Some games are just meant to be single player, and Horizon: Zero Dawn is a prime example.
One of the standout hits on PlayStation 4 last year, Horizon and its developer, Guerrilla Games, have received praise from critics and consumers alike for its polished open world design and engaging story. Of course, the version now available is very different from former builds of the game; in its character designs, sound work and, most notably, that it’s a strictly single player experience.
In a video interview with Noclip, Horizon: Zero Dawn’s director Mathijs de Jonge revealed the game at one point had functional multiplayer, allowing co-op play between two players. However, its inclusion would have come at a price.
“[W]e haven’t got that [in the final version] because the programmers basically said that if we wanted to have co-op, we would also have 50% of the features we had been asking for and not 100%,” de Jonge said. “With Horizon: Zero Dawn being the first game [in the franchise], we wanted 100%, so we dropped co-op in favor of that.”
All things considered, Guerrilla Games made the right call. As cool as co-op may be for some titles, Horizon’s best qualities could only have shined in a single player experience, both from a technical and narrative standpoint.
On the technical side, Horizon succeeds where many other open world titles fail. Polished and fluid, the game and its features are honed to a razor’s edge. The sweeping natural landscapes of plains and canyons, along with the mechanical creatures and humans who wander them, move and interact naturally with the player and the world around them, rendered beautifully and realistically all the while.
Likewise, the gameplay is smooth and engaging, allowing players to interact with the world in a variety of ways. If they’re in the mood to blast their way through a fight, they can go in guns blazing with explosive launchers and rapid-fire spear launchers; or, if they want to be more tactical, they can lay a variety of traps, luring prey into flammable grass or snaring them with anchored tethers. Outside of combat, they can explore most every part of the world, taking incredible pictures courtesy of the game’s photo mode.
Making all of these things possible was by no means an easy feat for Guerrilla, requiring years of hard work from the team which would have only doubled had they implemented co-op. Not only would they have had to account for another player interacting with the world at all times, but the strain on the engine and hardware could have led to everything from slowdown to crashes, and even to the loss of content Mathijs himself mentioned.
This is to say nothing of the story and how the single player gameplay enhances it. From the beginning, Aloy is shown to be isolated from others. Where the rest of the world bands together in clans and tribes, she is shunned as an outcast from birth and has few she can call friends or family. Even when she becomes an adult and proves herself better than other hunters in her tribe, she is still considered an outsider and kept on the fringes of the world’s societies.
It sets her up to be alone throughout the game and, while it initially seems intended to provide conflict, serves to establish her as a character capable of handling problems and challenges single-handedly. True, there are segments where other characters assist her in different quests and hunts, but for the majority of the game players take on hulking, mechanized monsters on their own, scale ancient structures solo, and delve into the lost history of the world for their own sake. With each action the player takes, they help prove Aloy doesn’t need anyone’s help to survive and thrive, and is more than capable of doing so with her own initiative. Having another character along for the ride would only diminish that, hampering this growth with their inclusion.
There are certainly examples of open world titles which manage to implement co-op well, but Horizon wasn’t meant to be one of them. It thrives as a single player experience and stands as one of this console generation’s best titles as a result.
For more on single player gaming, check out our feature on how single player games are changing, not dying out.