Horizon Forbidden West (PS4/PS5)

Horizon: Zero Dawn kind of came out of nowhere to be an amazing hit. It drew people in with robotic dinosaurs and then gave players a truly fascinating world to explore and a story to uncover. It’s sequel, Forbidden West (FW), has a lot more expectations to live up to. Mostly, it succeeds even if the story isn’t quite as strong.

Zero Dawn (ZD) had two major mysteries. How did the world end up like that? And, what made the machines go crazy? The first game did a good job answering the first question and gave hints about the second. Forbidden West focuses on the second question while adding a few details to what was uncovered about the first. Ultimately, it turns out that understanding the world Aloy lives in was the more compelling question and mystery. However, there’s still a ton of fun to be had in the Forbidden West. You can play the entire game ignoring the story and missing all the references to the first game. I would recommend at least a story mode play through of Zero Dawn because it makes this story much better.

Flying mount
Soaring above the fray.

For the story it makes sense that we follow Aloy as she continues to try to repair this broken world. Unfortunately, for gameplay it makes sense to bust the player down to a low level scrub to generate a real sense of progression as you go along. I think they took this a little too far. It’s a bit jarring early on to have all these characters calling you hero and champion while you’re struggling to take down the easiest of enemies. It’s important to realize that the game really starts after the ‘Embassy’ mission. If you save your exploring and side missions until after that point, the game will be more fun. Once everything opens up, you have enough options to chase equipment, collectables, crafting materials, weapons, enemies and quests that you’re never at a loss for something fun to do. If you’re not high enough level or don’t have the right equipment, there’s always another direction to explore.

The core gameplay is still great. There are some new weapons and status effects. Weapon and armor upgrades are more substantial this time around. There are compelling reasons to switch between weapon and armor sets this time around. There are still plenty of things to collect, but FW gives you a stash. This reduces frustration. When your pouches are full, any excess automatically goes to the stash which can be accessed at any settlement or shelter. That makes it easy to top off your supplies. There’s even a single button refill at your stash which works very well. You might just have to go back and adjust your potions. All this means more time out in the world doing fun stuff which usually involves taking down robodinosaurs.

Elite Fireclaw
Elite units are even tougher and can’t be overridden.

There are still enemy human encampments to take out. These seemed a little tougher this time around. I think it mostly came down to the new champion types that can be found at camps. Some had powerful and advanced weapons. They often had tough armor. Usually I’d be engaged in melee with a couple of normal fighters when one of the champions would roll in out of nowhere and destroy me. This resulted in me stealthing most camps taking out champions from great distance with a precision bow. I’m sure people who enjoyed all the new unlockable combos for melee combat probably fared better than me. Still some of the champions just seemed way too powerful. There was eventually a story explanation for that, so I was somewhat mollified.

The developers, Guerilla Games, did seem to want to end some of the exploits from the first game. I remember some ZD videos with titles like “Kill a Thunderjaw in 5 seconds.” Usually, the gamer just had twenty different traps and tripwires set up to blow up any dino in no time flat. Now there’s a limit on the number of traps active at once in FW. There are still ways to get overpowered, but they usually require quite a bit of grinding to unlock and then upgrade the best weapons.

Overriding the core
Yes, overrides are unlocked by overriding cores found in cauldrons.

Here’s one example. Many legendary weapons parts that can only be scavenged from the toughest machines in the game. For example, the Fireclaw sac webbing can only obtained by taking down a Fireclaw. Now a Fireclaw is a tough enemy, but it should be regularly doable towards the end of the game. The problem is that the usual way to take down a Fireclaw is to ignite its belly full of blaze and then finish him off with normal attacks. Unfortunately, if his blaze belly is detonated, it destroys the sac webbing. So you have to take down this large and dangerous machine without using any fire or explosive ammunition while carefully avoiding using any attacks that might hit his large, volatile belly. If you do that, you’ll be rewarded with one sac webbing. Usually, you’ll need several to upgrade a legendary weapon one level. Depending on the weapon, you might need to do it again for subsequent upgrade levels.

None of that is necessary to enjoy the game or even get the platinum trophy. You can be quite well kitted out with lower tier armor and weapons that don’t require such exotic materials to upgrade. In fact, most lower tier equipment (and its upgrade materials) can be purchased if you find the right vendors. Since the game takes you over most of the entire map during the campaign and fast travel points are plentiful, you should be able to find everything you need to support your chosen play style.

Night reconnaissance
That’s a lot of machines down there.

There’s a compelling story driving you on to do all this. You don’t have do everything to appreciate the colorful world and characters that Guerilla built for Forbidden West. Some of the situations and people you’ll come across reminded me strongly of Rockstar’s amazing world building. That’s high praise indeed when you’re challenging the best in open world genre. Like the first game, you’ll end up winning over a motley collection of rogues and heroes whose help you’ll need toward the end of the story. Several familiar faces will be there while new tribes and factions flourish in the west requiring active recruiting.

Speaking of the story, it’s still pretty dense. It also assumes you remember a great deal from Zero Dawn. If you don’t feel up to a story replay, you might want out some story summary videos to refresh your memory. There’s a lot to uncover here, and most of it builds directly upon what you learned before. Yes, you can ignore all of it if you desire, but it’s clear that this was a labor of love for the dev team. Really, I enjoyed almost all the story with the exception of a couple of villains being two dimensional mustache twirlers. The team you build as you go along are the highlight of the story. Each has their own background and motivations when you meet them, but they all grow, change and adapt as they learn about you and the truth of the world around them. In the end, they’re all fighting as a team not because they magically get along or just love you, they have a purpose larger than themselves that drives them even to the point of putting their lives on the line time and again. Each character has their own journey toward that point. If you do all their side quests, you’ll grow to know and appreciate each one all the more. I would have enjoyed the story anyway, but the characters depths really push it into the top tier.

Fireclaws are big, mean and on fire

Overall, the game is more a refinement than a revelation. It really only suffers in comparison to the original. If this was our entry point to the Horizon universe, it would be just as jaw dropping. As it is. Forbidden West is an improvement in nearly every area except the main mystery. It’s fun on every level. The writing is consistently good. The core characters really shine. Highly recommended.

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