There are always going to be expectations when it comes to a sequel, a follow-up to an experience that introduced a new setting, characters, and exciting blend of action and adventure. Horizon Zero Dawn’s hook, and immediate visual identity came from its lush and vibrant futuristic setting, its presentation of Earth overrun by machines. Humans receding to a more tech-free tribal societal structure, with the machines in question roaming the countryside in the form of robot dinosaurs of various shapes and sizes.
Taking the fight to these robo-dinosuars was, and as Horizon Forbidden West reinforces, thrilling. Using Aloy’s skills with various bows, traps, staffs and stealth to properly plan and then survive when glowing eye-cameras turn red is key. Taking on a Thunderjaw, a large hulking machine rendition of a T-Rex, is an exercise in using everything Aloy has got. The speed at which machines move and attack, both physically and projectile-y, is intense to say the least.
“Robot-dinosuars” might be the very short elevator pitch, but it’s the sort of fantasy fulfilment that still resonates. Horizon Zero Dawn established that hunting dinos was a jumping off point for creating spectacular combat encounters. Like going up against a pack of Velociraptors whilst taking a stroll through Jurassic Park, it’s the sort of setup where being able to dodge-roll to avoid an incoming charge is only Step One. As Aloy exploits weaknesses with elemental arrows, pack mentality and subsequent dino-strategy does the same. When it comes to the more tense encounters, or going up against a Tremortusk, very few battles end the way they begin.
Taking the fight to these robo-dinosuars was, and as Horizon Forbidden West reinforces, thrilling.
For those expecting more of that sweet battle-bot action, Horizon Forbidden West delivers. New machines are introduced, and generally speaking there’s more polish to how Aloy moves and attacks. There are new moves, special abilities to equip, and a variety of ways to move about athletically with a dash of badass-ness. But, by that same token there’s the same sense of unneeded complexity and outright clunkiness that carries across from the first game.
Keeping track of dozens of bows, each with two to three different types of arrows suitable for different things, can be a mess. It’s basically an identical setup in terms of how the gear and weapons work in Horizon Zero Dawn. The same sentiment applies to laying down traps, which you select via scrolling through an unsorted list of items that also contain various potions and foods. In the heat of battle it makes the Trapper-first approach an exercise in texting-thumb dexterity.
As the pre-release footage showcased, Horizon Forbidden West is a sequel of immense and often staggering scope; yet it stumbles in so many of these seemingly small areas. Visually, the Forbidden West looks dazzling. Running on PlayStation 5 the level of detail seen across jungles, deserts, forests and just about any type of mountain you can think of is a long series of “hats off” moments. And with so many biomes, the sheer size of it all dwarfs the first Aloy-ting.
With size comes new and speedy traversal, similar in some ways to the also-massive Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. But even here there are issues. Being able to climb mountain sides and cliffs without having to look for yellow-coloured ‘only-these-bits’ is wonderful, yet weirdly, traversal in Horizon Forbidden West is way more of the latter. Only being able to climb this highly detailed rock-face with jutty bits perfect for grabbing onto “but not that one or that one” is strange. As is following-up this sort of free-form climbing with several platforming sequences that essentially devolve into scanning over and over to find the correct yellow-points to reach a goal.
As the pre-release footage showcased, Horizon Forbidden West is a sequel of immense and often staggering scope; yet it stumbles in so many seemingly small areas.
There’s also a stiffness to a lot of Aloy’s movement, and glitchiness. Clipping through objects, getting stuck on rocks and a lot of examples that place Aloy on top of a highly detailed world as opposed to being a seamless part of it. Her hair, which does look great, bounces and clips through her shoulder constantly and moves in a way that is over-the-top and unrealistic. Throw in data streaming issues (where the screen goes black for a second to load) and it’s another huge game release that’s rough around the edges.
With the incredible level of detail Guerrilla Games has put into the world, locking out what look like climbable rock-faces adds a static, almost set-dressing feel to many locations. The general rule here is that there’s only one way to get from one area to the next. The grapple-hook is essentially a bust in terms of freedom of movement, it’s used primarily for making the already speedy climbing speedier by only hooking onto specific yellow-bits.
Really though, it points to the design sitting firmly in the realm of the first game; rarely breaking new ground or truly embracing its open-world. That said, the glider is a great new way to get around; essential even. Used from a mountain top to get down to some plains is exhilarating in ways that climbing isn’t.
Saying Horizon Forbidden West’s size and scope is immense isn’t merely hyperbole. The story here is expanded in ways that are fundamentally exciting. As you explore beyond the opening area, which doubles as a very cool condensing of the first game, you’re introduced to new threats, new tribes, and a sizable open-world that feels more alive and populated. Distinct cultures are realised visually and through history, personality and perspective. The main story intertwines their struggles and fates into the broader sci-fi weirdness of genetics and terraforming, and throughout Aloy’s lengthy quest to literally save the planet, she’s joined by new and familiar faces.
