Horizon Forbidden West Review – Man vs. Machine (PS5)

Horizon Forbidden West Update 1.11

Guerilla Games have always pushed the boundaries when it comes to video game technology, but nothing they’ve released so far comes even close to Horizon Forbidden West. I’ve been playing it for a couple of weeks now, and after 40 hours with the game and experiencing what it has to offer, Guerrilla has another hit in their hands – but it’s not without issues.

Let me start by stating the obvious; Horizon Forbidden West is a beautiful game. After a ton of hours sunk in, I’m still in awe of the beautiful vistas, lifelike character models, and incredible world Guerilla Games have crafted. While the story and gameplay aren’t a huge departure from Horizon Zero Dawn, they do enough to tweak the original’s formula to keep things feeling fresh and fun the whole way through, and they’ve addressed nearly all the criticisms of an already great debut. Unfortunately, the experience is somewhat hampered by bugs and technical issues. Despite that though, Horizon Forbidden West is yet another excellent addition to Sony’s first-party catalogue.

Graphics and Performance

When I first played Horizon Zero Dawn back in 2017, I vividly remember dropping into the ope- world for the first time and thinking “this is the best looking game I’ve ever seen.” I was blown away at how stunning the environments looked, and it was even more impressive considering the game’s open world structure. Five years and a console generation later, Horizon Forbidden West is here, and I’m struck with a similar feeling. Just as Horizon Zero Dawn before it, Horizon Forbidden West is pure eye-candy, and arguably the best-looking game I’ve ever seen on a console.

Hands down, the single biggest improvement visually are the character models. In Horizon Zero Dawn, these could look waxy, and the facial animations had a stiff feeling to them. Well, no more. Horizon Forbidden West’s character models are easily some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game. Aloy herself looks far better of course, but what’s even more impressive is the fact that every NPC looks just as good, if not better than she does. Combine that with the beautiful, dense environments and incredible lighting with a full day and night cycle, and it makes for one gorgeous package.

The amount of detail and realism in these characters is truly astonishing. There were multiple occasions where I was so distracted admiring them that I forgot to pay attention to the actual cutscene. Facial animations have been vastly improved as well, and it’s all paired with excellent voice acting across the board. Thankfully, unlike the nightmare-inducing kid Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, children look just as good as adults, and one of the coolest parts was seeing characters of all skin tones represented phenomenally. It’s seriously great stuff. There were still occasions where some weirdness happened with facial animations – blank stares, people looking the wrong way, etc. – but Guerilla tells us this is a known issue and should be addressed in the Day One patch.

PlayStation 5 has both a Fidelity Mode that outputs at 4K resolution at 30fps (frames-per-second), and a Performance Mode, which runs at 1440p  resolution and 60fps. This was my preference. It’s definitely a noticeable drop in resolution but in my opinion it’s worth it for the smoother gameplay. Performance Mode ran at a locked framerate in my experience, with no issues like stuttering or screen tear to speak of.

The DualSense and 3D audio features of the PS5 are also used excellently. Haptics provide just enough feedback without being too overpowering and the adaptive triggers activate contextually based on what you’re doing. One of the coolest uses of the adaptive triggers is the quick *snap* you get when igniting something called Firegleam to clear doorways. It feels just like striking a lighter. 3D audio is used to perfection as well, and it, along with the DualSense greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the game.

Bugs in the System

Over the past several years, PlayStation first-party games have been known for their high quality and excellent polish at launch. Unfortunately, this was simply not the case for me in Horizon Forbidden West. There were a myriad of bugs I experienced throughout my 40-hour playthrough, and they weren’t just limited to visual bugs. Some of them were pretty serious, and unfortunately the general bugginess of the game was a detriment to my experience.

Aloy would occasionally get stuck in walls, forcing me to reload my save. There was also a recurring issue where I got stuck in an infinite looting animation and was unable to move or do anything. Enemy machines would also clip through walls occasionally, which becomes a huge problem when you realize that their weak spots are now under the ground and impossible to hit (as was the case for me).

