Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017)

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Horizon: Zero Dawn (HZD moving forward) is as good a place as any to explain why I don't use star or numerical ratings when I give an up-front assessment of how I feel about a piece of art.  There are two good ideas in HZD plus a half good idea if I take one display feature into account.  Last week when I reviewed what I've now deemed the retroactively worst movie of 2016 - The Legend of Tarzan - I wrote that film had exactly two good ideas.  My save game clocked in around 79 hours for HZD, with The Legend of Tarzan running about 1 hour and 45 minutes or so.  Straight math using good ideas implemented in terms of hours spent with each would put HZD at a 3% success rate (2.5 good ideas/79 hours) while The Legend of Tarzan would be about 114% successful (2 good ideas/1.75 hours).

I bring this up because numerical ratings are silly and, though the mediums are different, HZD and The Legend of Tarzan share similar problems in storytelling.  Both have ciphers in the lead, they navigate a world with strong imperialist pressures that are unwittingly reproduced by the lead, and the call to action is less from a personal drive and more outside pressure.  They share similar issues with racial representation, with PoC bowing down to worship what sometimes felt like the only white girl in the world of HZD, while the slavery in The Legend of Tarzan required a benevolent white fella to stop black leaders from selling black slaves.

Both are repugnant, and my distaste experiencing both don't fit neatly into numerical ratings.  So, as a quick glance up at my rating bar would suggest, HZD  is a Dislike and boy howdy did I dislike it.

In what fairness I can muster, HZD suffers because I recently played and was deeply moved by NieR: Automata.  The world of the former is larger than that of the latter but without the constant perspective switches that make the small world of Automata so engaging to revisit.  HZD takes place in a world where it's clear Something Bad happened because it's not common for preadolescent women to be hunting robot dinosaurs with their adopted dads.  That's decent as far as setups go, but the writing of Aloy - the woman sent to discover the reason behind the attacks on her village - has all the depth of a soup ladle.

Aloy is so blank as a person and as an animated figure that I started to become unnerved at the sight of her in 90% of conversations.  A "select an emotion" option is available during some exchanges where you can choose whether she responds from the heart, the brain, or her brawn.  Don't expect the facial animations of Aloy or whoever she's conversing with to change much, and without the physicality to match the emotion what she says is of little importance because it doesn't change what role her conversation partner will play in the story.  Picking any one of those traits and expanding Aloy consistently in that direction would do her a world of good instead of arbitrarily selecting an emotion and carrying on.

Which brings me to the troubling interactions she has.  At first, I thought HZD was going to have some fun with the "white savior" trope as Aloy's excellent hunting skills are thanks in-part to a Focus - which is a device that examines the surroundings, determines enemy weak points, and can track footsteps.  The footstep tracking is the half of a good idea mentioned above, as it at least gives the fingers a rest after having to hold down a trigger for Geralt to let his senses do their thing in Wild Hunt.  A white outsider using a technical advantage against PoC has rich critical potential if the character is called out on it.  All of that potential goes out the window once Aloy discovers she is a chosen one thanks to a heavily foreshadowed apocalyptic event that left humans with bows to hunt robo dinos.

It's that hunting that salvaged some of my experience with HZD.  I've never been big on joystick vibrations but the little tingle in my hands before the bow's taut is a nice subtle psych prep for a shot.  Fighting other humans is dull as I was able to clear all human-based missions and bandit camps with a smidge of patience as they almost all go down with one shot to the head.  Hunting the robo dinos is sometimes a blast, and no matter how far you advance in level you can't let yourself be surrounded or overwhelmed otherwise you'll be reloading fast.  My favorite fight was the first time I took down the appropriately named Thunderjaw.  I was switching between weapons quickly, refocusing on the beast to expose the weak spots, distracting then running to hide and heal up, and all the action was aided by skill-assisted slowdowns making the destruction a bit beautiful.

There's also promise in the cauldrons, which are lairs where you can upgrade your robo staff to override machine programming and create some on-the-fly allies.  Metal lattice forms eerily stable designs compared to the individual architecture of the rest of the world, steam pipes need to be struck to give yourself cover during fights, and creeping around corners hoping you won't come into the eyeline of a pack of robo dinos keeps the intrigue alive.  Searching for environmental clues on how to get to the next section is a damn sight better than how climbing works in the wilderness where you basically hold a direction while Aloy makes the death-defying leaps with the occasional jump button press needed from the player.

Good ideas, but not enough to overcome the mess of Aloy and the world's relationship to her.  The climax disposes of the good stuff in a three-part boss fight where two-thirds are summed up by "Bomb Repeat Bomb", and a simplistic tower defense skirmish that erases the goodwill of not having to keep a trigger pressed in the investigative parts of HZD.  The dialogue does have one interesting thing to say during this climax as Aloy wonders aloud what good it is to talk to ghosts.  Considering her thin writing, she might as well be talking about herself.

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Posted by Andrew

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