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December 1, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild VS Horizon: Zero Dawn: Hell in a Cell (Part 1)

I think I’ve sent myself on a guilt trip.

The dust has long since started to settle on E3 2016, with no shortage of information to parse through.  Granted some things were still a no-show -- a new Sonic game is on the way, but Sega just teased an announcement of an announcement of an announcement to screw with everyone’s heads -- but I doubt anyone will go on a rant about how the industry’s major players kept all their cards close to the chest. 

And that’s where my guilt comes in.  At last year’s E3, I was intrigued by Horizon: Zero Dawn.  Very intrigued; it was new, it was different, and it looked as if it had plenty to offer for gamers vis a vis robot dinosaur hunting.  I’d assume that’s not all you’ll be doing, but if that’s the core gameplay, then it seems all right.  Well, that’s what I’d like to say; cut to a year later, however, and I’m suddenly not so intrigued by it.  What would’ve once made my eyebrows slide up my face now makes me go “Ehhhhhhhhh…” and “Awwwwwwwwwww…”  I don’t understand what happened, and it’s kind of tearing me up inside.  That’s especially true, because -- at least on a superficial level -- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild ticks some of the same boxes, yet my hype is breaking through the atmosphere.

What the hell’s going on?  Well, I intend to find out with this LONG overdue post.  Even though I already kind of have an answer, but let’s pretend we’re going in raw.


It’s worth noting upfront that neither game is on store shelves, so it’s impossible to judge with absolute clarity which one is better.  Things can get better from their E3 showings, and things can get worse.  Or, alternatively, design decisions made on day one can cripple either endeavor in ways we gamers will eventually have to suffer through.  That’s a real possibility, so we’ll see once 2017 rolls around.

Also, let’s not pretend like the name or pedigree alone will guarantee a 10/10 game on release day.  I have a deep love and respect for Skyward Sword, but the way some people talk about it, you’d think it was singlehandedly responsible for curbstomping the populace’s collection of childhood toys.  So yeah, there’s no guarantee of quality or enjoyment from person to person.  Similarly, let’s not give Horizon: Zero Dawn a free pass just because it’s a much-needed new IP featuring a female protagonist.  A good game can prove it’s a good game without relying on any nepotism or excuses, so let’s judge them fairly and accordingly.  Inasmuch as one can be fair, given the undeniable presence of personal biases.

So, what have we got?  In the red corner, there’s Horizon: Zero Dawn.  The game stars Aloy (which to my surprise is NOT pronounced like “alloy”), who’s on a personal mission in a post-apocalyptic (?) world to uncover the truth.  She’s armed with a mechanical bow and a set of arrows that’d make Green Arrow beam -- and it’s a safe bet that she’ll need to use tools and skills alike to fight off robot animals and savage warriors to discover who she really is.  And/or what’s out there in the wild.  As one would.

Sony and E3 2016 alike were kind enough to grace us lowly peasants with a heaping helping of evidence -- not just with a cinematic trailer, but also a gameplay trailer long since available for eyeball consumption.  There’s been more stuff since, but I’d prefer to focus on the early stuff to help illustrate a point.  So before we talk too much about Horizon, let’s have a look at what was (and technically still is) on display, shall we?

Meanwhile, we’ve got The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the blue corner -- a game that needs no introduction.  Reportedly, the story opens up with this incarnation of Link waking up after 100 years of sleep; “Calamity Ganon” has run amok in Hyrule and its titular castle, so as usual, it’s up to Link to sort things out.  Pretty basic story, as it often is, but it’s too early to know for sure if that’s a red flag or a green light.  The important thing is that you’ll be making use of Shrines of Trials and dungeons to (presumably) boost your strength, and find a way to clear out Ganon once again.

Nintendo took a lot of heat for essentially skipping out on E3 this year.  On one hand, I don’t blame them because E3 is as much the home of cringe, hype-mongering, and a celebration of the industry’s greatest vices as it is a great big gaming expo.  On the other hand?  Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe they should’ve used that time and that space to show off the Switch and its games, because it’s not like they’re a secret anymore and the Big N’s stall tactics aren’t exactly winning over any new fans.  With that said, they spent this year’s E3 showing off what’s likely hours of gameplay, which is always appreciable.  Go look that up if you want; until then, here’s the trailer and a tiny snippet.

Okay, so…let’s start by going back to the red corner.

It’s plainly obvious that Horizon: Zero Dawn is going to have a more overt story.  That’s not to say that Breath of the Wild won’t have one, but it’d be pretty easy for the upcoming Zelda game to put the narrative on the backburner.  So props to the devs for having the guts to offer up a female protagonist in a game that -- presumably -- has plenty of bucks from the war chest behind it.  At least, it sure looks like it has money behind it.  Then again, maybe the guys behind the game just have a good handle on the PS4 architecture, and can do more with less.

