Every new game wants to be more interesting, more engaging, and more eye catching than the ones that came before. And let’s be honest, when you’re slogging through dozens of hours of content, what’s the one thing you end up looking at most? The playable character, of course!
2017 has shown us a lot of brilliant looks when it comes to intricate character designs that really put the developers’ labor of love on display as they try to make characters that are memorable and engaging right down to the smallest detail. It’s exactly this attention to detail that helps players identify with their in-game avatars and sink into that sense of all-encompassing immersion that has you losing yourself in the game’s fantasy for dozens upon dozens of hours without ever feeling the strain of passing time.
Needless to say, I want take the time to show appreciation for video game character design. I won’t simply be discussing how 2017’s leading protagonists look, though. I also want to talk about the way cosmetic design and strategic function come together in various different garment systems to ultimately impact gameplay and the overall experience of a game. So, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to be discussing three of the biggest games from 2017 wherein the protagonist is a fixed, third-person character.
The armor and outfits your character wears – especially in games that have a set protagonist rather than a character creator – is one of the ways that you get to express yourself as the player in-game, but it can also play an integral role in how you plan your defense as different wearables often have different levels of agility, stat boosts, elemental resistance, etc. And in case the pictures in this article haven’t already given it away, the three games I’m discussing are Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nioh, and Assassin’s Creed Origins.
When it comes to character design, these games have it dialed in down to the smallest detail. Each outfit not only looks different, but sounds different, and maybe even moves differently too. For example, when Aloy wears the Shield Weaver armor, you can hear the added metallic components clank and shift with every step, even as the blue glyph-like shapes shimmer protectively over the rest of the garb. Or when Bayek accelerates into a full sprint and he’s wearing a heavier outfit like the Sekhmet costume, you can hear the difference in the heft of his stride and the tone of his voice when he speaks through the mask that covers his face.
But even beyond just how cool – or on occasion how downright strange – these outfits look and sound, let’s talk about how the different garment systems in these three games shape the gameplay and the overall experience players have with each title.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
This game gives you a lot of different looks that all tie into the development of the game world itself. Each type of outfit is a reflection of how each of Horizon: Zero Dawn’s tribes look and dress based on their region, weather, and culture.
Think of the outfits and armor in Horizon like a tree. The further you progress down a branch, the more specialized and adept each garment gets. For example, you can build from the Nora Silent Hunter Light which starts you with a small amount stealth and one modification slot (into which you can place a mod that grants you even more stealth) to the Nora Silent Hunter Master, one of the best outfits in the game that starts you with a larger amount of stealth and three modification slots.
However, depending on your play-style, level, and modifications, the game gives you the flexibility to pick the iterations of each outfit that you like the most, rather than always having to use the strongest or heaviest one available. That being said, it’s still very important to be careful which armor you choose to wear when entering combat or a hostile enemy zone.
For example, if you’re planning on engaging three Fire Bellowbacks, you might want to seriously consider wearing some form of the Carja Blazon outfit that offers a base resistance to fire. Or, if you’re being swarmed by Glinthawks, you may want to switch to an outfit with high ice or ranged resistance like the Banuk Ice Hunter.
All in all, Horizon features a system where armor matters but is customizable, allowing you to augment certain stats. The outfits look how they look, you can’t change that, but there are progressions where different armor types get stronger and look slightly different in each iteration. Especially with the highly detailed photo mode, you as the player are encouraged to pick the outfits that you like.
Nioh takes everything Horizon’s armor system does and goes a few steps further. Rather than just one complete outfit piece, you have individual pieces of armor, including helmets, breastplates, boots, pants, and gloves. You can mix and match all of these various pieces in any way that you want as you shape your character’s strength, agility, defense, recovery, appearance, etc.
However, especially as you get further and further into the game, you’ll come across certain pieces of armor that belong to specific sets. One of the earliest armor sets you encounter is called the Red Demon armor. The more pieces of the Red Demon armor you wear, the more stat boosts you get (for example, wearing two pieces grants you greater damage resistance and increases skill damage for the Spearfall attack, wearing four pieces grants you additional close combat damage, so on and so forth).
So while Nioh encourages a high amount of customization, there is a noteworthy benefit to collecting and crafting specific armor sets rather than just mixing and matching however you please in terms of William’s gear throughout the entire game.
