Horizon: Forbidden West is basically superior to its predecessor in every way. Visually, musically (goddamn does this game have a fine soundtrack). But it’s still very much the same game – the apex of the open-world action RPG experience, a Ubisoft game if it was, you know, actually… good. So why has it grabbed me in a way Zero Dawn never managed to?
For context, I’ve started and quit Horizon: Zero Dawn around five times. The longest I’ve ever played it for is maybe about ten hours, but I always get bored and never return around the same point – just after clearing the first Cauldron. I’m sure fans would argue this is just when the game starts getting interesting, but I really just don’t have the energy to rinse another map full of question marks.
For some reason, Forbidden West just feels… different, somehow. It could be the more bombastic opening – obviously Aloy’s origin story as a motherless exile is told now, so we get straight to business with a tight sequence that introduces the game’s sharpest elements. Exploring old ruins, sneaking through bushes and plinking away at enemies with arrows before the scope massively opens up and we clash with a gigantic snake machine in the shadow of an abandoned, overgrown spacecraft launch site.
It feels bigger. It feels better. The longer the game goes on, the more Horizon‘s – and indeed, the genre’s – problems creep in, but those first few hours are so interesting compared to Zero Dawn. There is one clear objective, and Aloy is going to do it whatever the cost.
Horizon’s sequel is bigger – but that means more of its flaws, too.
Once you get past the tutorial, the world opens up, but even this is really just a little bit of foreplay to the world really opening up in a couple of hours. We mess around on the border to the titular forbidden west for a few hours, but it’s all good. The sidequests here feel fleshed out and connected to the rest of the world, and we reunite with some of Aloy’s friends from Zero Dawn (not that I recognised many of them to be fair).
What I really like about these first few hours is how relatively straightforward it keeps the combat. You have just the right amount of options, and balancing stealth with all-out assault is good fun. Fighting the big machines feels tense, and even getting on the wrong side of a pack of smaller beasts can be dicey.
When Forbidden West begins to open up, it loses some of that sharpness. There’s an infinitely changing wheel of different weapons with different ammo types, some of which basically useless, some hilariously overpowered. Completing an early side quest rewarded me with an exploding javelin weapon which essentially carried me through the next five hours of gameplay, whilst most of the weapons merchants carried just seemed pointless.
It does make me wonder how important the open world actually is to Horizon. If it was a tight Uncharted style adventure it could be on a completely different level.
What makes Forbidden West the better game? I think the answer is Aloy.
Aloy’s new “move or be moved” attitude transforms her into the protagonist she should have always been. She was charming enough in the opening hours of Zero Dawn – sincere, naive in a way, the classic underdog with something to prove. As mentioned above, I’ve probably replayed the first 5-6 hours of Zero Dawn at least five times. For the entire duration of those opening hours, Aloy is in a state of permanent bewilderment. Now, she’s got fame and friends, but she just doesn’t give a shit. It’s almost comical at times how determined Aloy is to go it alone.
Obviously, I accept that she may have begun to evolve into this character during Zero Dawn. I checked out before she really had the chance to blossom into her role as a hero, and it wasn’t her eternally confused face that put me off. What put me off was the fact I’d just been here a hundred times before. Not in Horizon’s brilliant prehistoric/dystopian post-apocalypse, sure. The uniqueness of the game’s setting is one of its greatest strengths. But honestly, who isn’t sick of these massive open worlds filled with endless question marks to reach?
She doesn’t stay that way forever. Part of Forbidden West‘s story is her coming to terms with her limits – even as a chosen one – and accepting that she does need the help of her friends. I’ve even seen some people memeing on Aloy’s behaviour in those opening hours, but I honestly think it kind of rocks. She’s miles away from the bemused, anguished outcast she once was. A badass warrior who don’t need no man, or woman, or anything besides herself and her spear. Aloy gets stuff done in Forbidden West, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Unfortunately, Forbidden West still doesn’t quite gel for me. It’s more of a success in my eyes than Zero Dawn, which is a great accomplishment for any sequel. But it’s like my approach to tackling literally any task. A massive burst of focus and determination at first – which completely derails into distraction and eventually total aimlessness. This is why this post is so very late. Much like Forbidden West, I really doubted I’d ever finish it.