Horizon Zero Dawn introduced an amazing foundation to Guerrilla Games’ post-post-apocalyptic world, one overrun with robotic creatures as stunning as seeing a brachiosaurus for the first time in Jurassic Park, centered around an instant PlayStation icon in Aloy, and layered with a surprising level of mystery, lore, and history. Following it up is no small feat, but after four hours of hands-on time with early portions of its sequel, Horizon Forbidden West is shaping up to be a fulfillment of all the promises made by its predecessor.
Zero Dawn was by no means a disappointing start, and in fact, was a hugely successful beginning for a new PlayStation franchise. But there were clear areas for refinement, and Guerrilla seems to have addressed nearly every one of them based on my time with Aloy’s new journey. Combat is more complex, exploration is more free, and the world is teeming with more intriguing life (both robotic and human) and meaningful things to do. The Forbidden West in all its glory still waits to be seen, but I’m not forbidden from telling you about so much of why it’s an adventure I can’t wait to embark on.
My time with Forbidden West didn’t start exactly where Aloy’s journey begins in the sequel – Guerrilla is still preserving plenty of secrets – but rather a little into her quest to find new answers, and maybe save humanity along the way.
“It’s been six months since the events of Horizon Zero Dawn, and Aloy has noticed throughout the world that this Red Blight is encroaching everywhere. And this is a world-ending threat, and she has to find a way to stop it,” narrative director Ben McCaw said. “Where the game starts, there’s a few things that we haven’t talked about or shown you before that point.”
Forbidden West’s gameplay will feel immediately recognizable to players of Zero Dawn, but refined in nearly every way. (And new players shouldn’t have too much trouble catching up – Horizon’s mechanic ideas are revealed over time, but with enough new twists to not play out as rote, elongated tutorials.) The first big question I had when jumping in, after having seen past gameplay showcases for Forbidden West, was how much freer exploration actually would be. Zero Dawn did many things right, but its climbing navigation was one of its most frustrating limitations, and I’m sure I’m not the only player who spent time jumping haphazardly over geometry to try to get Aloy to climb up a rockface she wasn’t necessarily supposed to.
In playing Forbidden West, it was immediately apparent (and appreciable) just how much more of the world is scalable. Rather than just brief, sporadic sections with convenient handholds placed by the tribes, so much more of the rocky terrain is built to be climbed and explored in a volume much more akin to nsomething like the Assassin’s Creed series. Not every single inch of every bit of terrain is meant to be climbed, but there’s certainly a lot more at your disposal, and that is a HUGE relief. It makes exploration, whether to get to a destination or just to check out an area of intrigue, such a more natural, fulfilling experience.
It is immediately apparent, and appreciable, just how much more of Forbidden West’s world is climbable.
It’s made better by an improved Focus, the detective mode of the Horizon world. The focus can be activated by a quick click of R3 to do a pulse scan around Aloy, revealing resources to pick up, as well as highlighting climbable parts of the world with yellow lines and markings. Just a few pulses will reveal how much more of the world is there to be climbed and not just be an obstacle in Aloy’s path, and that’s only good news.
But the Focus has also been upgraded in other ways. You can still scan a robotic foe and assess its various, detachable elements, but rather than having to scan slowly and precisely over a beast, you can use the D-Pad to, well, focus on each of these elements. You can also now tag a specific part of a robot, rather than just the whole thing itself. It’s small in the grand scheme of things, but it feels indicative of how Guerrilla seems to have examined every element of Horizon, kept what worked, but found clever ways to improve upon it.
Anyway, back to traversal. Another nice addition is the Pullcaster, a fancy sort of grappling hook that lets the player pull Aloy to harder to reach or further points. It’s even something that can be used in conjunction with the Shieldwing, a glider Aloy obtained near the end of my demo. Launching off a point, letting Aloy sore through the skies, and pullcasting to an interesting spot on a nearby cliff face creates a real degree of freedom missing in Zero Dawn’s movement. I only got to use these three in conjunction for a bit, but they’re such a welcome change that should make navigating the sequel’s large map all the more rewarding.
New in Town
Speaking of rewarding, Forbidden West seems purpose-built to ensure that everything you do has more worthwhile and varied rewards. Deeper settlements is a core part of Forbidden West, and if my time in Chainscrape, the first one I came across, is any indication, there will be a lot for players to find, discover, and lose hours to.
