Thursday, October 29, 2020

Horizon Zero Dawn causes me to re-evaluate the Ubisoft open world formula

 I would like to share two moments from my recent playthrough of Horizon Zero Dawn:

Moment 1: I was only a few hours into the game but I had already sampled enough to realise that this was a very good game with a stunningly beautiful game world, interesting gameplay and combat, rich and  interesting lore, and great characters and story.  However a couple of hours in as I was beginning to get to grips with the game mechanics another realisation hit me and my heart sank.  It was the bags that did it The game has about half a dozen bags for items that you have to level up by collecting stuff. It also has all the other hallmarks of an open world Ubisoft game. A beautiful open world map populated by  creatures and sites of interest for you to explore and get distracted. Towers to climb to open up new sections of the map (in this case the towers are giant robotic giraffes which is a nice touch but still the principle remains). It has tonnes of make-work errands and side quests that can easily distract you. All of this is polished to the nth degree with lots of quality of life features like fast travel, quest markers and button prompts to make it very easy to just lose yourself in this playground of activities. 

I don't actually think that Ubisoft Open world is a bad thing. In fact when I first came across the formula in Far Cry 3 I thought it was fantastic. It is only after playing through multiple iterations of the formula in more recent Far Cry, Assasin's Creed, Shadow of and other games that  I have become tired of it. One hallmark of Ubiusoft open world is that the game is full of make work activities. There is always something to do but very little of it feels worth doing. Another hallmark is that the game mechanics are polished to remove all player frustrations. This should be a good thing but making things so frictionless  also diminishes the game in some way. Perhaps we need to be challenged and indeed frustrated at times to feel a sense of accomplishment from a game. It is telling that another very popular game formula the "Souls like" seems to take a polar opposite approach and make life as difficult as possible for the player. I am not sure if either approach is perfect but I think it is easier to get tired of the Ubisoft formula because once you have played one Ubisoft Open world game it can feel like you have played them all. 

I should point out that Horizon Zero Dawn is not devoid of challenge. The main quest and several of the side quests have challenging combat encounters and your heroine Aloy never really becomes an invulnerable combat power house. There are plenty of dangerous monsters in the open world which need to be handled carefully but outside of the main quest lines it is trivially easy to avoid  or work around these dangers. You can spend hours running errands and making collections in the open world without ever really breaking a sweat. 

Moment 2: Perhaps 30 hours later. I was deep in one of the games forests hunting rabbits and racoons for components to craft bigger ammunition bags. It was not challenging and it was repetitive. Why was I doing this? After my earlier misgivings I had resolved to ignore collection and errands as much as possible and just enjoy the main quest. This strategy worked surprisingly well because Zero Dawn is largely a stealth game and a lot of the time you try to avoid direct combat. Being somewhat under geared was not really an issue. In fact I was really enjoying the main quest line and a number of substantial side quest lines as well. End game was approaching however and soon I would have to face off against some serious bosses so I couldn't put off gearing up any longer. Hence my sojourn in the forest. I also had to embark on a number of specific monster hunts to collect all the components required  to upgrade my gear and armour. To be honest even though it was repetitive it wasn't that bad. All in all this was a relaxing few hour hiatus from the main questline progression and the game did everything possible to make the scavenging as painless as possible with detailed maps , fast travel and big glowy markers for loot.  I had to put up with the figaries  of the random number generator to get the specific parts I needed but drop rates were high enough for it not to be too much of a pain. 

Once my scavenging phase was complete I was ready for end game. I continued on to finish the main quest line and very much enjoyed it. Overall Horizon Zero Dawn is a very very good game and one I would highly recommend. It features an engaging story set in a beautiful world with a rich back story and it is fun to play. 

Does this mean I have gotten over my boredom with Ubisoft formula? Perhaps not entirely but I think it means I have found a better way to approach formula games. Putting off all of the collection and errand quests until I really needed to allowed me to enjoy the world and the main quest line a lot more. By the time I got around to them I was already heavily invested in the game so I knew exactly why I was doing these errands which made them a lot more palatable. It was also painless because by that stage I had opened up most of the map and had fast travel points to all the locations I needed. I was also experienced enough to quickly deal with any monsters I met along the way. I think it is also important that I had no intention of being a completionist. I was late enough into the game to know what tools I would need and I focussed on upgrading those. Prioritising the main quest first and only doing the errands when necessary worked well for me. I am pretty sure that if I had allowed myself to get sidetracked by errands with a completionist mentality it would have killed my enjoyment of the game. 

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