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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (430)

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Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5
Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5
The Bard's Tale Trilogy 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale III: Th... 1.5/5
The Bard's Tale II: The... 0.5/5
The Bard's Tale: Tales ... 0.5/5
The Technomancer 2.5/5
Tyranny 3.5/5
Pine 2/5

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Horizon: Zero Dawn   PC (Steam) 

The Plain Oatmeal of Open-Worlds    3.5/5 stars

When it released as a PlayStation 4 exclusive back in 2017, at the tail-end of that console’s lifespan, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” (“HZD”) represented a re-commitment from Sony to release big-budget, first-party titles on their own hardware that could compete with the biggest and boldest third-party titles that were taking the gaming world by storm. This affirmation of the importance of exclusives was a balm to people who still clung to the concept as a positive, and who had already bought-into Sony’s 8th Generation ecosystem.

For me, though, the fact that “HZD” was a PlayStation 4 exclusive was irritating. It meant that, if I wanted to play this game, I would have to blow several hundred dollars on a DRM-box, which would then proceed to harass me with prompts to take it online, so it could get necessary updates… and continue to harass me with prompts to subscribe to a paid service to get the most out of said DRM-box. The worsening of the console gaming experience, combined with the descent into madness of Sony and its fanboy defenders made the prospect of participating in this ecosystem, just for the opportunity to experience one-or-two mildly interesting games was simply a non-starter for me. Between 2012 and “HZD’s” release, I had emerged from my gaming chrysalis as a PC gamer, and, while still annoyed by some of the antics of the PC gaming base, was far less annoyed with the platform overall.

It was, thus, with great delight that I received the news that Sony was stealing one of Microsoft’s ideas (rather than all of Nintendo’s), and would start releasing their first-party titles on PC gaming stores as well. At first, it seemed that Epic Games and their still-deplorable-as-of-2022 Epic Games Store had something to do with this change of heart from the PlayStation platform-holder. However, the fact that “HZD” appeared not exclusively on the Epic Store, but also on Steam and the 100% DRM-free GOG, made it apparent that Sony was actually sincere with their desire to expand the audience for their games beyond PlayStation DRM-boxes. And not only did PC gamers get a DRM-free port of “HZD,” but a “Complete Edition,” with all of the DLC bundled into the basic purchase!

During the Summer Sale of 2021, I grabbed “HZD” for a decent discount, rejoicing at the fact that, thanks to some actually good decisions from Sony, I could now play one of their most acclaimed recent ‘exclusives’ without emulating it or being forced to buy-into a console ecosystem I find abhorrent. Unfortunately, upon actually playing it, I found it to be a fairly bland, design-by-committee, open-world game that pushes all the required buttons for a ‘modern’ game with as little enthusiasm as possible.

Presentation
“HZD” is built in the proprietary Decima Engine, created by Dutch (and Sony first-party) development studio, Guerilla Games. Decima had been around the studio for several years, first used in the final ‘Killzone’ game. It was hastily adapted for use in “HZD,” in spite of early development woes revolving around draw distances. I can report that Guerilla did actually manage to update the engine successfully, as “HZD” features plenty of huge, expansive regions and scenic vistas without a hint of pop-in or other bad behavior on the part of the engine. Indeed, the environments in “HZD” are almost photorealistic in their quality, with impressive attention to detail regarding the way warm bodies interact with snow and ice. Fortunately, the game isn’t ALL snow and ice, with plenty of ecological diversity, that all looks as clean and crisp as one would expect from a game released in the 2010s. Really, the only downside to the environmental visuals is the fact that the skyboxes are generally underwhelming.

People and creature design, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. While the range of people is as progressively-diverse as one would expect from a game-by-committee, they’re not particularly well animated, with facial animations coming off as particularly artificial and puppet-like. Non-humans fare little better. Between the range of organic and mechanical creatures populating the game, the organic beasties seem like an afterthought, lacking in both variety and detail, while the mechanical ones all share a rather samey carbon-fiber-and-chrome-with-one-big-eye aesthetic. There are, of course, outliers, and narrative-based reasons for these design choices.

Audio-wise, “HZD” is merely adequate. The game is fully voiced, employing a big-budget mix of established voice actors and the occasional Real Celebrity – specifically, Lance Reddick, who seems to be everywhere these days. Ashly Burch, who seems to be an incredibly popular voice actress amongst gamers, plays the lead character, demonstrating her range with a much more subdued, almost Geralt-of-Rivia-growly performance, compared to her usual screaming-idiot antics. The soundtrack, though, is a non-entity. I rarely noticed accompaniment, and when I did, it was the same grade of ‘generic’ that gets used in nearly every Hollywood or “AAA” gaming production. I couldn’t hum a single bar of “HZD’s” OST to save my life.

Technically, “HZD” is a really polished experience, as one should expect from a title that was originally planned as a console exclusive. I never ran into any weird glitches or crashes (though the Steam forum is full of people with such issues, probably due to trying to play a PS4 game on a 20-year-old potato PC). The fact that the “Complete Edition” is actually complete and the ONLY version available to buy on PC is great, as is the default DRM-free nature of the game. Of course, praising a game for meeting bare-minimum standards feels a bit disingenuous.

Story
“HZD” offers a different take on the rut-worn Post-Apocalypse theme. We open being introduced to our heroine, Aloy, a redheaded girl from a Neolithic tribal society who was ostracized from her tribe, the Nora, from birth. Raised as an outcast by Optimus Prime a fellow outcast named Rost, Aloy learns what it takes to survive in a primitive world inhabited by humans, beasts, and gigantic metal monstrosities referred to, collectively, as ‘machines.’

