At the risk of alienating anyone reading this review before we’ve even gotten to the juicy bits – it took close to four years and as many restarts for me to finally invest in 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn enough to finish it. I remain incredibly impressed and grateful that the open-world video game equivalent of Dino-Riders managed to make its way into the stable of PlayStation’s blockbuster AAA exclusives, but there was no denying that this new IP from Killzone developer Guerrilla Games was an ambitious proof-of-concept more than a formula perfected.
Enter Horizon Forbidden West, a sequel that doesn’t just perfect the formula laid out by its predecessor but sets a whole new benchmark for all open world video games to come.
Picking up six months after the events of Horizon Zero Dawn this new journey finds our hero Aloy and her fellow Nora, Varl, setting out West of their homeland to a new territory in search of a backup of GAIA, the AI that can help them fix the dying world (if you haven’t played the first game or it’s been a while I’d urge a quick refresher before jumping into this). That goal quickly reveals itself to be more involved than expected though when the warring Tenakth tribes of the Forbidden West, mysteries surrounding an old world corporation called Far Zenith and a poisonous red blight on the plant life all work to complicate the mission.
To say that Forbidden West’s narrative ups the ante from the groundwork that Horizon Zero Dawn laid would be a severe understatement. The sequel manages to dig deep below surfaces that the original only scratched to find an abundant wellspring of lore and world building that had me enamoured from beginning to end. The tough part is talking about any of it – there are simply too many crucial narrative beats and revelations that would be a shame to spoil, suffice it to say that Guerrilla has again done an extraordinary job of exploring a vast range of themes in this fantastical world. This is a game that tackles ideas of purpose and legacy, religion and government, freedom of information, colonisation, race, technology, loss, pride and so much more and deftly delivers them in magnitudes both grandiose and miniscule.
One of Forbidden West’s biggest successes, and one that reveals itself almost immediately, is a far more convincing cast of characters that are better written, better rendered and animated and more pivotal to Aloy’s journey than ever. Gone are the original game’s stale and stilted conversations and in their place some of the most jaw-dropping character models and motion capture I’ve ever seen running in real time. This is coupled with top notch writing, supporting a very wise commitment to the game’s cast of secondary characters.
Some of the best moments in Forbidden West come from Aloy’s interactions with others, the completely new world and deeper development of side characters naturally resulting in more engagement and exploration of her own thoughts and emotions. Every new human settlement is full of engaging and well-rounded stories that add depth to both Aloy and the world around her. Even the things that would be considered filler, the stuff in the open world that would typically be content for content’s sake, is often neatly woven into the world state or feeds into minor narrative beats which makes careful exploration a much more compelling prospect.
The newfound sense of companionship in Forbidden West’s narrative is bolstered by the structure of its open world as well, which begins with a base of operations for Aloy and her steadily-growing party. Grounding what eventually becomes a branching set of objectives in a central location that grows and changes as players achieve goals in the world makes a marked impact on the sense of progression through the game’s story and allows a ton of time for Aloy to have those meaningful and well-written conversations with her companions that I’ve already praised so much. Between the base and the other major settlements in the game there’s a far greater sense of place that was missing in the lonely wandering of the previous game’s world and its comparatively soulless centres of population.
Similarly, where Zero Dawn made dungeons and unique gameplay experiences out of the ruins of scientific bases and sprawling landmarks, Forbidden West gives players plenty of opportunity to explore smaller slices of the world as we know it now. Overgrown and dilapidated homesteads and town squares from the pre-apocalypse routinely become miniature puzzle sequences that flex the potential in Aloy’s new abilities and gear like the Pullcaster.
The Forbidden West itself, which stretches from parts of Utah to the coast of San Francisco, is packed with a tremendous variety of biomes and more traversal opportunities than ever. Alongside new tools, Aloy’s range of movement has been expanded to include scaling many cliff faces even without defined handholds and – more excitingly – the ability to freely explore underwater. The feeling of immense verticality that Zero Dawn hinted at finally comes to fruition here and the underwater sections especially are used to great effect to add variety in both enemy encounters and exploration, with plenty of exciting secrets to find in out-of-reach places. And when you do reach those heights, sometimes even heights that Aloy can’t access alone, it’s nice to finally have an easy way of returning to solid ground with the brand-new paraglider Shieldwing.
If there’s one thing about Horizon Zero Dawn that I think everyone can agree on, it’s that combat against its catalogue of machines was the absolute highlight. Facing down its robotic facsimiles of recognisable dinosaurs and animals, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and valuable mechanical components remains one of the most unique thrills in gaming and Guerrilla has predictably identified this as one of the key areas to double down its efforts for the sequel. The catalogue of 40+ machines contains a staggering number of new types that are all just as unique and fun to wrestle with as the returning models, and thanks to the game’s added vertical depth includes quite a few more recreations of fearsome air and sea creatures. Where else but here could you see robotic takes on aquatic dinosaurs, kangaroos, baboons and elephants co-existing in a post-apocalyptic California but here?
