Here’s a videogame thing: Horizon: Zero Dawn

At a little past 3am this morning, I finished my second playthrough of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It was a New Game+ (“Plus”) run on Ultra Hard difficulty. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but, you know, achievements. And then I promptly deleted the game.

So far, so Ezio, am I right?

Thankfully, HZD1 is a much better game than Assassin’s Creed II and its two immediate sequels. It’s a better story, too, at least in the core “what is going on over the course of the game” bits… not that that’s exactly a high bar, given the ancient alien nonsense of the AC universe.

Don’t be fooled, though: it’s basically Assassin’s Creed in the hills and mountains of post-apocalyptic Colorado, although it has a considerably greater emphasis on combat than those games do. There are viewpoints across the map used to uncover the world (although just walking around defogs the area immediately around you, so you never have to trigger them), boatloads of side-quests and optional challenges that reward you with experience, resources, and skills, and a surprisingly tight main storyline; I beat the NG+ run in less than ten hours, and just watched a speedrun of it done in just a bit over two. On the other hand, my nearly-completionist first run clocked in at a hair over sixty hours, which included about ten spent doing the excellent DLC side-area.

Well, with one notable exception: robotic dinosaurs. (And other animals too, but c’mon: dinosaurs.)

Just like the AC games are gorgeous, HZD is absolutely breathtaking. When the snowy winds ripple across the open fields and you watch the grass wave, the glowing blue eyes of robots winking in the forest at the distance, you really feel like you’re looking at another, far stranger world. The central city of the game is rendered with a level of detail that is honestly pretty stupendous for how little time you actually need to spend there, and each section of the map feels distinct and unique and beautiful in its own, usually austere way.

As for the story, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I only figured out about fifty percent of the core plot twist. One chunk of it is pretty painfully obvious to anyone who has ever read, like, any science fiction at all, but the central mystery–just what the hell happened?–has a considerably more interesting resolution than I was expecting. It’s pretty rare that a videogame plot surprises me at all nowadays; while games have come a long way from “save the princess in the castle,” they’re generally not exactly high literature when it comes to plotting or surprises or characterization. It’s nice to be shocked once in a while.

Aloy, the main character, is considerably more of a cipher than Ezio. She’s a strong, independent woman, which I like, but the combination of her sheltered upbringing and the lack of much interaction that isn’t about some major world-shaking crisis or another means that her actual depths as a person aren’t really very well explored over the course of the game. I know not everyone can be Mr. Auditore, of course, but I have to admit that I was disappointed that we don’t really get to see a whole lot of who she is rather than what she does. That’s despite the fact that, several times over the course of the game, you can make a choice between doing something via “brains,” “brawn,” or “heart.” The differences are generally very minor and still don’t really shine a lot of light on what it means to be a young woman in such a world, a pariah turned savior.

On the other hand, maybe I’m asking too much about a game where you shoot arrows into robotic dinosaurs.

I will say that the combat controls are way better than early- and mid-era Assassin’s Creed, but the movement is–somehow–terrifyingly worse. And that’s saying a lot, given how janky AC games can be.

The voice acting in the game is mostly solid, although they cast Lance Reddick of The Wire, Fringe, and Lost fame as, uh, himself, which is honestly always more than a little bit distracting in a video game. The dialog is pretty well-written, although the facial animations in the game tend towards the creepy Mass Effect: Andromeda end of the scale, which is unfortunate given how good it looks otherwise. I found myself skipping through the dialog as fast as I could read the subtitles by a couple of hours into the game, mostly to avoid the creepy facial expressions.

All of that said, am I glad I played Horizon: Zero Dawn? The once, absolutely; the second time, not so much. Stupid achievements. If you do play the game–it’s a PS4 exclusive–take my advice and play the game through on Normal rather than Story or Easy, which make the combat a little too trivial, and avoid Ultra Hard, which is ridiculous even with an over-leveled character. And make sure to snag The Frozen Wilds, one of the rare DLC expansions that genuinely adds a whole bunch of interesting stuff to the core game.

  1. What the hell did we do before initialisms?

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