It’s funny how I keep on comparing Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last of Us. If you know anything about either game more than the title, you’ll likely be confused with the comparison. One is an open-world action/ adventure game with high but ultimately measured praise from 2017, while the other is a linear, gritty experience hailed as the definitive game of last generation.
But here we are. Horizon Zero Dawn was the first game I played on PS4. The Last of Us was the second. I jumped back and forth between them, and finished both in February of this year. They’re both original IPs. And they’re the only two games where I’ve been compelled to watch a documentary on their development. I don’t know why I keep on comparing the two in my head, but perhaps it’s because they’re both excellent in two polarly different ways.
I started The Last of Us for the first time almost a year ago now, back in August, and finally finished it in February of this year. While it took me a long time to get through it, an average of two hours a month, I’m glad that I didn’t rush. I beat three other games that month as part of TAY’s annual “Four in February” event, and declared Horizon Zero Dawn just barely as my favorite of the four. I still stand with that statement, because Horizon checks a lot of those “video game-y” boxes for me: It’s got fantastic pacing in its combat, awesome dungeons, an open world, interesting sidequests, and a cool sci-fi story. The Last of Us has excellent combat and progression as well, but it’s much more gritty. In Horizon, you can feel like a badass kicking robot dinosaur butt, whereas in The Last of Us, you feel like everything is kicking your butt while you gasp to survive.
But at the same time, I fully recognize that The Last of Us is objectively the more influential game, and the one that had far more of an impact on me in the following months. Although I still have to get back to Horizon Zero Dawn’s other sidequests and DLC, I find myself thinking back on moments in The Last of Us far more. While the explosive setpieces of Horizon might have had more of a tangible impact in the moment, it’s the quieter moments of The Last of Us that keep me thinking.
This contrast is present in both games’ documentaries. Horizonwas a grand departure from Guerilla Games’ previous work, and while The Last of Us was tonally and mechanically very different from Uncharted, it took definite influence from the series. Guerilla Games were focused on making a compelling narrative, yes, but it was more removed from the gameplay, in the usual form of audio logs and cutscenes. The Last of Us uses these too, but focuses more on contextual storytelling that seamlessly coincides with gameplay. Horizon used facial capture because it featured a lot of still close-ups; The Last of Us used motion capture because it had wider shots where characters would use more cinematic gestures and dynamic shots.
Saying which game is better is a fool’s errand. They’re both phenomenal games that simply are “that good.” But if Joel put a gun to my head and said in his gravelly southern voice to “pick one, dammit,” then I guess I’d say that Horizon Zero Dawn was the better game, but The Last of Us was the better work of art.
Well, I’d probably pick The Last of Us regardless because I didn’t want to get shot, but he’d probably shoot regardless because he’s just that kind of gentleman.