Horizon Zero Dawn was simply one of the best games of the entire PS4/Xbox One console generation. It is a treasure that everyone should play, even if it was exclusive to Sony. Having been ported to PC around a year and a half ago, most should now have that opportunity. Gaming Nexus' original review gave it the highest rating we had at the time. It appeared in our favorite console games of the last generation three times from the eight writers, including in my submission. I open by reminding you of all the praise heaped upon the preceding game because, amidst all the accolades that are sure to come the way of Horizon Forbidden West, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you have not played the earlier entry first - not just because Zero Dawn is so darn good, but also because Forbidden West has no interest in holding your hand and getting you up to speed with this sequel.
Horizon Forbidden West hits the ground running. It makes a passing attempt to recollect the previous game only in so far as it is wrapping up some goodbyes with the few central characters that don't carry on into this next adventure. The opening mission is through an old ruin with a familiar face alongside, even if that face has collected a full beard around it.
From there we move back to Meridian for a glimpse at the site of the first game's climatic final battle and to give those farewells to friends left behind, and then on to the West, the Forbidden West. This is the land beyond the reach of the Carja, the land of the Tenakth - the Carja's historic enemies since the 9th Sun-king's reign, now at bay under an uneasy truce. We leave what was once the Arizona deserts and now realm of the people of the Sun. We leave Aloy's home in what was the Colorado Mountains and all the rest of the locales across the Rockies of the first game and move through the deserts of Nevada all the way to the coastline of California to make our heroine's mark on new peoples, new tribes, new challenges, and even new machines.
These first few moments move quickly, the path through them mostly linear. There is only a minimal introduction to the game mechanics, inventory management, or backstory. Forbidden West expects you to step into Aloy's shoes and to know the paths those shoes have trod to have gotten this far. It does not build you up into the role. If I have one criticism of the game, it's probably that right there. I adored Horizon Zero Dawn, I was captivated by the story, enthralled with the gameplay, it was a complete gaming experience. But it has also been years since I last picked it up. I remember well the main storyline but the details have gone fuzzy, and my reflexes when trying to take down a Scrapper fuzzier still. I had forgotten about Ropecasters entirely until deep into one forge and was frustrated by a particular beast getting the better of me before the memory of that strategy finally flooded back, but I was a long way from the nearest weapon shop where I might even buy one. You start this new quest with a spear and a bow and hopefully a much better recollection of the arsenal from the first game - and how to use it - than I did. Following the main storyline, you are rarely going to run into the upgrades you need to overcome various difficulty hurdles on that singular course. You have to take inventory of what you're missing and seek it out in the world yourself, find a few shops, locate a weapon with that element absent in your loadout, upgrade that base armor before your lack of defensive fortitude rotates into being the weak link in your game.
For example, at one point, fairly well into the quest, I realized I still hadn't equipped any of the coils or weaves I had collected for elemental boosts to my weapons and armor. My beginning load out has no slots unlocked and I had forgotten about these modifications, which were a large component of the first game, before I found my damage lagging on my targets. Then, when it came time to actually equip them, I couldn't actually figure out how to do it... I had missed the button in the inventory screen and assumed I needed to head over to a workbench. A little onerous I thought, but whatever, it actually makes some narrative sense. In the next settlement I strolled up to the workbench only to discover there was no mod equip button there. What gives? Finally after returning to the inventory screen in the pause menu did I finally find that button for weaves and coils. Here is a basic gameplay mechanic, a central component of building a loadout and I first forgot it existed and then couldn't figure out how to do it, partly because I'm a bit of an idiot, but also because Forbidden West took no interest in teaching me.
I appreciate what I think Guerrilla Games was trying to do here, not to rewrite history and start you off back at square one. "I've been... traveling light." Aloy herself exclaims in the first mission when questioned as to where all that gear collected over the dozens of hours of Zero Dawn went. It fits in with tone and the immediacy of the quest itself. I really like that this is a true sequel, not a reboot of the first game, but I also think that pendulum swung a little too far. A quick in-mission tutorial on a weave slot in the prologue could have gone a long way. The player certainly doesn't need to be spoon-fed, and maybe it does fit not to teach them; but a reminder would have been appreciated, especially because we're talking about a sequel to a five year old game here.
When the Forbidden West does open up in front of you it is am impressive expansion of countryside, forests, mountains, settlements, machines, and quests - so, so many quests. The thing about games like this, and by no means is Forbidden West alone here, is that the main narrative thread is one of hurry up and save the goram world, and yet you are plopped into a world where every other stranger you pass by is bleating about their issues large and small and no one but "The Savior of Meridian" is apparently available to assist. On the rare occasions where a scout/search/war party is sent in advance, the mission merely changes to "We lost contact with the party, can you help?" I'm not so much criticizing here, because the intent and the effect is an immersive landscape with lots of things to do; but when the "fate of the world" are the main campaign's table stakes, then your missing brother/sister/coworker up in that mountain/cave/abandoned ruin doesn't exactly carry the same weight when the clock is ticking on a larger narrative where... we all gonna die.
