I love the idea of stealth in video games.The only problem I have arises from the fact that, up until recently, I had decided I was extremely bad at utilising any kind of stealthy mechanics. While the thought of sneaking around, silently taking out opponents, and moving on to the next unaware target is appealing, I usually opt for charging in and whacking enemies with a massive sword or blasting their heads off with huge guns. My partner got me to try Hitman 2 once, and I handed the controller back after about five minutes of playing.
So it’s not that I don’t like stealth games, and there are a few that I have managed to stick with over the years, but if there’s an option to just kill everything loudly and quickly and without having to think about it too much, I’ll do it; that was, until I played Horizon Zero Dawn, a game which taught me that actually, I’m not bad at stealth mechanics—I’ve just never given myself the chance to get any good at them.
Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role-playing game by Guerilla Games. You play as a young woman called Aloy in a post-apocalyptic world where civilisation has been reclaimed by nature, but nature has been claimed by machines; robotic versions of animals and dinosaurs that are becoming more and more deadly. Aloy sets off on a quest for answers about her personal heritage and the world around her. It’s an incredibly beautiful game, and right at the centre of it all, Aloy is a character who is curious, inquisitive, and driven. The game rewards the same qualities in the player; in other words, experimenting, learning, and being curious about the gameplay is rewarded by extremely satisfying, well-made combat.
Horizon Zero Dawn isn’t entirely a stealth game. There are certainly missions and enemies where it isn’t an option, but I would argue that stealth is integral to the mechanics. During the first few hours especially, when you don’t have many cool abilities unlocked and your weapons are basic, sneaking around and being extremely quiet and careful about killing is the only way to stay alive. I wasn’t particularly pleased when I first realised this during a mission where you have to weave in and out of a herd of machines to reach an injured NPC. It’s basically a tutorial to teach you about the piece of ancient technology that Aloy has, called a focus, that allows her, to see the path that machines walk, amongst other things. It wasn’t hard exactly, but it did make me pause and question if this was something I wanted to get into. I knew the pattern would be one of frequent frustration, but the story had already hooked me, so I persevered.
I’m willing to admit I struggled with the game for a while. I came close to giving up on it a couple of times, and the stealth in particular was frustrating. There were big robotic animals and I had a spear! I wanted to charge in and hit them, but the game wanted me to hang back, to not engage unless it was necessary, to pick them off one by one, to learn their weak spots and change my tactics depending on what I was fighting. However, slowly but surely, muscle memory began to kick in, my aim got better with the bow and arrow, I knew what components on different machines to attack first, I finally learnt that waiting and watching is just as satisfying as upfront, brazen attacks. Yes, I also got better armor, weapons, and abilities, but the way I was approaching combat had changed as well.
It made me think of the number of games I’d given up on just because I hadn’t because I hadn’t immediately been good at them. But Horizon Zero Dawn had given me enough to love from the start that it outweighed any frustration I felt. It has a female protagonist (which always activates a stubborn streak in me), the world is interesting and beautiful, and there are plenty of story hooks to pull you in and keep you interested. And once you get into the swing of the combat, it’s so much fun. Horizon Zero Dawn, for me, is a prime example of how to use gameplay to enhance the narrative, and vice versa. The stealthiness always made sense, and as the game progressed there were some really imaginative ways to approach combat.
One of the early abilities you can unlock is one called lure which, as the name suggests, allows Aloy to whistle, attracting the attention of the closest enemy and draw them over to where you’re hiding, waiting to attack. You can take them out silently and move on to the next. The other really useful ability is override. If you manage to sneak up on a machine, rather than taking them out, you can stop them from being hostile towards you. For one thing, this is useful because there are some you can ride them and get around quicker, but also it means they’ll attack anything that attacks you. This makes for some very fun sequences where you don’t have to do much, but wouldn’t be possible without being stealthy beforehand. Then there are traps and different modifiers to enhance various aspects of weapons and armor, weapons that will tie machines up, and trip casters that stretch trapped pieces of wire across an area. It’s so much fun just to just run around experimenting, sneaking your way past things you’re not ready for, thinning out herds by picking them off from afar, knocking components off the machines that render their weapons useless or, even better, allowing you to pick them up and use them yourself.
Horizon Zero Dawn, as mentioned previously, isn’t entirely a stealth game. However, many of the fun, imaginative ways of engaging in combat arise from taking things slowly and quietly, from sneaking around and taking the time to think about your approach. Don’t get me wrong, I still love running into the middle of a fight with a huge sword to smack enemies with, but Horizon Zero Dawn taught me a much needed lesson about the enjoyment of stealth mechanics and the principles behind them; taking your time, planning ahead, and experimenting with tactics can be just as rewarding as going loud.
I think Aloy would be proud.