trilogy, and I keep hearing how amazing Gears is, but after the first one…

You see I think we’re talking about the console war here. I don’t want to dive headfirst into this topic today, but I feel that Killzone, Horizon Zero Dawn, Halo, and Gears get touted as amazing games, more because people want to defend their side in the console war. That’s a horrible thing, because… it just feels like it is impossible to hear about exclusives and not wonder if the hype is real, or just fans trying to win for their chosen team.

Two final points I want to bring up. Many of my issues for Horizon Zero Dawn were fixed by the DLC, The Frozen Wilds, so I am interested to see if they can turn this series around and deliver on the sequel. In case anyone wants to say I’m just a biased PC gamer. I want all of Sony’s games on PC, especially Spider-man which is oh so worthy of the hype, and for Xbox, both Ori games, especially Blind Forest is incredible and worth playing.

That’s what I have for Horizon Zero Dawn. So what do you think, am I being too hard, or is Horizon Zero Dawn just a little overhyped? What hype have you bought into that turned out to be false?

If you’ve made it this far, I’ve done something right, so consider clicking the subscribe button and ringing that bell to see what I post next even if you want to just hate-watch it. Or maybe share this video with someone who you think will enjoy it as well.

Because this wasn’t controversial enough, next time I’ll be talking positively about… EA. Clearly, I’m trying to get burned at the stake.

I’m going to pop up two videos here. First up this was Sony so let’s talk about Death Stranding as well. And second up. I’m going to throw it back to the beginning of this year to one of my last real reviews, and talk about the Xbox exclusive Sunset Overdrive.

Until then I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.

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