Horizon Zero Dawn Review (with Proton on Linux)

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Technology and automation. We’re surrounded by it. Most of us, with the general exception of the older generation, take it for granted. How often do you get an email, a text, a phone call, or even a letter through snail mail without there being any sort of automation behind it? How often do you get one of those things that is personal, delivered just for you that wasn’t done by automation?

Have you ever wondered what life would be like a little over 1,000 years from now? You might think everything at that point is just automation. You might even think technology would be out of hand. Dangerous, even. Well, that’s the setting of Horizon Zero Dawn.

The earth is dominated by robots, called machines. They resemble very closely to their animal counterparts, from their appearance to their behavior, ranging from dinosaurs, hawks, deer, giraffes, alligators, tigers, among many others. But they’re in machine-form. Once at peace with man, they have turned on them for the worse — now they kill everything they see on sight. And now, with the verge of the death of all humanity because of these machines, there’s only one prospect that can save them — Project Zero Dawn.

I know, the game has been out for four years now, less than a year of which on PC (on Steam and GOG). But in the 50 hours that it took me to get through the entire story, I couldn’t help myself but to write about this game. The fact that it’s been out for some time probably means this review is barely going to get any reads. But I kinda don’t care. A game as well-designed and executed as this deserves some attention.

The PC version was ported by Virtuos last August. Seeing as this was originally released back in 2017 for the PS4, naturally the PC version would benefit from higher framerates (up to 120 FPS), better graphics, keyboard and mouse controls that are customizable, a FOV slider, ultrawide support, and a built-in benchmarking tool. However, the initial launch for PC left some scratching their heads — it suffered from various issues, such as framerate drops in busy areas, the anisotropic filter not working, and slow motion with using Concentration when using the bow or other instances where the game is supposed to slow down wasn’t working. As it stands now, however, these issues have been addressed, and during the time I played the game, very rarely did I come across any game-breaking bugs or glitches.

That, combined with the fact that it’s possible to play this game on Linux thanks to the brilliant efforts of Valve and CodeWeavers via Proton, just shows how far we’ve come as far as Linux gaming is concerned. Recently the game benefited even further from the vkd3d-proton update we got not too long ago, and now we’re seeing a 15%-20% GPU framerate increase. And seeing as it was 40% off during this year’s Steam Summer Sale, it was a good time for me to pick this game up.

In Horizon Zero Dawn, you’re in control of Aloy, a red-headed girl who plays as the main protagonist (voiced by Ashly Burch — and man she did a great job). While I won’t go into detail concerning the lore, in her childhood she uncovers an abandoned facility, and in this facility she finds what is called a Focus. It’s a small triangular piece of technology that the user wears on their ear. By using it, Aloy discovers fascinating information, such as the condition of a person, whether they’re deceased or not, she can track lost recorded conversations, track a person’s footsteps, discover the weak points of an enemy. Kind of think of it like the scan visor that Samus has in the Metroid Prime series.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Aloy first receiving her Focus

Aloy, however, is what we call an outcast, because she was raised by an outcast named Rost. She’s a sweet girl who only has good intentions, but not many people take them too kindly. In fact, one child throws a rock at her. Years later, the child, now an adult, tells her, “I remember that scar from the rock I threw at you. It’s a cherished memory.”

Rost, essentially, is Aloy’s godfather, and teaches her how to survive against the machines. One would think, that, in the 3000s, guns would be around. Well, they are, kind of, but people of this era primarily use bow and arrows. With the Focus, Aloy is able to see more things that Rost can’t. For example, she discovers that, in addition to the eye, the Watcher — the dinosaur-like machine — is also vulnerable by a container on it’s back.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Aloy and Rost

Aloy trains hard, thanks to Rost’s help. She climbs mountains, she crosses dangerous terrain, she jumps from different platforms that could be tens of meters away, she crosses ropes, she fights off more machines — all of this is in the hopes to win the Proving. By winning the Proving — a competition to see who’s the best archer, who’s the best climber, who’s the most effective against machines — Aloy will no longer be an outcast. In fact, she will be called a Nora Brave. She will, in effect, be a part of the Nora tribe.

And yes, in this era, in addition to the bows and arrows, tribalism is common. Different tribes have different cultural beliefs and superstitions. In addition to the Nora, there’s the Carja, the Oseram, and the Banuk.

Anyway. You might think all of this plot information is unnecessary, but it helps to get a better understanding of this game. It’s not just the combat; it’s the exploration and narrative that are also key to a game’s success.

