Monday 27 May 2024

Horizon Forbidden West

Aloy and her allies have defeated the malevolent HADES AI and apparently saved Earth from destruction. But it's clear that their actions may have only delayed Earth's demise, not prevented it. Aloy sets out to track down and eradicate all trace of HADES, aided once more - if only for his own inscrutable purposes - by the redoubtable Sylens. Word of a new threat leads Aloy to the Forbidden West, the lands beyond the mountains, where she discovers the possibility of restoring the terraforming AI GAIA to full function, and with it, Earth itself. But naturally, there are numerous complications standing in the way.

Horizon Forbidden West is the sequel to the excellent Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), a post-apocalyptic open world action-adventure game which posited the crucial question, wouldn't it be fun to fight giant robot chickens and T-Rexes? Forbidden West asks the question, basically, wouldn't it be fun to do that some more but with prettier graphics and I guess in California this time? And the answer remains yes, with some caveats.

As before, you play Aloy, the Nora orphan raised as an exile who ended up saving at least three kingdoms' worth of people. In a slightly comical opening sequence, Aloy loses most of her badass skills and equipment from the last game, forcing you to spend a good chunk of the sequel just getting back to parity with where you were before. This would be more frustrating if it wasn't fully expected. Still, Aloy has access to more gizmos, tricks and options this time around, along with many more upgrades for her weapons and tools. In fact, the array of options on offer in Forbidden West is somewhat overwhelming, even compared to its generous forebear.

Also as before, you wander around the map engaging in a mixture of main story missions which further the primary plot, side-missions of varying degrees of interest and complexity, and various repeatable missions which are helpful in grinding your character's experience and skills, but don't vary much from one to the next. There are also a vast number of collectibles, optional activities and achievements to look at, although Forbidden West does a good job of looping these back into the game's worldbuilding; flight recorders aren't just items to be checked off a list, but they also contain vital information on the last days of the war against the machines before the old world (our world roughly forty years from now) crumbled.

The backstory and worldbuilding was Zero Dawn's greatest success, with the mystery of just why the world is now full of robot goats being explored in tandem with the forward moving plot of the game. With that backstory fully revealed by the end of Zero Dawn, Forbidden West might have struggled to have found something to match it. Fortunately it succeeds: the main storyline of Forbidden West is more compelling this time around, with more factions competing for control of the titular area, each drawn in a lot of detail and with a lot of cool backstory, often diving back into areas that Zero Dawn perhaps glossed over. Forbidden West delves into a lot more detail of the ancient war and fleshes it out with stories about stirring last stands and people whom history now calls heroes, but were just ordinary folk trying to do the right thing.

That said, Forbidden West does have a problem in that the primary antagonists don't show up until surprisingly late into the game and aren't given a huge amount of detail (mainly because they're so powerful it's implausible that they'd keep showing up and Aloy would somehow survive). The focus remains on the much less formidable tribal enemies you meet earlier in the game and on the machines.

As with Zero Dawn, the machines remain the main draw of the game. They are fantastically-designed, beautifully-animated and almost always a pleasure to fight. Each machine has strengths and weaknesses, requiring careful analysis before engaging them, and more subvariants this time around means you can't just assume one tactic will work against all machines of the same type. Forbidden West is a more tactical game this time around, requiring some forethought and preparation before the destruction begins. That said, the game does somewhat nerf the first game's more formidable weapons, with Tearblast Arrows now much less effective and vastly more expensive, which feels a little bit of a cheap move from the developers.

The map is larger than Zero Dawn's and the scale is much grander. You start in the Rocky Mountains and make your way to San Francisco (and, in the Burning Shores expansion, Los Angeles), taking in Las Vegas and El Capitan in Yosemite Park along the way. There's a much greater variety of biomes, with snow in the high mountains contrasting with the wastelands of the Nevada Desert, and the skyscrapers of San Francisco and LA becoming a fun, new type of environment to engage enemies in. As before you can proceed on foot, with an enhanced array of parkour moves, grappling hooks and a new paradrop shield which basically eliminates ever having to worry about falling damage again. You also get a new method of travel near the end of the game which is very cool (although it does perhaps expose the artificiality of the map design which is much less apparent at ground level). The writing is mostly solid, aside from the aforementioned lack of depth to the eventual main antagonists, and the characters are mostly likeable.

The game does perhaps falter a tad in pacing. At around 90 hours for a reasonably completionist playthrough (all story and side-quests, most of the collectibles that add story information, but not the grindy hunting grounds), it's a significantly longer game than Zero Dawn and on occasion your eyes may glaze over at how many question marks are covering just the small part of the map around you. Obviously you can motor through the main story much more quickly, but only with the nagging feeling you are leaving yourself underpowered for the main quest by not taking on side-gigs. That said, the story does do a good job of refreshing itself every few hours by introducing new ideas, backstories and characters. The game does have some minor technical issues, like wonky physics (being hit by an enemy and shooting off in a direction never intended by gravity gets old after a while) and occasionally iffy collision detection, but these seem mostly designed to not let Aloy get realistically crushed like a gnat when she's hit by a 15-ton rampaging deathbot, and only occasionally directly inconvenience you.

The game's only other major flaw - if you think it's a flaw - is that it really does not move the needle from the first game's paradigm. Forbidden West is really just more Horizon for people who really enjoyed Zero Dawn, even down to many of the controls being the same. Launching on later hardware, it is a much prettier game, and certainly a larger and more epic one. But it can't quite surprise or innovate in the way the first game did, and I'd hesitated to suggest playing them back-to-back as burnout over ~150 hours of the same kind of gameplay would be a real concern.

The PC version of the game also ships with the Burning Shores expansion, which takes Aloy to the ruins of Los Angeles in search of a new enemy. This is a very solid expansion, adding another ~15-20 hours to the main game with new locations, new mechanics, new robots, new enemies and new allies. It also has the benefit of being much more focused than the base game, with a more constrained map that's easier to 100% explore (despite some new obstacles to travel, but also new traversal options like boats).

Another complaint might be that Forbidden West is the middle part of what is clearly now a trilogy, with the game ending on a major cliffhanger that we'll have to wait quite a long time to see resolved. But there's enough juice in the concept that I think it can sustain a third game to wrap up the saga.

Horizon Forbidden West (****½) can't quite match the original game's freshness or superb backstory revelations, but it's still a compelling and fun action-adventure game (with light RPG elements). It may outlast its welcome, or risk doing so, but for those looking for a game to lose themselves in for a long time with lots of combat, exploration and reasonably effective storytelling, it does the job well. The game is available now on PC and PlayStation 4 and 5.

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