Horizon Forbidden West is a world of beautiful distractions. It doesn't matter that the world is being killed and Aloy is the only one that can save it because the Salt Bite cook needs some eggs, someone else's father has gone missing, and there's a rowdy Thunderjaw threatening a small village. The Forbidden West may have been forbidden just because it needs you so much - and I'm totally here for it.
Release date: February 18, 2022
Platform(s): PS5, PS4
Developer: Guerrilla Games
It builds on what was offered by Horizon Zero Dawn - an open world filled with quests to catch your attention, a strong story of post-post-apocalyptic life, robot dinosaurs, and technological mysteries. There was almost a concern that this sequel may feel too familiar, just teleported to a new map, but the opening hours alone were enough to alleviate those fears. Although the same framework is there and the core gameplay mechanics remain untouched, this truly is an evolution, a new beast fitted over the mechanical bones of the Old Ones.
Regardless of whether the next quest you find is a smaller errand or core story mission, there's a depth and breadth to each one that's consistently surprising. What you'd expect to be a simple fetch quest is always much more than that, and someone you initially think is an incidental character becomes a recurring favorite you're desperate to see pop up again elsewhere. That's key to the experiences in the Forbidden West as the most immediate change is the improvements to the humans you'll find in this robotic world.
While there were a handful of memorable characters in the original game, developer Guerrilla has made every single person you interact with in the sequel feel unique and interesting. Regardless of the time you spend with any NPC, each one has a distinct personality, a slither of backstory, and an interesting hook. There's a beautiful array of diversity here too, including non-binary representation and characters with disabilities, which is an interesting conversation to be had in a tribalistic world.
The little touches make a difference too, like seeing anyone in the desert areas visibly glisten with sweat; while possibly the best facial capture in games to date allows for every look and smirk to come to life. There's a lot more humor and humanity on show here and it all aids how connected you feel to the world and its people in Horizon Forbidden West.
Even the returning gameplay elements have had more personality injected into their metallic joints. Tallnecks return as a means of unfogging the gigantic map, with the huge giraffe-esque beasts dotted at different points around the Forbidden West. The original game's gimmick was just working out how to get to their heads in order to hack their geographical knowledge. But, this time around each of the majestic creatures gets its own little narrative quirk. Cauldrons too, the ancient robot manufacturing plants that you have to hack to gain the ability to take control of the dinos, all require a different approach. Dyes and face paints can be unlocked to customize Aloy further, while more machines can be overridden and commandeered than ever before.
It helps to diversify your approach to combat too. Regardless of how powerful you get as Aloy - who's conveniently got into some "trouble" between games to explain the loss of all her advanced weaponry and power armor - the robot dinosaurs will always be king here. One bad move can be fatal against the toughest opponents, like the gigantic mammoth-inspired Tremortusks that have dominated the trailers for the game. Your only way of effectively taking them down is to plan, strategize, and make sure you've prepped, along with moving and attacking with as much caution as you can before the inevitable chaos quite literally reigns down on you. I love the fact that taking down the biggest machines is always a challenge; there's a difficulty curve at play that you never quite crest the top of. But it ensures that taking them down never feels anything but rewarding.
Although the game does do a poor job of explaining some of the intricacies of its systems - particularly when it comes to the different ammo types, firing options, and the way to benefit best from its pretty complex skill tree. The new Valor system, which gives Aloy huge buffs and boosts to use in combat that can be switched out at will, is a welcome addition that always delights with its little cutscene triggers and liberal use of war paint. But, anyone who hasn't played the original game could well find themselves lost in the weaponry sub-systems.
Another frustration is the climbing. It was said that the game offers 'free-climbing' with no limitations on where you can shimmy on up, but in reality, climbing is limited to secret handholds that you expose with a pulse of your focus. There's no consistency to where and when you can climb, and the button prompts to leap from handhold to handhold are clumsy and awkward. Accidentally flinging myself from the side of a skyscraper became a regular occurrence, with the movement occasionally becoming frustrating to the point of utter irritation. It's certainly not a patch on the smoothness of scaling the world that you'll find in something like Assassin's Creed: Valhalla and that's such a shame when the world continually urges you to explore it.
What always works though is how rewarding exploration feels. Like all of the best open-world games, there's always something to discover around the next horizon, with some areas locked off until you've obtained the right skill. There's always the subtle encouragement to revisit earlier areas to discover what you've missed, and because of the strength of the game's side quests and other narrative beats, you won't want to miss a single thing. The addition of swimming adds enhanced depth to the world, although it does come complete with its own dangers, and when the climbing does work it all blends to make you feel like you can go anywhere.
It's just Aloy
At the center of it all is Aloy. Our returning heroine is just as compelling here as in the original game, if not more so because some of the struggles she has to overcome feel much more relatable this time around. The first game saw her as an outcast growing from child to young woman, just trying to find out where she came from. The discoveries she makes of Elisabeth Sobeck and the activities of the old ones become her driving force. But here, she's already armed with so much knowledge that it's the more human-level arc that really drives the story forward. Of course, there's a world to be fixed and big bads to be vanquished, but it's as much about fixing the world as it is about Aloy learning that the people of Earth are just as much worth saving as the planet itself. The journey she takes from being staunchly, almost repugnantly independent, to embracing the friends - old and new - that push their way into her life is quite unforgettable. More than once I found myself laughing out loud or fighting back a tear or two.
What you end up with is a cast that both myself and Aloy would die for, which is complemented by the other adventures you've had along the way to saving the world. So compelling are they that you may well feel compelled to avoid the main story for fear of it all ending too quickly. I adore the more subtle developments too, like hearing the way the inhabitants of the Forbidden West react to Aloy's presence changes. Known initially by many names throughout the land, like Red, Savior of Meridian, and flame-haired, eventually you'll notice that her insistence at being called "just Aloy" starts to stick. It's a world you want to spend time in, and like Aloy, will want to protect at all costs.
And did I mention that it's utterly stunning too? This is the first massive PS5 open world and the variation you'll find here will always have you reaching for the screenshot button. The neon lights of Las Vegas, the withering remains of San Francisco, the warning glow of a robot searching for you through the underwater reeds, it looks and feels magnificent to play.
What Guerrilla Games has achieved here is nothing short of phenomenal. Story, gameplay, mechanics, and the world itself are all such an improvement on the original game - which in itself is a feat alone. The climbing, ironically, is the only thing that really holds it back from utter perfection, but it's not enough to make Aloy's latest story go without anything bar the highest recommendation. You know a game is good when the robot dinosaurs aren't the thing you want to talk to your friends about first.