One set of armour in Horizon Zero Dawn stands above the others: The shield-weaver armour. It's really good, and pretty hard to get. It's also totally worth it.
Most of the armour in Horizon has a specific application. This armour protects against fire, this armour against melee attacks. This armour gives you a stealth bonus. The game is pretty damn tough no matter which armour you're wearing, but the most useful is the shield-weaver armour. It projects an energy shield around Aloy and can absorb several major hits before it needs to recharge. That's huge, particularly when you're up against some of the game's tougher enemies, which can drain your health bar with a hit.
The shield-weaver armour is appropriately hard to get. The developers have taken the Assassin's Creed approach: You find the armour early, but it's locked behind glass and you can't get to it right away. It's buried in a bunker near the starting area, but you'll need five power cells in order to unlock it. Those power cells are spread throughout the underground areas you'll explore during story missions, and you won't be able to get the final one until the third-to-last mission, "The Mountain That Fell."
It would be possible to find all the power cells on your own, but some of them are hidden well enough (and are enough of a pain to backtrack to if you miss them) that I recommend reading a guide. I followed this one.
I played straight through Horizon's story without doing too much side stuff. That was on purpose, in part because I wanted to get this armour before taking on the side quests, hunting challenges, and that sort of thing. I was glad I played that way for a few reasons: for starters, the story is good (like, really good?) and once it gets going, it's hard not to want to know what happens next. I'm also glad I waited because the shield-weaver armour has made the side stuff more fun.
I like the armour because it makes it easier to avoid losing health. Which sounds obvious, duh, but I actually mean something a little more specific. It keeps me from losing health... which keeps me from having to wastetime gathering more health items. The shield will take some hits, but I'll move out of harm's way before Aloy's health bar gets nicked. Because of that, I seldom have to slow down to get more healing items, and I'm freed to focus on busting through missions.
As I've talked about before, Horizon Zero Dawn is a bracingly difficult game. Even if you've leveled Aloy all the way up, those robot dinosaurs pack a mean punch. It's a welcome challenge, and I appreciate that things don't become too easy toward the end. The longer I played, however, the more I found myself avoiding combat, not because I was worried I'd die, but because I didn't want to use up my healing items.
As you play, you gather healing herbs, which Aloy puts into her healing bag. That fills up a green healing bar, which sits below your red health bar. If you take damage, you have to burn through some of your healing bar to recover HP. Take a bunch of damage, or get hit several times over the course of a long fight, and your green healing bar will run out, which means you have to start scouring around to pick up more healing herbs. You can also use healing potions, but those are harder to come by, so herbs are generally the way to go.
For the most part I enjoyed this approach to healing. It's interesting, and a little different from most games. 30 or 40 hours in, however, and I'm officially sick of gathering herbs. Everywhere I go, I see a plethora of herbs and branches and roots to pick up. I'm constantly diverting my path to go pick up another herb, and another one, and another one.
Compounding the issue is the fact that it's a bad idea to go into a tough fight or a cauldron without a full bag of healing herbs. Several times I've diverted my path in order to grab herbs, only to get sideswiped by a robot that I didn't see, lose a bunch of health, and have to use the herbs I'd just gathered in order to heal. It's not a huge deal, but it becomes annoying over time.
As a bonus, the armour looks slightly less ridiculous than most of the other high-level armour. It's a relative thing, but still. The shield-weaver armour has negated all of that. The shield keeps me safe from damage, so I'm not constantly worrying about running out of healing herbs. It doesn't make me immortal, though, and the fact that I rarely take damage hasn't made the game any less fun. Combat is still an unpredictable fiasco, frequently escalating beyond my expectations as more and more giant robots join the fight. I'm still frantically leaping and dodging, trying to perform crowd control, carefully choosing my shots and prioritising my targets. It's still a rush when a building-sized beast charges me and I dodge by leaping forward through its legs.
I understand why you have to play through almost the entire story before you can get this armour. It's so good that it renders the other armour in the game obsolete. If I could have gotten it at the outset, I would have, and it probably would have lessened my appreciation for Horizon's overall design. But it's a terrific late-game reward, and it's making all these hunting challenges, cauldrons, and side missions a lot more fun than they would have been. I can finally stop picking flowers and focus on something much more important: blowing up huge robots.