For the first 20% of Horizon: Zero Dawn the game felt to me like a Far Cry game. Not Far Cry Primal, because Horizon didn't omit dinosaurs in some ludicrous effort to pander to the concept of realism. But one of the good Far Cry games, where the world is luscious and gorgeous and massive, and it's full of terrible nasties for you to hunt (or run away from). Climbing the neck of a Tall Neck really cemented the comparison for me — I'm climbing a tower to unlock a map, it must be a Far Cry game.
It wasn't until I reached Daytower that I decided it was actually more like The Witcher. It's a sprawling RPG across varied, gorgeous landscapes, peppered with nasty monsters that you're supposed to hunt. Many things lead to this conclusion — Aloy wields a 'Focus' which gives her a sixth sense for the elements around her, she accepts quests, gleans more information in conversations with named people around town, inventory management is burdensome to the point that I don't actively understand why it exists.
But it was reaching the top of the mountain range effective splitting the map in two which tweaked me to the idea. I could see in the distance the silhouette of a massive winged beast, and I felt a moment of genuine awe. Just a moment, but still, I was staggered by the size and scope and depth of the game. And I thought back, and realised I'd felt this whisper of wonder multiple times already — each time I came across a new species of robosaur. A sharp, sudden breath in, raised eyebrows and then a calm resolve to get on with the job (of killing the wonderful thing before me). It's Dr Alan Grant realising 'they do move in herds' and it happens over and over again.
It was the same for me in The Witcher, although I think that game did a better job of allowing you a moment to soak in the majesty of its monsters. The really good ones — The Leshen, The Botchling — had small cutscenes introducing them, framing how you saw them so that your first experience would (usually) be a particular type of encounter. You'd see them framed a particular way, you'd have time to soak in their arrival and still prepare yourself before getting down to business. In Horizon you're often not afforded the same opportunity, instead shifting from quiet awe into full blown panic as you realise the monster has seen you.
The reason I didn't make the connection to The Witcher sooner was because I didn't hate the combat in Horizon.
The Witcher's combat had issues, mostly tied to the way it chose animations for you depending on your range from an enemy, and this got in the way of the otherwise fantastic hunting elements of the game. The essence of being a Witcher involved analysing your enemy and then using their weakness against them, so if the monster was weak to fire you'd whip up some Dancing Stars and plonk them with it. This was overshadowed in many cases by the fact that Quen was extremely powerful and chopping shit was generally more efficient — in general you wanted to be Quenned up in case you triggered the wrong attack animation, because invariably you'd get boned otherwise.
In Horizon: Zero Dawn, Aloy conducts the majority of her combat from a distance. This makes the hunting feel like a more valid option, because if you're close to the enemy you're fighting you're either specifically going for critical hits or you're dodging out of the way. Ranged combat gives Aloy plenty of time to scan her target with her Focus — by pressing the R3 button — and then using the information at hand to defeat it.
Crit hit opportunities are obvious, as are other weaknesses, so you're able to learn about your target as you defeat them. Some enemies that you'll take on a lot become just second nature — plink a Watcher in the eye for an instant crit kill, take out the Scrapper's radar so it can't find you hiding in tall grass — and so as Aloy becomes a more experienced hunter, so do you. It's a stark contrast to brute forcing your way through almost every encounter as Geralt by using Quen.
By using Tear (rhymes with bear) based weapons, you can target specific modules on your enemy and you can knock them off. With the Scrapper that might be its radar, but with something like the Stormbird — the giant winged creature I'd seen earlier — you might focus on ruining its engines so it can't dive bomb you to death. Each of Aloy's weapons delivers options — the War Bow applies elemental effects quickly, but doesn't do a lot of damage otherwise, while the Sharpshot Bow is really only good for long distance headshots on human enemies or to use Tear arrows to disable machines.
So I didn't make the connection. Because I was too busy having fun. But once I linked Horizon and The Witcher, it couldn't have been more obvious. They're both beautiful, massive games full of scary beasts and horrible people, both designed to enthrall you for scores of hours as you actively want to scour every inch of the map.
Horizon kicks off with Aloy as a baby, which is a clever way for the game to get you attached to her character. She's a cute kid, and the tutorial section walks you through a pretty rough day in her life as a young child, firmly cementing her as the main character. By the time she's grown — and the transition from child to adult is top notch — you're more than ready to venture out into the world.