The game is using an open-world formula. This is interesting, because this is unlike anything Guerrilla — one of Sony’s first-party developers and the developer of this game — had done in the past. Guerrilla had only worked on the first-person-shooter Killzone series, which are linear-based. So, not only are they altering their engine, Decima — which was meant for Killzone Shadow Fall — from a first-person shooter to a third-person action RPG, they’re also changing the linear-based formula that they were used to to a brand new open-world perspective.

From my playtime of the game, I’d say they did a great job with that. The world is massive and there’s so many things that you can do aside from getting the main objective done. Side quests abound, and most of them are actually pretty fun to do. It’s not just “go and fetch some parts for me;” even the side quests have a bit of a story to them, giving you added motivation to fulfill their task. There are campsites to discover, Tallnecks that need to get climbed, corrupted zones that need to be cleared, bandit camps that need to be raided, cauldrons to explore…the list goes on.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Aloy doubting

How about the combat itself? The best way I can put it is it feels like a hybrid between Monster Hunter and the Tomb Raider reboot series. She can either stealth her way into the battlefield, trying to kill everything in sight without anyone noticing, or just go in blunt force and try to kill multiple machines at once. Aloy, in addition to her bow and arrow, has many other different weapon types at her disposal. She’s got a spear for close-range combat, a slingshot for casting bombs or elemental damage, a tearblaster that can rip armor from a machine right off, flamethrowers, ice rods, tripcasters, among others. This is good, because combat is something that is very frequent in this game, and having the right tool for the right job can save you a lot of time and hassle.

As for controls, I’m personally not a keyboard and mouse player, but I suppose the fact that it’s there is a great deal for many. I’m using the DualSense controller, using the gyroscope to act as the right stick for aiming. This is pretty useful for getting a more accurate shot at a sensitive part of a machine.

Weapons have different rarity types: uncommon, rare, or very rare. Obviously, the more rare the weapon is, the more valuable it is, because it deals more damage than the more common types, or it can use unique types of ammunition that common ones don’t have.

Weapons can be equipped with modifications. These modifications vary from their rarity to what they do. Some mods allow for better handling of the weapon. Others increase tear damage or add elemental status effects. Aloy can also equip various different outfits throughout the game, some of which can only be unlocked by completing a certain objective, or simply bought from a merchant. Some may increase her stealth. Another may increase her resistance against physical or projectile attacks. Still others may allow her health to gradually increase over time. Like weapons, outfits can also be equipped with modifications.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Focus example

Aloy can aim for the weak points of machines — these will be highlighted when she scans the enemy with her Focus — by targeting these, the parts can break off the machine, not only doing a substantial amount of damage, but render some of the machine’s abilities useless. For instance, if she takes off the cannons from the Thunderjaw, the Thunderjaw will not only be able to not use them anymore, but Aloy can pick them up and use them as weapons herself! This adds further variety to the combat — it’s not always the head that’s the weak spot. Different strategies need to be used with different machines. Not all machines are vulnerable to fire. Some of them may be vulnerable to ice or shock. Some of them are incredibly aggressive and need to be taken from a distance.

Horizon Zero Dawn: In-game combat

Some machines can actually be overridden with Aloy’s spear. She earns this ability by overriding various cores found throughout the cauldrons on the map. By silently approaching the machine, overriding it will cause the machine to be on Aloy’s side, meaning it will fight alongside her in combat. Some machines can even be mounted and used like a horse — this is helpful for trying to reach an objective that’s far away in a shorter amount of time.

There aren’t just machines to kill, however. There are humans that need to be killed as well. From a moral perspective, this is something that frankly turned me off. It didn’t keep me away from playing the game though. Throughout the story, Aloy, and you, as the player, will witness people she was once close to die in battle. On the other hand, she will witness those who turned their backs on her, or those who utterly despise her, getting their blood spilt from being too reckless. Some of those deaths may have been deserved.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Aloy held by neck

The game plays from third-person perspective. While I wouldn’t say it’s a full-fledged action RPG, experience can be earned by killing machines/humans or completing tasks. Exploration is a bit more of the core of the game than it is a RPG. Earn enough experience, and Aloy levels up. She gains 10 more health points with each level up (she doesn’t gain any other stats, however). In addition, she earns a skill point — these can be redeemed to earn skills. Skills include the ability to take heavies down, the ability to recover health faster when eating berries, taking an enemy down while hanging from a ledge, be undetected by enemies while sprinting, among many others.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Firestriker

Obtaining arrows or other types of ammunition require crafting. Arrows require metal shards — these can be looted from a machine’s corpse. Other weapon types, such as fire arrows, not only need metal shards, but also blaze. These can also be obtained from certain machines. If you’re short on these parts, you can usually find loot crates scattered throughout the world, or buy them from a merchant. My only complaint with the looting is it can be a bit time-consuming, especially when there’s a bunch of corpses around. You have to hold Triangle, open up a menu to see what the corpse has available, and decide whether you want to take everything or take individual parts. They should have implemented a way to make this process a little faster, like “Press Triangle to take all” and that’s it.

