I picked up Horizon Zero Dawn about a month after launch, but probably finished it long before people who already had it got even halfway through the main story. This is mostly because of the simple fact that I adored this game - I loved the lush world, compelling stories, and meticulously-crafted combat. Most of all, though, I loved Ashly Burch’s captivating performance as Aloy, who has since become one of my all-time favourite video game characters.
Unfortunately, Aloy’s strengths are what ultimately expose Horizon Zero Dawn’s most damning flaw: the world is totally dead. As in, if you take a minute to stop and stare, you’ll see that there’s nothing there that can exist without you. While Aloy is brilliant, she is the only person in the entire world capable of making it functional and intriguing - put the controller down to pop to the loo and you'll come back to a world that's forgotten about both you and itself.
Let’s take a look at some other open-world games that don’t suffer from this issue. In The Witcher 3, you can actually see the supply lines feeding into Novigrad, as well as the running water that keeps the cityfolk nice and hydrated. In Red Dead Redemption 2, eagles swoop down from the skies above to snatch unsuspecting snakes up off the ground for their dinner. In Skyrim… well, people do whatever the hell they please in Skyrim. It’s not usually very logical, but it’s certainly not lifeless either. All of these games feature worlds you simply inhabit, as opposed to ones you're forced to control.
In Horizon Zero Dawn, however, cities feel like enormous areas that are very emphatically blocks of code. While they’re obviously a product of animation, none of it feels animated in the literal sense - there’s no liveliness here, or purpose. Not one single character actually behaves as if they live in Meridian, or Sunfall, or Mother’s Heart. They just sort of stand around, all of them existing as a number to satisfy a quota more so than a person with genuine reason to be there. The visual fidelity is stunning, sure, but it’s a clear case of style without substance - an ostensible population does not create a meaningful community by default.
I think this is also why Horizon's unpopulated areas - like the phenomenal ruins of Gaia Prime - are so unbelievably impressive. They're not only stunning - they're a respite from the weirdness of being in a city teeming with too many people who do nothing.
This whole structure is the single element of Horizon that I genuinely dislike, which is why I think it’s essential for Guerrilla to consciously address it in Horizon Forbidden West. I’m confident that Aloy will be as brilliantly written and acted as ever, and I have faith that the narrative department will craft yet another remarkable story. I also know for a fact that Guerrilla wouldn’t dream of putting out a world that wasn’t gorgeous beyond belief, its technocratic ruins existing in a strange kind of oppositional harmony with the nature that is in the process of both surrounding and superseding them. This all feels like a given.
Ultimately, though, none of it can properly compensate for the overbearing presence of lifeless cities. No matter how pretty they look, or how fascinating the stories told within them might be, these spaces begin to become progressively more hollow as soon as they experience their first accidental death. The second the lights come on, revealing all of the smoke and mirrors for their artificial and non-magical selves, the illusion fades away and the show is over. People who stand in the same place, saying the same thing over and over again, solely existing to provide an in-game trading function… That’s all there really is in Horizon Zero Dawn. Its cities are completely devoid of personality, and almost as robotic as the weird dinosaurs that traipse around the plains surrounding them.
Don't get me wrong, I loved Horizon Zero Dawn for all of its best bits - which, honestly, accounts for the vast majority of the game. I just really hope that Horizon Forbidden West remembers to acknowledge the existence of its predecessor's largest failing. Provided it does, we could have a serious game of the year contender on our hands.
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