The sequel to Horizon: Zero Dawn does everything better, but still falls short compared to some of the best in the genre.
As I know many of you like to compare the oh-so important scores, it's worth noting that I didn't find Horizon: Zero Dawn quite as impressive as Magnus did back in 2017. Please keep that in mind when you look at the bottom of this one, as there's no doubt that Horizon Forbidden West is better in most ways. Even in terms of the story.
It may be a weird thing to say when Zero Dawn introduced us to this fascinating universe in an amazing way, but having laid the groundwork allows Guerrilla to really dive into why and what happened, as well as explore some mysterious and intriguing ways Aloy's adventure affects parts of these things. Sure, there are still quite a few examples of stuff happening at extremely convenient times and some overly theatrical acting and dialogue obliterating the effect some twists and turns could have had, but the core story finally gets some time to breathe, allowing us to truly learn who Aloy is and has become, while also going head first into what's happening with the world. This kept me interested till the very end, and I can't wait to see where it goes next.
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Not that I actually mainlined the story. That would have been near impossible in a world this astoundingly beautiful and filled with things to do. It's easy to get side-tracked from what you were originally planning when a foggy marsh nearby sparks your curiosity with some enticing silhouettes or you know the view from a nearby mountaintop will make the Share/Create button scream for mercy. Especially the lighting has got a very impressive upgrade on the PlayStation 5, making every colour shine in all its glory and the tiniest of details, in clothing and chunks of metal, come to life. This from a guy that choose to mostly play in the fairly stable performance mode with 60 frames per second and less visual flare. Sprinkle in some great sound design and music that makes each part of the world feel unique, and it's easy to lose yourself into one of the most impressive games out there in terms of presentation. Just be careful not to completely forget where you are.
Because the Forbidden West isn't called that due to robot-dinosaurs and hostile people not being allowed there. On the contrary. The Dutch developers have without a doubt taken the feedback about lack of variety in the original to heart. Different parts of the world will have their own kinds of dinosaurs and tribes with unique cultures, leading to a more believable and engaging experience. Especially when both parties have new tricks up their sleeve. Familiar dinosaurs have new variations and attacks, new types bring their own kinds of challenges, some humans are riding and controlling different beasts and those who prefer having their feet on the ground have finally learned that sticks can be used for more than poking once in a while. This makes the already great combat even better and more dynamic. Different enemy combinations require different tactics, and learning the ins and outs of new enemies is always fun. Fortunately, Aloy has learned a thing or two as well.
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I'm not just talking about being able to upgrade weapons and gear either. Far more extensive skill-trees let you unlock new abilities suited for different playstyles. Whether it's learning smaller things like melee combinations that make it easier to crush cocky baddies, to medium stuff like firing two arrows at once and finally the big stuff, which can simply be described as Aloy's Ultimates. Mixing and matching these with some cool new weapons and enemies, great and very customisable controls (and accessibility settings), destructible environments and buffs result in encounters just feeling smoother and more enthralling than the first game.
The same can to some extent be said about exploration and puzzles. Being able to climb on far more surfaces, grapple to specific points and gliding through the air with your fancy paraglider does wonders both for traversal, combat and puzzle solving. Seamlessly jumping off an overridden machine, grappling onto a pole, launching into the air and gliding down a valley before reaching the mountainside and climbing up a ruined building where a neat collectible is hiding behind a crate that your Pullcaster (aka grapple hook) can move out of the way is fun... at least the first few times.
I say the first few times because certain parts of Horizon Forbidden West suffer from a focus on quantity over quality. Calling it bloated might be a bit too harsh, but it's not wrong either. There's a reason why I'm not gushing about different missions and activities: The large majority of them are very repetitive. Most missions consist of: talk with a person calling for help, ask a few lore-building questions where said person moves around a bit before going back to the same spot for more questions, follow someone to a designated area while they keep talking about the mission, defeat a couple of big dinosaurs or many smaller ones before returning to the quest-giver who rewards you with experience points, a lot of currency and maybe some gear. Only a handful of these are unique and memorable even if Guerrilla tries so hard by introducing us to classics like a very excited merchant and a mother wanting to bring her son back from the dark side and other archetypes. Trying to spice things up by having someone transgender, or shunned in some way, involved just isn't enough to distinguish yourself these days when the best games take advantage of their mechanics in way cooler and more creative ways.
The lack of creativity is also reflected in the environments. Don't get me wrong. This is, as previously stated, one of the prettiest games out there, but looks aren't everything. I think the Forbidden West is a bit constructed or gamey if you will. Having characters move in set patterns, being able to climb a mountain in one area but not a very similar one in another, re-entering stealth by walking beneath the tower an enemy is shooting you from, and most enemy outposts having the same objectives and design, with the majority of the skill-trees lacking any real impact are just a the tip of the iceberg.
Many places look and feel sterile even if they're beautiful. They just lack any sense of environmental story-telling, and instead just end up being that way because they're pretty. I would have been far more interested in exploring every corner in the world if we got more areas like the one pictured below where it's easy to imagine different ways that could have happened instead of big deserts and forests you find in every other game (with a few very impressive exceptions).
Finally, Sony has made sure that I'm going to write an article about the bad sides of being a reviewer, as Horizon Forbidden West was in an horrendous technical state the first week of testing. I'm talking Assassin's Creed: Unity bad here. I've seen the screen frequently turn black for a few seconds while running around because it needed to load environments, characters being seriously cross-eyed and seeing everywhere except the person they're talking to, entire buildings suddenly appearing in-front of me, infinite loading screens, not being able to enter a crawl-space because a tiny piece of an object was blocking the way, and parts of characters turning completely black. Most of these seem to have been fixed or at least improved after a patch last week, but the framerate is still struggling during explosions (in performance mode), Aloy's hair and gear keep on clipping through her body, and characters have a tendency to get stuck in objects. These are just nit-picks compared to many other games and the unpatched version though.
Yet I've been having a great time with Horizon Forbidden West. It improves upon everything from Horizon: Zero Dawn. Both the world and characters are jaw-dropping, the combat far more fluid and engaging, traversal faster and more intuitive and there are a ton of different things to do. My main problem is that it ends up being fairly generic for those of us who've played similar open world games because it barely does anything new besides the story and setting. Those of you who aren't as fatigued by or used to these will probably have an amazing time, as Guerrilla still know exactly what we want.
8 / 10
Great sound and music.
The core story is fascinating.
You've done everything before and often in a better way.
Many conversations feel very unnatural.
Some technical issues.