Chainscrape, first and foremost, is a bustling little township that, while not meant to be anywhere as big as Zero Dawn’s metropolis Meridian, instantly felt more dynamic and bursting with life, and for good reason.
“We really wanted to listen to the fans and listen to our reviewers, and also based on our own internal feedback. And so there was a whole set of things we wanted to do with settlements, including general sense of them being more lifelike, better animations, better schedules for the NPCs, and also audio,” McCaw explained. “We really wanted to improve the sort of crowd audio in the sense that when you go into any given place in a settlement, it has its own kind of like audio personality. And we also have a situation where Aloy’s going into the Forbidden West and encountering new tribes, specifically the Utaru and the Tenakth. And we really wanted to make sure those were as differentiated as possible, with NPCs doing things that they would only do in that tribe to give it that sense of life.”
The centerpoint of Chainscrape, a busy brewery, had so many cute, bespoke animations of characters sharing a pint, conversing, and more. But settlements aren’t going to just be full of NPCs you can only watch. There seem to be more sidequests, and worthwhile ones at that – one of the first I picked up not only introduced a pair of lovable crafters named Delah and Boomer, but finishing their quest by collecting some specific machine parts led me to acquire a brand new weapon type, an explosive Javelin Thrower.
“Generally speaking, if you do a side quest in Forbidden West, that’s not the last you’ll see of that NPC,” McCaw said. “And also, this is all woven into the story that we have talked about before, of Aloy, her companions, her evolution as a character, and really that question of how does she kind of learn to fit into the human race; starting as an outcast, becoming a savior, how does she really fit in with all of these tribes and all these people?”
But on top of more meaningful sidequests and little details that brought Chainscrape to life, there is a wider swath of side objectives I encountered in and out of town. There will be multiple melee fight pits throughout the world; there are Vista Points, in which Aloy must line up a vision on her focus with a location in the world (a more complex take on Zero Dawn’s Vantage Points it seems), and Salvage Contracts, which tasks Aloy with hunting down specific machine parts in a longer quest for an incredible outfit. And look, in today’s open-world market, you can’t not have your own in-universe game like Gwent or Orlog. And Forbidden West’s Machine Strike is shaping up to be a pretty damn entertaining one. It sees the player taking on opponents on a board made of various tiles representing different terrain, with an arsenal of carved machines going up against each other. Machines have different health, attack, and movement stats, and each type of terrain can have negative or positive impacts as you try to take out your opponent’s fleet. I only played a few tutorial missions, and there will be plenty more matches to play, game pieces to collect, and strategies to ascertain, but it already had its hooks in me, particularly thanks to little twists that adapt the real robot’s armor plating, the Overcharge ability, and more.
And all of these objectives don’t feel like one of any open world’s biggest potential problems – filler. Instead, McCaw explained how everything is built with more and better rewards in mind, whether they be new equipment, outfits, weapons, or key pieces of lore.
“It’s great to have a huge open world, but if all of the activities in it feel tacked on or not related or not essential, that’s not a great feeling. We wanted to make sure that there’s a certain path through this game, where if players want to experience the main quest and kind of get to the end of the story as quickly as possible, that they could do that, and also there’s definitely a progression through this game that’s really focused on combat,” McCaw said. “But, if there is going to be an activity in the world, a board game, a melee pit, even a camp or outpost associated with Regalla’s rebels, and things that return from the previous game, they all need to feel part of the world. They all need to be part of the story.”
It addresses how some of Zero Dawn’s sidequests and errands could not feel worth the reward, or more time consuming than necessarily entertaining. But again, Guerilla seems to have taken those criticisms to heart and really delivered on Forbidden West’s more expansive suite of content. It’s deeper, both in quantity and seemingly in quality, and it has me quite excited to step across the border and enter the Forbidden West proper for more than just a few minutes.
I enjoyed Zero Dawn’s cast of characters in general, though Aloy herself, portrayed by Ashly Burch, and Lance Reddick’s Sylens were particular highlights. But to put it plainly, I kind of fell in love with almost every character I met in Forbidden West’s opening thanks to sharp writing and a lot of distinct characterization. Aloy has been endearing from minute one, but Burch plays her with such a charming determination that is as enjoyable to watch in action as she defies bureaucrats unwilling to take action to get things done as it is painful to see keep her at arm’s length from close friends like Erend and Petra who care for her.
