Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017)

Game info: Wikipedia.

Artwork (not game footage) for Horizon Zero Dawn, from the press pack

Artwork (not game footage) for Horizon Zero Dawn, from the press pack

This post contains SPOILERS.

Horizon Zero Dawn came out on Playstation in 2017. However, since I don't own a TV or games console I did not play it then. I did watch the Spoiler Warning playthrough of the game, and saw some trailers, and these were enough to get me interested in it.

This is not exactly a review because it just refers to stuff in the game without explaining it, so if you haven't played the game or watched a Let's Play or something then you probably won't be able to understand it. It's more like a post-game debrief for myself.

Graphics and Technical

Horizon Zero Dawn looks amazing. Maybe I'm just not used to modern graphics, but it just looked really gorgeous to me. The environments are pretty varied across the world you play in, particularly when including the Frozen Wilds DLC (which I did). It has day/night cycle and varying weather, though I would have maybe preferred if they'd adjusted the day/night cycle to make the nights a little shorter relative to the days, and adjusted the weather to make the torrential rain a little less frequent.

I played in April 2021 on PC (on Linux, via Proton), and as I expected from what I'd seen in protondb I had some performance problems but the game was playable. This was on a Ryzen 1700x with an NVidia 1060 GTX card.

For performance reasons I had to play on the lowest graphics settings, and I also enabled the game's dynamic resolution feature. Dynamic resolution doesn't affect UI elements, but lets the game ramp down the resolution of internal render buffers to try to hit a target framerate. I set the target framerate to 30 fps, and mostly the game resolution seemed fine, but I definitely did see significant resolution drops occasionally (eg, 2% of the time or something). Framerate as judged by the game's responsiveness and playability did stay pretty solid almost all the time - there were just a handful of areas in the game where it slowed down or got a bit juddery despite the dynamic resolution. The cauldron areas were particularly bad for this; I guess it is some specific lighting setup they have in those areas, or maybe something to do with smoke/steam effects.

Gameplay: Fighting robot animals

So good. Really fun. Having said that, I found it a bit overwhelming at times with some combinations of enemies in some locations. I was playing on normal difficulty and I think perhaps they ramped up the amount of enemies you have to fight just a little too much in some places. But maybe I'm just bad at it.

Notes for players: You really have to learn for each enemy what its attacks are, how those attacks are telegraphed, and when and what direction to dodge in to avoid each attack. That way you can avoid enough of the hits to avoid being overwhelmed. I found that once I started taking hits things quickly became really frustrating, because even though I usually had enough health + health refills + health potions to tank a lot of damage, when you get hit it massively reduces your mobility and control (Aloy staggers from the hit, etc) and this is enough that I sometimes found it difficult to get back on top of the fight. You also really have to learn for each enemy what combination of element attacks/effects and what weapons to use to be able to take the thing down quickly.

Learning those things isn't that hard - the enemy attacks are telegraphed really strongly, the codex/notebook tells you the key things you need to know about what each enemy is weak to, and so on. Be prepared to switch between weapons a bunch to take down a single enemy though. For example, in the DLC the end boss is the Fireclaw, which is very large and has really tough armor so if you can't do damage quickly enough then you'll be fighting one of them for ages just to finish it - difficult and frustrating because the Fireclaw's attacks are devastating if you don't manage to dodge them. But, for the Fireclaw, if you have a (DLC-specific) weapon that's fully upgraded then you can hit them with Freeze quickly enough to actually make a difference and then do enough damage with the ice shards (or whatever that thing is) to take them out reasonably quickly. They're still a tough enemy, but getting the right combination of element and then the right damage attack makes a massive difference to how long it takes to finish and therefore how long you need to keep up close-to-perfect dodging.

Fun story: When I started playing the game I hadn't found the dodge/roll key so I was trying to avoid all the enemy's attacks by running, and... yeah, that doesn't really work. I mean, it kinda works in early game, but quickly reaches its limit, and is super frustrating.

Movement and positioning during the fights is pretty important, so you need to keep some situational awareness to make sure that you don't get boxed into a corner or into a place where dodge-rolls fail. Also if you need to run and break line of sight you need to know where you can go. And for some enemies you want to be able to control your distance to them because they have different near/mid/far range attacks and you may want to influence which of those they're gonna go for.

