This is a guest post by: Heath Dettwiller
When H:ZD dropped late February I was engulfed from the very beginning. My first playthrough of this game (on normal difficulty) was exciting to say the least. I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay cycle that I refer to as “The Hunt”. While early on it wasn’t necessary to gather material then craft the tools you need that are most effective against your prey. Upon reaching your objective/prey I would take a moment to scan the area from high ground and plot my course all while setting traps or finding a way to lure my enemy to a more advantageous position. This game takes a hunting and gathering mechanics and makes everything important. Almost every item that one can collect in HZD is usable to craft ammo for the many different types of weapons. It strides to get away from the mundane process of collecting things for the sole purpose of selling them to a merchant to gain astronomical amounts of money by the end of the game. I rarely would seek out a merchant to buy anything of serious use that I could not quickly travel outside the town/encampment to find a small herd to farm the materials I needed.
Not a Typical Reiview
One important thing I would like to highlight before we truly begin the review of Ultra Hard mode is that this is not really a true “Review” of Horizon: Zero Dawn, it can better be described as a comparison of the two difficulty modes. I would also like to highlight the fact the I did play through Ultra Hard with Playstation’s New Game Plus which carries over your level and all skills from the previous game which I will mention in the future but I would like to admit I was level 50 (max level) from the beginning. With that being said let’s get started.
Ultra Hard was Ultra Easy
At the very beginning of the game on Ultra Hard I start overpowered. With New Game Plus I have all of my previous inventory from my last playthrough. All the most powerful weapons from the Hunting Lodge with some very nice purple(the strongest) modifications that upgrade the damage or add a type of damage to the weapon when being used. In addition to starting with my weapons from the previous game I also got to rock my previous upgraded stealth armor and the legendary shield-weaver armor that if you haven’t used is perfect for the combat based play style using regenerating shields. With all my gear in hand I start my playthrough skipping the intro, which includes all of the beginning section that starts Alloy as a child, dropping me right outside Alloy’s cabin to begin the journey. As I have already completed Horizon to 100% completion I had decided early on that I was just going to do the main questline and only Important quests I came across that will grant me companions in the final battle. I also decided that the cauldrons were to be done just so that I could control some robo dinos for some fun later on in the game but also to compare the actual difficulty differences between modes. The early game of Horizon on Ultra Hard was met without much resistance. One thing I had not considered on top of all my overpowered gear I had the knowledge of how to best deal with all the early enemies. When I reached my first group of enemies I put on my stealth armor and meticulously took down each member of the herd until the last two. This was where it was clear for the first time the amped up difficulty was slightly different from its predecessor. As I crept up on the last strider I had to put myself in the open for just a second to perform my stealth kill. I put no worry into the watcher ,that I thought was much too far away to see his protectee get stabbed from behind. To my dismay as soon as I left the cover of the red tipped grass I was quickly discovered and hit hard while being in the stab animation of the strider. The watcher made quick work of my shield weaver shield and took some of my health in the process. I quickly dispatched the watcher after with a quick R1 hit then finishing it off with a slower but stronger R2. I would not make this mistake the rest of the time playing early on. Being a little more careful and falling right back into the fray of being careful during stealth sections and being conservative during much stronger enemies it did not take me long , just a few hours, to make it to past the Carja gate and began making my way to Meridian. Much of this time was spent avoiding enemies as I did not need any materials or xp.
