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‘Horizon Forbidden West’ Is a Massive and Masterful Sequel

The bigger, better follow-up to ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ cements the series’ status as an open-world wonder and PlayStation system-seller

Sony Interactive Entertainment/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s always windy in the world of Horizon Forbidden West, the new sequel to Sony’s 2017 hit Horizon Zero Dawn. The wind takes different forms depending on where in that world you are. In the desert, dunes shift underfoot, dust devils dance in the distance, and passing sandstorms block out the sun and turn broad daylight into premature twilight. On the plains, the grass billows like waves, and the open sky sometimes yields glimpses of an ominous supercell, its angry clouds circling an unnatural red center. In the forest and the jungle, tree branches sway and ground-level eddies of detritus reveal visible zephyrs. In the mountains, snow whirls and settles in drifts. And wherever you are, protagonist Aloy’s long, auburn braids undulate and toss in a lively way that probably took a team of animators months to model.

Maybe Guerrilla Games made its follow-up to Aloy’s inaugural adventure so windswept because the constant movement and multidirectional sound please the senses and display the PlayStation 5’s processing power. (It’s appropriate that the PS5’s 3D audio architecture is called the Tempest Engine.) But the breezes of Forbidden West aren’t just for show. They visually link the varied ecosystems that make up Forbidden West’s massive open world, which is significantly larger and denser than Zero Dawn’s. They visually propel the player onward, as Aloy’s quest to fend off disaster drives her. And they subtly speak to the stakes of the narrative, reminding players that the wind is so restless not just because it looks cool, but because the biosphere is falling apart and humanity is months away from going extinct. The wind works even as a metaphor: Horizon Forbidden West is a game that sets out to sweep and blow its players away, and its size and scope are as bracing and breathtaking—and, at times, overwhelming and disorienting—as a gale-force gust to the face.

Screenshots via Sony Interactive Entertainment

When Guerrilla, the Sony-owned studio most famous for the Killzone franchise, released Horizon Zero Dawn five years ago, the game became an instant franchise-starter and system-seller, elevating Aloy into the PlayStation protagonist pantheon occupied by Kratos, Ratchet, Ellie, and Nathan Drake. Sony has sold more than 20 million copies of the first Horizon on PlayStation 4 and PC, counting copies of the Complete Edition, which included the expansion The Frozen Wilds. And when Sony needed a showstopper to provide the climax of its June 2020 “Future of Gaming” showcase of the forthcoming PS5, it dropped the announcement trailer for Forbidden West, which was then scheduled for a late-2021 release (later delayed to this Friday, partly because of COVID-caused production complications).

Forbidden West cements the series’ marquee, face-of-the-PlayStation status by building on its predecessor’s foundation in several respects. It’s prettier, a product of the upgrade from the PS4 to the PS5; the game is available for both platforms, but the lack of latest-gen exclusivity doesn’t seem to have hampered its splendor on the more souped-up system. (For now, most purchasers may be playing the last-gen version, which is upgradable for free; PS5 sales have kept close to PS4’s pace over an equivalent span following the elder system’s 2013 launch, but thanks in part to chip shortages, cumulative PS4s sold still outnumber PS5s sold by about six to one.) The game’s map is more expansive and navigable; its story more ambitious, sweeping, and liable to strain less sci-fi-inclined players’ suspension of disbelief. The assortment of weapons, enemies, and activities evinces a mandate for more: It took me 36 hours and 31 minutes to finish Forbidden West, and even though I did a decent amount of exploring and side-questing, my completion percentage when the credits rolled sat at 37.15 percent. Unlike a lot of percentage-point-per-hour open-world marathons, though, Forbidden West stays wondrous all the way.

Zero Dawn introduced players to a far-future Earth populated by warring tribes with little love or use for technology, and roving robots that resemble dinosaurs and other intimidating animals of epochs past. It also introduced us to Aloy (Ashly Burch), a young woman and warrior whose character was designed to be a synthesis of Sarah Connor, Ripley, and Ygritte. Exiled from birth because of her inscrutable origins, Aloy trains for years to gain entrance to the tribe that cast her out (the Nora). When she discovers that the Nora lack the answers she seeks, she leaves behind her humble, backwater beginnings and gradually learns about the environment she inhabits, as well as her own ancestry and abilities.