On top of all that, Nioh is one of many games that has inherited the tradition of armor and item weight mattering. So when you’re outfitting your character, you’ll need to pay attention to how much each individual piece weighs. In general terms, the heavier the armor, the more defense it offers (though not always, depending on what level and type it is), but also the less speed William can access while wearing it. And in a game where split-second timing in terms of dodging, dashing, and attacking can mean the difference between getting ripped to shreds by a giant lightning beast and success, your agility is incredibly important, especially depending on your play-style.
If you’ve built William to be a tank who can stand in there and take a couple hits, then go right ahead and try out the heavier armor. However, in Nioh I’ve found that it’s highly advisable to balance speed and defense as evenly as you possibly can.
That being said, functionality isn’t all there is to it in terms of Nioh’s outfit system. While you do have to worry about coordinating armor weight, stat boots, resistances, and sets, there is some flexibility for players even in the higher levels of the game to prioritize style and aesthetics.
Overall, Nioh’s system achieves an incredibly complex balance between incorporating armor and outfit choice into the gameplay mechanics and players’ defensive strategies while still allowing for visual preference. However, there is a major drawback to this intricately designed system: With levels upon levels upon levels of different ninja, warrior, jonin, samurai, etc. helmets and gloves and pants and boots, inventory management can become a nightmare.
Needless to say, you will be picking up hundreds of pieces of armor throughout your playthrough, and that’s all before you even unlock the Divine (aka legendary) class of equipment upon completing the final main story quest.
Assassin’s Creed Origins
For Assassin’s Creed Origins, take everything you just read about armor weight, equipment sets, armor levels, stat boosts, and elemental resistances and throw it out the window. Absolutely all of it.
In Origins, outfits are purely cosmetic. They don’t change your defense or any of the other attributes that help determine your success or failure in combat. Even just writing this, I can almost feel a weight falling off my shoulders. Goodbye inventory management. Goodbye quick-changing my outfit before or during a fight. Goodbye having to sideline my favorite looking outfit just because it’s under-leveled for the enemies I’m currently fighting.
But at the same time, say goodbye to the ability to bolster melee defense, ranged defense, fire resistance, speed, stealth, and strength with the clothes your character is wearing. The garment system in AC Origins is definitely a tradeoff: You don’t have to worry about the outfit you’re wearing impacting the combat, but at the same time, you can’t use Bayek’s clothes to your advantage in a fight or while sleuthing around enemies camps.
However, there is still a sense of collectability when it comes to buying or finding as many outfits as you can. Ubisoft even offers several bonus outfits in DLC packs like the Horus pack that let you get additional outfits and weapons for Bayek (although they are in no way necessary to succeed in-game, especially since the outfits themselves are purely cosmetic).
For some players, this type of purely aesthetic armor and clothing system can be a much needed relief, allowing them to travel throughout the game world in whatever style they choose – whether that be an intricately draped, gold-inlay hooded robe or just a barely secured bath towel. But for others, the lack of the garment choice’s impact on gameplay may be a sorely missed tactic when it comes to entering high level combat.
So, who wore it best?
What it all comes down to in the end is player preference because everyone will have their own opinion about which of these systems looks and feels the best when it comes to shaping the overall gameplay experience. And for that reason, I can’t pick a universal winner. However, with that being said, I can nominate a personal favorite.
To answer the question that the title of this article poses, I factor in not only the appearance of the outfits available in the games but their functionality and impact on the gameplay as well. For that reason, the winner out of these thre games for me is Horizon Zero Dawn’s system that balances aesthetics with combat strategy without overflowing my inventory with hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of equipment.
Horizon has offered us some exceptionally well done character designs and garments that help shape the game’s progression, add to the world’s lore, and layer neatly into the combat system.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the armor and outfits systems present in Nioh and Assassin’s Creed Origins as well. I’ve spent a lot of time with these characters – possibly more than a hundred hours per title – and each system that allows me to interact with how they look and customize them, watching them grow throughout game, has created value in its own unique way and added to the overall enjoyment of the experience.
It’s also worth noting that 2017 has shown us dozens of great games that have character designs with similar levels of attention to detail that I didn’t have the chance to talk about in this article, so now’s the time to show appreciation for all the work that went into 2017’s pantheon of leading men and women in video games. Give us a shout about some of the coolest looks you liked best from 2017 and how they shaped your experience with their respective games!