Five years after Guerilla Games delivered a stunning and remarkable open-world IP in Horizon Zero Dawn, the studio is back at it again with the hotly anticipated sequel, Forbidden West.
The big question that many fans of the series will ask, though, is how on earth can you top the experience of sliding under a robot-T-Rex and blasting its weak points with explosive arrows as it narrowly misses smashing you with its tail?
Forbidden West’s answer, it seems, is to send TWO robot-T-Rexes your way. While you may be disappointed that you’re not being attacked by an entirely new monstrosity, HOLY SH*T YOU’RE BEING ATTACKED BY TWO ROBOT T-REXES!
That is to say, when it comes to Horizon Forbidden West, don’t expect something new, expect something more.
Six months after Zero Dawn, our flame-haired Nora hunter Aloy – fresh from stopping a murderous AI from rebooting an earth-destroying robotic extinction protocol – is looking for a way to prevent yet another apocalypse. This time, the environment is going haywire, and she really needs to find the friendly AI, GAIA, to help her set things right.
Unfortunately for Aloy, the answers she seeks lie in the west, which, as the game’s name implies, is forbidden. Contrary to the more amicable and cooperative tribes and clans in the east, the west is a quote/unquote savage land, where domination is the culture and violence is the primary language. By tradition, no one can venture there without the say-so from the local tribes.
Of course, Aloy has never been one for tradition or adhering to social taboos, so she’s going to go anyway, even if she has to slide under THREE robo-T-Rexes to get there.
Horizon’s story has always been a mish-mash of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, spirituality, religion and politics. Aside from the novelty of blowing up robo-beasts, it allowed one the opportunity to stroke one’s beard and pontificate on how society would progress or regress if it were given a clean slate, cut off from all ties to the past.
All of these themes are very much still at play in Forbidden West’s story, but this time the game really leans into the sci-fi aspect of its apocalyptic tale – so, thematically, expect to spend less time brooding about being an outcast, or a technophile among religious zealots, and more time grappling with rogue AIs.
Is the actual story good? That really depends on how hungry you are to find out more about the world of Horizon.
The intrigue of Zero Dawn was unravelling the mystery behind the state of the world, and uncovering the twist that this is OUR earth, and that we were done in by our own hubris (and killer robots). Forbidden West goes deeper into answering some of the lingering questions that revelation raised, but spends a little bit too much time looking back, coming off worse for it in my view.
While Zero Dawn felt far removed from the earth of the past and full of possibility for this new world and a new future, Forbidden West feels more attached to the old world than ever before, and it appears that the series will be stuck there for the time being. However you feel about this kind of take, though, you will still experience plenty of intrigue and stunning set-pieces along the way.
Joining Aloy on her journey is a host of new and returning characters, some of whom will be instantly recognizable – like returning deuteragonist, Sylens, who remains as enigmatic as ever – while others may require you to go look up who they are because they weren’t really all that memorable or as important as the game thinks they were in Zero Dawn.
New characters are far less forgettable, even if they can come across as being overly naive.
Character interactions and dialogue were easily the weakest part of Zero Dawn. In Forbidden West, both of these things are vastly improved.
The amazing facial capture of the actors’ performances is on full display, with every side-eye, uncomfortable shift, or slight frown coming through on the characters’ faces. While some of these very human reactions and expressions are subtle and natural, there are times when they feel wooden, hollow, or overly performative in the actual dialogue.
Luckily these moments aren’t quite enough to pull you out of the story entirely. They just remind you that you’re not, in fact, watching a movie, you’re playing a (stunning) video game.
It probably speaks to the visual quality on display that these awkward dialogue moments stand out. The visual fidelity is so good that it often feels like you’re watching a CGI cutscene.
Seriously, it cannot be overstated how amazing this game looks.
This fidelity extends beyond just the characters, too, with the world of the Forbidden West looking simply astounding. From the mountains stretching high as a boundary in the east to the sandy and tropical coastline in the west (and the deserts, jungles and snowfields in between), Guerilla has built a dense and visually captivating world here.
I could wax poetic about how the dipping sun on the Forbidden West’s post-apocalyptic coastline made me feel a sudden melancholy and introspect on how the sun will one day set on the ruins of our own world in much the same way – but you just want to see the pretty graphics, so here are some screenshots:
These pretty visuals do come with a caveat, though.
On PS5 the game offers two modes in which to experience the stunning landscapes: a 4K visual mode that locks the game at 30fps, or a lower-res performance mode that targets 60fps.
Being the main drawcard for the new generation of consoles, I opted to experience the Forbidden West in a smoother 60fps; but with such a dense environment with lots of plants and grass, rough surfaces, complex geometry, etc, the lower resolution creates many, many jagged edges, and whatever filtering or smoothing is being done by the engine creates a constant ‘shimmering’ effect.
