Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition

When you’ve spent about a decade developing games in one genre, making a dramatic shift to another can invite a lot of risk. Guerilla Games certainly had their work cut out for them when they took such a risk, transitioning from the FPS-centric Killzone franchise to an open world game, Horizon Zero Dawn. Not only did crafting a whole new world require plenty of research, their own Decima engine needed to adapt to a genre it wasn’t originally designed for. Fortunately, their gamble paid off when the game launched in 2017 to rave reviews from critics and enough positive response to warrant a sequel. With the release of this sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, I finally took a look at Horizon Zero Dawn, specifically the Complete Edition, and found myself wondering by the end why I hadn’t played it sooner.

In a post-apocalyptic Earth, Aloy is cast out from the Nora tribe at birth and raised by another outcast, Rost. As a child, she stumbles in a bunker left by the “Old Ones”, their technologically advanced predecessors, and acquires a Focus, a device that allows her special perception through augmented reality. When Aloy becomes curious about her past, Rost tells her that if she wins an event called the Proving, she can be accepted back into the Nora tribe. After years of training, Aloy wins the Proving, but all of the participants are attacked, with a watchful Rost among the casualties. When Aloy regains consciousness in the Nora’s sacred mountain, she discovers that the attackers were targeting her because of her resemblance to a woman she believes may be her mother. In response, the tribe’s Matriarchs make her a Seeker and allow her to explore beyond the “sacred lands” so that she may find out more about her past.

For the most part, the game features some very strong writing and interesting worldbuilding. Aloy is a compelling character with a unique storyline that does a very good job of building up a mystery and withholding information at the right moments to keep the player invested in learning more about her. One of the central mysteries, the events that led to the collapse of the “Old Ones”, has some shocking twists and revelations that provide some good commentary on artificial intelligence and the relationships between man and machine without coming off as preachy or overwrought. In fact, technology is never portrayed as exclusively negative, as the world Aloy finds herself in includes tribes like the Nora or the Banuk who worship machines in their own way, whether they are aware of it or not. Aside from Aloy, the supporting characters from the Main Quest, like Rost and the mysterious Sylens, are also interesting in their own right and have well-written backstories that tie into the main themes of the story.

Aloy's (left) connection with Rost (right) is important to her character.

Even within such an interesting interpretation of a future Earth, however, some things stand out. As well-written as the dichotomy between the Sun and Shadow Carja tribes is, it can come off like a fairly obvious way to present the opposing ideals of unity and tyranny, the latter also representing humanity repeating its mistakes without proper knowledge of the past (their practices even seem to take some cues from ancient Rome). Some side quests can also feel fairly standard for an open world game, like investigating a theft or retrieving an object(s) to settle a dispute. Considering that Guerilla Games hadn’t done a game in this genre beforehand, however, it’s fortunate that these quests still turned out as good as they did.

Every so often, the player can choose how Aloy responds to certain characters, with a choice between answers that emphasize Strength, Intelligence or Compassion. I’m not fully aware to what extent, but these choices can affect how NPCs view Aloy throughout the story. Since I typically play as a pacifist when given the option, I went solely for compassionate answers, which colored my view of Aloy as a character in a way that felt right. There are other choices that aren’t clearly marked, though they generally have less of an impact on the story than the other choices.

On the surface, Horizon Zero Dawn borrows plenty of gameplay elements from modern Ubisoft games, including a map filled with side activities and clearing “towers” to uncover more of the map. Upon closer inspection, however, many of the issues from those Ubisoft games, like the more recent Assassin’s Creed titles, are either mitigated or resolved. For one thing, the map size feels far more manageable, with a finite number of side quests and far less emphasis on grinding to get ahead. As for the much-maligned “towers”, the Tallnecks take on that role, but there are only six of them (including one in the DLC campaign), all of which reveal a significant portion of the map and all feel more interesting, as they are mobile, living machines with their own lore and associated environmental puzzles. Aloy also has multiple methods of more quickly traversing the map, including overriding and mounting any of the Machines on the map and Fast Traveling between campfires that she’s discovered, even if it isn’t one where the player has previously saved their game.

While roaming around on foot, however, Aloy must tread carefully. Machines can detect her presence based on both sight and sound, so sneaking through tall grass when ill-equipped for a fight is a good option for staying alive. If necessary, Aloy can throw rocks to distract enemies so she can more easily escape or move between cover. While undetected, you may also have the option to strike at an enemy, whether Machine or Human, and either kill them or deal significant damage. Should enemies detect an unprepared Aloy, however, running is the best option, as enemies may eventually give up the chase if she moves far enough away from their territory.

Machines are often found in groups.

Like many other open world games, Horizon Zero Dawn features a resource system for crafting and commerce. Depending on what resources Aloy has on her, she can craft various potions and traps while in the crafting menu or, in a very welcome addition, refill her ammo on the fly mid-combat. Players are also told what exactly each resource is good for, including which are merely vendor trash. Additionally, if Aloy is short on certain resources, the player can use the Create Job function to help locate what they’re missing. Of course, not all resources are necessarily for crafting, as Aloy can collect certain plants and store them in the Medicine Pouch for quick healing while out in the world.