Not content just to add more machine types and call it a day though, Guerrilla’s expanded Aloy’s combat abilities and arsenal of gear to a ridiculous degree. Not only are there some shockingly fun new weapons to wield like the often-explosive throwing spikes or the catch-and-return shredder gauntlets but familiar bow and sling types have been given vastly more variation that includes new damage types and firing modes. Aloy’s weapons as well as her gorgeously-rendered outfits can be upgraded and moulded to suit a multitude of playstyles, and a quick trip to the dyer in most settlements even allows for some basic colour customisation which I’ll admit I spent way too much time collecting resources for when I should have been saving the world.
Combat against humans still pales in comparison to machines, but there’s still a marked improvement here over what was in Zero Dawn. Straight off the bat one of the Forbidden West’s new tribes, the Tenakth, has mysteriously gained the ability to override machines themselves and so frequently rock up on the backs of machines like Ravagers and Tremortusks where they can prove mighty formidable. Melee combat with Aloy’s spear is also a far sight better than before, with her moveset and acrobatics greatly expanded on top of a new Resonator Blast finisher that can really turn the tide against man and metal alike.
This is all helped along by slight, but thorough and meaningful improvements to the game’s UI. Aloy’s focus has seen some clever streamlining, helping to declutter the original game’s cluttered on-screen HUD by giving it two functions – a button press will quickly highlight any materials, handholds and other handy info in the immediate vicinity while a long press brings up the traditional scanning interface. Scanning machines or humans is a lot easier too, you’re able to quickly tab between each of an enemy’s parts to inspect them as well as a tag any desired part to keep it highlighted during combat. Small changes like this throughout gameplay and in menu screens really bring the game’s systems together to a much more cohesive whole than in Zero Dawn without radically changing the experience that fans loved.
Of bigger impact is the way each player’s gameplay style can uniquely develop and evolve with the game’s new progression systems. For starters you’ll net Skill Points much more frequently, but you’ve got no less than six separate trees to pour them into, and most skills across these categories have multiple levels to obtain to increase their effects. These range from increasing Aloy’s core strengths or opening up new tactical and stealth options to adding new secondary fire modes to the many different types of weapons available to her.
There are also the all-new Valor Surges which open up after you’ve unlocked the skills around them. Valor Surges are powerful buffs and abilities that Aloy can activate that bolster her in combat, from increased damage to special shielding and cloaking. This all adds up to a ridiculous degree of freedom in player builds that, combined with the enormous number of new machines and all of their intricacies, means that you’ll constantly be finding and trying new strategies while enjoying a power climb that moves at a cracking pace.
Add to all that the plethora of unique weapons and outfits available (all of which look incredibly cool, just quietly) that feel much more specialised this time around and can be enhanced and customised to further augment your playstyle and Horizon Forbidden West feels much more like a proper RPG than the original did. The added depth doesn’t come at the expense of playability either thanks to the way that most of these systems are better integrated into gameplay.
Despite the reservations I had initially about needing to retreat to a workbench to craft anything outside of ammo and traps and to apply gear upgrades, I almost instantly fell into what is a clearly intentional gameplay loop. Falling short of materials for an upgrade, creating a “job” to track my progress in obtaining them, hunting down the right machine and carefully removing the components I need before returning to make use of the spoils feels incredibly Monster Hunter-esque in a way that makes total sense for this franchise. Aloy’s new “stash” is a total godsend too, removing the original game’s annoying inventory micromanagement by simply whisking away excess resources for her to collect at any settlement or camp as needed.
There are truly far more new additions to the core mechanics of combat, exploration and progression than I can comfortably explain in one review, but they’re each as meaningful as the next and slot ever-so-comfortably into the established framework. And whether Aloy is scrambling against scores of machines, doing some impromptu farming astride the boar-like Bristlebacks, restoring neon soaked nightlife to Las Vegas or diving for coral-covered shipwrecks there’s one thing that can’t be understated and that’s the game’s sheer visual splendour.
Every inch of the Forbidden West is lush, vibrant, brimming with detail and full of life. Huge human settlements atop dilapidated satellite dishes in Utah teem with people, all living out their lives, some of them even contributing to a chorus of song that can be heard across the plains. Meanwhile, farther West in San Francisco coastal tribes settle in sand-covered villages where tropical weather regularly whips up into storms of rain and wind – much like the Northern settlements are occasionally battered by blizzards that always seem to stir just as Aloy is facing down a particularly nasty machine out on the deadly precipices of mountains. It’s all, every field and forest, every decaying ruin of a museum or residential street, every peak and trough a best-in-class showcase of both technical and artistic talent.
