Beneath Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Unique Aesthetic Lies a Standard Big-Budget Game [PSX 2016 Hands-On]

As I hunted animals and crafted ammunition for my bow & arrow in Horizon: Zero Dawn, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somebody at Guerilla Games really wanted to make a Far Cry game. Oops, wait, sorry, let me fix that last sentence — I hunted robot animals and crafted ammunition for my sci-fi bow & arrow. So it’s like Far Cry, but in the post-apocalypse and played in third-person.

I didn’t get to spend any time with Horizon’s mission structure, as the demo only provided a small part of the open-world to play around in, so I have no idea if the final product will give off the same level of deja vu. But if these standard big-budget mechanics are anything to go by, I’d put money on some kind of tower you have to climb to reveal more of the map. Hunting robot animals feels as satisfying as you could hope for, but there’s a sizable gulf between the game’s unique, exciting style and the pervading sense of familiarity.

The demo provided a handful of objectives, centered around the robot animals in the map. One such objective tasked me with shooting fuel canisters off a deer-style “Grazer” robot. (I achieved that objective by activating my bullet-time, because of course that’s in this game too) That fuel can be collected and used for crafting, which doesn’t feel like an essential part of Horizon. Even though these robot animals don’t have pelts or traditional crafting materials, their corpses still provide bits and bobs to be looted. There’s a big turtle-esque animal with a canister full of goodies on its back, which you can shoot off and get some more items, at which point the robot will turn around and give you the business. First-timers (like myself!) will likely expend all their ammo trying to kill it at first, but ammo is also not hard to find.

Yes, arrows can be crafted by items found in the open world, but you can also just swing your big stick and kill most of the medium-sized enemies. I never put too much stock in my ammo count, because the world was so plentiful. I didn’t feel like I was one tough robo-customer away from destitution, so I would let arrows loose with reckless abandon. Sure, my fire arrows are running low, but it takes a handful of seconds to find everything I need for another quiver’s worth, so I’m just going to blow up this Grazer for fun.

Also, Horizon is an auditory nightmare, which you probably didn’t expect from a game set to release in 2017. Each robot animal emits a horrendous metallic screech that sounds like original Pokemon cries pitch-shifted in a manner that feels almost specifically designed to irritate me. Even with the too-loud trade show headphones pushed halfway off my ears, just about every hunt or encounter was a sonic nightmare. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t the volume that I hated — it was just that every robot animal’s screech just sounded innately wrong. The game doesn’t sound that bad in the gameplay videos coming out of trade shows, but when you’re actually playing it & hearing these accursed creatures holler at you every five seconds, it’s just a spectacularly bad time for your ears.

I don’t think Horizon: Zero Dawn is a bad game, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy parts of the full release. It’s got a fun sci-fi setting — crossing the post-apocalyptic society aspects of The 100 with the mechanical domination of Terminator feels novel. But the moment-to-moment gameplay is something you’ve likely seen already. If somebody asks me “What do you do in Horizon: Zero Dawn?”, all I could tell you based on my time with the demo is that you hunt animals and craft things. Bad news, champ: there are a ton of video games that let you hunt and craft. See also: Far Cry, The Culling, Ark: Survival Evolved, No Man’s Sky, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Red Dead Redemption, all games I thought of while playing Horizon. Sure, I guess you can hypnotize robots into being on your side, but outside of that addition, it doesn’t feel like the core gameplay loop has any real identity.

In some ways, it reminds me a lot of the first Watch Dogs; a game that turned out to be another Grand Theft Auto-esque open world game with a little more interactivity. Much like Watch Dogs, it’s not that Horizon is unpleasant to play, it just couches familiar mechanics in the promise of something exciting and new. You could do a lot worse, I suppose.