The heavy weapons dropped by a few of the biggest enemies are pretty fun and help change the style of fight a bit. Particularly because you move quite slowly when you pick one up (and picking one up takes significant time) and you drop the thing if you dodge-roll, so sometimes you need to draw the enemy away from the weapon it dropped so that you can run back around and pick it up with enough distance to avoid an attack while you're grabbing it.

One annoying thing: You carry health potions (three types), "resist" potions which give you some resistance to elemental effects (four types), traps (three types), rocks for causing distrations, and also have a couple of actions (calling your mount and making a noise to attract attention) and these are all on one action bar that you cycle through one by one. It is a pain. I didn't find the traps useful at all (just use the tripcaster instead which does basically the same thing but better in every way). I didn't find the rocks useful at all, though maybe someone playing stealth more would? I found the attract-attention thing useful occasionally but not very often. Calling a mount was useful occasionally. Health potions are super useful in the middle of a fight and I was forever triggering the wrong potion because it was really difficult to correctly cycle to the right one while trying to continuously move, dodge-roll to avoid attacks, and maintain situational awareness. Resist potions are useful immediately prior to a fight if you plan your initial attack well but if the fight isn't over very quickly then you'll want resist potions again during the fight. There are just way too many items you have to cycle through, stepping through them is a pain (I think the next-item/previous-item key is actually slow to respond somehow?), you can't do it blind so you have to look down in the corner of the screen to watch what you're switching to, and unlike the ammo wheel which puts the game into slow motion when you use it, there is no slow motion for picking these items.

The ammo wheel worked pretty well, by the way. I did find I was pretty bad at actually flipping directly to the ammo type that I wanted. You can also switch between ammo types for your weapon by hitting the number key for that weapon slot to cycle ammo types, and that is ok since there are only three or fewer ammo types per weapon. Except occasionally it wouldn't switch types for some reason, like it just seemed kind of flaky; that was annoying.

Gameplay: Skills, Leveling, Inventory, Collectables

I did not 100% the game but I got pretty close, including the DLC, and I had got max level and all skills before I triggered the final part of the main quest.

The collectables were fine... not very interesting but it gives you something to aim for and if you get all of them you'll visit lots of places on the map which is good (because the game is gorgeous and you should totally walk around and enjoy that!). I bought the collectable maps, because there's no way in hell that I would manually hunt around every square foot of that huge world to find everything.

The skill points were mostly good although I feel like the mount and machine override combat focused points are kind of useless. Maybe that was supposed to be a bigger part of the game and some ideas were dropped? Machine override is mostly useful in rare special cases and because if you can sneak up on a big machine you may not be able to do a silent takedown (even if you have silent strike & its powerup skill you may not be able to kill a big thing in one attack), but as far as I can tell if you start overriding a machine that hasn't detected you then it'll just always let you complete without detection. Of course, you have to unlock all the machine overrides to be able to do that. Anyway, overriding stuff isn't fun - fighting stuff is fun! I never even tried the attack-from-your-mount thing...

Some people like to be able to get all skills, some people think if you can get all skills then there's no meaningful choice and that players should be forced to make a trade-off, e.g., choosing to either focus on stealth or focus on attack strength or defence or whatever. Personally I hate making decisions and I hate feeling like something has been cut off from me, so I'm in the loser group that just wants to unlock everything. At least if you have the DLC then you can unlock everything, so that worked out fine for me.

Leveling was fine. Each level gives you +10 hitpoints and with the DLC max level is 60 so you get 600 extra hitpoints across the course of the game. That's from memory anyway; those numbers might be off. Anyway, that does make a huge difference to how much you can tank. Levels also come with skill points (but other things give skill points too).

