Image: Guerrilla Games

I pride myself on not being a person who plays ton of games, but someone that finishes them. There aren’t more things I dislike more than having a “backlog”. So when it come time to select my next adventure, I’m pretty selective. That’s exactly what happened to Horizon: Zero Dawn for me when it released in 2017. Wedged between a couple games that I really wanted to try out it fell by the way side. But when there were rumblings and eventually a confirmation that the game was strangely coming to PC, I’d figured I’d give it a try. I fried myself, ya’ll. I should have played this game ages ago.

Why I Didn’t Care…At First.

Horizon is an open-world adventure game that dropped in 2017. But I first heard about it in 2015 during Sony’s E3 presentation. Now remember this is two full years after Eidos’ absolutely stellar remake of the Tomb Raider series which re-imagined Lara Croft as a tough-as-nails, bow-toting, ghost of vengeance. This Lara had more in common with Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig’s James Bond than she did her 90’s digital sex symbol self. So by the time Horizon was trickling out info, it all felt very….copycat. Not to mention, ROBOT DINOSAURS?! Really? At face value it was a game that ticked all the boxes of “mid-2010’s AAA game”. Big enemies, check. Lush environments, check. Using a bow for some reason beyond the year 1647, check. For as good as it looked. It came off as a paint-by-numbers game.

It also didn’t help that Horizon is developed by Guerrilla Games. Until Horizon, they mostly known for the first person shooter series, Killzone. A series that saw acclaim on PS3 with second installment…and not much else. Needless to say I was happy to pass on the this game for other titles that were coming out at the time. Horizon‘s February release wedged it in-between Ubisoft’s For Honor in January and Bioware’s Mass Effect: Andromeda in March. Funny enough, both of those games ended up being massive letdowns.

Fast forward to 2020. My good friend and fellow Check-mate, Robbie Landis, was still raving about this game years later. Hell, he even named one of his cats, Aloy, after Horizon’s protagonist. So after seeing it was on sale for $16, I shuffled over to Best Buy and bought the game. And man was that a great idea.

Eating My Cynicism

Its not often a game shuts me up simply because of how well it works. Persona 3 did it, GTA 3 did it, the entire exsistance of the Nintendo Switch did it too. Horizon is the next game in that list. And funny enough, the thing that mostly turned me off from the game is what makes it special. The damn robot dinosaurs. Combat in Horizon is part Tomb Raider, part Shadow of the Colossus, part Uncharted. While two of those comparisons seem obvious its the puzzle element that reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus, in a sense. Not that you’d be scaling massive 50-foot giants, but every encounter, even against lesser enemies, is significant and rewarding.

Image: Guerrilla Games

Figuring out where a machine’s weakpoints are or laying traps for the more unpredictable ones makes fighting feel robust and fair. Large enemies like Thunderjaws and Stormbirds can chunk off your entire life bar in a single hit, and yet they don’t feel cheap. Mostly because a tail swipe from a robot T-Rex should kill you in a single hit. Medium and small enemies overwhelm you with speed and numbers and it all feels even compared to your tools at hand. When seeking seek out big game, Horizon becomes a “boss rush” of sorts. Fights with large machines can take upwards of 5-7 minutes on the overworld, could be as long as 10-15 for mission boosted mobs. Through all this, Aloy never feels exponentially more powerful than the mechanized beasts (and goofy human bandits) that roam the world and Horizon is a better game for it.

Girl Power

Speaking of Aloy, she’s a serviceable protagonist. Her story does become much more interesting the more you uncover about her origins. But in my opinion, she pales in comparison to other side characters. Horizon might have some of best women NPC’s of the gen. Not because of just bad-assery, but because you see them represented in all facets of society and conflict. Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, are governed by a trio of Matriarchs and their war-chief is also a woman, Sona. She comes under the wing of an expert hunter, Talanah later in the game. And she assists the mysterious, yet absurdly charming, Vanasha in a stealth mission that changes the political landscape of the world. Those are just some of the women Aloy comes in contact with.

Personally, I think this is Horizon’s shining achievement. Its a total testament to the concept of “female protagonist” without making the “female” part of it the draw. However, seeing some women lead armies, while other struggle for status in their tribe is dynamic and believable. Every tribe is not the Nora and thus wouldn’t be lead by women. Some actively reject the notion. But that feels realistic. Even in the face of clearly experienced and skilled women, men reject their worth. Sounds familiar. Well…besides Avad. Avad is a Twitter “male ally” made manifest. He’s totally down with Aloy and her exploits but the moment she shows him any kindness he shoots his shot.

Swallowing My Cynicism

Gaming hubris led me to miss out on this game. I should have listened to Robbie in 2017. I should have experienced it at the height of its community, but instead I took the game at face value and undersold it. In a week where I should have been clocking hours into Warzone or finishing skins for Overwatch, I found myself coming back to Horizon. Remind me to never dismiss a game again.