It’s been a shockingly packed year for great new video games. Over the course of the last 12 months, it seemed like there was never really a pause, or a moment when there wasn’t something interesting to play. To celebrate, this week Verge staff will be publishing essays on their favorite releases of the year, the games that spoke to us personally. Expect to see a new one each morning, culminating in a list of our collective 15 favorite games of 2017 on Friday. You can keep up with it all right here.
Playing Horizon Zero Dawn for the first time was a good reminder that I’m an idiot.
It had been less than two years since I watched Guerilla Games unveil its latest project at an E3 2015 press conference. Watching that first six-minute video now, it’s striking how many of the things I came to love about Horizon are all there: Ashly Burch’s world-weary voice acting as the orphan Aloy; the startling juxtaposition of futuristic robots roaming a prehistoric world; and the elaborate mystery of how it all came about.
But the robots looked like dinosaurs, and I found myself rolling my eyes. What could a next-generation twist on Turok: Dinosaur Hunter possible have to offer? As it turned out: plenty. After Horizon received surprisingly positive reviews, I picked up a copy and dived in.
As my colleague Andrew Webster noted in his review, Horizon Zero Dawn is a mishmash of elements from other open-world games from Far Cry to The Witcher. It is also, in a peculiar way, a Disney movie: a story about a plucky orphan on a journey to discover her past, who must overcome a menacing evil along the way.
The orphan in question is Aloy, who is cast out of the Nora tribe when she is born and sent to live with an adopted father, a fellow outcast named Rost. As a young girl, she discovers an ancient piece of high technology known as a Focus that allows her to analyze the world around her via an augmented reality display, and — eventually — communicate with others. Her first goal is to win a competition known as the Proving and gain entry to the Nora tribe, a crucial step toward learning who her parents are — and, perhaps, how this strange world came to be. It’s then that the story kicks into high gear, and when my own interest in Horizon went from casual to obsessive.
It’s impossible for me to talk about why I love Horizon without discussing that story. So if you’d rather remain completely unspoiled, here’s your warning. As Aloy moves through the world, she gradually uncovers the twin reasons that our civilization collapsed and, many years later, gave rise to her own. As in so much of the best sci-fi, the plot is driven forward by present-day anxieties: in this case, around the rise of artificial intelligence, and the seemingly unstoppable advance of climate change.
Those forces pair together in unpredictable ways, and even as you start to guess the broad outlines of Aloy’s origins, Horizon still manages to surprise you with the particulars. It’s amazing how many of my favorite moments in Horizon came from scenes that serve as little more than exposition. Searching through underground bunkers, Aloy stumbles across holograms that depict the end of our world in ways that I found surprisingly moving. And when she learns of the small group of scientists who hatched a plot to remake the world, their brilliance — and their daring — electrified me.
Of course, Horizon wouldn’t make for much of a game if it were all lore. And the game’s rich and varied quests offer plenty for fans of third-person action-adventure games. Horizon‘s difficulty ramps steadily but fairly, and it paces its introduction of new monsters with great care. Most importantly, the game’s primarily bow-and-arrow-based combat, about which I had been quite skeptical, turns out to be reliably thrilling. I squealed in fright while playing the game’s recent expansion, “The Frozen Wilds,” upon first encountering a giant new bearlike robot known as a Frostclaw. As it spat snowballs and hurled icicles, it was all I could do to roll out of the way and fire off a shot or two before it was upon me.
Elements of Horizon did frustrate me. The game has too many varieties of bows and arrows that do basically the same thing, making it tough to figure out which to use in any given encounter. And the need to regularly replenish the resources needed to craft ammunition can feel like a grind — particularly in later levels, when taking down a beast can require many dozens of shots.
But as the end credits rolled after the main story, I found myself teary-eyed playing a video game for the first time. I have no doubt that 2017 brought us games that were more inventive formally or daring conceptually. But Horizon Zero Dawn was the only game I played that satisfied me in the way that a great novel does: compelling me to see the world through fresh eyes, and to reflect on how human nature can lead us both to breathtaking inventions and to ruin.
Horizon manages to capture humanity at its best and its worst — and for that reason, more than any other, it was my favorite game of 2017.