Horizon: Forbidden West opens a mega year for the PS5, with more heavy-hitting exclusives on the way, and it definitely sets a high visual bar for those to clear. It’s definitely a gorgeous visual showcase of exactly the kind of power the PS5 has behind it, and with an HDR display, the presentation is genuinely breath-taking at times. As a game, the things Horizon: Forbidden West gets right are pretty much exactly what players came to love about the 2017 original Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s an evolution and expansion on the world, gameplay and ideas in that game, which means it’s not going to win anyone over if the first wasn’t your cup of tea, but it has plenty to delight Zero Dawn‘s many fans.
It might help to know that my experience with the original Zero Dawn was pretty much exactly replicated here by Forbidden West. That is to say – for the opening hours of Horizon: Zero Dawn, I just couldn’t get into it, or see what the fuss was about. The explanations for systems took too long to get going, as did the plot, and it was difficult to find the right groove to actually enjoy the game, and want to explore its map. However, once the game opened up its larger world, allowing me to explore, experiment with hunting tactics, as well as take on climbing challenges like the Tallnecks at my own pace, suddenly the game finally ‘clicked’ and I was on board right until the end.
For better or worse, I had the same experience in Forbidden West. Its opening hours, while filled with exciting action and plot developments from the original (which I, admittedly, had almost completely forgotten aside from a few basics), lock you into narrowly guided sections, where the game’s least appealing aspects are the focus. Forbidden West slowly opens its map, bit-by-bit, with larger and larger contained sections, with an overly-intrusive UI and tutorial system. It isn’t until the second act begins where Aloy’s mission finally takes shape in earnest that the game finally clicked for me, and once it did, I was golden.
Horizon: Forbidden West picks up where Zero Dawn left off, a thousand years in the future where humanity has reverted to a primitive tribes and communities, living in the ruins of the old world as terraforming robot animals roam the surface. Aloy is searching to retrieve and re-construct GAIA, an artificial intelligence who can re-start the terraforming process to save Earth’s biosphere. This brings her to the Forbidden West (TM), which is ostensibly the West Coast of the former USA, where there are various tribal factions, the mysterious Sylens (portrayed by a dependably-mysterious Lance Reddick), and a new threat that might hold more links to Earth’s lost history.
The narrative of Forbidden West raises the stakes in new, and somewhat goofy, ways as Aloy’s adventure spirals further into science-fiction, although that’s not to say the tribal politics at play in the Forbidden West are especially interesting either. What’s stronger is the character work, helped by the cast’s performances that flesh out even bit-roles with nuance and subtlety. Hopefully you’re engaged enough in the story to want to sit and enjoy it all at the game’s own pace, as it’s somewhat unreliable when you can skip through dialogue if you’re in a hurry, or you’ve gathered the point of the conversation. It does also start to grate that Aloy and her friends feel the need to comment about everything in-game, and often Aloy’s inner monologue and thoughts have to be heard in full before you can proceed with other actions, like talking to other people to begin quests.
Once the Forbidden West opens up to you, there is a considerable amount to get stuck into around the mainline quests, with multiple categories of side quests and activities. Not only do you regularly find a range of people looking for Aloy’s help at every settlement you come across, but you’ll come across merchants needing assistance with supplies to unlock better gear, fight clubs, mounted robot races, supply runs to unlock even cooler robot dinosaurs to mount, flying missions – there’s even a board game with various levels of difficulty if you think you have the time for it. While the main campaign can can be sorted in about 30-40 hours, with some activities on the side, if you’re hoping to get through everything Forbidden West has to offer, it could take quite a while.
Among all that, the best bits of Horizon remain the game’s most unique selling point – the creative and cool bestiary of robot animals/dinosaurs. Hunting these guys, studying them, learning their weaknesses and knowing what parts to detach, what ammo to use and what behaviours to look out for when facing them in direct combat – it’s the best part of the game by far. There’s more types than before, each with different quirks and personalities, and the game is open to experimentation enough that most of them can be tackled without worrying too much about what level Aloy is, as long as you can be resourceful and learn their patterns.
Aloy has access to a range of traps and tools to take out these robot critters, including a wide array of upgradeable bows. Melee combat is also an option, but it’s relatively simpler, yet also feels easier to cheese, as you can charge up hits to stun robots with surprising efficacy, buying yourself time to nab critical hits, or use your other devices. Stealth is generally the preferred option, as Aloy is able to scan and predict the paths these robots take to get the jump on them, but this is made trickier by the involvement of flying mechs often accompanying the herd. There’s a lot of depth to becoming a mechanical wildlife expert, and eventually gaining the ability to ride on some of the more awesome ones feels like an awesome reward for your efforts too.
At the other end of the scale, we have Forbidden West’s climbing mechanics, which feel stuck between this generation and the days of PlayStation 3. Many of Horizon‘s dungeons, which take the form of ancient facilities dotted around the map, dedicate a lot of time to getting Aloy to jump around coloured handholds jutting out of structures, exactly how players will have done for the past decade. Meanwhile, in the open world, climbing feels a little looser, allowing Aloy more freedom in the types of surfaces she can scale, although the only way to know if you’re following an allowed ‘path’ up a mountain is to continually scan, to highlight climbable areas. Beyond that, it also just feels inconsistent just how far Aloy can jump between perches, as sometimes the game will give her a boost, and othertimes it’ll let her fall to her death. As the game goes on, you’ll adjust to strange way the movement and physics work in Forbidden West, but it never feels exactly great.
Of course, Horizon: Forbidden West has a stunning presentation, which after a day-one patch, has few technical hitches (beyond inconsistent and distracting eyeline-mismatches between characters during cutscenes). Not only are models meticulously detailed, down to the fine blemishes on their skin, but the environments which the Forbidden West has to offer are bursting with colour. From verdant jungles to rocky deserts and submerged towns in lakes, with swathes of red filling the screen as the ‘blight’ infects the vegetation around the map, and the unmistakable blue hue of robots in the distance, Forbidden West basically requires a HDR display to get the most out of its gorgeous design.
Horizon: Forbidden West expands on the first game by building on its best parts, namely the open world and the unique machine animals which inhabit it. There’s a great deal to get stuck into here, and PlayStation 5 owners should feel relieved that there’s a new content-rich, stunning adventure they can spend a lot of hours in. A clunky intro and inconsistent climbing and platforming do make Forbidden West feel more like its predecessor than perhaps it was hoping for, but for fans of Zero Dawn who are already on board with the game’s idiosyncrasies, your patience has been rewarded with a massive world, bursting with creativity that’s a joy to explore.
-Visually gorgeous, with vibrant, colourful environments and detailed models -Involving combat and hunting, involving a score of diverse and creative robot monsters -Huge world to explore, a tonne of side content to check out, including its own board game -Riding dinosaurs is pretty cool
-A clunky opening takes too long to get going, and leaves a mediocre first impression -Climbing feels outdated and inconsistent -It would be nice if everyone just took a break from talking every now and then