In classic coming-of-age/hero’s journey fashion, Aloy’s lineage and destiny turn out to be closely linked to the fate of life on Earth. In short, the ecology of her era—a millennium after ours—is the fruit of a complete biosphere reboot engineered by an AI called Gaia, which was built by Aloy’s scientist ancestor, Elisabet Sobeck, after a 21st-century attempt to combat climate change backfired and resulted in the creation of a robot horde that uncontrollably consumed the planet’s biomass. To ensure the survival of the species, Sobeck spearheaded the design of Gaia as part of project Zero Dawn. Her long-term bioengineering blueprint worked as intended until a mysterious signal caused the AI’s subroutines to go rogue and turn on the people they were supposed to protect. Aloy is a Sobeck clone created by Gaia to restore the system to order, and because she shares Elisabet’s voice, DNA, determination, and intellect, she’s able to access facilities and master technologies that are off limits to everyone else, making her humanity’s last hope, like Sobeck before her.

AI, cloning, thousand-year time jumps—it sounds like a lot to keep straight, and maybe it’s TMI for gamers who just want to slaughter some robots Monster Hunter–style. As a fan of postapocalyptic hard sci-fi, though, I can testify that Horizon is extremely my shit: Its futuristic tale echoes and fuses elements of titles and series such as Foundation, The Dying Earth, the Homecoming Saga, Panzer Dragoon, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, not to mention many religious traditions. I would probably read or watch a well-told version of this saga without the interactive elements. And Forbidden West’s story is even more extra than Zero Dawn’s, in ways that are difficult to describe sans spoilers.

Suffice it to say that the world needs even more saving than it did the first time around, and the scale of the threat is vastly larger: “Remember the good old days when our only worry was whether Meridian would be destroyed?” Aloy’s ally Erend asks. “You know, instead of the whole world?” Zero Dawn told a fulfilling, stand-alone story that contained seeds of a series, and Forbidden West waters those seeds until they sprout into a thicket of plot twists and new narrative avenues. One could quibble with specific plot points, a tendency toward exposition dumps, and a structure that sidelines some of the main antagonists and foils for Aloy for large stretches of the game, but on the whole, I’m happy that Horizon leans into and leverages its lore to stretch the sequel’s canvas.

In many good games, either gameplay or plot is relegated to a supporting role: A rich narrative takes precedence over gameplay complexity—as in What Remains of Edith Finch, which beat out Zero Dawn for Best Narrative at The Game Awards in 2017—or the story is secondary, a means of serving up satisfying action. In Horizon, gameplay and plot are both well developed and exist in a symbiotic bond where one elevates the other. Yes, the map is massive and cluttered with icons in a distressingly Ubisoft-style way, but whereas some entries in this genre instill a compulsive, completionist impulse that’s more about checking boxes and doing chores than the thrill of discovery, there’s usually a compelling story-related reason to get sidetracked in Forbidden West. Although Zero Dawn answered some of the big questions about how Aloy’s environment came to be, Forbidden West poses new, similarly absorbing mysteries. And despite the challenges of storytelling in nonlinear, open-world games, I actually understand the story of Horizon without resorting to explainers or wikis. I can’t say the same about a lot of the lore of sci-fi series such as Destiny, Halo, or Assassin’s Creed (let alone Hideo Kojima games or numerous sporadically coherent RPGs), which I’ve enjoyed playing even as I’ve eventually lost the plot.

There’s more to Horizon’s story than unearthing tidbits about the “Old Ones” (that’s us) via audio logs, data entries, and dialogue trees. There’s also the evolution of Aloy herself. In Zero Dawn, we meet her in childhood and watch over her shoulder as she discovers and embraces her identity and talents. In Forbidden West, she starts as the selfless hero she became at the conclusion of Zero Dawn (even though she has to relearn basic combos in combat). Wherever Aloy goes, she’s hailed as “the savior” and “the ancestor reborn,” which makes her uncomfortable; “just Aloy,” she responds to one overenthusiastic supplicant. (The optics of a white protagonist saving Indigenous tribes in the former American West and adopting their dress may make some players uncomfortable at times, too, though the cast is deeply diverse.) But if, like Boba Fett, she’s unsuited for public praise, she’s prepared for any challenge, and so accustomed to bearing the weight of the world that in one scene she commiserates with a statue of Atlas. Her arc this time revolves around learning to share the load; she may have to save civilization, but unlike her gifted progenitor, she doesn’t have to hold up the planet alone.