“What we wanted to do with Aloy in the Forbidden West is just put her under as much pressure as possible. And so, obviously she has the pressure of trying to resolve the Blight, which is a world ending threat, and she has all the other pressures of fighting machines and just trying to survive in this world,” McCaw said. “But she also has this other pressure of trying to live up to the example of her genetic mother, Elisabet Sobeck. This is probably one of the greatest people in history, and someone who literally almost single handedly saved the world. That’s a very high bar for Aloy to live up to, and it affects her interactions with other people. It’s also important to remember that this is someone who grew up an outcast and only just started to interact with the world as a whole in the previous game.
“What we wanted to do with Aloy in the Forbidden West is just put her under as much pressure as possible.” – Ben McCaw
“Aloy’s companions offer different interactions that display different aspects of Aloy’s personality. And this is something that carries through the whole game. It’s actually, one of the major themes of the game, is how does she relate to other people, how does she relate to her companions, how does that change her as a person…And Aloy’s companions are really central to the story and the themes of the Forbidden West.”
And while this opening section teased some of the new tribes Aloy will interact with in the west, it also heralded the arrival of her new enemy, Regalla. And what an introduction it is. Played with gravitas by Angela Bassett, Regalla is immediately positioned as a force to be reckoned with, as she and her fellow rebels of the Tenakth tribe (a new, sprawling, three-part civilization that will be a larger factor as the story progresses) arrive. We all know Aloy’s strength, determination, and resolve, but Regalla’s intro scene is a fantastic example of showing vs. telling – we don’t just hear about how dangerous she is, but we see it play out in devastating and brutal fashion. It is as memorable a villain’s entrance as I’ve seen in a game in some time, and it only appears to scratch the surface of Regalla’s power.
Reckoning with characters in positions of power is no new challenge for Aloy, but discovering how she tackles each challenge seems core to her journey, one she is committed to walking alone but seems destined to be joined on by others.
Luckily, Aloy has a few new tools and skills at her disposal to rise to the occasion. While I only saw the first portions of them, there are now six, lengthy skill trees players can invest in based on their style. I only got to take on a few skills, some new like the ability to shoot arrows in a larger arc so they rain from above onto foes, and others returning like the ability to temporarily slow down time while aiming, these are also where players will be able to adopt the impressive Valor Surge abilities. It should all pair nicely with the expanded arsenal of equipment and outfits you’ll acquire. And, in another nice twist on established systems, outfits are more closely tied to these skill trees, and some will offer stat boosts that can make skills even stronger. (You can also do your meaningful weapon upgrading at workbenches in settlements, while Aloy can also access a storage stash that prevents her from having to carry too much on her own.)
Notably, melee combat is also improved – Zero Dawn’s animations in and out of light and heavy attacks could feel a bit stiff, especially coupled with dodge rolls. There’s far greater fluidity in the animations and how they chain together now, and it also seems like a more viable option in general. That comes in part thanks to the Resonator Blast ability which, essentially, lets you charge up your spear with successive quick hits, and once it starts glowing, lets out a much stronger attack that can even lead to transfer energy into an enemy, shoot them with an arrow, and cause a massive explosion of damage.
There will also be new weapons like the Javelin Thrower and Shredder Gauntlet, while returning items like Tripcasters and standard elemental arrow options make a welcome comeback. But there’s now a wider array of those elements, including plasma and one of which I saw plenty in my playthrough – acid. Deployed with a precise strike against acid canisters on the new Bristleback enemies, acid arrows can lead to massive damage and clouds of acid to hit nearby foes. Perhaps it was bad strategy, but I didn’t make as much use of elemental damage in Zero Dawn and focused more on breaking off pieces of machines. But between the Bristlebacks and even using electrified tripwires more on returning Scrappers, I’m eager to keep mixing and matching all the new and returning techniques with what seems like a much more satisfying combat system against both humans and machines.