While Aloy can find any resource scattered all over the game’s world or obtain them through other means, by far the most important are Metal Shards. These function as the cornerstone of both the game’s economy and crafting system, as most items require some amount of Metal Shards, no matter what other resources are involved, rare or otherwise. Fortunately, Metal Shards are fairly easy to come by, usually obtained from completing Quests, looting them from downed enemies or opening Supply Crates in the wild. Aloy can even break down excess items into Metal Shards, though for only half of their worth when sold to a Merchant.

Resources aren’t the only things Aloy can collect and purchase, however. For the best chance of survival, players can equip her with different outfits (Max. 1) and weapons (Max. 4), each with their own strengths, weaknesses and special properties. Each outfit and weapon can also be equipped with a number of mods (Weaves and Coils respectively) to further increase their resistances or potencies, with the number of modification slots based on what variation is equipped. You can even attach Coils and Weaves while the weapon or outfit isn’t in use, which can help make room in your inventory (more on that later).

When actually fighting the various enemies throughout the world, Aloy can engage using melee or a bow and arrow. Melee can help the player get by against weaker enemies, especially the more they level up, though the bow and arrow is generally more encouraged. Against tougher Machines that appear later in the game, the player’s skill can really make a difference, as the game emphasizes understanding each enemy’s main weakness and exploiting it with different arrow types for maximum damage. Removing or destroying certain components with the right arrow types will also inhibit a Machine’s capabilities, which can help level the playing field and make a fight easier. You can even wield Heavy Weapons dropped by certain Machines against them, which can easily hasten a fight if done correctly.

Of course, with an emphasis on the power of information, it’s fortunate that Aloy’s Focus can give her all of the intel she needs. Scanning each Machine temporarily highlights their weak points and lists what those points are weak to, though this data is also accessible later in the Machine Catalogue as long as the Machine was scanned once. Outside of combat, the Focus can also tag enemies to keep track of their positions and even highlight patrol paths, though only one at a time. Since the Focus also lets Aloy interact with the technology left behind by the “Old Ones”, she can also uncover data points and learn a bit more about the state of the world from before humanity fell.

Aloy's Focus can give her a major edge in combat.

As Aloy levels up, she earns Skill Points applicable to one of four skill trees: Prowler, Brave, Forager and Traveler. Each skill tree highlights certain skills, which you can preview before committing, with some providing greater benefits at certain stages of the game. Players should know, however, that there’s no way to respec skills, so once you’ve committed, that’s it. Apart from leveling up, Aloy can also earn Skill Points from completing quests and side activities, which can help lessen the pain of waiting for that next skill.

These side activities are divided into multiple categories, but there's only a finite number of each, making full completion easier than in a modern Ubisoft game, and the rewards are usually worth the effort. Side Quests offer additional story material and are the meatiest of the activities, with gameplay lengths that can rival some of the Main Quest missions. Errands are typically shorter and can include the traditional “fetch quest”, though these are non-repeating and can still add some flavor to the setting. Bandit Camps and Tallnecks are the shortest, the former focusing on reclaiming villages by clearing out enemies and the latter efficiently uncovering more of the map. Hunting Grounds are where Aloy can hunt Machines for various rewards. Cauldrons are closed off areas (think the Tombs in Tomb Raider) that, when completed, gradually let Aloy override more Machine types in the wild. Corrupted Zones are areas where Aloy must clear out groups of stronger machines, but she can’t override any of them and is at a risk of taking Corruption damage. Lastly, Tutorials are short quests designed around teaching the player how to use whatever weapon they’ve just obtained.

Tallnecks are passive and help Aloy unlock more of the map.

Like the side activities, collectables also have a finite number that makes getting 100% feel very manageable (if you’re into that sort of thing). Vantages require the most effort, as you must stand in a specific spot, though you are rewarded with a brief glimpse into the past and some interesting backstory. The others, Ancient Vessels, Metal Flowers and Banuk Figures can add more background to the world, but are meant to be traded to special Merchants in sets. Unfortunately, all you’ll get in return for your efforts are Treasure Boxes, so you may as well just hold onto them.

There’s also a New Game+ option, which lets you carry over your skills and loadout to a new save once you’ve beaten the Main Quest. Interestingly, once you’ve met the requirement, you can create a New Game+ loadout at any time from the pause menu, which lets the player do so when they feel more comfortable.

Even into the PS5 era, Horizon Zero Dawn has impressive graphics, with a unique aesthetic combining machine parts with common materials and highly-detailed Machines that feel unified in their design choices while also clearly resembling the real-world animals that most are based on. This helps add a great element to reconnaissance and pre-combat planning, as you can tell what you’re up against just by looking at a Machine’s silhouette. The day/night cycle, while not impacting gameplay much apart from a difference in visibility, shows off the great lighting that the Decima engine can provide. On top of that, climbing paths are generally easy to see and are still unified by the color yellow, which stands out from the rest of the environment. Using the Focus also feels satisfying, with its purple wireframes and AR visual effects that add a new depth to the world.

The game still looks visually impressive.

