By Harold Goldberg
Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to share meals with Guerrilla Games’ Herman Hulst three times. Each time, the managing director of Guerrilla said that Horizon: Zero Dawn, the studio’s lurid, optimistic twist on post-apocalyptic science fiction, would include a narrative that’s so much better than those in his team’s previous series, Killzone. Those three games never had a plot that was stellar, and the dialog was sometimes even worse. Even the best of the trio, Killzone 2, would never win an award for compelling story. They were shooters first, and adding BioShock-strong stories to bigger budget shooters wasn’t as important then as it is in 2017.
It gets better fairly quickly, but Horizon: Zero Dawn’s story doesn’t start out in a stirring way that draws my empathy. It’s not just that the opening sequences are long-ish. It’s that the story of young baby Aloy and Aloy the child’s time with burly, caring warrior Rost has dialog that needs to be tightened up. So when you see baby Aloy’s sweet face with red apple cheeks and the brawny Rost holding her, I wanted to feel more than “Awww, she’s so cute.” Like fear. Like compassion. Like curiosity. Like sadness.
But after the first hour, which actually is a nicely disguised tutorial with story attached, I began to bond slowly with Aloy, (who’s played by Ashly Burch, whose best work prior to HZD is that of Chloe in Life Is Strange). Part of growing close to Aloy has to do with the unfolding story, which is rife with mysteries large and small, major and minor. By the time I moved from cold mountains to a tropical land, I felt like her close friend, one that I’ve known for quite some time. This is no small thing to say, so think of it in this way. When you start a new friendship, you probably don’t spend more than three hours at a time on average together. But 20 hours into a game equals about six hangs in real life. And if you’re still with a friend after six get-togethers, you’re probably bonding well enough to begin a compassionate, potentially long-lasting relationship.
Part of that bonding with Aloy has to do with a personal fact. I was raised by strong women who didn’t need men around to survive and thrive. So I’ve been waiting for a game that features not one but many independent women in a long, open world story that branches through a variety of subplots, offering generally thoughtful main quests and sometimes-but-not-always interesting side quests along the way.
I’m one of the worst game players in the universe. It takes me about twice the average time to become comfortable with controls and new ways to play a game. But HZD makes easy the process of crafting (which I’ve never loved, even in Fallout 4) with just the steady press of the X button. You can avoid tutorials about using new weapons or try them out before using them in a game. And there’s a cornucopia of weapons to use – although I have preferred the iterations of bow and arrow, especially the fire arrows and precision arrows.
The Machines you attack are something between dinosaurs and mechs. They’re awesome creatures – in the sense that they can leave you gobsmacked when you’re hiding but still prone in the heathery tall grass as they pass by within feet of your hiding place. That proximity, ladies and gentlemen, evokes pure terror.
Briefly, I’ve used a kind of machine/horse to get around, a method of travel inspired likely by the steeds in Red Dead Redemption. But more often, I’ve enjoyed walking through the environments. They’re full of wind-swept, blizzard-like snow, Icelandic, majestic waterfalls and Swiss-like mountain vistas that are actually more stirring than Red Dead Redemption’s. That’s a lot for me to say since Red Dead is one of my favorite games – ever. And the comparison isn’t actually a fair one. I played RDR on a PS3 and I’m indulging in HZD on a PS4 Pro. So there’s a difference in console generations. Still, it’s been a pretty world to encounter, one whose beauty can stun you.
Thus far after about 20 hours of play, Horizon Zero Dawn shows itself to be an intelligently made game that I don’t want to put down. I don’t want to leave Aloy. I don’t want to leave the world. And I constantly want to see what happens next. If that continues, and I really hope it does, this game which took six years to make could well be one of the year’s best games. I know it’s early in the year to make that kind of statement, and we’ll have a new Persona and Red Dead to play as the seasons change. Nonetheless, Aloy is a star in a mystifying world that continues to surprise. And Guerrilla has done more than create a world. They’ve created intriguing cultures, complete with histories, myths and folk tales.
Harold Goldberg is an author and journalist who’s the Circle’s founder. His narrative history of games is All Your Base Are Belong to Us, How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.