Welcome to our ongoing Game In Progress review of Horizon: Zero Dawn. Over the next few weeks, Clayton Purdom will be playing through Guerrilla Games’ new PlayStation 4 exclusive and checking in with his thoughts on how it’s shaping up. We invite you to play and comment along as he delves into this post-post-apocalyptic world in search of answers and sweet, sweet robot dinosaur meat.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is another one of those “map” games. You know the type: There’s a big open world, with a few distinct regions, and you have a couple of different weapons and a skill tree, and you get missions and collect things and occasionally climb towers that clear up portions of the map. It’s a map game; you spend a ton of time looking at a map and thinking, “What the hell else can I do while I’m around here?” and the answer is always, “A ton of shit.” The sole animating function of a map game is to give you a ton of shit to do on the map. There’s a shooting range to hit up and two challenge zones and a side quest you haven’t started and a base to clear out for a main quest and a great area to farm a certain ore that you need to level up your staff or something. There’s a puzzle room. A puzzle room!
This vast sense of empowering leisure—of endless activities, all yearning to make you stronger—is the defining characteristic of many popular games. Horizon: Zero Dawn bills itself as an “open-world action RPG,” but it’s hard to tell what that means at this point—Secret Of Mana ain’t it. The map game was codified by the major Ubisoft games Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, but it has also been seen in punchier form in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, with much richer lore and stats in Bioware’s Mass Effect and its most recent Dragon Age, and with slight other variations in games like Dying Light, Shadow Of Mordor, Mad Max, the Arkham games, Tomb Raider, The Witcher 3, Final Fantasy XV, and many more. The map game isn’t so much a genre as it is an overriding philosophy on what makes games fun, an epochal undercurrent. It’s a constant drip-feed of XP and an endless checklist of collectibles and activities, all varied slightly by their set dressings and a mechanic or two. People love that Shadow Of Mordor game because it had programmatic bosses; I still ride for Dying Light for bravely eliminating fast travel. Other people like being Batman. Do you like all map games, some map games, one map game? Why? What distinguishes one from the other?
Horizon: Zero Dawn has robot dinosaurs. That is its primary distinguishing characteristic among this field of games: It is the one where you fight robotic dinosaurs. We could probably end this right there; if you want a map game right now, and are intrigued by the concept of one in which you fight robotic dinosaurs, well, I have got a game for you. (It’s Horizon: Zero Dawn.) Its world makes no sense, with gigantic snow-capped mountains mere seconds from deserts, and its lore is a sub-Syfy soup of proper nouns like Sunfall and Focus and Proving and All-Mother. It is beautiful in places; in others it seems constructed as if by algorithm from any of the map games listed above. Its combat bowls lack any verticality or realistic stealth options. Protagonist Aloy’s pithy asides rarely make sense with the onscreen action (“Now they’re hunting me,” she quips as I swim blithely through a creek.) As an RPG, it seems uniquely uninspired: The only interesting skills are hidden at the crown of the tree, and its various weapons and gadgets and outfits are so poorly explained and differentiated that you sort of have to force yourself to figure out what’s interesting about them. Some of this can be patched out, and some of it doesn’t matter. I’ve spent much more time doing map things; my favorite time spent playing this game has been an evening I spent gathering materials to increase the size of the bags in which I hold materials. I can hold so many materials now, though! I have no idea what any of these serious people shouting proper nouns at me are talking about, and yet I continue on. Why? Because there is a map to fill. There are materials to get.
For all the blustery cut scenes and voluminous lore of map games, they play more like needlework, say, or a huge jigsaw puzzle. You pass the time to them; I’ve merrily plowed through podcasts, books on tape, and many leisurely beers to Horizon: Zero Dawn. Map games are closer to the adult coloring books that The New York Times writes a trend piece on every six months, almost meditative in their pleasures. It can feel like the ultimate, final form of video game design, all the most pleasing attributes of various genres converging to create one big, crowd-pleasing time-suck. If the platformer defined the ’90s, and the first-person shooter defined the ’00s, then the map game is the dominant style of our time. I am not a huge fan, but what are you gonna do? These things keep coming out, and they’re all so damn playable.
I’d shrug and call it a day if not for two qualities that intrigue me about Horizon: Zero Dawn, outside of its robot dinosaurs. The first is this: Those fuckers are difficult! I find myself tearing ass, absolutely horrified, as a half-dozen robot monsters chase me through a sandy graveyard, the weakest among them able to kill me in one hit. I hide in vaguely unreachable corners burying quiver after quiver of flaming arrows into some cybernetic stegosaurus, barely taking ticks off its health bar. When it clicks, and I find myself pinning one of these fuckers to the dirt and slowly blasting chunks of it off, it’s glorious; more often, though, they seem like rampaging bullet sponges. I am not sure if this is the product of a well-designed game, instilling a sense of terror and awe in the player as I slowly figure out a way to survive, or a poorly designed one, its difficulty way out of sync and its systems poorly explained. An Ubisoft game would never allow for this friction, and it sounds an interestingly dissonant note amidst all those map games I’ve waded through.
The other reason Horizon: Zero Dawn still holds some allure to me after so many blandly satisfactory hours is that it is unquestionably the most woke game released by a major studio in years, a “core gamer” game in which women and mothers are revered as righteous warrior goddesses and in which almost every single dude is either a maundering sad boy or an emasculated angry boy or simply a concerned bystander boy, waiting for your help. The game’s goofy Hunger Games opening eventually gives way to bland political intrigue and reams of world exposition, but I hold out hope that the ham-fisted riot-grrl first act wasn’t all for naught. As with the game’s difficulty, I cannot quite tell where it’s heading. Is it a troll job, a well-intentioned stab at progressivism, a feint, or something else entirely? Video games do not traditionally deal with politics well, and, when progressive at all, they usually have all the subtlety and complexity of a college freshman yelling at their dad across the dinner table. But the fact that I’m not quite sure where things are going is good enough, at least for awhile. The one thing you never get from a map game is uncertainty, and I’ll take it where I can get it.