In that main narrative is a compelling and engaging tale. While you play the hero, this game takes the tact that you are, in fact, not alone. Your friends carry the burden with you. The main thread is one that takes on much greater depth in relationships. NPCs are partners on this journey, occasionally accompanying you on particular quests and holding their own in the battles that ensue. While Aloy may be the genetic copy of Alpha Prime - Elisabet Sobeck herself, it is the company around her that drive what will come after, either in success or failure. Old friends combine with new faces and the central thread is not one of hero worship or elevating the champion above the crowd, but about community, about bringing people together, and fighting for a common goal towards a better future. It's powerful stuff and presented with aplomb. Guerrilla has a capable cast, including A-listers like Carrie-Anne Moss, Angela Basset, and Lance Reddick that deliver on a well-crafted script. The plot builds on the seeds laid in the first, and nothing about it feels forced or cheap. This review naturally comes with heavy restrictions on what details I can provide, but I wouldn't want to spoil anything anyway. It's excellent story telling that is worth every moment of the journey.
So there is this impressive, expansive West to explore in either 4k 30fps or 60fps under a lower resolution. The draw distance from the mountaintops into some of the details that you can see opening up before your eyes as you leap form the peak and glide down into that space is just awesome. The world comes alive with weather effects, flora and fauna, and changing environments - every once in a while, too alive actually. Cutscenes can be interrupted by the odd butterfly floating in front of the camera but if that's the price for the immersion of everything else, it's one I'm glad to pay. Performance on the PS5 is excellent. Loading is unnoticeable across this incredible expanse. I know enough about game design that I can understand why certain corridors are placed where they are, but as a player you can move seamlessly across the entire map. In the earliest days of my review I encountered a few lighting and texture issues. They would only happen occasionally, usually triggered when entering or existing a cutscene, but haven't noticed a single issue since the most recent patch, and any others I have confidence the planned day one patch would solve as well. Every once in a while the screen does blink black, but that appears to be precisely when an auto-save is triggered. Seeing as auto-saves are always planned when away from key moments or combat scenarios it was noticeable, but never an issue. Two weeks of playing on a pre-release build and only minor issues, nearly all seemingly solved already should bode well for others' experiences.
The immersive world, fantastic cast, great story, it all builds on the foundation of Zero Dawn. While there are some noticeable improvements, the game does not try and reinvent anything, only expand on that sturdy base. In addition to the new threats and enemies I will not spoil, there are new machines to battle. Giant mammoth like Tremortusks fill the screen. Massive snakes, hooded like cobras, stretch as tall as a multi-story building. If you thought the Thunderjaw was the baddest foe in Horizon, he's not even the baddest giant dinosaur anymore. New machines to fight. New machines to override. There's even new things to mount, like the velociraptor like Clawstriders.
There are also new skills to master... once you finally get your groove back and remember the skills you had lost from the original. Movement is much more fluid and refined. Aloy hurdles, traverses, jumps and dodges better than ever. You even earn both a glider and a breathing apparatus to transition the fight across the elements of earth, wind, and fire water. Battles can become real dances with certain foes, once you've sheared off any ranged weapons they might be pointing at you first. You also have Valor abilities, special buffs that can be applied every so often when the Valor meter is full. One ability might give bonus damage for melee weapons, another for ranged, another might blink you invisible - the perfect get of jail card when you find yourself overwhelmed by odds not ever in your favor. New elements can be attached to your arsenal to pinpoint enemy weaknesses, like purple plasma that fizzles and damages over time or orange adhesive that can gunk up an machines movement even better than a ropecaster ever could. Weapons themselves get special effects too, like nocking up to three arrows into a single bow draw, or releasing them high to land down in a mortar like volley, or tossing out tripwires in rapid fashion.
Horizon Forbidden West has it all. I was skeptical at first, because I have been such a fan of Guerrilla Games since the Killzone series and I was such a fan of Zero Dawn, I just couldn't believe Forbidden West would live up to the weight of that expectation. In my first days of playing, with the occasional graphical glitch (now seemingly fixed) or with the occasional hiccup of stumbling over gameplay elements or storyline that had grown stale in my mind in the years since last playing the original, I wasn't sure it was going to hit those heights. But as the story moved from strength to strength, as this awesome world unfolded before my eyes, as I kept iterating over that fulfilling gameplay loop of stare down giant machine, break gun off giant machine, reduce giant machine to giant pile of scrap to loot with their own detached gun, I settled back into every comfort that made the first the classic it is. Horizon Forbidden West is every bit the game Zero Dawn was, if not better, and deserves the same praise.
Just do yourself this favor first: if you have the time to replay Zero Dawn in its entirety first, do it and do it now. If you can't wait to take the reins again of everyone's favorite flame-haired Nora, then at least drop into a "Story so far" video on YouTube before embarking on this next adventure.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...