Horizon Zero Dawn PC Review — Neo Archaic
Even with its technological hangups, the PC port of Horizon Zero Dawn brings an experience wholly unlike anything else I've ever played.
I am what feels like one of the few PlayStation owners that didn’t play Horizon Zero Dawn at all during its time as a console exclusive. Now with a release on PC, I was vastly more interested in the game’s sci-fi world and what it could look and play like. Unsurprisingly, the base benefits of a port to PC are all there for Horizon Zero Dawn: the game’s visuals are constantly breathtaking, and controlling Aloy as she jaunts around the new-old world is fun and accessible.
But that’s about where the benefits end, because Horizon Zero Dawn also suffers from some of the worst detriments a PC port can have. Performance issues are regular along with bugs, while crashes are luckily just a rarity. These hindrances, experienced now three weeks out from Horizon Zero Dawn‘s PC release, have been a constant while I would try to enjoy it. But when the game worked well, when its framerate was steady and I wasn’t worried about crashes, I became invested in this metal-twisted world and the process of breaking down its monsters component by component.
Horizon Zero Dawn first presents itself as a tale about vengeance. Aloy, your character, is angry during the game’s start. She resents the tribal leaders that outcast her at birth from her tribe for, as far as she could tell, no good reason. However, after re-joining the fold of the Nora, the focus of her revenge shifts away from her leaders and towards a new group that serves as the story’s antagonists. These beginning hours feel flat compared to the remainder of the game, not just in terms of storytelling, but also gameplay. The same limitations imposed on combat and what you can do immediately shackle down Aloy’s character in the same way. It’s not until leaving the valley that the Nora call home that either of these facets bloom.
Horizon Zero Dawn does surprise at all times in one regard: the subjects that it decides to tackle. It could have easily built its side-quests around fetching items, killing bandits or other open-world tropes. And I mean, it does do those things, but it also tells some interesting stories with mostly untouched subject matters. The game tackles things like mental health, class politics, survivor guilt, and moving past a bloody history. In these moments that the 20-ton mechs take a back seat, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn mimics our own in a way that feels all too natural, and that’s just impressive.
This is why I’m sad to say that interacting with the varied characters in this world is an absolute drag. All of its NPCs–with the exception of a handful of main characters–feel catastrophically out of place, as if they were pulled from a very, very deep uncanny valley. Their eyes look dead and hollow but realistic, mouths move in a way you wouldn’t expect, and so many characters are just over-animated. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it were a rare occurrence for NPCs to put me off, but it’s not; it’s almost constant. Listening to these sometimes poorly-voice-acted animatronics in human skin sharing their problems takes away from the actual story trying to be told.
It’s a good thing then that the focus of Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t its story. This isn’t a David Cage game: there are giant robot dinosaurs on the cover, and those are what we all came here for. Luckily, there’s a ton of different mechazoids: horse-like striders that can be ridden, snapmaws with their fearsome jaws spouting icy blasts, and fire bellowbacks that spray brutal flames from sacs of fuel are just a taste of the robotic foes that Aloy and the rest of humanity’s remainders compete against. There’s such a wide variance of enemies, all with their own unique, gorgeous looks and attacks, that it’s hard to be bored when you’re focused on taking them down. Beyond being formidable opponents, these mechs serve as setpieces, creating scenes of awe and terror. The first time I traveled to the Sun Kingdom, a different faction’s territory, I was standing on top of a cliff looking out over a group of canyons. Over them flew a massive machine, fashioned like a bird of prey. I didn’t know what it was, but I did know that I’d be running into it sooner rather than later.
Robotic enemies do one thing first that puts them in a group with other memorable enemies from other games – they terrify. Just like the ghosts and banshees of Dark Souls, these mechanic creatures summon a deep fear the first time you see them. But, just like every other monster, they are much less terrifying once you learn about them and finally take one down. Using an old-world tool called a Focus, Aloy can see past the gnashing metal jaws of these creatures and at their components – specifically their weak spots and vulnerabilities. Every enemy has one–somewhere you can strike with a fire arrow to cause an explosion, an exposed battery to shoot with an electric arrow to stun the creature–and knowing these weaknesses is key to battle. By the end of the game, you’ll become a willing expert on the “wildlife” of Horizon Zero Dawn, and while it won’t impress strangers at a party, it’s hard to deny how enthralling just fighting these creatures can be.
That’s without even mentioning the approach to combat that Horizon Zero Dawn takes. As Aloy, you are a small, frail human compared to the lumbering masses of metal, fire and gears that you’ll often have to fight. They are without a doubt stronger than you, faster than you, and more accurate than you. Human ingenuity is what tips the scales ever so slightly in Aloy’s favor. With what’s essentially a utility belt of traps, weapons and different kinds of ammunition, you’ll almost always have what you need to take down an enemy. If you don’t, the game doesn’t punish by preventing you from swapping weapons from your inventory into a quick select wheel either – everything is always available.
Running out of munitions is hardly ever a problem either. One of the benefits of mainly using bows is that everything you need to make more arrows can be harvested either from nature or defeated robots. But instead of taking the slow and heavy approach in crafting–you know, the one involving sitting down with your legs crossed over a campfire–Aloy can do it on the fly. This kind of freedom, especially mid-combat, is part of what allows players to approach any situation with the tools they need to succeed. Using them successfully is a different story all together, but once you’ve got the hang of it, combat in Horizon Zero Dawn becomes a thrilling and fulfilling, almost cinematic experience.
On reflection, it is an absolute shame that it took me this long to play Horizon Zero Dawn. I’ve played few open world games that have as many unique twists on otherwise common features for the genre. But after playing the game for over 20 hours, I can safely say I’ve never played anything like Horizon Zero Dawn. Even now three years out from its original release, I can’t say I’ve played anything that feels wholly similar, even in a very familiar genre.
Despite its hang ups, technological and otherwise, Horizon Zero Dawn on PC is a fantastic experience. You’ll come for the giant robot dinosaur fights, and probably stay for them too, but also for the mysterious, enchanting world that developer Guerrilla Games has built. The stories told in Horizon Zero Dawn may not be unique to me, but they’re certainly something I didn’t expect to find, and the game benefits heavily from that. The fact that I want to hop back onto Horizon Zero Dawn right now, despite its technological flaws, is a testament to how enjoyable of a game it is.