Inventory management in HZD is kind of a pain. Several little things here:

  • You need to upgrade your inventory size several times for several different non-mixable inventories (ammo, modifications, resources, etc). Upgrading your inventory requires animal based resources which I don't think(?) you can buy, so you need to hunt animals to upgrade your inventory sizes. I'm somewhat ok with this but some of the drops you need are pretty rare which gets annoying. One thing needed goose bones or something - geese are rare and fly away if you approach them; I had to go find a guide online for where the hell I should go to find geese, and even then I needed to make several attempts bouncing around between campfires to trigger the geese to respawn and each time climbing up to the cliff area they spawn at before I could get the single item I needed. So... eh. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It wouldn't necessarily be better if upgrading the inventory sizes was just always trivially easy or wasn't needed at all; hunting can be a fun activity. I think maybe some of the drop frequencies should be adjusted though.
  • Explicitly hunting robots just to get resources for crafting or trading seems really tedious because although fighting robots is kind of fun, the resource drops are pretty small. The most generic resource is 'shards' which is the main currency but is also used directly in crafting some types of ammo. I hit some points in the game where I was struggling to keep enough shards. I think selling unwanted resources and mods is the better way to get shards? But then you've got to bounce around to traders to sell stuff, and it's kind of a pain.
  • There's some loading-screen tip or something that tells you to check out every individual trader because different traders have different stuff. I did not do that, because who the hell has time for that!?
  • I pretty frequently hit my maximum modification inventory space. Getting rid of mods is a bit annoying because then you either have to accept sub-optimal mods or you have to spend a bunch of time swapping mods to try to get the best set equipped (so that you're making the most of the weapons you have) and then dump the rest, and you maybe don't want to dump the rest completely because you might get a better weapon that has more mod slots and... eh, it's just a bit fiddly. If you're the kind of person who loves min-maxing that kind of thing then maybe it's good? I'm not sure how I would change it. It seems the mods are semi-randomised because they have combinations of effects, like +9% handling +5% fire or whatever. There can be several mods that are kind of comparable but have different combinations so it's not obvious which is best; it depends which weapon you put it on and what your play style is. Anyway, it's not a big deal but maybe it could be simplified somehow.
  • In the mid/late game it takes way too long to collect enough herbs to fill your weed pouch or whatever the health thing is called. I will note that this is way different in the DLC where a bunch of medicine weed gives you +60% instead of, like, +24% max in the main game. But that doesn't change the main game numbers that is only in the DLC area itself. It's annoying (outside the DLC) because it's not difficult or fun to fill that bar up, it's just tedious. You can't buy this stuff either, though I don't care so much about that since I don't particularly like buying stuff.

Gameplay: Fighting humans

The style of play when fighting human enemies is very different to the style of play when fighting robot dinosaurs. Humans are much smaller, they use ranged attacks and don't use motion so much, elemental effects don't matter so much, they don't have individual nodes or pieces of armor you can knock off, they generally can't take very much damage.

The Spoiler Warning crew complained a lot about fighting humans, but I thought it was basically fine. This is maybe because I like stealth games too and for most of the human fights I used stealth tactics rather than just wading in. HZD is definitely not an amazing stealth game, but you can do the basic thing of moving around slowly, staying out of sight, and doing silent takedowns or sniping individuals to gradually work your way through a base.

It's definitely not as frenetic or fun as the robot fights and doesn't have the fast paced fighting element to it - it's much "shallower" mechanically, I think. But it's ok. I think it's good to have it as a way of providing variation in the game. As noted at the top of this post I put over 95 hours into HZD, and that's only possible because the game has several different things you can be doing: Fighting robots, exploring the gorgeous game world, fighting humans, exploring the old-world/exposition dungeons, quest stuff, etc. If it was all fighting robots then it could not sustain 95+ hours of play.

Story & Exposition Dungeons

"Exposition dungeon" is what the Spoiler Warning crew called these things, and it's a perfect name. I have two reactions here: One, I liked the HZD story. Ok, it's not sophisticated perhaps, but it's a powerful concept - all life wiped out, humans have to start from scratch. Two, I disliked the exposition dungeons.

For me, the biggest problem with the old-world ruin areas is that they are totally monochrome and it's really difficult to see or understand what you're looking at. And yes, ok, I get that this is supposed to be stuff from 1000 years ago or something, I guess it's, what? fossilised? Certainly totally rusted and so on. But that also makes no sense because a bunch of the computers are still working and active. Fossilised computers don't work. So it's this weird unexplained mixture of technology that works way better than it possibly could, combined with visuals showing everything being kind of fused together and covered in stalagtites/stalagmites, and all monochrome.