To put it bluntly, in the performance mode, the world quickly went from being a wonder to an eyesore, so I was basically forced to put things back at 4K and live with the lower frame rate. Initially, I thought this was just me and my ageing eyes, but I confirmed with some friends that this was indeed a shared experience.
A patch released this week did adjust some of this filtering, and in my subsequent testing the shimmering did seem to subside – but I’d still be hesitant to recommend the performance mode over the much smoother fidelity mode. You do you.
Fortunately, the 30fps fidelity mode doesn’t diminish the gameplay experience in any significant way, and there were no visible frame drops or screen tears in my playthrough in 4K.
Forbidden West’s gameplay will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s played Zero Dawn. For better or worse, the systems are virtually the same, and you shouldn’t be spending too long getting to grips with shooting arrows, laying traps or smashing machines with your staff in a panic when you mess up the stealth.
The game does present some new weapons to put in your arsenal – like exploding javelins, and ripper-disc projectiles – but these only really come out when things go south, or if you wake up in the morning and choose violence.
Skills are split up for different builds – whether you want to focus on ranged combat, CQC, stealth, or overriding machines – and each ‘class’ has special abilities attached. With a weapon wheel for six weapon types, and R1 reserved for all the different actions, Aloy can only equip one special ability at a time, so choose wisely.
Throughout your journey, you’ll come across loads of different gear, all of which boost different stats and abilities to assist your builds, and each level of rarity (from uncommon to legendary) has a given number of enhancement levels you can attain by sinking resources into them. This usually involves having to hunt certain robo-beasts for their components – or if you’re going for increased ammo capacity, you’ll have to find real flesh-and-blood creatures to cut up.
This component grind can feel pretty dated and tedious, but if you’re missing any components, the game at least lets you create a handy ‘custom side quest’ that highlights an area where you can find them.
Despite the variety on display for playstyles, it’s pretty clear that Guerilla built open-world combat and encounters to favour stealth, much like the original. Taking a direct combat approach will almost always end up with Aloy being quickly overwhelmed, and on harder difficulties, eviscerated within seconds. The robot beasts feel particularly aggressive, and attacking four or more at a time will barely give you a gap to fight back.
A stealthy, patient approach to combat is the safer and also often more rewarding option. You can slowly chip away at enemies – detaching vital components needed for armour and weapon upgrades – or OHK the smaller pests (like humans) that come snooping around the bushes you’re hiding in.
Still, there’s nothing stopping you from approaching combat in any way you choose. But with the addition of a whole host of new enemies – including robo-kangaroos, armadillos, crocodiles, tortoises, elephants and triceratops and more – you’ll be wanting to do your due diligence on the battlefield from the nearest hideaway and proceed with caution.
Thankfully, if you do meet an unfortunate end, load times are near-instant, so you’ll be back into the fray – or grass – in no time at all.
The biggest gameplay changes I found come in exploration.
Much of the old ‘climb the highlighted path’ remains, but Aloy now has at her disposal a very handy grappling hook, as well as a futuristic electro-charged glider thing, that really takes the chore out of descending any high points you’ll be climbing (and there are a lot of those).
The grappling hook in particular is a welcome shift, which helps you make use of the verticality that’s been added to many combat arenas or exploration bubbles. Unfortunately, it’s very context-restricted – you can’t just grapple anything that seems climbable, and environmental uses are clearly pointed out to you.
Aloy also loves talking to herself and will let you know pretty quickly where you should be looking for the next step in a puzzle – or letting you know you’re not quite equipped to progress just yet, so you don’t waste time looking for answers or solutions you don’t have.
All in all, the best way to describe Forbidden West is that it’s Horizon Zero Dawn but MORE.
That is by no means an insult to the game – Zero Dawn is one of the best open-world action RPGs out there, and even simply continuing the tried-and-true formula set up in the original would have set the sequel on the path of success. Forbidden West does that, but goes further by refining an already incredible experience into something even better.
It may seem a little unfair comparing Forbidden West to its predecessor, but ultimately that’s exactly what will draw most people into this game in the first place. The story is a direct continuation (you’ll be pretty lost if you haven’t played the original), and even the game assumes you’re already familiar with most of its systems and mechanics, only briefly giving you a refresher in the opening mission.
So getting stuck into Forbidden West is like jumping onto an old horse (or Charger, if you will) and feeling at ease with the familiarity of the pacing, mechanics and general ride. The story beats are sharper, the exploration more rewarding, and the graphics and set pieces will leave you in awe. But you’re still riding a horse.
Fans who expected giant leaps in gameplay iteration or open-world mechanics might be left feeling a little deflated. But only a little. You’re getting more Horizon – and, really, what more could you want? FOUR robo-T-Rexes? Don’t be silly.
The good and the bad
+ Some truly remarkable CGI-level cutscenes
+ A massive world full of things to explore
+ It’s Horizon Zero Dawn, but MORE
– May feel overly familiar for some
– Performance mode can be an eyesore
– Some systems and mechanics feel outdated