After a frontloaded blob of character-and-world-building at the beginning of the game, the player will take Aloy outside of Nora tribal lands into a wider world, tasked with rooting out a ‘corruption’ that the Nora matriarchs insist has upset their goddess. What Aloy discovers, however, is a much larger world, filled with more tribes and wonders than the isolationist Nora could ever hope to grasp. It’s also a world filled with the ruins of an ancient human civilization not unlike our own.

Narratively, it’s clear that at least some effort went into the world-building and overarching plot of “HZD.” The game’s central conceit is a mysterious, world-ending event that, from the outset, doesn’t appear to be a typical nuclear war, nor magical religious occurrence. Indeed, the backstory and world-building in “HZD” is admirable in its creativity, though less-so in how it handles a number of find details, which lead me to struggle with suspension of disbelief at times. It is internally consistent, at least, and tells an interesting story with a beginning, middle, and end, with a post-credits setup for an inevitable sequel.

The problem is that these storytelling efforts were dumped into a bog-standard, modern-default, open-world game without taking pacing into consideration. It took me 70 hours to get through all the content “HZD” offers. Throughout that 70 hours, there were roughly 10 hours of plot at the beginning and 10 hours of plot at the end that acted as bookends and/or anchors for a bloated mess of obligatory open-world activities. There are hidden things to collect! There are locations to discover! There are gobs of NPCs with exclamation marks over their heads, who will offer Aloy the opportunity to do banal fetch-quests for them, completely divorced from anything narratively interesting! While it is true that some of the side-quests and activities on offer in “HZD” provide snippets/chunks of lore about both the game’s present-day world and its ancient past, the vast majority of the side content is pure padding that not only offers nothing meaningful to the plot or world-building, but is incredibly boring! The overall experience of “HZD’s” storytelling could have been much improved by shrinking the open-world a bit, culling out some of the most rote questing material, and keeping the plot in sharp focus, with a greater sense of urgency. I don’t really think there’s more than 40-hours’ worth of quality material in both the base game and the “Frozen Wilds” expansion, combined.

Gameplay
“HZD” is, from a gameplay perspective, a 100% faithful attempt on the part of Guerilla Games and Sony at creating a new IP that fits perfectly into the slot occupied by the default game design conventions of the 2010s. It’s an open-world game with bog-standard third-person Action combat, featuring a light attack, heavy attack, dodge, and ranged options. It has semi-optional stealth mechanics. It has simplistic climbing mechanics based on spotting bright yellow handholds or bird-poop-covered ledges to move between. It has bandit camps. It has skill trees and experience points. It has loot and equipment, most of which can be upgraded or modified to the player’s liking. It has in-game loot boxes baked into its quest reward system (though, thankfully, no Freemium currencies or ways to buy these things with real money). It has crafting mechanics to replenish ammunition.

From my perspective, “HZD” is trying its absolute hardest to be a blockbuster success like “Far Cry 3” or “The Witcher 3,” or even its contemporaries in the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ series. Yet there is nothing particularly original or well-done regarding ANY of these copied gameplay mechanics. Stealth really only works in specially-designated Stealth Grass. Climbing is entirely scripted – more reminiscent of the “Tomb Raider” reboot and its sequels than the universal traversal systems used in ‘Assassin’s Creed’ or even the stamina-based system used in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” Crafting and trading in the in-game economy feels fairly pointless, as resources aren’t scarce, though Aloy’s carrying capacity is. Of course, there are craftable upgrades to each of her ammo pouches and other bags (for things like weapons, outfits, weapon mods, and generic ‘resources’ – that is ‘everything else’), but these are mostly trivial to build, requiring the skins, bones, and… meat of living beasts (seriously, how bad must Aloy smell, after crafting all of her bags and pouches out of ‘Fatty Meat’?).

Really, the only thing “HZD” has going for it – and one could argue that this idea was lifted from “Dragon’s Dogma” – is the fact that the player and Aloy will spend a lot of time battling gigantic theriomorphic machines, and no amount of light attack/heavy attack/dodge roll will help with that. Instead, Aloy’s arsenal of mostly bow-and-arrow types – which, annoyingly, require THREE DIFFERENT BOWS to fire all of them – is supplemented with a range of more interesting and unique weapons. There’s a tripcaster that allows Aloy to drop tripwires in enemies’ paths. There’s a ropecaster that can tie-down fast-moving machines to make melee critical attacks or weak-point pot-shots easier. There are also a couple of different slingshots that can lob explosives. Even among the arrows there are some interesting options, such as a sonic-burst arrow that doesn’t deal damage, but can break-off machine components, such as weapon options and armor plating, to make follow-up attacks less risky and more rewarding.

But that’s really it. A handful of novel weapons plopped into a rather dull and lifeless sandbox, where avoidance is almost always the best solution when encountering machines in the wild, does not a fantastic experience make.

Overall
While I applaud Sony for freeing (at least some of) its first-party titles from the shackles of PlayStation DRM-boxes, and doing so properly, “Horizon: Zero Dawn” isn’t a great showcase to get non-PlayStation gamers interested in PlayStation-centric IPs. While it clearly has great aspirations, I found Guerilla’s first open-world game attempt to be generally quite bland and difficult to swallow, like a big, boring bowl of plain oatmeal. Yet, it hits all the right buttons and pulls all the right levers to be a modern open-world game, the likes of “The Witcher 3,” and it definitely appeals to the same player-base who consider CD Projekt’s magnum opus to be the GoAT. For me, though, the horrendous pacing with almost-too-much story at the beginning and the end with next to nothing in the middle clearly illustrates the writing team’s lack of experience with non-linear and emergent storytelling. There is some good stuff to be found in “HZD,” but it takes some digging.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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