I was finally able to break back in to Horizon: Zero Dawn on Friday night. I had a few hours, so I ignored my second playthrough save - already close to the end of the game, there - and started up a new game. I zipped past Aloy's depressing childhood, crushing tutorials as fast as I could.
The thing is, Horizon doesn't really have a traditional part where the tutorial ends and the Game Proper begins. Aloy's childhood introduces the tangible mechanics you'll be using throughout the rest of the game - this is how you crouch to sneak, this is how you draw your bow, this is how you scan enemies, how to craft ammo - and once the traditional montage is complete, adult Aloy is set loose in The Embrace with a few quests to complete.
The Embrace is a valley in the south-east corner of the map, and it's colossal. Its topography is so dense, you can't see from one side to the other - it's miles across, and is something like... ten of the open-world levels in Rise of the Tomb Raider stitched together, that you can seamlessly explore, all at once. Maybe more than ten, actually. It's pretty ridiculous.
|Scrappers - mechanical wolves or hyenas would be their closest approximation - are the meanest things in The Embrace.|
The Embrace is colossal, is my point, and will take you four or five hours to explore - with more yet to go, if you want to exhaust all its secrets. This, too, is honestly part of the game's tutorial as you discover how quests work, how Aloy's (sci-fi Bluetooth) Focus can be used to solve crimes and track targets a'la Batman's Detective vision, and can mark targets a'la Far Cry's binoculars (or Batman's Detective vision, I suppose). You learn the need to hunt specific machines to acquire the specific resources you need to produce specific kinds of ammunition, and grow accustomed to Aloy's weirdly-comfortable locomotion.
That's one of the reasons I love Horizon, for the record. How comfortable it is to just move Aloy around an environment. There's something... kind of pop-y and likewise a bit heavy to her jumps. She has weight, and when she leaps she springs up, tucks her legs in and snaps them back down when she lands, allowing her to confidently clear gaps and leap across streams, sticking confidently to little rocks as she hops along.
Your map is a groovy combination of actual world topography and easy-to-scan crisscrosses of beaten footpaths, and another one of the things I love about Horizon is how - while if you told me to walk from Rost's cabin to the gates of the Embrace, I couldn't find my way there without a map - but when a quest marker tells you to head 500 yards east, there's something natural, comfortable, pleasurable about sending Aloy scampering along woodland paths and scrambling up rock faces, skidding down ravines and leaping from cliffs. She enjoys the same breezy movement as Lara in the latest Tomb Raiders, and Horizon's staggeringly generous landscape is almost intoxicating.
After you've met some folks, learned how shops worked, solved some quests, upgraded your spear, maybe learned how specific ammo types can give you a leg up against certain enemies, handled a domestic situation with a young man suffering from psychosis and found Old Grata's prayer beads (though you skip almost all of it, if you wish), you're pushed into the next major story beat and can freely explore beyond The Embrace, into the Nora's Sacred Lands.
The Sacred Lands are about three times the size of The Embrace.
It's worth pointing out, I reckon, that everything you're doing as you complete the tutorial before the tutorial before the next tutorial is fun. Horizon's combat is somewhere between the slow-paced, impeccably-framed strategy of The Last of Us and Tomb Raider's kinetic, predatory bow hunting. You learn quickly that the machine-dinosaurs have weaknesses all over that must be exploited if you don't just plan on putting fifty arrows into a Scrapper, and taking advantage of it - putting a fire arrow into a blaze canister on a Strider's back that detonates and damages every machine in its orbit, threading the needle right into a Watcher's eye (its only weak spot) - always earns you a lovely sigh of pleasure.
So you stride past The Embrace into the Sacred Lands, and it's kind of like Link to the Past, where after gathering the three pendants your world suddenly explodes in size and scope and there is so much more than you imagined there could be.
There's more to learn - here is a Hunting Ground, maybe you should check that out! There is a corrupted zone, what's the deal with that? Why do I have two main quests? Who is this creepy fucker and where is this bandit camp he's talking about? What's a Cauldron? This weapon seems better than my other weapon, but it doesn't do more damage - how does this even work? Good lord, if I want the best stealth armor, I need the heart of something called a "Bellowback" - that shouldn't be too hard, right?
It will take another ten hours, at least, to complete the quests in the Sacred Lands - and that's not counting all the little collectibles, ancient viewpoints, data logs and Banuk artifacts that are weirdly pleasurable to find. Doing this - the method by which you do this - is so much fun.
When I was doing my first playthrough of Horizon, I remarked that it felt like the game I've been waiting this whole generation to play - and that remains true. I compare it above, a lot, to Tomb Raider because it gives me almost all the pleasures of Lara's excellent reboot with so much more. The crazy skill-and-tactics flavor of Horizon's combat beats the pants off Lara's perhaps more stylish brutality, and the way the game lets the player wander around, sneaking through silent woods under the moonlight, clambering up cliffsides, sitting, motionless, and forming a plan of attack for a herd of Lancehorns - the way each encounter, discovery, little adventure flows smoothly into the next - brings to mind some of my favorite games of last gen.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is in a lot of ways the game I wanted Rise of the Tomb Raider and inFamous: Second Son to be. Not to knock RotTR - it's quite good! - but Horizon gives me that same endlessly fun, endlessly playable sense of inFamous and its PS3 sequel. It's the same fun, fun and then fun again you'll get from Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction or a Grand Theft Auto, but its gameplay is so much more refined.
There's no tradeoff, here. I'm not playing a merely decent-looking game because its gameplay is so fun - Horizon is so good-looking it borders on obscene. I'm not accepting middling gameplay because the graphics are so hot - this is the funnest, most engaging single-player combat since The Last of Us, with the liquid freedom of an open-world game to boot. If The Witcher III was even thirty per cent as fun to play as Horizon, I would have played that game into the fucking ground.
I'm playing through Horizon and I'm trying to imagine what could possibly take its place at the top of the 2017 heap, in Game of the Year consideration. I'll be pret-ty surprised if Wolfenstein or Uncharted or South Park or Dishonored can dislodge it.
I've cleared enough of the corrupted zones in the Sacred Lands to convince the Carja soldiers at the fort to open the gate to the lands beyond - but I'm not leaving, quite yet. There's a few more things to do, a few extra corrupted zones I can clear out before I have them open those gates, and then...
Then Horizon is almost done with its tutorials. Then the map cracks open like the sky, a further three or four times larger than the Embrace and the Sacred Lands combined, crawling with colossal machines that dwarf anything in the Sacred Lands. It's so generous.
If you'll excuse me, I have some metal megafauna to stalk.