Thunderjaw Encounter: Ultra Hard Begins
I had just crossed the Carja border and was making my way towards Meridian slowly taking out some groups of chargers along the way all while trying to avoid glint hawks as they were annoying enough during normal mode I was not about to try my luck during Ultra Hard. I was a few hours in and had seen the slight differences in Ultra Hard with early game enemies having a little better sense and dealing some more damage but I was quick to adapt being a little more careful went a long way towards my survival and success in moving around enemies. As I make my way up a small hill I see a group of chargers that seem to be clueless to my existence. It did not take long for me to understand their comfort roaming the desert landscape as I heard the footsteps of one of the largest and by what I assume is a very popular opinion the most dangerous enemy in the game patrolling around the opposite side of the field. Now to be fair the first time I encountered a Thunderjaw in normal mode I was intimidated and unsure of my movements and what weapons to use. Early in my first playthrough I avoided the battle all together as I did not think I was prepared but I was just sprinting by the second one I saw and the battle ensued. The first time around I didn’t know what weapons to use or have anything close to the knowledge and gear I now possessed. By the end of my normal playthrough I would take down the mighty Thunderjaw in a matter of a minute and a half. Ultra Hard mode quickly slapped me in the face over and over….and over and over again as I tried every tactic I had in my book trying to take down this robo-rex with freakin lasers on its head. I tried to override all the nearby chargers only for them to be wiped off the face of the Earth with a quick volley of lasers, missiles, or a stomp of its foot. I gave up on this tactic after only a couple tries and thought maybe the material the chargers had would be more valuable than their fighting abilities. My normal process for taking down a Thunderjaw includes setting several traps between us then pulling out the longbow that tears off pieces of armor or weapons on the thunderjaw. Normally two or three of these well placed arrows would tear off each of its disc launchers that are supremely powerful if you can get a hold of them. Then luring it to traps dealing damage while flanking with the rope castor giving me time to reach the disc launchers. After several attempts of the dino just running through my traps not being stunned or it making short work of my traps before I can strip off his powerful weapons I had finally had an attempt where I got a hold of a launcher only to turn around to get stopped on quickly draining y shield and all of my health.
To be bring this story to a close It took me nearly 15 unsuccessful hunts to finally bring down this mountain of a death machine. Using a blend of stealth and intense combat I would injure it greatly then run for dear life until it gave up then come back with more traps using stealth and my patience to my advantage, although patience was running thin at this point.
The Cauldrons of HZD were one of my favorite parts of my normal mode playthrough. I really enjoyed the aesthetic differences between them and the large outside areas. While both are equally beautiful and stunning to look at the combat changes significantly. The cauldrons are a much more in your face combat and I was rarely able to use stealth for very long quickly switching to my shield weaver outfit to up my survivability. While I don’t have any specific stories to tell about my journey into these dungeons I can say that the combat is intensified by the close quarters where reflexes and quick thinking will be key to your survival not really changing much from the normal mode.
Worth Another Play Through?
Although I love Horizon: Zero Dawn as a complete game on normal mode I found myself running past enemies on Ultra Hard that I would have spent ten minutes stopping to pick apart all the enemies taking my time and having fun hunting the different types of the machines. I felt differently on Ultra Hard as I was only playing the most important quests to the main storyline. I never felt like I was wasting my time but seeing something for the first time then learning how to deal with a group of enemies then perfecting a well thought out plan on normal mode was extremely satisfying. All while picking and choosing what skills I thought would be most useful to my playstyle and looking ahead in the skill trees to see where I would be heading next with my newly acquired skills. I had also always been looking forward to finding a merchant with new armor I would upgrade and fine tune my gameplay as well as seeking out all the Hunting Lodge challenges to unlock some of the more powerful weapons. All these things made my first playthrough by far because I was always looking for something new constantly or grinding a challenge that was significantly different from the last. With the new Ultra Mode the gameplay loop is still there, it’s still fun, and it is definitely more difficult but that is it. One thing I may recommend if I had to do it all again would be to start your first playthrough on the hard difficulty or starting a new game without the New Game Plus feature allowing you to take the game a little more serious in the beginning and having the feeling of reward when you unlock a skill again and remembering exactly how useful it is rather than it being handed to you from the beginning. Not to say taking down a Thunderjaw in a small arena in a cauldron is not rewarding because you definitely feel like a badass but it just isn’t the same as the constant drip of skill points, weapons, armor, and knowledge in between epic battles that I so enjoyed so much from my first play through. If you have not played the game yet I would recommend starting on “hard”. If you have played it and wouldn’t mind putting another 40 hours into this game I would not use the New Game Plus feature. To me, carrying over my equipment and weapons made me a little too overpowered early on and the game did not wrap me up like it did the first time around.