GOTY 2017: Most Improved

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This year we've brought back our category awards to recognize achievements in specific areas of game development. There are 10 awards in all, with two new ones being awarded every day this week. Keep checking back for more winners!

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Most Improved: Horizon Zero Dawn

Guerrilla Games | February 28th, 2017 | PlayStation 4

Runners-up: Yakuza 0 and Metroid: Samus Returns

This is not an award for Horizon Zero Dawn. Not really. But Horizon is the first of what will likely be a new franchise for Sony on the PlayStation platform, and hopefully follow-ups will improve upon what the game has built. But this award is in recognition of the leap in quality developer Guerrilla Games made from its previously best-known series, Killzone, to something fresh and creative in ways that a sci-fi shooter featuring space-fascists never could be.

I don’t mean any disrespect; I actually enjoyed the Killzone series for what it was. The first had the misfortune of being labeled as Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s Halo franchise, a bar it could scarcely hope to clear in 2004. Its sequels would go on to play better and pull off stunning visual effects, but they all told rote stories and never reached the full potential of creating a World War II parable in space. Each game was technically impressive and creatively disappointing. The characters and settings I remember the most from the Killzone series aren’t the ones I liked the most but rather the most detested. Everything else just kind of blends together.

I was skeptical of Horizon at first. Mechanical wildlife seems very silly in a hyper-realistic world, the cultures in the game looked like it leaned heavily on Native American appropriation, and the term “post-post-apocalypse” sounded like marketing buzzword nonsense. But Guerrilla manages to justify Horizon’s narrative choices, and they ended up creating one of the most fascinating new settings I’ve seen in games in quite some time.

Horizon isn’t a flawless game. I still couldn’t name a single memorable character, aside from the one who matters. I was initially concerned that they were setting Aloy, the protagonist, up as a flawless Mary-Sue type, but she earns her character development and realistically reacts to a world that is often strange and unpredictable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the core mechanic of the game: robot fauna. As someone who has never taken to the “hunting” genre (e.g. Monster Hunter, Toukiden, God Eater) I wasn’t sure what to expect from a western studio’s take on the concept, but each machine manages to display a unique look and personality. It never became a chore the way sweeping a Killzone often became.

Our Most Improved award is meant to applaud impressive strides from previous works, but Horizon Zero Dawn goes a step further and makes me very interested to see what Guerrilla Games will do next.  — Tyler Martin