Pop-in is a serious issue as well. Throughout my playthrough, pop-in was very evident, sometimes even on close-up objects. Entire buildings popped up out of thin air right in front of me, in addition to foliage and other assets. It seems to be worse in certain areas, but it was something that was quite distracting, particularly in some of the later areas.

Perhaps the most frustrating issue I encountered was the general inconsistency during climbing and platforming in the game. Guerilla Games have touted the improved climbing as one of the big new additions in Horizon Forbidden West, and while it’s true you can climb more things now, you certainly can’t climb everything, and in the end I don’t think it adds a whole lot to the game. On the contrary, the controls can be frustratingly bad, and there are hand holds and ladders that straight up refuse to work. Most of the time you’ll be doing the same linear climbing puzzles used in Horizon Zero Dawn and you’ll rarely do any significant amount of climbing while traversing the open world. The convenience is great for quickly getting up to a ledge, but longer climbing sections end up being a headache.

In the end, while it’s still playable, there were enough issues, and enough serious issues in Horizon Forbidden West, that it’s given me cause for concern. It’s especially unfortunate considering the game was delayed out of 2021 for this exact reason. We’ll have to see if it improves at all before launch, but as of the publishing of this review bugs are definitely an issue you should be aware of.

Story (Minor Spoilers)

Horizon Forbidden West’s story does a much better job of hooking you right from the beginning. Critics of Horizon Zero Dawn often point to the game’s story as being “slow” or uninteresting. Admittedly, the story doesn’t truly pick up until somewhere around the halfway point, once you start learning about the Zero Dawn project and how this strange world came to be. Right away though, Forbidden West’s big set pieces and multiple plot twists, combined with charming characters and heartfelt cutscenes ensure the game’s story is well-paced throughout.

The story picks up six months after the end of Horizon Zero Dawn. When the game begins, the world is being ravaged by a mysterious blight that’s causing plants to die and vicious storms to ravage the globe. Hades may have lost the battle at Meridian, but the rampant AI is still lurking out there somewhere. You’re tasked with traveling west in order to find the source of this blight, and save all organic life from extinction. Along the way, you discover the existence of a new sect of old world ancestors, who prove to have some lofty ambitions, and revelations involving them will throw a huge wrinkle in your fight. This is just the kickoff point though. Horizon Forbidden West’s story eventually gets a lot bigger.

On your journey, you’ll encounter multiple new tribes. The Carja have made a peace treaty with one of the most powerful tribes called the Tanakth, but unforeseen events lead to this peace agreement being short lived. The Utaru and the Oseram tribes also play a role in the story. Each of these tribes feels very unique, and each have a rich history and their own customs. Along the way, you’ll meet plenty of characters, and eventually team up with some of them, joining your team of returning characters like Varl and Erend.

You and your friends will stay at “The Base” which is a sort of hub world, reminiscent of the Normandy from Mass Effect 2. You can talk to your friends every so often to hear about their progress, and learn more about their backstory. Occasionally they’ll also offer you side quests, which I highly suggest doing as they’re some of the best in the game.

The story this time around feels larger in scope. Not only are there several new tribes, each with their own customs and backstories, but tons more is shared about the old world and the fall of humanity. One of the coolest things about the Horizon franchise is the way they’ve managed to meld primitive societies and futuristic, sci-fi technology. Guerilla takes this even further in Horizon Forbidden West. And for the lore junkies, there is plenty of it here to dive into.

There’s a sort of laid back feeling to this game’s story. Cutscenes are pretty lowkey and usually involve dialogue, and when you aren’t getting attacked by massive machines, you’re usually out there exploring uncharted wildernesses, meeting new tribes, and being at one with nature. For the most part, Horizon Forbidden West is a relaxing game – in a good way.

One of my favorite parts of the story is Aloy herself. Gone is the timid outcast from Horizon Zero Dawn, who just wants to prove herself worthy of the Nora clan. Aloy is a full-on badass now. The hero of Meridian has become a legendary figure, so much so, that even people in the Far West know of her. As the only person who can save the world though, there’s a lot of pressure on her shoulders. This is all portrayed excellently by Ashly Burch and the writing team, and it all makes for a really strong protagonist.

