The new PS4 game Horizon Zero Dawn does a lot of big stuff well. Literal big stuff, like robots the size of buildings. It also nails a lot of small things. Amazing leg animations, sure, but also things that more directly affect how it feels to play the game.
Given that I sometimes highlight games that screw up their user interface or make things needlessly complicated for the player, I thought I’d point out a few of the small but impressive things Guerrilla Games has done well with Horizon.
I actually spent my first couple of hours with Horizon thinking that I hated the user interface. The default settings covered the screen in too much information, and the dynamic HUD didn’t quite remove enough of it. There were a lot of settings in the custom HUD menu, but I didn’t know how to clean things up without completely turning things off.
Then I realized that “always off” doesn’t actually mean always off, and that you could tap the touchpad to show the complete HUD at any time. This is a really good idea that more games should copy in the future! It actually works the same as the Witcher 3 HUD mod that I recently raved about, in that you can turn everything off and, should you ever want to check on your quest objective or level progress, you can just tap (not click) the PS4 trackpad and it’ll pop up. The HUD stays visible long enough for you to read it, then fades away.
Now when I play, my screen is almost entirely empty of text and iconography and I can focus on the game. My one complaint is how this setting handles dynamic quest objective locators—the only way to make them go away is to deactivate all quests, when the better solution might be to give players an option to have objective markers fade in with the rest of the HUD or only appear when Aloy is using her focus. Regardless of that quibble, this game handles its HUD well.
A lot of games like Horizon let you run and sneak. You default to walking around, but with the press of a button (or thumbstick) you change states. You crouch into a sneaking pose, or push forward into a sprint. Walking is the default, however, which means there’s a certain elasticity pulling you back to standing and walking.
It’s apparently easy to get this balance slightly wrong, and to make the walking default a little too sticky. You’ve probably felt that happen in a stealth game when you accidentally stand up after interacting with an object, and everyone sees you. Or when you’re running flat-out and stop to do something, then have to start running again.
Horizon’s running and sneaking are very sturdy. If you’re sneaking, you can jump or drop down from a ledge and you stay in a crouch. It’s also generally pretty easy to keep running. You can even activate Aloy’s focus to scan the world around you mid-run. She’ll slow down, like she always does when she goes into focus-mode. Then, when you exit the focus she’ll continue running. It’s a little thing, but it makes the controls feel more consistent and reliable.
Horizon is a difficult game. (I’d go so far as to call it bracingly difficult? Shockingly difficult? It’s hard, anyway.) You’re repeatedly going up against huge-ass robots that can pound you into the ground in a few hits. Unlike many comparable games, there’s no lock-on aiming. You’ll have to hit their weak spots with skillful aim while under immense pressure.
To compensate for that, Horizon’s skill tree is arranged somewhat differently from other similar games. Many modern games give you some sort of slow-mo as a late-game ability, something you unlock after many hours. Horizon gives you not one but two slow-mo abilities as the first items in their skill tree. You can click the thumbstick to enter slow-mo while aiming, or jump or slide while aiming and go into slow-mo for the duration of your motion.
The developers likely knew that players would need breathing room to aim during the game’s many hectic fights, and they front-loaded the slow-mo abilities so that they could design every encounter with the understanding that most players would be able to slow time and aim. It doesn’t make the game easy, but it at least makes it more possible to survive.
I’ve written a lot about video game bows, and in the process of doing that I’ve come to an okay understanding of what makes a video game bow work well. Horizon borrows the bow control scheme from Tomb Raider, which is to say, they borrowed the best existing video game bow control scheme and built on it.
In Horizon, you aim the bow with the left trigger and draw back the string with the right. If you want to fire, let go of the right trigger, as you would let go of the bowstring. If you want to release your aim and cancel the shot, you let go of the left trigger.
It’s a good control scheme because it matches with the way you’d use a real bow closely enough to feel natural. Lots of games still have you cancel out of a shot by pressing a button or clicking a stick, but Horizon’s makers went with the more intuitive option.
I’m not ready to call Horizon’s slide move the BEST in video game history, only because we’re so hot on the heels of Titanfall 2 and that game’s slide was in a class by itself. (And let us not forget Vanquish.) But Horizon is right up there with those games. Check this shit out:
Aloy can slide along almost any surface, and she goes for distance. When coming downhill at a run, you can cover what feels like twenty yards before slowing down. The slide also has well-tuned aftertouch, meaning it’s easy to redirect Aloy as she slides. You can pull up short by letting up on the thumbstick, and it’s become second nature for me to slide her around into and out of cover while stalking dinobots. Better still, the slide dovetails with that early slow-mo ability to slow time when you aim while sliding. Horizon’s slide is yet another well-tuned control mechanism to make me feel in control of my character.
Okay, one more. It’s really minor but still cool:
I spend a lot of time in Horizon doing recon, stalking my prey and coming up with a plan. Because the game is so tough, it rarely pays to rush into a fight without planning things out. You’ll want to lay traps and figure out a plan of attack.
When you’re scanning the battlefield using Aloy’s focus, you can select specific dinobots to see their strengths and weak spots. I do wish it were a little easier to cycle through the various weak points on a targeted bot, but I appreciate the way the game gently takes control away from me if I let the thumbstick go. I can watch the robot’s movement pattern as the camera follows it around, with no input required.
It’s subtle and seamless, and never really gets in the way, which means it’s well-tuned. You can just place the reticle on the robot and Aloy’s head will follow it for you, which lets you relax and think things through. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s the kind of thing that makes Horizon feel polished and well thought-out.
There are of course also things I don’t like about the game’s UX and controls. It’s difficult to tag two enemies who are standing near one another, and the menus play the same annoying music every time I check them. I’m already sick of pressing triangle to gather resources and the weapon-wheel can feel a bit finicky. That sort of thing.
But the game does a lot of little things well, and there’s clearly been care put into fine-tuning the controls and polishing the overall user experience. All that work gives Horizon a distinct and welcoming feel, making it a game I can sense with my hands even if I’m watching a video of someone else playing. Surely a sign they’re getting something right.