Guerilla Games also clearly went through a great effort to make the world feel more immersive. The Machines have great sound design that matches both their mechanical nature and the animals they’re based on, reinforcing the impression that they’re wild beasts. The audio for the Focus not only sounds pleasing to the ears, but comes out of the controller speaker so you feel more like you’re using it yourself. The voice acting is also filled with incredible talent, especially Ashley’s Burch’s emotional performance as Aloy. There are some blemishes, like inconsistent audio mixing on the dialogue and subtitles that don’t 100% match what the speaker is actually saying, though it’s fortunately not enough to detract from the quality of the writing.

Of course, since this is an open world game, there are still some other issues that pop up from time to time. Sometimes, an object, especially a downed Machine, will vibrate, as though the game doesn’t know where to draw it. Conversations carry a bulk of the issues, however, with some rather static expressions and recycled animations (even after a patch), teleporting, texture pop-in and odd physics. On that last point, Aloy’s override at the end of a Cauldron looked inconsistent, as I can only recall one instance where her spear properly lined up with the slot. Otherwise, it either looked misaligned or she slowly floated up into the air and then came back down when the override finished. Players may also notice some texture pop-in while roaming around, but not enough that it would make the game unplayable.

Some issues more directly affect the gameplay as well. While not in any way predatory, Treasure Boxes come off as glorified loot boxes, with completely randomized contents no matter how many resources you spent on them or what you traded for them (with a few exceptions). As such, I never really felt incentivized to buy any apart from ones marked as free samples. Speaking of resources, each one takes up an inventory slot, which isn’t a bad thing, but each slot can only hold so much of the same item. Whether intentionally or not, it’s very easy to clog up your inventory, so you might spend some time juggling space so you have more room for what you really need or want. It doesn’t help that you must craft satchel upgrades for each individual item category, creating a dual problem of low inventory space early on and locating increasingly rare resources for the desired upgrade.

If you want to Fast Travel, you have to use a consumable Fast Travel Pack, which you must craft for continuous use. For this reason, I actually hesitated to use the mechanic and did so sparingly until I discovered a Merchant who sold a Golden Fast Travel Pack, allowing for unlimited Fast Travel and a smoother gameplay experience. As for the world itself, Tutorial Missions won’t actually clear unless you have it active, even though a player could easily complete one through natural play. I also noticed that one skill tree path actually rendered the override mechanic nearly pointless and ran into an issue where a wild plant would spawn within an inaccessible area like a tree or rock.

About nine months after the release of Horizon Zero Dawn, the game received a DLC expansion called The Frozen Wilds. This DLC added a new area called the Cut and an associated Side Quest composed of five missions that take place before the Main Quest mission “The Looming Shadow.” The Cut notably contains content that’s tuned around players at level 30 or higher, so it’s best attempted at either the late game or after the endgame.

In The Frozen Wilds, Aloy travels to the Cut, the home of the Banuk tribe, to investigate the appearance of dangerous machines and a mountain belching smoke. There, she learns that the Banuk have been battling a Daemon on the mountain, Thunder’s Drum, that has corrupted the Machines. However, their first attack has ended in failure and their shaman, Ourea, has gone missing. After she finds Ourea in a converted “Old World” facility, which houses an AI she calls the Spirit, Aloy’s journey quickly takes a turn.

Aloy aims to help defeat the Daemon at Thunder's Drum.

Much like the base game, The Frozen Wilds has its share of compelling writing, with interesting characters and a deeper dive into one of the game’s tribes and their culture. While it doesn’t offer too much new information about what happened in the distant past, it does add a good amount of depth to the world Aloy lives in.

Outside of the story, The Frozen Wilds plays nearly identically to the Main Quest, but adds enough content that the gameplay still feels fresh. There are five new Machine types exclusive to the region and all of those, plus the pre-existing ones, have new Daemonic variants that lead to some very tense encounters. Aloy can also take on a new side activity where she can destroy or override Control Towers that affect the Daemonic Machines. These Control Towers periodically send out a pulse that disables the protection from the Shield-Weaver, the best outfit in the game, but successfully dealing with a Control Tower will send out a pulse that temporarily disables all nearby Machines.

Fights against the new Machines can get pretty tense.

The Cut also has its own currency, Bluegleam, which Aloy must use to purchase certain outfits and weapons exclusive to the region. She can find some Bluegleam out in the wild, though a good amount of it will also come from completing various quests. Through two special side quests, Aloy can not only upgrade certain weapons from the Cut, but also modify her Spear so she can install exclusive Coils that increase its damage output. On top of that, the DLC adds new mods that grant a serious power boost to certain weapons and the Cut contains new collectables, Pigments and Animal Figurines, though the rewards for trading them in are as disappointing as the base game.

Overall, Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition is an incredible package. Not only does the base game still hold up as a great PlayStation exclusive, in spite of its issues, but The Frozen Wilds adds enough content that can easily extend your playtime by a few hours. While it does follow the beats of other open world games, the content feels meaningful and your time doesn’t feel wasted. Whether or not you plan on playing the sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, Zero Dawn will fit right in with any PS4 collection.

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