Why am I having more fun with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild than Horizon Zero Dawn given that the latter is a thousand times prettier and more polished, with deeper customization and far better dialog?
Whoops, I started with the conclusion!
- Yes, I know his name is Link. This is just the format I'm doing, all right? Ahem. Now, to discuss Link's character. His personality. What distinguishes him from a Segway in a green tunic. Hm, well.
- I'm being mean. There's an attempt at actual dialog this time, putting a tiny bit of personality into the player's choice between "I will help you" and "I will help you right now." By and large you're a blank Sheikah Slate for the player to puppet around Hyrule, no different than anyone else except that you respawn when you die.
- If you prefer to inhabit a rich tapestry of clans and characters, Horizon Zero Dawn lets you know exactly where you stand: at the bottom. You're an outcast ("to be shunned," the Horizon players recite in unison), a red-haired girl born from Glass Mother and given to Rost, an outcast who has been cast out and lives on the outskirts of town near an outhouse with his cast iron cookware.
- You play as Aloy ("ay-loy", because having a girl named alloy in a game about the mixture of machinery and nature would make too much frickin' sense), a spunky and headstrong young adult made only slightly bitter and jaded by years of bullying from nearly everyone in town. She's Buffy Summers in a Sunnydale where the authority figures are Principal Snyder and every kid is season one's Cordelia.
- I like Aloy, though the writers corrupt her (fairly original!) quest for knowledge about her past by mixing it with a desire to avenge her father's death. You know, the guy telling you not to go outside and have fun, who's totally comfortable with the tribal law that demeans his position in life. I get it, this is a realistic conservative father figure in an insular society, but the player's emotions are at odds with Aloy's. I'm not weeping at his death, I'm elated to finally explore! Hunt a machine that isn't staked to the ground. Craft something new or buy a weapon. His killers are bad people and I hate them and whatever, but I'll repay them at my leisure.
- Maybe with a fist bump.
- It's Hyrule. Ah-gain. There's something deeply weird about the Zelda formula that uses literally the same weapons, names, places, heroes, and villain every single time. Link and Zelda versus Ganon. No other franchise does this except Mario (and sometimes Sonic).
- Sorry, still being mean. Now Hyrule is a proper open world, with grassy plains, huge cliffs, wide lakes and long bridges. Enormous, dense, meaningful. The fast travel points give you upgrade tokens when you solve them. Forests and open plains differ in their monsters, items, and combat strategies (i.e. getcha horse).
- More than Horizon Zero Dawn, Zelda's world feels like a limitless place that's accessible to the player. They deserve so many kudos for making a physics-based movement engine, allowing Link to climb whatever he pleases. I want to roll down the hills and hug a tree. They practically let you!
- Where Zelda is a game that feels dense, Horizon is one that looks dense. Every inch of screen is packed with greenery, SpeedTree on steroids. Giant tentacle monster carcasses snake through mountains and make you grateful that metal horses are the starting enemies.
- I'm less enamored with the physical world. Compared to Zelda it feels very grounded. You can run and jump and slide and zipline and hide in tall grass, but good luck climbing anything that doesn't have an obvious outcropping or yellow ladder. Sometimes there's a boulder I want to mantle but I'm out of luck if it's taller than Aloy's head. It feels very videogame-y, your hunts at the mercy of the programmer.
- Hey, remember when Nintendo shipped games that ran at 60fps on their current generation platform? It feels like such a long time ago.
- Breath of the Wild looks and runs like ass, at least on the Wii U. It's a super chunky 720p with no anti-aliasing, significant and obvious tesselation, and pokey load times. Kakariko Village might as well be rendered in the Myst engine. The very first instant you get control of Link in the overworld to go down a hill, the framerate starts to chug. It's not always bad, as shrines and open plains and even multiple monster encounters are fine. Still, unavoidable.
- And yet… and yet the art direction is gorgeous. Morning landscapes are bathed in golden light, rainstorms are occluded by overhanging cliffs, even the wind feels like a real force. The graphical style is outstanding and it would be better served by, cough, the PlayStation 4.
- "What's that?" Guerrilla Games perks up, "How would the PlayStation 4 render an open world survival/hunting game? BEHOLD!"
- Then our eyes go blind from overexposure to pure awesomeness.
- Running at a solid 30fps at 1080p and higher, Horizon is immaculate. Characters are so finely detailed, so intricate, so confident that at one point we get a flawless close-up of Aloy's ear. The earth is jam-packed with interesting foliage, the machines are weird and wild tangles of tubes, nothing looks out of place. If there's one game that will never need a remastering, it's Horizon Zero Dawn.
- And yet… and yet the facial animation is a disaster. It's clear they've rigged all the eyebrow, pupil, lip, tongue, and nostril bones, but the end result is characters just jittering when they should be emoting. Aloy and Rost look like freshmen acting students waiting for the teacher to tell them how high to raise their eyebrows. It cuts significantly into the otherwise excellent dialog and slaps me out of the story.
- Both games have mysteries, but Breath of the Wild is so eager it blurts out the answers. What's plaguing the castl— it's Calamity Ganon. Who's this old man you meet everywher— it's the ghost of old King Hyrule. What am I doing in this great big worl— talk to the four races of Hyrule and then fight Ganon.
- "Oh," says the player. "I don't get to discover any of that for myself, do I?"
- "No," replies the game. "Are we cool, or do you want to take this up with Fi?"
- "We're cool, we're cool!" the player beads with sweat. "This is a great story, so awesome, I'm not getting Voltron vibes from the four Divine Beasts at all."
- At the call for story, Guerrilla Games cracks its knuckles again. "Did someone call for professional writing and world building? BEHOLD!"
- Horizon's history is as dense as its forests. Your character is materially affected by her outsider status (they pick on you during The Proving and it's genuinely annoying - good job, writers!). It's not clear what's going on, why there are metal animals, what caused the apocalypse, why you're special, how the tribes were formed, any of it. It's a really good mystery, and the audio logs they give you in the beginning are juuuust about to say what's going on before they're cut off. I'm clawing through this beautiful world, hungry for its answers.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a free-form open world sandbox where you can:
- Freeze blocks in time and launch them like the Sandbag in Smash Bros
- Cook spicy food to survive the cold
- Ascend to and glide from the highest peaks
- Steal enemy weapons while they’re dancing around the campfire
- Slide down hills on your shield
- Toss a bomb in the river and detonate it next to a sea monster
Meanwhile, Horizon Zero Dawn is 4K Far Cry with robot dinosaurs.
I’m sorry, it breaks my heart.
Guerrilla Games put a ton of work and love into this game. The crafting system is straightforward and elegant, rewarding you for knocking off monster body parts on the battlefield. Enemy AI is just right, letting you distract with rocks but coming at you with full force when you screw up. Questing is integrated smoothly with the narrative and doesn’t feel like busywork.
But the crafting and item collection is straight polished Far Cry. But the first two hours are filled with nose-leading tutorials and grouchy people on all sides. But for the myriad plot mysteries, the upgrade tree is sitting right in front of you, happy to let you window-shop.
But, but, but.
But Zelda is so fun. Nintendo did what it always does, examine a trend and identify what’s missing. For the open world sandbox it’s more than a gameplay loop, it’s components you can combine, like time freezing and ice block creation and pushing boats around with a leaf. I’m running all over because I know every inch will enable something new.
At dawn, find me in Hyrule.