Those machines, of course, are a major part of the attraction of Horizon’s world, and at least so far, Forbidden West is still capturing that mix of wonder, awe, and trepidation that comes with meeting these creatures. There’s a nice blend of returning and new machine types, like the acidic Bristlebacks, returning Scrappers and Chargers, and even some like the Burrower, which offers a different spin on Watcher-sized foes. It can not only live up to its name and burrow underground to avoid your might, but can also shoot reverberating blasts that cause Aloy’s vision to go shaky for a moment. Guerrilla is clearly saving some of Forbidden West’s biggest battles for players (including myself) to discover when the full game is released, but I did get to take on one of my most eagerly anticipated newcomers – the venomous Slitherfang.
I jumped a bit further into Forbidden West to try out its new Arena, an optional area where players will jump into the ring to take on various challenges against a mix of machines, needing to finish them under a certain time limit to earn medals that unlock some of the sequel’s rarest equipment. (You can also compete with friends in an online leaderboard to see who has the best Arena times.) The Slitherfang fight had all the makings of a classic Horizon encounter against such a large machine. With a mixture of fear and excitement, I had to be careful around the foe, which had an incredible variety of attacks to keep me on my toes. From a lightning spewing tail (that could electrify whole chunks of the battlefield) to expectedly daunting biting attacks, to the ability to dig underground and leap out unexpectedly somewhere else, the Slitherfang is a prime example of the ingenuity Guerrilla displays with Horizon’s combat. Coupled with all the new weapons and skills (which I admittedly was still just getting the hang of), defeating the Slitherfang in time was immensely gratifying in the way taking down Zero Dawn’s biggest foes was. But with new tricks for both Aloy and foes, these fights are a fresh joy to discover as I worked out the best way to succeed…or at least survive.
I played this particular battle in Forbidden West’s framerate mode, though I switched between the favoring resolution and performance options throughout, and found both worthy of my time. Forbidden West is, visually, not dissimilar from its predecessor, already quite a beautiful game. Playing on PS5, Forbidden West’s world is a sight to behold, though, from stunning vistas with lengthy views to the enhanced level and amount of detail in a settlement like Chainscape, to smoother animations both in and out of combat, Forbidden West is frequently dazzling. Appreciably, whereas Zero Dawn’s conversations oftentimes involved tight shots on two characters talking, almost every conversation I had in Forbidden West saw the camera pulled back, characters more uniquely animated in their movements and facial expressions. There’s been a clear focus made on the scope and depth of detail to the world – plant life looks better, character animations are smoother, and every outfit was just stunning in its detail, from the Oseram’s more subdued, workmanlike clothes to a particularly annoying sun priest’s ornate robe to the Tenakth’s armor and body paint combinations. The minimal loss of fidelity in performance mode is a worthy tradeoff, as the smooth and enhanced framerate heightens the pace and action of every battle. Either option is a good one, and I’m excited to keep jumping between the two when I fully play through.
It’s also worth noting how great the haptics are being employed, and particularly the restraint of Guerrilla. Predictably, you do feel the tension of Aloy’s bow as she knocks back an arrow, but it’s not overwhelming or obtrusive, rather tuned just right. The controller most often came to life whenever machines were around, whether in depicting the trampling run of a Charger, or in the screams of a Scrapper, I found DualSense integration to effectively further immerse me without ever distracting me. And the same goes for the 3D audio – it’s best used during exploration, when walking through a settlement you can hear chatter and equipment moving all around you, or in combat, when the spatial audio can help indicate if an off-screen foe might be charging toward Aloy.
Thankfully, we’re under a month away from finding out how all this works together across the entire journey, and my time with Horizon Forbidden West has me more assured than ever that Guerrilla has really refined and evolved the Horizon experience with Forbidden West.
“There is an enormous amount of the story and territory, and combat to still be had. But the slice that we did give you, is really near the beginning of Aloy’s journey, near the beginning of her sojourn into the Forbidden West, and also just the very beginning of her evolution as a character,” McCaw teased.
Nearly every misgiving I had about Zero Dawn seems to have been thought through, and then some, while everything I loved has only been improved upon. Aloy’s new journey seems more robust and rewarding than I expected, while retaining the wonder and awe that its predecessor delivered on. I still don’t know quite what the Forbidden West itself will hold, but after my hands-on, I’ve never been more excited to find out.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior Features Editor, PlayStation Lead, and host of Podcast Beyond! He’s the proud dog father of a BOY named Loki. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.