It continues to shock me just how good 2017 was for gaming. A slew of titles were released, and it seems they all did something a bit different. For some franchises there was a continued escalation of brilliant design, polishing long kept formulas in games such as Super Mario Odyssey. Other franchises got huge reworks, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild pushing the award-winning series in a brand new direction.
We also got to watch Yoko Taro gain commercial success, his cult status turned mainstream with Nier Automata, a game that pushed the limits of what games can do and the stories they tell. With other great titles such as Nioh, Cuphead, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, What Remains of Edith Finch, Resident Evil 7, Fortnite, and so many more, the Game of the Year field was filled with contenders. However, there is only one worthy of being called such — Horizon: Zero Dawn.
A new IP from Guerilla Games, developer of the Killzone franchise, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open world action game set in a post-apocalyptic future. Released at the end of February 2017, it has since gone on to sell over 7.5 million copies. It was the fastest selling new IP for any PS4 game and was the best performing release since Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
There are 3 key elements to what makes this game better than so many other quality games. Spoiler warning! If you have yet to play the game, something I highly suggest doing so, be warned that there are potential spoilers from here on out.
To start, the characters boast a strong argument for Horizon: Zero Dawn being the game of the year of 2017. It all starts with Aloy, one of the best characters in gaming in the last decade. Born to the Nora Tribe, she is exiled from birth due to her strange origins. She’s left with fellow exile Rost, a man who despite being cut out of the tribe, still follows their rules religiously.
We first control her as a little girl, and here is where her situation is set up beautifully. Aloy grows up ostracized, and alone, and there are examples that shape her in the tutorial. She starts the game watching children picking berries, receiving praise from a woman watching them. Aloy walks up with some berries, seeking praise, but she’s ignored. Yet despite this, she later ignores Rost’s Nora Tribe purist talk and saves a teenage boy in the process. The boy is an injured villager, having found himself crippled and surrounded by killer machines. Both examples show key thematic character traits, both her need to be praised, as well as her reactionary, emotional instincts to be a good person.
When she’s older, she ends up getting to join the tribe, and even becomes what is known as a seeker; one who can leave the Nora territory without consequence. As she learns about the world, she shows to be open to new ideas and evolves as a character. She retains her kind-hearted nature, always working to help others despite who they are or where they’re from. She also makes mistakes, and these moments show flaws that humanize her. She’s very similar to Korra from Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Brash, confrontational, emotional, and with flaws, both women work to be helpful and do their best. Each tends to act first and think and deal with consequences later.
Her greatest highlight comes late in the game when Aloy learns how she was born. She was created as a genetic copy of a woman named Elisabet Sobeck, who created the system that would repopulate the earth after a machine plague was set to wipe out all life. She learns this by entering a building inside the Nora homeland, at a place considered holy. As she walks out, fresh off the monumental knowledge she acquired, the Nora tribe all suddenly treat her like a prophet. She reacts confrontationally, telling them the things she’s learned, and chastising them for their ways. Where before she was looking for this acceptance, now she throws it aside after acquiring a grander view of the world.
While Aloy is the highlight, other strong characters help flesh out the world. Focusing on one, in particular, Rost shows himself to be a loving surrogate father, trying to do right by Aloy while remaining loyal to his beliefs. He shows his love for Aloy over his commitment to tribe rules when he watches her at the Proving, the event that allows her to join the tribe. He saves her life here and sacrifices his own. Other characters introduced later on, like Errand and Nil, are engaging and evolving in their own ways. They both help push Aloy to grow as a character, while also growing themselves thanks to their interactions with her.
The world of Horizon: Zero Dawn is the second key piece that makes it great. An open world, it joins 2017 releases such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Nier Automata, but both have flaws that Horizon: Zero Dawn doesn’t. Starting with a comparison to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, while it has a large map that grants more freedom, it is lacking content. Despite being so big with a fair amount more to do, there is so much dead space in between events, and sometimes even encourages avoiding events.
Horizon: Zero Dawn, in contrast, forsakes the larger scale to provide more depth. While there are certain pockets of lacking content, these plots are few and far between, being the exception to the rule. Encounters with all types of enemies are scattered together, with plenty of items to gather, animals to hunt, or treasure to find between them.
Nier Automata also keeps things tight, and the world changes more than in Horizon: Zero Dawn. What it forgoes is the hidden lore and history, specifically in the environment. The color palette is the first difference, with more vibrancy in the wilds compared to the ruined cities of Nier Automata. Likewise, the relics of the past also tell more stories, with collectibles and logs filling in the lore of the locations. Non-verbal storytelling shines through the lands of Horizon: Zero Dawn.
What helps push Horizon: Zero Dawn over the edge is the gameplay. Focusing on ranged combat, there is fun and fluidity that few games have managed to pull off this well. Hand-to-hand fighting is pushed to minimalistic standards, with the emphasis on developing a longer distanced playstyle. The basic bow and arrow you start with already hold strong customization options, but as you add in more weapons, such as the bomb-launching Sling or the trap setting Tripcaster, it allows every player to find their own way of fighting.
Resource management with these is integrated like Metro 2033 and its sequels, with your ammo as currency. Metal shards are collected from your downed enemies and are used to buy new items, while also used to craft ammunition. It encourages smart play and selective combat while rewarding the risks taken to destroy your foes.
The amount of extra content also lends itself well, as Horizon: Zero Dawn wants you to explore the world. Challenge areas are scattered at points on the map and serve to both introduce you to concepts you may not be familiar with, and to grant access to new items and bonuses. These events are tied into the story and help create a connection between the plot and the gameplay.
There are games that do things better than Horizon: Zero Dawn. Some might have better combat overall, others better maps, some may have better lore. What makes this game the best of its year is the entire experience. The flaws on display often equate more to nitpicks, while what it does well are equivalent to triumphs. One major criticism often leveled at the game is that it brings nothing new to the table. While that is technically true, to a point, the execution of what it does needs to be commended. Taking overused tropes, such as radio towers and bandit camp cleanouts, and making them not just fun but sometimes highlights is a major success.
At the end of the day, Horizon: Zero Dawn is the complete package. A cohesive game in terms of story, gameplay, and world, it stands alone at the top of the list. That’s not to talk down to the other hits of the year, as in almost any other year, several of these games would easily bring home the GotY title. However, in 2017, there is no more deserving title than Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a complete, exceptional experience, and one that deserves to be called, the best game of 2017.