We can’t believe we’re approaching the end of 2017 though between cataclysmic weather and a surreal political arena no matter what side you’re on, we’re a bit ready to see 2018 (and we thought 2016’s bloodlust to take out just about every beloved celebrity was bad). We’re a few short weeks away from when critics and gamers to start presenting the various Best Of lists for the year and we wanted to get something off our chests in front of that. See, two eerily similar games came out this year that merit a comparison. One of which, Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild, will win collective accolades from just about every major gaming site while the other, Horizon Zero Dawn, will be spoken of favorably but otherwise disappear into the list of notably good but forgettable games — and everyone is completely wrong about this.
First, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the similarities of these two titles because it’s uncanny. Both star protagonists cut off from the main world so long that you have to learn the mechanics of the new world along with them. Both take place in apocalyptic futures that offer lush landscapes instead of the traditional Fallout wastelands. Both feature corrupt technology as the primary antagonist and leave you to unravel the mystery of how these machines became evil. Both include improvise combat, open world gameplay, underground futuristic dungeons, map reveals from climbing high structures, horse back riding, resource gathering, arrow shooting, armor leveling, mountain climbing, and awe inspiring gameplay. The list goes on and on. But when you compare them that’s when you start to realize how much better it’s done in Horizon Zero Dawn.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in the distant future and over the lifetime of it’s protaganist as she learns about this world, interacts with its residents who have their own arcs to experience, and discovers the mysteries of robotic army, her significance in this world, and the fate of the world that resulted in this apocalyptic dystopia. It’s novel, it’s interesting, and you genuinely care about its characters. Link, on the other hand, while having an eerily similar story to tell, is basically back to fight Ganon again as well as learn what happened to Hyrule through a dozen or so unlockable cutscenes. Horizon Zero Dawn is enthralling to understand piece by piece. Breath of Wild runs out of story early once you learn of the great calamity and doesn’t have much else to do until the finale.
Winner: Horizon Zero Dawn
This is a tough call for us. Breath of Wild possesses some of the most polarizing game design mechanics I’ve seen in a game. First, its physics engine is incredible. Being able to manipulate the world and catapult Link to otherwise unreachable areas by levitating metal objects or a well placed bomb is remarkably fun. Challenges have multiple viable solutions thanks to an unchecked (and welcoming) physics engine giving the game a sense of novel experimentation you find in other titles like Minecraft. On the flip side, your rapidly depleting arsenal of weapons too brittle to land more than a handful of attacks makes combat an utter chore to be largely avoided if possible. This seems insane for a Zelda game. And as your inventory is inevitably disposable you have little incentive to explore the world outside of yet another heart container piece.
Horizon Zero Dawn however combines experiences you’ve seen in many other games into a good, but only just, experience. You tag and hunt enemies like Far Cry, you scale tall structures like Uncharted, you bow hunt dangerous creatures like in Tomb Raider, you craft resources and weapons like in just about every game since 2010. It’s not really lacking anything nor does it have any frustrating item like Zelda’s abhorrent combat, but it’s just overall ok.
Winner: Breath of Wild
We have to give the slight edge to Link on this one. Sure, it can be painful to play, but screwing around in the world proves endlessly entertaining and viral GIFs of the game will live on for years because of it.
Breath of Wild is a visually stunning game. Draw distances are solid, especially from high up vistas of towers or a mountain you couldn’t help but climb. The weather effects roll in naturally and are quite welcome (assuming you’re not still climbing that mountain that’s now slick from a rainstorm). The divine beast encounters are impressively massive and convey that same sense of persevering against impossible odds the way Shadow of the Colossus does (at least to unlock the beast). It’s really good.
But it’s not Horizon Zero Dawn good.
This isn’t even close.
It may be a cheap shot to compare the Switch or Wii U to games on modern consoles but it does feel like Nintendo still isn’t taking Zelda seriously enough.
Winner: Horizon Zero Dawn
Try this exercise. Pretend, just for a minute, that these games were reversed. Insert Link into Horizon Zero Dawn, it’s now his story about growing up as an outcast in a world corrupted by evil and technology and he’s going defy societal norms and eventually lead the uprising. Imagine the new Zelda game has Horizon Zero Dawn’s graphics, its intense combat, its production values and a fully realized futuristic world. Yes, everyone would love it and it would likely still receive it’s 97 metacritic score.
Now consider Breath of Wild is NOT a Zelda game, but just an original story of a character that awakes in a tomb to fight 4 beasts before the final boss. Critics would applaud the physics and world design, but bemoan the dodgy combat system in need of patching and redundant gameplay with little reward for completionists and it would sit comfortably at about a 70 on Metacritic.
Critics grade Nintendo on a curve which is a shame because in this case Breath of Wild completely overshadowed Horizon Zero Dawn which despite their bizarre similarities, Horizon Zero Dawn is the better game.