Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of those games that’s a perpetual showstopper. Whether it’s E3, PAX, or some other gaming event, Sony trots it out when they want to wow the crowd and whip them into a frenzy. And it works every time because the game looks great. After seeing these presentations for so long I finally got to go hands-on with the game at PAX West 2016, and while the visual styling was all there, the game just failed to impress in a couple of ways that have me pretty worried.
First off, this was a short, simple demo. I was not in the vast, open world that Horizon: Zero Dawn promises, and that likely has a lot to do with this. I’m not calling for the game’s death or anything, it’ll almost certainly be a solid experience, I’m just not sure it will live up to the massive hype right now.
So what did I play? Well, pretty much just a chunk from the demo that’s been shown off at E3. Before I got to try the game out for myself the developer did another run down of this demo in person, showing off ten minutes of gameplay. It was all beautiful and engaging, even if I’d seen it all before. The protagonist’s flowing red hair, the giant mechanized beasts, and the huge open world were all just as impressive as usual. The combat too looked fun, and intriguingly strategic, with the use of elemental weaponry, crafting, and that awesome looking chain gun, or whatever it is that ties the machines down.
Finally going hands-on, my demo was much more limited, just putting players into a field with some Watchers, that’s the smaller bots with the one glowing eye, and some Broadheads which can be tamed and used as a mount. My goal was to deliver a stealth kill to a Watcher and subdue one of the Broadheads. Instead I walked up, got spotted, and had to take out the Watchers in a less than stealthy manner. Afterward, subduing the Broadhead was simple and easy, just walking up to it and holding a button.
I then tried to go out searching for more Watchers to try to check that final box, but the demo was quite limiting. Everywhere I went the game told me to turn back around or risk a restart. I finally just restarted myself and went in for another stealth kill. Failing miserably once again, I decided to mess with the AI a bit, running around objects and trying to hide. Sliding into the tall grass and waiting patiently for a Watcher to lose interest was pretty tense, but it was also the sort of thing that I’d done a thousand times before in other games.
I messed with the Watchers a bit more, popping off arrows into their face, or rushing at them and slamming them with my weapon. Finally the demo ended and I walked out, feeling like I’d just played a slightly disappointing demo of a very good looking game. Surely there is much more to the experience, and it’s important to remember how limiting demos can often be, but still, it was surprising that this mega blockbuster didn’t impress right away.
If it weren’t for one other thing I’d probably just ignore it and move on, pre-order firmly set on my Amazon account. However, I’ve really been worried that this game will suffer from the open-world fatigue problems that I’ve had with a lot of other games. The genre has just become so saturated and formulaic all at once. Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and other, sometimes non-Ubisoft titles have pushed the formula to its limits.
Horizon: Zero Dawn at least breaks out with a very interesting world to explore, but its mechanics seem pretty firmly rooted into this core concept. Whether it has more hiding under its hood is anyone’s guess at this point. We’ve seen a lot of demos for the game, but they’ve pretty firmly stuck to what appear to be the opening chapters of the title.
I’m not at all saying that Horizon: Zero Dawn is or will be a bad game, in fact I’m fairly certain it will be quite good. I’m less certain that it will be great though, and I’m more worried about those small things that I’d dismissed before. I’m still excited however, and really hope that a future demo just shuts all this down. Until then I’ll sit back and enjoy the bombastic gameplay presentations that we’ll surely be getting before the game hits PS4 on February 28th, 2017.