To that end, Guerrilla adds BioWare-esque companions to the mix, giving an initially reluctant Aloy a squad of recruits who hang around a base of operations along the lines of Mass Effect’s Normandy or Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Skyhold—sort of. The base isn’t really customizable, and the companions can’t be romanced or brought on missions unless the script calls for them to come; there’s no party system. Still, it’s nice to have the company and the friendly conversation, even if Aloy is still carrying the team. In addition to Burch, returning cast members Lance Reddick (Sylens), John Hopkins (Erend), and John MacMillan (Varl) lend their voices to the sequel, and Horizon rookies Angela Bassett and Carrie-Anne Moss bring bigger names to the ensemble. From an acting perspective, the biggest coup may not be a name on the call sheet, but improved facial animations; characters can now convey emotion with their expressions as well as their words and intonations.

It’s a cliché to call a game’s, book’s, or movie’s setting a character, but when I praise Horizon’s story, I’m not just talking about the script. I’m also referring to the series’ environmental storytelling, which is second to none. All of Forbidden West’s biomes are beautiful, whether in performance or fidelity mode,* and the net effect of their juxtaposition is sublime. I’m not normally a serial screenshot-taker, but I snapped hundreds of stills as I wandered the landscape and worried that I wouldn’t see something quite as exquisite as this again. I always saw something equally eye-catching just over the, well, horizon. The setting sun glinting through a ruined skyscraper; the view from a mountaintop of a distant Tallneck and the grazing beasts that protect it; the gleaming marbles of the Milky Way, too far away to be bothered by Earth’s existential struggles. Forbidden West’s golden hours put reality’s to shame. Zero Dawn took place mostly in the former American Mountain states, but Aloy’s journey to the Pacific coast—which, like Red Dead Redemption’s memorable ride into Mexico, starts with a song—sends her past and through many recognizable monuments and settlements, which the game uses to poignant effect.

*One thing this console generation has clarified for me is that frame rate really matters. I always knew a brisk frame rate was a plus, but unless a game stuttered as noticeably as GoldenEye or Perfect Dark, it wasn’t something I fixated on or stressed about. For one thing, there wasn’t anything I could do to make console games run more smoothly; either they did or they didn’t. For another, frame-rate issues were easier to overlook without being able to see multiple versions of games running side by side. Many games on new consoles offer the option of prioritizing performance or resolution via different display modes, which enables the customization and comparisons that previous generations lacked. With the exception of, say, Insomniac games that offer hybrid, “Performance RT” modes, I opt for performance every time. I never would have believed years ago that I’d willingly accept a graphical downgrade, but modern graphics are so good that the fidelity differences are often almost undetectable. And after living life at 60 FPS, 30 FPS feels like moving through molasses, especially in an action-driven game.

Like its predecessor, Forbidden West touches on ripped-from-our headlines themes of ill-fated techno-utopianism, climate change, and cover-ups by billionaires and governments; a series of data entries that document a 21st-century Western megadrought seems particularly timely in light of recent headlines. The ancient and present timelines are better integrated in the sequel than they were in the original: Whereas Aloy was one of the only nonluddites in Zero Dawn, Forbidden West puts her in proximity to several characters and tribes that have constructed their cultures around artifacts or knowledge handed down from the Old Ones. In most cases, an imperfect and distorted understanding of the past has shaped their traditions, forcing Aloy to choose between holding her peace and upending their values; because she knows her history, she’s aware that actions have consequences, even centuries down the road. Aloy’s no-nonsense empirical approach often conflicts with—and sometimes defers to—her comrades’ more mystical beliefs, which sets up some of the game’s most fascinating philosophical dilemmas.

Aloy is more mobile now than she was in her first adventure: In addition to mounting overridden machines, she can grapple, glide, climb more freely, swim, and dive, among other methods of traveling under, over, and across Forbidden West’s scenic panoramas. Aloy’s Pullcaster is nowhere near as handy as Master Chief’s Grappleshot, and she still can’t scale every surface, so movement is one area in which Horizon still seems last-gen. Both in the open and inside dungeons, combat is as visceral, tactical, and emergent as ever, punctuated by beasts that seem too big to topple until their health bars finally deplete. There are more robot variants to blow up, and more fighting techniques, weapons, and ammunition with which to tackle their weak points.