In any case, what have we got on display?  Well, we have Aloy and we have her father.  It’s a safe bet that there’ll be a bigger cast than that, but for now we at least have our grounding and some of our central characters.  It seems as if there are secrets behind Aloy’s birth and origin, which at once make her special and reviled.  “Outcast” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s not hard to imagine that our leading lady’s the victim of some bullying; it’d be interesting to see how that affected and molded her into the woman she is in the present.  Granted the implication is that she’s willing to push those thoughts away, but that’s to be expected.  Her mission is to solve the mysteries of the world and her origin, even if it means infiltrating some secret techno-base.

The setup is there for a good story, no question.  So why does Horizon rub me the wrong way?

I think the problem here -- a personal, subjective one, I should stress -- is that I have issues with the tone.  It’s very grandiose in scope, and it’s trying very hard to sell the weight and importance of this mystery.  And to be fair, that’s not a bad angle to pursue.  Could anyone make it through their day-to-day lives if they didn’t have absolute security in their identity?  And if we work under the assumption that this low-tech world makes communication and interaction much harder, then that’d mean Aloy would have fewer people to justify her identity, or give her the validation of her existence she’s desperate for.  Fair enough, right?

But the tone is at odds with the game, I think.  At this stage -- when I’m fresh off of an overlong Xenoblade Chronicles X playthrough -- I’m just as interested in the world as I am the characters.  Maybe more so.  Thanks to that, I feel like trying to sell an audience on the mystery of Aloy’s birth is a misstep.  I’d lay that problem at the foot of the trailers, because I personally find a huge percentage of them grating.  But if it’s truly indicative of what to expect from the final game, then I’m concerned that it’s trying to make us fall in love with Aloy without letting us naturally fall in love with her.  It sounds like a bunch of double-speak, but there’s a difference.

The footage so far tries its hardest to prove how brave, tough, focused, and determined Aloy is.  Those are fine traits to have, for sure; if she’s going to play the leading role, then she has to have some agency and presence in the plot.  But despite that, I feel like there’s something…empty about her characterization so far.  Like everything so far is going “Look how tough and spirited and rebellious she is!  What a great character, right?”  That’ll probably be the case until the full game drops -- or we get more trailers/demos -- but I’m not sold on her yet.  She’s strong and capable and all of that, but is she an actual person rendered in glorious HD?  Or is she just a tool to be used by the plot, the devs, and even the marketing team?

Notably, one of the latest videos has a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel pop up.  That can mean any number of things, from deciding if there’s an alignment or karma system to determining which ending you’ll get.  In the worst-case scenario, it could mean that Aloy loses her character because she has to conform to the whims of the player.  That can lead to a sense of ownership and bonding with the player, in the sense that he or she gets to watch their take on Aloy navigate through decisions and relationships.  On the other hand, it can mean that she’s an automaton who loses her spark -- the boldness handcrafted by her creators, player input be damned -- because she has to be the perfect avatar.  Because anyone an audience can’t imprint on is worthless, right?

It’s impossible to get in deep with the story right now.  That much is obvious.  Still, my concerns extend beyond that; whether it’s in light of BotW or taken on its own merits, it feels like there’s a gap between what Horizon wants to be and what it truly is.  What’s being promised is a sprawling adventure -- a trek through a breathtaking, if hyper-simplified world.  The colors are there, and the environments are there, too; it’s a safe bet that the PS4 will help Horizon get the most out of its myriad habitats.  Still, I don’t feel like it’s a winning bet just yet, and the E3 content helps show why.  I know that it’s a concise video primed to offer a snippet of what the full game will entail, but think back to its early moments.  Think back to what Aloy does before she starts her hunt.

She runs in pretty much a straight line, and has an encounter with some enemies.  I think that was when my hype for the game seriously started to dip. 

I 100% understand that the trailers aren’t indicative of every last second of the final game (which is a good thing and a bad thing, but whatever.)  Still, this is the footage that was chosen to represent Horizon, and what the devs think is either worth getting excited about, or what encapsulates the core experience.  If either one of those is true, then I think my doubt is justified -- especially in the face of BotW.  Why?  Well, sure, it’s almost a given that Aloy runs down a straight path to expedite the footage and get to those golden moments.  But doesn’t it feel like a disservice to rush past all the nature on display and only focus on it when it’s time for a sweeping trailer shot?

I mean, yeah, Horizon is a good-looking game -- at least based on what a standard YouTube video can show.  I wouldn’t mind seeing what else it has to offer, especially if there’s a chance to go off the beaten path.  The problem is that I’m concerned if there’s an incentive to go off the beaten path -- if the world born from thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars has anything to justify its presence.  Think of it this way: what can you do in Horizon that lets you get the most out of the world?

As far as the trailers show, you can run through that world and climb stuff -- or at least use light parkour to scurry across it quickly.  It’s a safe bet that you can harvest scrap from robotic enemies to craft new items.  Likewise, it’s possible to mount unsuspecting creatures.  And of course, you’ve got an array of weapons and tricks to take down an array of towering foes.  It’s a system that’ll likely work in the long run, but I already feel let down by it.  Bored, even.

