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Horizon Forbidden West review – robosaurs wrecks

Sony’s first big exclusive of the year is a stunning looking sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn that adds more of everything, including robot dinosaurs.

Publishers always complain about how hard it is to launch a brand new franchise, with the difficulty of getting people to try something new being the most common excuse for endless sequels. That’s fair enough, but 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn demonstrated that there’s one simple trick to getting people interested in your game: dinosaurs. Preferably giant robot ones.

Add in state-of-the-art graphics and reassuringly familiar gameplay and, despite being a brand new IP, Horizon Zero Dawn managed to rack up an impressive 20 million sales. Its sequel will likely do just as well as it’s able to benefit from even better visuals, a now recognisable name and lead character, and a wider range of things to see and do.

Although its list of new features is not necessarily very inspired, Horizon Forbidden West does take to heart complaints that the original was ultimately quite shallow and repetitive. There are no big new answers to these problems though, just an attempt to add depth and variety to each individual element. And while that means this sequel will never be accused of breaking new ground it does mean it’s an even more effective crowd-pleaser than before.

On a conceptual level the setting of Horizon Forbidden West is fairly straightforward. It’s a post-apocalyptic action role-player where the world is inhabited by tribes of humans, using roughly medieval style technology, and robot animals (despite what we, and the marketing, might suggest the ones based on dinosaurs are in the minority).

As odd as that sounds the games have fashioned a surprisingly clever explanation for why there are robot kangaroos and giant crabs wandering about shooting laser cannons at you. And while the most honest answer is because someone at developer Guerrilla Games must be a massive Zoids fan, the backstory of egomaniacal tech bros dooming mankind to near extinction is a surprisingly imaginative bit of sci-fi.

Unfortunately, in complete contrast to the background lore, the actual storytelling is as dull as dishwater. Everything to do with tribal politics, which dominates the first two-thirds of the game, is completely uninteresting and made even more so because of the curiously tepid script which makes it impossible to care about any of the characters. Everyone, including protagonist Aloy, is written in a peculiarly drab, low-energy style that seems completely at odds with the eccentricity of the setting.

Things do get more engaging later in the game, when new characters and story elements not present in the original are brought to the fore, but the two halves of the storytelling equation still fail to balance out.

In terms of the gameplay, there is no such unevenness. Even if Guerrilla Games is relatively new at this, having previously been best known for the Killzone series, Sony’s first party producers are past experts at third person, narrative-driven open world games. So it’s no surprise to find that the platforming works very much like Uncharted, the role-playing elements are reminiscent of God Of War, and the stealth is… like the stealth in any big budget game since the Batman: Arkham days.

From a certain point of view these could all be viewed as negatives but being unoriginal is not in itself a sin, especially when Forbidden West goes to a lot of effort trying to hide the fact with its unique setting. It would have been nice if the platforming involved anything other than vaguely pushing in the direction you want to go but with so many other systems in play that was never going to happen.

Likewise, the role-playing elements, which mostly revolve around upgrading your weapons and armour, can often seem – as in God Of War- to be unnecessary complications, included purely to give the illusion of depth. But if you’re not interested in them, they can be largely ignored if you just stick to using weapons given as rewards for completing missions. Increasing the size and complexity of the skill trees is certainly a positive move though, since most of the new skills also deepen other elements of the game.

The combat is still quite simple, with only a few basic combos, but if you pay attention to the training challenges you can get quite creative, chaining moves together and mixing both melee and ranged attacks. Machine enemies have various components that can be shoot off to use or trade later, and these are often vulnerable to specific environmental attacks. So matching the right weapon to the right part creates an almost Pokémon style tactical dynamic, that means it’s almost impossible to take down large creatures if you’re not planning ahead.

These larger scale fights are consistently the most entertaining part of the game, as you scope out the battlefield, setting traps and taking out human enemies, before making your move. One of the first really big set pieces involves a giant robot elephant, which seems almost invulnerable at first but can be lured towards cannisters of freezing gas or into the path of falling boulders, but which can also destroy all the buildings in the vicinity and kill you in almost one shot.

It’s only at this point that we realised the game world is a lot more destructible than we first realised, as while it is undeniably beautiful it can still feel curiously sterile and artificial, despite the state-of-the-art visuals. Although perhaps that’s partly the odd camera angle the game has settled for, which by default is just a bit too close, and with too narrow a field of view, to feel entirely natural.

Zero Dawn was released only a few days before Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and most of the comparisons between the two went in Nintendo’s favour. The most obvious influence on Forbidden West is that it now also has a paraglider (in addition to a new grappling hook) but the scale and intricacy of the world design suggests that Guerrilla has been studying more than just the surface features of Nintendo’s classic.

While all of Forbidden West’s gameplay elements have been expanded upon from the original the most successful improvement is in terms of the side content. There’s a huge range of different missions and activities to involve yourself in, from an entirely self-contained board game to machine races, scavenger contracts, enemy bases to liberate, and errands to run. Most of these are already quite substantial but those labelled as actual side missions even more so.

Given the complaints levelled against Zero Dawn, Guerrilla have clearly looked to the likes of The Witcher 3 for inspiration and so side missions are frequently just as long and uniquely designed as the story ones. None of them are just ‘go here and kill this person/thing’ and if it weren’t for the lifeless script it really would be giving CD Projekt Red a run for their money.

Our favourite category of side content though is the puzzle sections based around old world ruins, which are basically the equivalent of shrines from Breath Of The Wild. There aren’t that many of them, but they do have proper puzzles that we genuinely struggled with a couple of times. Some of the other side content, like clambering atop a Tallneck (a robot giraffe) to fill in your map for the surrounding area, can also be surprisingly tough and while Aloy just talks you through what to do in story missions we appreciated the fact she doesn’t usually in the optional missions.

A game like Horizon Forbidden West is unashamedly mainstream in its ambitions and many will still accuse it of being too shallow and formulaic. Neither complaint is without foundation but the only element we ever really got frustrated with is the disappointing enemy artificial intelligence, which feels at least two generations behind the curve and makes the stealth elements in particular far too mechanical.

In terms of everything else robotics related, Horizon Forbidden West is entirely on point, with some fantastic art design, a beautiful looking open world, and such a variety of activities and locations (including a new focus on underwater areas) that the humdrum storytelling never comes close to spoiling it. This bigger, better, more approach does make it hard to see how a third game would work without a more through overhaul but for now this is one of the best open world adventures of recent years.

Horizon Forbidden West review summary

In Short: A solid sequel to the crowd-pleasing original, which still doesn’t make enough of its unique setting but manages to add an impressive amount of depth to its combat and side content.

Pros: A huge range of things to see and do, with versatile combat options, varied mission design, and even some decent puzzles. Excellent graphics, from both a technical and art design perspective.

Cons: All the individual gameplay elements have been seen before in dozens of other games. Disappointingly dull script and characters. Mediocre AI.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed) and PlayStation 4
Price: £59.99
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Release Date: 18th February 2022
Age Rating: 16

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