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When it comes to sequels that are significantly better than the original, a game that often comes to mind is Assassin’s Creed 2.
The jump from the first Assassin’s Creed to its sequel perfectly represents what a studio can do once it’s found its feet with the first instalment of a franchise – expanding on what worked, listening to what its players didn’t like, and taking advantage of not having to learn to walk at the same time.
While Horizon Forbidden West just falls short of replacing Assassin’s Creed 2 in this analogy, it gets very close. With better combat, a compelling story and a jaw-droppingly beautiful world, it’s an improvement on the original in every way, even if it does hold on to a few open-world tropes that we could have left behind.
Horizon Forbidden West picks up right after the end of the first game. If you haven’t played the original, or have simply forgotten its plot in the five years since its release, there’s an excellent recap at the start of the game, meaning players that didn’t even pick up the first game can be right up to speed.
Following news of an impending threat, Aloy must leave the cosy, settled lands that she came to know in the first game and journey west, into a harsher, dangerous and politically charged world on the brink of inter-tribal war.
We love that the game acknowledges how significant Aloy is to the people of this world as she enters new villages and meets new tribes. She’s revered for what she did in the first game, and it doesn’t simply feel like a complete reset. Aloy isn’t having to prove herself again, she’s a genuine legend of this world.
This carries over to Ashly Burch’s incredible performance. Already a highlight of the first game, Horizon Forbidden West sees Burch shed any naivety from her performance of Aloy, instead giving her every bit of confidence one would have had they just saved an entire region from guaranteed destruction.
Don’t mistake this for an Aloy who spends the whole game quipping and smirking into the camera, however. When a certain character (no spoilers) makes themselves known in the narrative, the shift in performance that comes with this is one of the most memorable in modern games.
Burch isn’t the only triumph – the entire cast of supporting characters and their performances are stronger in Horizon Forbidden West, aided by incredible performance capture which allows for performances with plenty of nuance and depth.
The facial animation in Horizon Forbidden West is nothing short of industry-leading, standing toe-to-toe with Sony stablemate Naughty Dog in terms of realism. This is a game where you’ll call someone in from the other room and show them it to demonstrate how good games look these days.
While Horizon Forbidden West is every bit a modern open-world game, instead of absolutely littering the map with enemy bases (although there are still a few), there’s a much larger focus on the game’s massive list of enemy creatures to take down.
Favourites from the original game return, such as the iconic Thunderjaw, but there’s a whole new batch of beasts, as well as variations of old ones for you to hunt, and Forbidden West does a great job of making these creatures feel genuinely scary.
“There were multiple times that we came across a machine from the first game, full of the confidence of late-game Zero Dawn Aloy and thinking we’d easily rip it apart, only for it to send us back to the nearest campfire.”
You’ll come across packs of machines in the early game that will take you out if you don’t sneak around, or run away as fast as you can. Sure, you can set up traps, and slowly chip away at the various armour plates that each machine features, but they hit incredibly hard, and this adds to the sense of hostility you face in the Forbidden West.
There were multiple times that we came across a machine from the first game, full of the confidence of late-game Zero Dawn Aloy and thinking we’d easily rip it apart, only for it to send us back to the nearest campfire.
It’s never cheap, to be clear – the game is simply full of genuinely challenging encounters, and in an open-world landscape where the wallpaper between missions often feels like it’s there out of obligation rather than to provide fun gameplay moments, it’s a huge breath of fresh air.
The combat doesn’t feel entirely complete. Melee combat, while improved, still feels inferior to the excellent bow-based encounters that dominate most of the game. While Aloy’s staff is now much more well-integrated into her arsenal and new combos with the bow make combat much more free-flowing, the encounters can slow down if you find yourself exclusively using the melee (though this is thankfully rare).
Horizon Forbidden West offers two graphics modes, favouring performance and resolution. The performance option offers a solid 60fps with some reduced visual effects, while the resolution mode offers 4K at 30fps.
The resolution mode is truly stunning, and offers some of the most incredible open-world vistas we’ve seen in any game, but the frame-rate trade-off is disappointing. While the performance mode, which we favoured, still looks great, there’s a clear difference between the two, especially when it comes to distant landscapes.
Facial animations and character models are both a highlight, as is the incredibly detailed weaponry and armour. We wish the game encouraged you to change your outfit more, as there are plenty of incredible sets of armour you’ll never even get to see unless you seek them out.
“Even after you’ve finished the game, if you’ve not elected to explore you’ll have a huge amount of the map yet to uncover, especially in the coastal region.”
The different tribes are all unique and provide interesting looks into what it would be like to settle in this harsher environment from what Aloy knows. Each settlement you find yourself in is teeming with side-quests which we recommend you take on, as some characters are slightly hurried along by the main quest, which is trying to deal with larger, more intense concepts and thus leaves some backstory behind.
The world of Horizon Forbidden West is significantly more diverse than its predecessor, offering a condensed version of several US states. The lush forests of California that have been shown in pre-release footage are as dense and sprawling as you would expect, although we wish the game spent more of its main campaign exploring this area.
Even after you’ve finished the game, if you’ve not elected to explore you’ll have a huge amount of the map yet to uncover, especially in this coastal region.
Horizon Forbidden West is a reminder of how enjoyable an open-world game can be. The moment-to-moment gameplay is exceptional, with best-in-class bow combat and an army of machines to take down with it.
The world is vast, sprawling and full of life and interesting characters. The actual geography of the map has never been more enjoyable to explore, and we found ourselves audibly gasping at some of the locations the game has hidden away.
If it wasn’t already, Ashly Burch’s portrayal of Aloy should be held up alongside Ashley Johnson’s Ellie and Christopher Judge’s Kratos in the pantheon of great PlayStation protagonists. Indeed, it could be said that Horizon Forbidden West makes an argument for her place at the front of the queue.
There will be some open-world fluff that will turn some players off, but it’s entirely optional and for those not looking for it, Forbidden West delivers an exceptional 30-hour campaign.
However, if you’re willing to take your time and explore the ruins of a fallen society, where every other corner is teeming with machines that you’ll need to be at the top of your game to destroy, then Horizon Forbidden West becomes an incredible game set in a world that we wanted to return to many hours after the credits rolled.
Horizon Forbidden West is an incredible game set in a world that we wanted to return to many hours after the credits rolled.
- Incredible open world
- Best-in-class bow combat
- Gripping story
- Ashly Burch shines
- Some open world clutter