The second biggest problem with the old-world ruin areas is that they've just got too much exposition all packed densely together. There's a whole load of text content that I didn't read. I lost focus and couldn't pay attention to all the audio logs (not sure I found all of them? I found most, think I missed a couple). Partly that's probably because I was playing this in really long sessions at the weekends and some evenings, so of course I just can't concentrate for that long at a stretch. And partly it's just the way my mind works in general - I can't focus on what people are saying for that long even at the best of times. But partly it's because there's just too much of that stuff all closely packed together so you get it all at once.

I have no clue how any humans still exist in HZD. The "teaching" module, Apollo, was destroyed, so the humans that were spawned in the mountain bases only got the most basic education - nursery or primary school level stuff. And then when all the food ran out they were dumped out unceremoniously (as teenagers or young adults) into the completely wild and robot-infested world - a world they had no prior experience of - and had to learn how to survive. That is... really tough. It's not clear how many people were in those initial populations, but the implication from the structure of the womb of the mountain seems like they would have been tiny, maybe just tens of individuals (unfortunately I think game production constrained things a bit - the base shows many gestation pods and school pods, maybe it could have been a couple of hundred people? but the hologram videos show like 6 people or something, presumably because they couldn't reasonably write and animate a big group). With zero parental guidance about how to survive in that environment, I find it pretty difficult to imagine them not all dying before reaching a self sustaining population. And then there's the problem of genetic diversity in such a small group. I'm not sure why I find that harder to swallow than the overall premise of AI war robots destroying all life and AI controlled systems building everything back from zero... I guess because that side is all just taken on faith as the premise of the story, whereas questions of human behaviour and capabilities seem like something that can be judged against the real world.


Aloy is great. I love how sarcastic she can be, without being just a horrible person. I think they made her the right level of badass.

Lansra and Resh are kind of comic-book level of antagonistic toward Aloy. But they have little enough screen time that it's ok. You love to hate them.

Erend is surprisingly great - for a "dumb"/meat-head kind of guy he's actually really sweet and self-aware. Several of the Oseram are pretty good actually. The Oseram weapon lady in the DLC (whose name I have forgotten) is hilarious, and so is the Oseram woman who asks you to go find her missing husband. The Oseram surnames ("Delverson") are ridiculous. The Oseram guy you meet in the defunct hydroelectric power station in the DLC is really annoying but also he's so funny that he actually managed to get my past my annoyance with him and I ended up liking him. So basically the Oseram are good.

The Sun King (Avad) is kind of annoying. He doesn't have enough depth to him. Why is he such a good guy? Seems like someone like that would just be a total pushover, but he doesn't seem to have many problems as Sun King - not like he's under constant threat of assassination or mutiny or something due to how "weak" he's perceived to be.

The Banuk shaman who drinks robot "blood" is... I mean, he's totally nuts, obviously. Fun character though. I like the way Aloy reacts to him - she doesn't use him exactly but she also doesn't try to protect him from himself or anything.

Cyan, the AI in the DLC, is pretty neat. There's a bit of general exposition that you get through talking to Cyan, and it's done through dialog options which feels a bit better than some of the exposition dungeon non-interactive audio logs.

Sylens is... eh. I don't like him. How did he work out so much stuff? I mean, ok sure he's driven by his curiosity and is smart, but... he somehow repaired a Focus device in the first place? I dunno, his technical abilities don't seem to really be justified properly, even after finding out that he's basically been interrogating Hades for years. Consider how technology works today in the real world - integrated circuits are not repairable. At all. By anyone. They are fabricated in a process that requires the cleanest cleanrooms and the most expensive manufacturing equipment, and some really horrible chemicals. Anyway, Sylens just seems like a comic-book villain. I didn't find him at all believable even within the context of the game.

Ted Faro is, I dunno. I mean, wow, that guy didn't just create world-ending robots, he then decided to get religion (just generally, not some specific religion) and then he destroyed the repository of all human knowledge that was supposed to give future humans a useful starting point, and then he killed everyone on the leadership team of the Zero Dawn project. And yet despite all that, they didn't make Ted Faro evil, they just... gave him really really bad judgement I guess? And an absolute ton of hubris. This is going to sound nuts, but I think Ted Faro is a much more believable character than Sylens.

There are a bunch more characters but I'm not going to list them all. I like many of the minor characters in HZD. Nil was great.