She has a tough time of things, born an outcast as she was. She doesn't belong, she's shunned at every turn. Horizon does this to force you to go it alone — the story implies a fantastic sense of community within the Nora (your tribe) that Aloy is barred from accessing. They're so negative towards you that I didn't really feel the stated motivation given for leaving — they declare me a Seeker and tell me to go find out more about my birth — but really I was more motivated to just leave a shitty group of people.
The writing isn't amazing — I don't want to get dragged into Witcher comparisons again, but it's certainly not at that level — but it does a great job of world-building. Character development slacks off a little — anyone who isn't Aloy can seem a little thin — but there's a great, massive world full of post-post-apocalyptic lore aching to get out. Hopefully the next game will feel bold enough to take some risks, to explore some more interesting topics — although I totally understand why they didn't attempt something like a Westworld style exploration of the nature of AI in their first game, I'd love for them to tackle it in the sequel.
The storytelling is fairly linear as well. It's told in a way that encourages you to go out and do your own thing — hints about caverns holding long lost treasures, or the cauldrons where you unlock the codes to control more dinobots — but the story generally goes from A through to Z without much variation in between. Certainly there are some choices available to you at certain points, but it doesn't seem like they impact the ending, or anything outside of their immediate questline.
While the main storyline was lacking, there's a reason good world-building is critical to good fantasy, and like I said, this game nails it. I loved about the game was the way it used Aloy's Focus to force you to examine things. Each new area becomes a crime scene as Aloy examines and analyses what's been left behind. It's a clever way to blend the idea of technology into this otherwise primitive world — although I guess they could have just as easily explained it away as tracker senses from years of living on the land. Aloy seems unbelievably capable, Focus or not, and she'll often infer elements of the investigation where both I and the Focus saw nothing. It's a weird little hitch in the game's step, where it suddenly doesn't blend the player character and the player together as beautifully as it has the rest of the game — I'd prefer it if when scanning an item with the focus it told me the information Aloy was acquiring from it. Instead of "Blood" it might say "Blood stretched into a line indicates that it dripped from something". Or something along those lines, I'm not a blood spatter analyst.
Cauldrons, and the game's underground areas, highlight one other aspect I both love and loathe — the movement system. I love the puzzle solving the climbing aspect of the game involves. And it's on full display in the Cauldrons, as you exit a gorgeous green, natural world and enter a robotic lair straight out of the mind of H.R. Giger's slightly less perverted brother. Walls rotate, crates hover through the air, vents exhaust harmless gasses all while a neon blue washes over the gunmetal grey walls. It's great platformer style puzzle-solving, and it culminates in a battle against some tough enemies in tight spots. The reward is being able to control even more of the dinobots, which is really cool.
Outside of the cauldrons the platforming is a little shakier. Aloy responds to your inputs precisely — except when traversing the more precarious elements of the world. The problem is that Aloy feints like she is locked to the item in question — and she actually is locked in, a lot of the time — but she isn't guided the way the characters of Assassin's Creed are. So while she will inexplicably shorten the length of her jump if it means she'll catch a climbing point perfectly, she'll do it. When she's running up to a narrow log above a massive fall and she sways as if she is locked in, however, it's not locked in until she's on the log. Which means if you don't nail hitting the log yourself, you're in for a long drop and a fast stop. The upside is you get used to it and the reality is, written out, it sort of looks like the fault is actually with me. I'd love it if the game could decide whether I was locked to a traversal system or not a bit earlier in the sequel, though.
All my gripes are just areas for a brand new, spectacular franchise to grow from though. It even feels a bit off talking about them, because Horizon came out so big to begin with. It's odd to think that a team could get away with doing less — probably a lot less — and still earn acclaim. I wonder if I'd have been as happy with the Far Cry game I thought it was if I'd never crossed those mountains and had that moment of wonder.
Not as happy, definitely, but at the end of the day I loved Horizon: Zero Dawn when it was a small, contained dinosaur hunting game — and then I loved it more when it revealed it was actually The Witcher: Dinosaur Edition. I can see its faults, I know they exist, but this game feels so much like it was built with me in mind that I'm happy to ignore them. I haven't — I've listed them above — but if a dinosaur game has been something you've dreamed of since you were little, and if the chore-based repetition-focused gameplay of Ark does as little for you as it does for me, you'll be able to ignore Horizon's few faults the way I can.