The game seems to have a lean towards combat and action -- using your tools to snipe at enemy weak points, all while dodging attacks that could cleave a mountain in two.  In theory, it’d make for a pulse-pounding adventure from start to finish.  In practice, I have my doubts.  For starters, it seems like you’re almost guaranteed to win just by using the arrows that tether an enemy to the ground; I’d assume that you’ve got a limited count of them, but it doesn’t look like enemies have any sort of defense against it.  (Maybe they just break loose after a while.)  Whatever the case, it seems like the action that should be thrilling and dynamic simply isn’t.  True, Horizon is probably a game that plays better than it looks, but I’m left wanting.

It looks too easy.  Too simplistic.  Too far in the player’s favor.  Aloy has a ton of special weapons, close- and long-range combat capabilities, what looks like a generous dodge capability, and the ability to sense enemy weak points from afar.  How are enemies supposed to be a threat when you can do so much to stomp them from any given distance?  It’d be one thing if you had to learn how to deal with enemy attack patterns and uncover weaknesses on your own, but the tools, skills, and odds all seem geared toward making combat into an afterthought.  And if it truly plays that way -- if the speculation becomes the final product -- then what does that mean for a game with such a seemingly-huge focus on combat?

I feel as if this is a game that’d make a stronger case for itself if it minimized the combat.  The Last of Us did that (well, sort of), and nobody had a problem with it.  If the goal is to explore this strange and mysterious new world to uncover its secrets, is it really an absolute necessity to kill every robot dinosaur that crosses our paths?  Is it required to base at least a decent chunk of the game around that?  And yes, you can get a thrill out of combat against towering foes; the Souls games and Bloodborne are proof of that, just like plenty of other games.  But Horizon’s combat doesn’t look nearly as intriguing, and I doubt it’ll have the challenge needed to provide the satisfaction of a job well done.

On one hand, it makes me wish that the combat took a backseat (or that whoever put together those trailers had the confidence to show off footage without such an emphasis on violence).  On the other hand, it goes right back to the tonal problems I mentioned earlier.  It seems geared to force the weight of the plot and the importance of the journey you are going on without letting things naturally play out.  And maybe that’s an inherent fault by design.  It’s not so much “explore this sprawling world” as it is “explore this sprawling world to figure out who you are”.  It makes a difference.

So I’ll say this much: if it turns out that the whole point of the game is to discover that Aloy is actually a robot or some piece/retainer of alien technology, I’m gonna be pissed.

I want to go on an adventure.  And sure, I’m not opposed to having a strong, overarching plot to give that adventure focus.  But A) you have to earn it, and B) your plot has to be good.  It’s too early to judge Horizon’s plot just yet, but it already feels like focus is being pulled away from the world to push Aloy as hard as possible.  It doesn’t feel natural, and it makes me resent the game from the outset because it doesn’t have the guts to let things flow naturally -- to let Aloy prove herself without dear old dad (and the trailer footage, and the devs by extension) singing praises about why she’s different, but also clearly better than everyone else.

I guess what I’m asking for here is a game that’s quiet instead of loud.  Throughout the gameplay footage trailer, Aloy is constantly running her mouth -- explaining what she needs to do, or what she did, and all sorts of reactions.  Likewise, the story trailer says a lot, but says very little (as trailers often do).  They’re trying to sell a feeling -- to tell us how to feel -- instead of showing a feeling.  Will the full game deliver?  It’s definitely possible.  But right now, I don’t feel like the footage has delivered.  Neither has Horizon in general. 

Somehow, by trying to make the game look and feel and act special, it’s as if the game is less special.  It’s not an adventure.  It COULD be.  But it’s not right now.  It just feels like a late entrant in The Year of the Bow.

I don’t want to be so down on Horizon.  I really don’t.  Like I said, it’s a new IP with a female protagonist, so it deserves some credit right off the bat.  Still, some credit doesn’t lead to all of the credit.  There’s still work that needs to be done and quality that needs to be proven -- and what’s been shown off so far isn’t substantive enough to satisfy me.  I need more proof as to why this game was worthy of getting time on the E3 stage, and the clock has long since started ticking.

In the best case scenario, the PS4 will get a solid title added to its library.  In the worst case scenario, it’ll be completely superfluous on release day -- because there might be an infinitely-superior game on the way.  There’s no guarantee that BotW will be the Game of All Years, but if nothing else?  It made a much better showing, and it’s promising something much more intriguing to me.  I’m guessing it did the same for others, too.  But I could be reaching a bit.

So what does it do?  Why am I right there in the blue corner?  Well, I’ll go ahead and explain…next time.  See you soon.  And make sure you stock up on arrows.

Also, I think this post now has the most cumbersome title I've ever written.  I love that.

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