I didn't like Horizon: Zero Dawn, I thought it was a total bore. Yet, somehow, Guerrilla Games have got me excited for Forbidden West. How could this be?
Arrows and metal, heroes and monsters. That's the juxtaposition that Horizon: Zero Dawn posed to us almost half a decade ago, when it released for PlayStation 4 on February 28, 2017. A complex assortment of ranked low-key combat and clumsy, forced melee that created a dissonance bigger than the empty open world that Aloy and co. inhabited. It's a little hard to understand, as I stated in a previous column, why it was such a smash hit. The context of its release reveal very few clues: two years after The Witcher 3, a year before Red Dead Redemption 2, Horizon: Zero Dawn seemed like an unremarkable release taken straight from the Ubisoft playbook.
Yet Horizon: Zero Dawn's fanbase is plentiful, as wide as Breath of the Wild's obsessives, as deep as the Atlantic Ocean, and as confusing as CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077 blunders. Indeed, I seem to be by far in the minority when it comes to my opinion on this particular game, this "must-play modern classic" that everyone raves about. It's almost like I am one of an unlucky few who can see the game's clear narrative and gameplay-based draw-backs. It seems so rare to hear any sort of criticism against this game that I was taken aback when Kinda Funny's Andy Cortez spoke about some of Horizon: Zero Dawn's baffling design decision in their recent Forbidden West review. What is it about this game that drew so many people in, that captured so many gamers' hearts?
I'm not going to go into my individual criticisms here. There are two reasons for this decision. The first is that it will likely fall on deaf ears, and the second is that I already have mentioned in the previous column (you know, the one I mentioned before?). The point that I really want to make is this one: the original Horizon had something that excited a lot of people, but not me, yet somehow, Forbidden West seems to have something that has me hyped. This time around we are revisiting the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn, but in – as the name suggests – the west. All early reviews, leaks, and information points to a far larger, more populous and more interesting map than the great expanse of the first one. One of the key pieces of information that has interested me is when, in IGN's review, they compared the game's side-quests and open world to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
If such a comparison proves to be truthful, then we have a lot to be excited about. One of the things that made The Witcher 3 such an extraordinary game was the remarkable way it handled its side-content. The characters and quests you encountered off the beaten track were, in many ways, just as interesting as the main-quest. Seeing as we haven't had a game like that since Red Dead Redemption 2, it's a path untrodden in long enough to make us enthusiastic to take again. As a sucker for this approach to game design, if Guerrilla Games have managed to achieve this without falling into the trap that Zero Dawn fell into – big, bland, and empty – then, again, we could have a real winner on our hands.
Horizon: Forbidden West seems to be improving upon every inch of its predecessor. Its combat seems more refined and rewarding. Never the weakness of Horizon: Zero Dawn, that game's combat was steeped in clumsiness at times, and its melee combat was almost not worth bothering with at all. Sure, it could be a lot of fun, but the heaped praise it received was unreasonably positive for a game that basically acted as a glorified Tomb Raider... but with dinosaurs. Now that we've gotten past that bow-and-arrow obsession, combined it with more varied gadgets and improved upon melee, we could be in for some killer fun here, and the reviews seem to be showing this as a fruitful expectation.
Now that we've waded past the 12-year-old boy's wet-dream of a concept, we could also be in for a narrative and world-building treat. As my rather crass description portrays it, Horizon: Zero Dawn suffered greatly from the "Hey, look, we have giant robot dinosaurs!" effect. Big beasts with glowing weak-spots and aggressive AI. There was variety, especially from the human opponents, but the concept seemed to be the entire point of the experience. It was like when you go to a Transformers movie, or one of those Pacific Rim flicks: it's about the giant monsters and the visual effects, but not the story itself. It seems that with Horizon: Forbidden West, we are getting a big, bold and personal story, built upon the foundations of its predecessor's world-building. With any luck, this will be the Horizon franchises' Uncharted 2: Among Thieves moment.
For all of its failings, I did see some of the appeal that leaked from 2017's semi-classic. Horizon: Zero Dawn wasn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but considering its many drawbacks it also should not be considered one of the "greats" of the PS4 generation. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End was a better game, and it didn't even stand close to the two games that preceded it. This is not a The Last of Us: Part 2 moment either, as Forbidden West is not in a situation where it has to improve upon a perfect game. It's in a privileged position as a sequel to a good, but not great game. These are the things that it needs to improve: the open world, its story and characters, the combat (particularly melee), and all of those little imperfections that feature in every single game.
Whilst I couldn't, and still can't, gel with Horizon: Zero Dawn, the foundations of a great game are there to the extent that I can see Forbidden West being a true show-stopper. Its early reviews seem to look good, its promotional material is excellent, and the improvements that it is bringing to the table look like they will address my main concerns. I will have to get back to you about what I really think once I have it in my hands. Until then, though, I'll see you next week.
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