Even stripped of what it brings to the table in narrative or gameplay there is undeniable value in Horizon Forbidden West as pure spectacle. “Graphics aren’t everything” is a valid and nuanced argument, sure, but a game like this almost makes me believe that graphics can be everything, if that’s what you’re looking for and if they look as good as they do here. There is no shortage of creativity, care or commitment in every new area. Just when it seems like the well of surprises has run dry it spills over again as Aloy enters yet another innocuous-seeming crevice in another innocuous-seeming wall only to be treated to unmitigated wonder and beauty.
No matter which generation of PlayStation you’re on the sheer amount of time and attention put into every detail means you’re still getting some of the most incredible-looking characters, environments, weather, animation and cinematography in gaming right now, but as far as the PS5-specific experience goes there are numerous impactful improvements here, beginning with the options boost in visual quality. I had trepidations going in about how Forbidden West’s position as a cross-generation title would affect or potentially “hold back” the version that many likely splurged on shiny new consoles for, but Guerrilla has done a fantastic job of putting together a game that caters to both the strengths of the new hardware and the limitation of the old.
The biggest benefit you’ll see when exploring the Forbidden West on a PS5 is a level of detail that’s impossibly impressive with what is probably the most CG-like texture and asset work that I’ve ever seen, and all of it drawing out into the game’s vast distances with no perceptible loading in or scaling. Everything is just there, all at once and in its highest-possible quality as though it was carefully placed and optimised for a handcrafted cutscene, only it makes up an entire open world. In fact, Guerrilla has revealed in prior media releases it was able to apply the “cinematic” character lighting usually reserved for cutscenes to the entire game on PS5. The result isn’t technically realistic as nobody walks around with multiple invisible spotlights on them in the real world, but it adds greatly to the overall visual and gameplay experience by giving characters increased visibility and tangibility within the world.
If you’re playing on a PS5 you’ll get the option of two graphical modes – a Fidelity mode that aims for a 4K output at 30fps and a Performance mode that drops the resolution in favour of 60fps targeted performance. When I did eventually play through Horizon Zero Dawn I did so on the PS5 with that game’s 60fps patch and so I figured I’d be doing the same here, but I actually found the deficit in detail in the Performance mode large enough to be distracting and ended up switching over to Fidelity for most of the game. That and the lack of any recognisably modern visual features like ray-tracing in either mode, coupled with some occasionally jarring lighting changes and last-gen-looking shadows definitely underlines the game’s PS4 roots but none of it takes away from the immense quality of the art on display.
Of course there are other, recognisable PS5-exclusive features as well. Lightning-fast load times when booting the game from the menu or its Activity cards, or when fast travelling are a given (you’re even afforded the option to shorten the artificially-inflated load screens if you don’t care about missing the tooltips). There’s the requisite Tempest 3D Audio tech to heighten the powerful audio mix and soaring, cinematic soundtrack that ranks among some of the most empowering backing score in a game like this.
Along with this comes the expected DualSense haptics and adaptive trigger support – though these actually rank as some of my favourite implementations yet with comprehensive feedback that isn’t overdone or intrusive and includes a ton of minor details that interact with the game in fun ways. The first time I realised that standing under a trickle of rainwater from a nearby ledge would result in realistic splashing of water on Aloy and the feeling of each individual droplet on the DualSense controller I was reminded of the powerful potential that Sony’s ambitious hardware holds. Thankfully for anyone averse to these things you’re able to tweak and customise it all or turn it off entirely.
That’s thanks to another stand-out consideration in Horizon Forbidden West, which is its raft of accessibility and difficulty options, many of which allow players to alter the gameplay experience at shockingly granular levels. I’d likely double the length of this review just describing the hugely positive effect these options had on my experience, so I’ve spun that discussion off into another piece which you can read more about in a piece coming later this week, but suffice it to say that Guerrilla has gone above and beyond in a lot of ways.
That’s the crux of it, really. In almost every way, Guerrilla has re-thought, refined and redoubled on everything that was good or bad about Horizon Zero Dawn while pushing nearly every boundary imaginable in how an open world video game can look and feel. Above all else, this is a game that consistently surprised me. Whether it was the escalating story beats that had me thinking “surely this is as wild as it gets” before getting even more wild or the frequent unexpected finds when I was out exploring the Forbidden West, from opening to end credits I simply never felt like I’d seen it all. Even after playing for 60-odd hours and getting the platinum trophy there is still so much out there for me to do, so much beauty to witness and so many more mysteries to uncover.
Horizon Forbidden West is an exceedingly clever sequel, a deep and addictive action RPG, a dense world that unfolds with an impeccable sense of pace, a visual tour de force and the masterful delivery of a promising concept. Somehow, by some sheer creative force a big, blockbuster open world game about post-apocalyptic tribal warriors with AR headsets fighting robot dinosaurs works even better the second time around. If you have access to a PlayStation you owe it to yourself to play this right away.
Absolutely gorgeous, dense world that's a blast to traverse
New machines are universally great
Class-leading narrative and character writing
Improvements to UI and systems make a world of difference
PS5 features are smart and well-implemented
Lack of new-gen niceties and 60fps compromises might disappoint