One of the most eagerly anticipated PlayStation exclusives of the year is already here in February, as we take a look at Horizon Forbidden West. Guerilla made a few different design choices here than they did for Zero Dawn, but the end result is a must-have title nonetheless.
In the past two years or so, there are few games that Sony has shown off more than Horizon Forbidden West. Clearly meant as a showcase product for the PlayStation 5, we were a bit surprised when it was announced as coming to the PlayStation 4 as well – though the limited availability of the PS5 also makes it understandable that they’d want to reach that bigger installed base as well. And when the review embargo was announced as being a few days ahead of the release date, we knew Sony was confident that was going to be a winner.
Horizon Zero Dawn set a high bar for the debut game in the franchise, and Forbidden West reintroduces us to protagonist Aloy in a story that is set six months after the conclusion of her first story. The world is still under threat, and heavy storms and an aggressive kind of red vegetation are threatening life in Aloy’s world, causing her to set out on a quest to find answers. She ventures into the Forbidden West for this, a region that’s home to a ruthless tribe and impossibly large and powerful machines.
We won’t delve too much into the story for obvious reasons, but the above is a good indication that Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t stray too far from what Zero Dawn offered, thematically speaking. The story even features throwbacks to the somewhat recent events in the first game, so it helps if you’ve played it. The sequel features a brand new branching and twisting storyline though, with a new location and new antagonists. It may lack a bit of the revelations of Zero Dawn, which introduced us to a new world for the first time, but Forbidden West’s storytelling is much better – relying less on audio logs and letting the story unfold in-game for us.
In that sense, the team at Guerilla has definitely taken a few cues from recent hits like Red Dead Redemption 2, featuring more and better fleshed out characters to encounter on your journey. Even the NPC interactions you have feel more vibrant and alive, as they’re presented in a far more dynamic way than in Zero Dawn, where many of the conversations were just close-ups of faces. Again, something we’ve seen done better elsewhere, and something that can now be seen in Aloy’s adventures as well.
It’s a layer of visual polish that extends to the rest of the game too, with beautiful graphics that shine through the diversity of the locations. From familiar jungle settings to underwater scenes and snow-covered mountain tops, Horizon Forbidden West looks fantastic, especially when you select the associated mode and sacrifice resolution and/or framerate. The game will still run great, but you can’t hit 60 frames per second on a 4K screen with all the visual bells and whistles turned all the way up.
Regardless of which visual mode you select, the strong design work also translated to the characters you’ll encounter. The giant war machines you fight with are impressive both in how they look and how they move, and the non player characters you encounter all have their own (visual) identity through differences in wardrobe and behavior. There’s a high level of visual polish throughout the entire experience, marred only by a few small glitches like lip syncing that could be better and eyes that can go a little wonky – something we can see being addressed in a post-launch patch. The same is most likely true for some of the slight texture pop-in we saw, but none of that stops this from being one of the best looking videogames ever made.
Combat against those giant machines we mentioned is a big part of the game, as you’d expect if you’ve seen Sony’s gameplay footage. What that footage didn’t tell us is how well the action now flows together with the PS5’s DualSense controller and its unique features. Haptic feedback can be felt in very nuanced ways when you splash into water or wade through tall grass, but is especially noticeable when Aloy pulls back on her bow and gets ready to fire arrows. It makes combat in particular feel visceral, and makes for some of the best boss fights in gaming today. Different bosses require different weapons and tactics, and sometimes you’ll be using traps while at other moments it’s a case of targeting and taking out components to gradually weaken them.
Outside of these boss fights, which are clear highlights in the gameplay, Forbidden West features a ton of familiar activities if you’ve played open world games before. There’s a nice diverse range of (optional) quests to undertake, there are opportunities to train and challenge yourself, and exploration and puzzling can yield results in the form of supplies and collectables. Many of these activities tie into the story as well, so it’s not just a case of using extra content to pad the experience.
Most of the changes in Horizon Forbidden West are incremental in nature, and they’re all changes for the better. Perhaps it’s not the immense leap forward that we thought next gen would bring and the small glitches don’t help there, but it’s certainly a must-have sequel if you enjoyed the first game.