So many, in fact, that I finished the game without ever using certain ammo types or knowing for sure how I could or would, which left me with the nagging sense that I wasn’t playing Forbidden West in quite the way that was intended. For 30-plus hours, I excitedly collected supposedly precious green gems scattered across the countryside, anticipating the windfall when I sold or traded them to someone, somewhere. Then the game ended before I figured out what to do with them, and although I plan to keep exploring, they may well sit in my stash—an item repository I rarely opened, where accessories that won’t fit in Aloy’s pouches magically and conveniently appear—forever.

This is probably my fault. I’m sure those Greenshine fragments are really useful! Maybe I missed a tutorial while I was busy bailing out humanity. The point is, though, that there’s so much in this game that it’s possible to beat it while being oblivious to entire activities, mechanics, and economies. In some respects—the game’s long list of accessibility features, for instance—Forbidden West’s commitment to squeezing more content into the tube pays off. In other respects, the paradox of choice sets in. Horizon regularly gives you two options when it could offer one, or three when it could give you two: Instead of limiting itself to main quests and side quests (some of which are as memorable as the must-play missions), it also offers errands and jobs and salvage contracts, hunting grounds and melee pits and arenas, rebel camps and rebel outposts … and races and relics and ruins and cauldrons and a litany of other diversions, including a full-fledged, in-depth board game called Strike.

Some of the menus remain impenetrable to me: I still have a hard time comparing attributes of armor and weapons, and I deeply resent that merchants won’t sell me fancy gear unless I go to the trouble of collecting and dispensing specific animal parts in addition to cash. Let me pay a premium for the convenience of not having to hunt down a Shell-Walker or Widemaw component when I want new armor! Horizon is also infatuated with crafting, and (possibly because of bad memories related to glue sticks and sparkles) I’m resistant to crafting of all kinds, as you can tell by the way I spent (and didn’t spend) my skill points.

I could keep listing minor grievances. It’s tough to get invested in some of the game’s more mundane tasks. After watching one of Aloy’s exhortations to stop the clock that’s counting down to the end of the world, it feels frivolous to take time to investigate small, local conflicts. Aloy’s handling seems stiff at times, and interacting with objects can be a bother: There’s nothing more deflating than triumphantly taking down a monstrous machine, only to fumble around for a few seconds near a campfire because Aloy isn’t facing just the right direction, at just the right distance, to trigger the option to save. Many characters, including Aloy, don’t seem to make eye contact when they’re talking to each other. Even on PS5 (especially in performance mode), I noticed intermittent pop-in as I traversed the wilds, both before and after installing a day-one pitch intended to ameliorate that issue. Cutscenes sometimes suffered from frame-rate drops or lighting glitches.

What’s more, I may have nightmares about being prompted for the umpteenth time to press triangle to gather more Medicinal Skybrush and Ridge-Wood. If I do, I’ll probably also hear Aloy say for the umpteenth time that she can grab it from her stash later, or deliver one of the many other over-explanatory lines she delivers as she narrates her progress through what would otherwise pass for puzzles: “Looks like I should head up”; “I might be able to glide to that ledge”; “Don’t think I’m getting through that door right now. I should turn back, see what I can find.” Give Burch’s vocal cords a rest!

None of these issues amounts to much, in the grand scheme of things—and the series’ scheme is legitimately grand. Horizon Zero Dawn had the bad fortune to be released three days before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which contributed to Horizon Zero Dawn being shut out at The Game Awards despite receiving six nominations. If Breath of the Wild 2 hits its 2022 target, it won’t be until late in the year, so Forbidden West won’t have to contend immediately with another era-defining Nintendo game. (Though it will have to contend with Elden Ring’s release next week.)

“I hope it’s really over this time,” one character says toward the end of Forbidden West, but both the story and the sales figures suggest that there’s plenty of life left in the franchise. Zero Dawn was big, and Forbidden West was bigger; its successor, presumably, will be the biggest yet. But for all of Forbidden West’s bloat, redundancies, and three-quarters-baked concepts, its bigness is mainly a means to an end, not an end in itself. And as long as Guerrilla sticks to that principle, gamers will hope Horizon’s end doesn’t come anytime soon.