Really though, it points to the design sitting firmly in the realm of the first game, rarely breaking new ground or truly embracing its open-world. That said, the glider is a great new way to get around; essential even.
With the open-world and lush post-apocalyptic West Coast America being considerably larger than the locale of the first game, there are more activities to discover too; ranging from racing to an interesting Gwent-style game-within-the-game to discover. But, the layout here is still traditional in the sense that there’s usually one of these per biome, alongside finding and scaling Tallnecks to reveal a small section of the gigantic map. There are also campfires to discover every 200-metres or so, which offer up a save-point and a reminder that this is still very much an “open-world” game.
But it’s also here where Guerrilla has spent considerable and commendable effort fleshing out individual stories and creating new adventures for Aloy to embark on. From side quests that feel as important to the main task at hand, through to helping out salvagers competing to make the best armour in an armour-making competition. With the outcome of course being Aloy getting to don a new piece of brilliant-looking attire. On that note, every bit of armour looks awesome. The level of detail is insane, and with the ability to apply various dyes and discover dozens of different face-paints, Horizon’s fashion game is strong.
There’s even a dash of Mass Effect 2, in that Aloy learns to trust others and be a part of a team. She establishes meaningful relationships, relies on outside input, and even helps out with everyone back at basecamp in their own ‘companion quest’. Unfortunately though, as with the first game, very few of the supporting cast are memorable.
Expanding this side of the experience is no doubt a very welcome step up from the first game, and speaks to what videogame sequels can do well. It all adds depth to the story and world, which is expansive and full of narrative beats both expected and unexpected. But, like with the climbing and traversal, there’s a bit of an identity crisis in how it all comes together. At a couple of points, as Aloy, you are given the option to make a few big decisions, but the fates of the tribes and characters are mostly locked into the very linear story that unfolds.
There’s even a dash of Mass Effect 2, in that Aloy learns to trust others and be a part of a team. She establishes meaningful relationships, relies on outside input, and even helps out with everyone back at basecamp getting their own ‘companion quest’.
The story feels separate to the progression and character development from a systems point of view too. Horizon Forbidden West offers up gripping moments of action, both cinematic and discovered whilst out exploring. Crafting and skill trees have been expanded, the former being much like the first game and the latter wisely splitting things up into different classes. When it comes to entering a closed space, or a level specific to a main quest mission, outside of a wonderful trip to Horizon New Vegas it’s mostly just going from room to room with puzzles limited to figuring out what you can interact with.
And lots of combat.
This makes the action-adventure stuff kind of bland, and as expanded as the story is, there’s also very little outside of enemies being of a certain level that adds the sense that you’re playing a Witcher-style RPG. Rewards are often unexciting, it’s rare to be granted a new weapon or piece of gear. Occasionally you’ll find gear out in the world, but mostly it’s all tied to specific tribal vendors ala the first game.
Complexity is tied to quantity. In much the same way Aloy ends up with a huge arsenal of different bows, so too are the machine parts, consumables, and ‘for-cash-only’ items plentiful in type. There are numerous old world trinkets of legendary or purple colour that aren’t worth all that much. You’ll even delve into a previously sealed off ‘old world’ locale and find fresh medicinal berries, some potions, and tribal ‘machine part’ currency in chests. In fact you’ll stop paying attention to what it is you're looting unless there’s a quest icon to let you know it’s part of a mission or job.
In a way Horizon Forbidden West is a game of two halves never quite coming together, one is all about the story and Aloy’s journey as a hero with the other being a game of hunting, survival, and crafting new gear to survive a harsh open-world overridden by dino-bots. Taking the time to properly dig into the latter offers moments of brilliance, and discovery. Hunting in particular is about learning machine behaviour, and with excellent art direction, animation, and sound design, as there’s machine individuality beyond simple archetype.
When it comes to entering a closed space, or a level specific to a main quest mission, outside of a wonderful trip to Horizon New Vegas it’s mostly just going from room to room with puzzles limited to figuring out what you can interact with.
And even though so much of Horizon Forbidden West feels like Horizon Zero Dawn 2.0, the increased scope creates its own set of problems. As an action-adventure, an RPG, a narrative, and open-world sandbox, and a way to simply spend time exploring a breathtaking world – it falls short. Engaging at times, thrilling too, but also disjointed, clunky, and unfocused in ways we didn’t expect.
What we liked
Visually stunning on PS5
Expanded story and a world that feels more alive
Combat builds on the core of the first outing
Fighting dino-bots is as tense and thrilling as ever
Exploration and hunting
What we didn't like
Feels too much like the first game, just bigger
No refinement or changes to items, gear, and crafting
Climbing is stiff and mostly limited to “only this way”