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Pt. 2—There’s a great game hiding inside Horizon: Zero Dawn

Screenshot: Sony
Screenshot: Sony

Welcome to the conclusion of our Game In Progress review of Horizon: Zero Dawn. In this second of two installments, Clayton Purdom gives his take on the final portion of the game, but it’s safe to read for people who haven’t completed it—only very light structural spoilers follow. You can read the first part of his review here.

One thing I didn’t elucidate in the first half of my Horizon: Zero Dawn review was that it is a gorgeous game. Over-sized stalks of deep-green foliage rustle in the wind, and doughy clouds drift along snow-capped mountains in the distance. This sort of goes without being said; all of Guerrilla Games’ work is standard-setting, particularly in their use of lighting. It ranges here from a soft blue evening glow to a thick wintry fog to a piercingly clear summer calm. The technical term for this is volumetric lighting, meaning that it has a literal weight and presence within the digital world. Volumetric lighting is all over games these days, but it’s essential to Horizon’s beauty. A thick blanket of incandescent fog drenches the entire world, creating a sense of cohesion to its many environments.

Which is good, because it never gets less strange watching the world flip from cactus-studded desert to vast mountain range to deciduous forest in the span of minutes. As I trudged around on my final errands, I abandoned fast travel so as to drink up the world one last time, and noticed, to my dismay, how little any of it moved me. I wrote previously about Horizon: Zero Dawn as part of an epochal undercurrent of “map games,” a category in which I included The Witcher 3, but I could also draw a stark comparison between this game and that one, which I consider the apotheosis of the form. (It is also as good an RPG as has ever been created.)

Screenshot: Sony

As I’ve circled back on it again and again over the two years since it first came out, I find myself rooting out old abandoned houses and weird snowy mountain passages where I hold very specific memories: Ah, the oven! The place where that damn troll was! Part of this is due to the cohesion of The Witcher 3’s world—for all its vastness, it seems to be hewn from a consistent climate—and part of this is due to the very map, which is covered not in icons and slowly filling counters but simple question marks. They’re nothing more than points of interest for you to root out as you see fit. Compared to the clutter and iconography burnout of other map games, it stands as a quietly revolutionary design choice.

I thought fondly of Skellige and Novigrad and my many memories there as I rode a horned robotic bull-like dinosaur for the last time through Horizon, feeling nothing. I watched a burnt-orange sun set over a purple lake; I found a grassy knoll to kill some more bull-like things, then carried on. A trip through Horizon is as emotionlessly pretty as a spinning rack of postcards. After I arrived at my destination for the climactic battle, the game offered a similar chance to revisit its various supporting characters, but I confess I had no idea who any of them were, either. (I recognized only Teb, the softest boy of the game’s many soft boys.) I can’t even say that the game’s protagonist, whose spiritual awakening and origin story provides the game’s animating force, will linger long in my mind, nor will the surprise post-credits twist. These details vanished almost instantly.

Screenshot: Sony

So no, I did not end up sold on Horizon: Zero Dawn as anything but another entrant in the overstuffed genre of overstuffed map games. But it’d be ignoble for me to act like several portions of the game won’t stick with me and point toward a better, more interesting game lurking inside of it. The first was the Cauldrons, a series of four subterranean dungeons full of cybernetic tentacles, pulsing yellow assembly lines, conveyor belt mayhem, and enormous, glowing boss battles. As opposed to the mirthless variety of the open world, these dungeons are traversed as straight lines, but drawn with the 45-degree angle staircases and intestinal coiling of an abandoned building in a Mass Effect game. They’re the sort of spaces that Guerrilla Games has much more experience making, with narrow hallways giving way to angular arenas, and, more importantly, they had a consistency that felt like a real location, not a randomly patched together quilt of other games’ environments. Their very architecture told a story, perhaps most clearly so in a Cauldron still being excavated by enemy cultists. Video games have no more sacred ability than the one to transport the player to a new space, and the Cauldrons were a truly bizarre, moody stretch of terrain to explore.

At the end of each one, you earn the ability to “override” a new set of robotic dinosaurs, turning them from foe into friend, which gets at the second inescapable triumph of the game: them. The giant robot dinosaurs do not fucking disappoint, on a sheer physical level, and this is worth underlining. For a while, at least, they seem truly fearful. You can easily find yourself in over your head among them in the game’s early going, with alligator-like “snapmaws” hounding you over hill and dale. It creates an interesting bit of friction that is erased almost entirely the moment you get a decent weapon, at which point the giant lumbering monsters become taped-together piles of spare parts. Even if you ratchet up the difficulty, you’ll only spend some more time dodging and sinking arrows into them; the outcome, however, is assured. They end up, like so much else in a map game, puzzles that are solved through brute, explorative force. Get the right weapon, and they’re toast. Complete the right Cauldron, and they’re your friends. A map game only ever wants you to civilize its wilds.

Screenshot: Sony

Even when tamed, they remain huge. When pissed off, they go rampaging around, getting so angry they skid in terrifying circles around you. On that final journey through the forgotten and forgettable world, then, I donned my stealth armor—so over-powered that I could run almost anywhere undetected—and enlisted dinosaur after dinosaur to my side. They immediately lit up in fury when they locked eyes with other beasts, and then squared off, two or three or five at a time, tossing each other over boulders and rearing up and stamping in the dust. Bird-like dinosaurs got suckered into the fray, clapping about the sky and sending shrieking explosives to the earth. Boars and turkeys and squirrels scampered for safety. From a distance, I could still see them snapping and screaming at each other with the might of ancient gods. For a moment, the dinosaurs seemed terrifying again—mythical beasts roaming a strange, unreal valley, a place too wild to civilize. Send me there, and keep the damn map.

Horizon: Zero Dawn
Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Price: $60
Rating: T

Purchase Horizon: Zero Dawn here, which helps support The A.V. Club.