As talks among the video games industry continue about how we can better support players of all kinds in accessing and enjoying games on their terms, it’s always encouraging to see big name studios and publishers embracing accessibility in new and exciting ways. With the release of Horizon Forbidden West, one thing I couldn’t wait to explore for myself was developer Guerrilla Games’ promise of a heavily-customisable gameplay experience and granular approach to difficulty.
On finally getting to play through the game (you can read my glowing review right here) what I found was not only a refreshing and comprehensive list of settings to play with, but a few key options that go beyond simply tailoring the action to be more comfortable and actually opened the doors for me to get the Forbidden West experience that Guerrilla intended regardless of my skill level.
For the sake of context, an admission: I am terrible at action-heavy games. In particular anything that requires an accurate aim and steely reflexes. This typically means that I stay away from competitive multiplayer games and twitch shooters, while in the single-player action adventure titles that I love I tend to bridge the gap by selecting an easier difficulty option when things get overwhelming (although I breezed through Returnal so go figure). That usually does the trick, but a lot of people may argue that in doing so I run the risk of watering down the gameplay experience and the fun of strategic play. And you know what? They’re often right.
We’ll get into details in a bit, but one big issue that I can attribute to my struggle to enjoy its predecessor, Horizon Zero Dawn, is that so much of that game’s joy comes from mastering combat against its menagerie of menacing machines. There are key elements to being successful in this – it’s primarily a case of learning each machine’s weak points and vulnerabilities and employing the right tools to exploit those, but devising a strategy and actually executing it are two different things if you’re someone like me whose aim is so bad they could probably throw a blue shell in Mario Kart and miss.
The solution in Zero Dawn then, was to knock the game’s difficulty down a peg or two to ensure I didn’t get caught up and frustrated in fumbling through enemy encounters. It’s nothing but a good thing that I can change the difficulty at all, but the downside in doing so is that any of that strategic element goes out the window. Now that enemies are weaker and I’m less at risk, careful planning and tactics are unnecessary and it makes far more sense for me to simply hack, slash and shoot with wild abandon. Still fun, but definitely not the core experience that fans loved about the game.
That’s why I love Horizon Forbidden West’s accessibility settings so much. A couple of them in particular, in fact. See, a crucial mechanic in Aloy’s repertoire is the ability to use “Concentration” to briefly slow down time while aiming and ensure she hits the often miniscule targets of a machine’s weak points at exactly the right moment. Likewise, bringing up her weapon wheel to pick out the perfect bit of gear for the job brings things to something of a crawl so that it’s not too frantic. In Forbidden West, these phenomena can be tweaked to be even more effective, slowing time further during weapon selection or allowing players to use Concentration more often and for longer periods of time than the default. What this did, for me, was instantly give me a way to compensate for my bad aim and reflexes enough that I didn’t feel the need to take the game’s difficulty down at all. In fact by the end I’d bumped it up a notch just because I could.
Suddenly, thanks to a few small tweaks that would normally be completely out of the hands of players, that more calculated and considered combat experience is back on the table. Once again I’m in enough danger to be forced to think hard about how I address each machine that I encounter, but I’m no longer being held back by a deficit in ability that I’m not in control of. It was never the “difficulty” of the game’s enemies that hampered my enjoyment, and no longer do I have to sacrifice the fun of that difficulty to ensure I see those end credits. It served as a reminder to me that difficulty and accessibility in games are two very different concepts that can also have a direct impact on each other, and the more power players have to tailor a game to their needs the closer they’ll get to that magical “intended experience”.
That’s a very specific and personal example of the impact of only a couple available options – there are a ton more that can be read about in Guerilla’s post on the PlayStation Blog – but it’s something that was game-changing for me in Horizon Forbidden West and had a direct and tangible impact on my enjoyment of what is already a stellar title. The more we see of efforts like this the more we open up all kinds of games to all kinds of players.
Seriously though, go and play Horizon Forbidden West as soon as you can