Arrow, potion, modification, and many other types of capacity can be upgraded, meaning she can hold more weapons or ammo. These usually require hunting animals and obtaining their skins, to finding various machine parts. Potions can range from increasing Aloy’s health to providing resistance against various status elements.

Tallnecks are, like the name, tall giraffe-like creatures that roam about throughout the map. They don’t harm the player, unless they walk in their path. By climbing up the Tallneck, Aloy can override its head. Overriding the machine will show more of the map and additional locations to visit.

I compliment the game’s soundtrack, from the music that plays in the main menu to fighting someone or something. When in combat, the music gets intense. This can be a little irksome when you’re trying to avoid a fight, but otherwise I’d say the music is a perfect match when engaging in combat. Describing the genre or how the music plays is always something I’ve struggled to put into words in reviews, so have a sampling with the YouTube playlist. There’s over four hours worth of music.

There’s a ton of cutscenes in this game, most of which are Aloy talking to someone and not much else going on. Frankly, some of these conversations are a bit boring, but the good thing is you’re not forced to listen through the entire dialogue. You can press Cross to skip that character’s line and move on to the next. Some cutscenes you can skip entirely.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Pushing a big stack of bricks

In some cutscenes, you have the ability to choose what Aloy will say or do to the character talking to her. You can have her act aggressive towards them, offering nasty words or even killing them. You can have her do the opposite, spare the person’s life, and offer words of encouragement. Or you can do something in-between and simply ignore the character and move on. This is actually quite interesting — it can mean the difference between killing someone in some cases or choosing to let them go. Each decision can cause a different quest to be made. You usually can’t undo the decisions you make, but if you decide to play the game again after completing it, you can make a different decision and see what the outcome of that was.

Horizon Zero Dawn: Decision making example

My favorite part of the game? It’s hard to say. Generally, combat is pretty fun and intuitive, but also the fact that there is so much to explore, so many different stories that need to be uncovered from the various people Aloy comes across in her adventure that also keep the game fresh. Some parts of the story are a bit corny; they might involve some sort of superstitious practice, but again, cutscenes are skippable.

Proton Compatibility

It works out of the box. However, you may want to use Proton Experimental for now, as the current 6.3-5 renders the game in slow motion for some odd reason. Slow motion as in, not a framerate bottleneck, but just slow gameplay in general. Proton Experimental fixes this. Proton Experimental also got an update recently to include vkd3d-proton 2.4 — this increases the game’s framerate by 15%-20%! Another thing you may want to do is add the launch parameter PULSE_LATENCY_MSEC=60; this supposedly helps the character’s mouths actually move in line with what they’re saying. As always, you can check the reports on ProtonDB for more info.

What you’ll need to run this game on decent settings? Well, I clocked an average of 53 FPS on ultra settings with an i5-8400 and a GTX 1660, and that’s after the vkd3d-proton update. According to PCGamingWiki (Steam store is currently down right now), recommended hardware includes 16 GB RAM, an i7-4770K or Ryzen 5 1500X, and a GTX 1060/RX 580. That hardware will probably get you medium to high graphics; it’s probably not enough to run at Ultra at 1080p. So yeah, this game can be pretty demanding.

Summary

The good:

  • Open-world formula with plenty of things to do; probably looking at 30 hours minimum and 50 with all the side quests done
  • Wide variety of machines, each with different weak points, that challenge your battle strategy
  • Excellent voice acting
  • Excellent soundtrack

The not-so-good:

  • Some machines are frustrating to combat, attacking too often without giving you a chance to attack
  • Some cutscenes are boring or otherwise corny
  • Looting corpses is repetitive and time-consuming

I’m looking forward to the sequel, Horizon Forbidden West. According to Wikipedia it will have an even bigger world, enhanced combat, better climbing mechanics, underwater travel, and other goodies. Looks like I’m going to have to work hard to buy myself a PS5; it’ll probably be a few years before it comes out on PC. In the meantime, if you haven’t played the original, I highly recommend giving it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

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Bobby

Great review! Definitely convinced me to pick it up! (Will wait for a promo though)

I reserved a VSD (Valve Steam Deck) and hoping to use it for my back catalog on the go (specially while commuting)

I wonder if it will work well enough on lower settings with Proton! on hardware similar to the Deck.