Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Impressions - Horizon: Zero Dawn.


I was, actually, a bit worried about Horizon following its almost-uniformly-positive reviews.  Interestingly, the two worst reviews I saw were from two of my favorite sites - Destructoid and the hallowed Eurogamer.  Sniper Elite 4 got a better review from Eurogamer than Horizon did.

It's possible, I told myself, that all these 10s and 9s and 8s were sort of the result of Horizon's intimidating hype, Guerrilla's awesome tech or... the sort of wave of shared hallucination that tends to happen when reviewers get their hands on a new Mario or Zelda, or most of the Assassin's Creed games.  Like, I'm sorry, Ass Creed 3 is in no universe an 8.5 out of ten.

So the near-uniformity of the critical acclaim is a bit of a red flag.  Weirdly enough.  And it's not perfect.

The graphics are fucking ridonkulous.

Like y'know how sometimes in a game you have to walk around a chest too much before you accidentally stumble in the position the game wants you to be in before it will let you open it?  That happens, sometimes.  It's like what the fuck.

And the facial animation in all the little conversations you have with people giving you side quests or whatever?  It ain't perfect.  It's actually - I must admit - a lot more impressive than that type of interaction in any other game I've ever seen.  Sometimes it actually seems like they mocapped this person, to emphasize this bit of the conversation, but not that bit, which uses like an animation from some sort of "emotional library" of facial animations that all look pretty decent.

So it's better than anything I've seen before, but it's not perfect.  There's a lot that it does really, really well


The thrill of hunting its mechanical creatures cannot, at this point, be overstated.  I had a moment last night when I was stalking towards a bunch of Striders - I needed some more blaze canisters for craftin' shock arrows for my tripcaster - and there were three Watchers between I and my quarry.

I waited.  Nocked an arrow, drew my bow and lined it up on the one walking towards me.  Thwip - right through its eye.  The one closest to it noticed and flipped around to investigate.  I tapped down on the d-pad and Aloy gave a low, chirping whistle.  Its head snapped up to face me and thwip - right through the eye.

It feels so fucking good.

The climax of the game's opening, to me, was not the huge story thing that happens an hour later, but the final challenge of your guardian and mentor, and here I'll lay down a page break because GAMEPLAY/ STORY SPOILERSSSS!




It's an amazing sequence.  Rost, the man who raised you, leads you deep into the valley, and into a scene of unmitigated carnage.  Bodies of Nora Braves - your tribe, or at least the tribe that cast you out as a newborn - litter the land, along with carcasses of colossal mechanical creatures the likes of which you've never seen.

You come upon a lodge, shattered and burning.  What could have caused such destruction?  A Sawtooth thumps into view.  This is your final test from your mentor.  For the good of the valley, for the good of the tribe that abandoned you, you must defeat a machine you've never seen before, to prevent the deaths of all the Braves who will try and fail to bring it down tomorrow.

Squatting up on a hill, I scanned it.  This part is weak, that part is important.  It slunk away, and I wasn't sure I could manage this.  Taking down just a Strider - a creature with relatively little, in the way of offensive capabilities - isn't a simple proposition.  And when they get mad, they can do real damage to you - heck, a Watcher can - and this thing is ridiculous.  It's huge and it's all steel claws and titanium fangs and great aerials streaming off the back of it.

I planned.  I laid my traps.  I kicked its ass.  And it felt fucking amazing.

Photomode screenshot taken by a cool dude on NeoGAF.

A lot of what the game does is really, really impressive - and it's easy to point to the graphics as its highest achievement - but what stands out to me is the fact that Horizon: Zero Dawn is the first multiple-million-dollar triple-A game I think I've ever played that is profoundly feminist.

There've been dozens upon dozens of... more overt examples in the five or so hour I've spent with it, so far.  The Nora tribe is a matriarchal society.  Its towns are called things like Mother's Heart and Mother's Rise, its culture is led by a trio of white-haired women, but the thing that really stands out to me is the boy Aloy rescues when she herself is just six years old.

Just after Rost teaches you to use a bow, the pair of you observe a Nora boy fall from a nearby cliff, landing on the dangerous side of a herd of Striders and Watchers.  Rost considers a half-dozen options, and can only conclude that there is no way to manipulate the herd away from the boy, no way to engage without getting him trampled to death - no way to save his life.

"I can see the paths they'll take," little six-year-old Aloy tells him, insisting the ancient Bluetooth earpiece she found earlier is not the evil sacrilege he believes.  He tries to stop her, but she goes anyway.  Little six-year-old Aloy, sneaking through a herd of murderous robodinos.  She makes it to the boy, leads him out safely, and returns him to his people.

In a stunning violation of Nora law, the boy doesn't ignore or spit on Aloy.  He smiles at her.  His father strikes him and drags him away.


Twelve years later, Aloy is a woman grown and as such, tribal law permits her to enter a yearly Nora ritual called The Proving.  If she survives, she will be made a Brave.  If she wins the contest, she will win the right to make a request of the Matriarchs - and she's desperate to know why, as a newborn babe, she was cast out of her society and shunned.

So she walks into Mother's Rise for the first time in her life.  It's so loud!  Drums and singers and so many people in one place!  She greets them, listens to their songs and stories, and finds herself in front of an armor merchant.

"It's you!" he exclaims.

Aloy is confused, but the man's not surprised she doesn't recognize him.  He reminds her that once, twelve years ago, she saved his life.  He tells her he's always hoped she would come for The Proving, one day, so he could thank her.  He gives her the (gorgeous) Nora Brave outfit he made just for her - the one she's wearing in all that promotional art you've seen - and I purchase a stealth set to better compliment my skill build.

He doesn't tell her that he's thought about her every day for the past decade, but to us, it's crystal clear.  He is... the gender-swapped wided-eyed and infinitely-appreciative ingenue we've seen in so many games and films and books and songs.  He worships Aloy, and its flavor is distinctly hero-worship.

But I think feminism in Horizon is a much bigger conversation, and if I feel the need I'll save that for another day. The game has another thirty-or-so hours in store for me - plenty of time to screw up and go off the rails or become too heavy-handed, but so far it's absolutely spectacular.   For now, I'll say...


I'm loving this game the way I had hoped to love inFamous: Second Son or Uncharted 4.

This feels like the game I've been waiting for since the launch of the PlayStation 4.

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