The story in Horizon Forbidden West is delivered similarly to the first game. You’ll spend a lot of time talking to NPCs via dialogue trees with plenty of optional dialogue to fill in the blanks if you wish. Most of it is in-engine, but there are some pre-rendered cutscenes thrown in. Much of the deeper lore is still delivered via text and audio logs, which I actually found super interesting. It’s seriously impressive how much history Guerilla have packed into this fictional world, and it does a lot to make the world truly feel believable.

Gameplay

Combat in Horizon Forbidden West feels similar to the original in that it’s heavily based around using your various bows and gadgets to target enemy weak spots, detach armor, and apply status effects. However, melee combat has now been improved. Rather than the basic light and heavy attacks from Horizon Zero Dawn, there are now various combos you can unlock and string together, some with special effects. It works well against humans and weaker machines, but for deadlier enemies you’ll probably want to stick to ranged weapons. Still, it adds some much needed variety to the combat, as you can freely switch between the two and be just as effective.

If there’s one selling point of Horizon Forbidden West for me, it’s the machines. Aside from their incredible designs, it’s truly mind-blowing how many different kinds there are. From their attacks, to the way they move, each one is completely unique. Fighting some of the bigger ones is nerve-wracking, and genuinely tough. As far as bosses go, Horizon Forbidden West might just have some of the most creative and intricately designed in any game, which is especially impressive considering you often find them just roaming around the world. Eventually you’ll unlock the ability to Override them, causing them to fight for you, and allowing you to use them as a mount. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock the ability to Override more and more of them until eventually things really open up towards the end.

The skill tree has been improved as well. Six different specialties are available now, each fulfilling a specific role. Guerilla have done a great job balancing these, both in terms of the power and the speed of leveling up. I stuck mainly to the Warrior and Infiltrator trees to buff my combat and stealth abilities, and I got them both maxed out right around the end of the game. Not once did I feel like I had to grind out levels in order to beat a mission, and none of the perks felt too overpowered. The new Valor Surge abilities feel great to use as well. They’re a sort of ultimate ability specific to each skill tree, giving you effects like more ranged damage, higher critical hit chance, or an AoE lightning field. It’s just one more way to play into whatever build you choose to roll with, and become the ultimate Nora hunter.

As I explored the world, it struck me just how much side content there was. There’s a huge variety of things to do now. From fighting pits, to environmental puzzles, hunting grounds to horse races, most of it is genuinely fun and it keeps things fresh as you’re traversing the map. There’s even an in-universe board game called Machine Strike. There’s also tons of side content in the game. I suspect it would take close to a hundred hours to do absolutely everything on the map, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth.

To sum it up, gameplay in Horizon Forbidden West feels like an extension of the original, with some new additions, some minor tweaks, and a few big upgrades. The world feels alive, and the wider variety of side content ensures things feel fresh as you travel from Point A to Point B. New additions to combat give it a more complete feeling, solidifying Horizon Zero Dawn’s already unique formula, and whether you’re fighting enemy tribes or giant robot alligators, it feels tight and polished no matter how you choose to play.

Verdict

Horizon Forbidden West is a wonderful follow-up to one of the PS4’s surprise hits, but technical issues and inconsistent controls dampen the otherwise excellent experience. Aloy has quickly grown into one of my favorite Sony protagonists and the wide cast of characters each bring their own unique flavor to the game. Higher quality side quests, combined with a main campaign that feels grander in scope, and is much better paced than the original make for a strong story, and the beautiful environments, combined with highly detailed character models and improved gameplay make this an early candidate for Game of the Year.

Final Score: 9/10

Pros:

  • Improved story with well written characters and better pacing.
  • Excellent combat and enemy design.
  • Visually stunning thanks to the beautiful environments and industry leading character models.
  • Wide variety of side content keeps things feeling fresh and gives you plenty to do.
  • Great soundtrack.

Cons:

  • Bugs and technical issues at launch.
  • Inconsistent platforming controls that are frustrating at times.

Horizon Forbidden West review code was provided by the publisher. Played on PS5. You can read SP1st and MP1st’s review and scoring policy right here.

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