Open-world design has become ubiquitous in gaming, but a million Assassin’s Creeds and Far Crys later and you’d be forgiven for feeling just a little bit of fatigue. Recent games like Ghost of Tsushima are proof that it can still be done well, even when leaning heavily on rote open-world conventions. A title that really busted through the preconceived notions of the open-world action-RPG was Guerrilla Games’ Horizon: Zero Dawn, which combined an enthralling world and an awesome protagonist with unique and rewarding action. The robot dinosaurs didn’t hurt either. I of course wasn’t alone in heaping praise on that title, and expectations for its sequel Forbidden West are understandably sky high. It’s a good thing then that Forbidden West rises to the occasion, expanding on the original in size, scope and ambition, but maintaining what made it enjoyable in the first instance. It does buckle ever so slightly under the weight of its extreme amount of content, but all things considered this is a masterclass in meaningful open-world design.
Alcohol and night hunting, the perfect combination
In the world of video games, the world never stays saved for long. Although Aloy helped humanity avoid extinction by putting a stop to rogue AI HADES’ plans for the destruction of all sentient life, the land itself is still suffering. Aggressive and erratic machines, extreme climate events and a crimson blight that’s slowly spreading and choking crops and bleeding the lifeblood of the people that rely on them are principle among the problems facing humanity. Recognising the fact that humanity is on an inexorable march towards annihilation, Aloy is on a quest to reboot GAIA and re-kickstart the terraforming process for which she was designed. It’s a quest that will draw her to the savage wilds in the far west, where Sylens is stirring up mischief for reasons unknown. While rebooting GAIA and navigating Sylen’s slippery machinations are initially the primary focus, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a much bigger picture that Aloy is only just catching a glimpse of…
Zero Dawn was always going to be a hard act to follow in terms of narrative. The central mystery of that title was amazingly compelling, and the way in which the secrets of the post-apocalyptic world slowly revealed themselves was hypnotic. Initially I was prepared for Forbidden West to not be able to compete given that the secrets at the core of the world had largely been revealed, but after a slowish start, Forbidden West’s narrative really picks up steam and does a great job at weaving new mysteries and intrigues into the fabric of the world’s incredibly rich lore. As in the first title, I was less enamoured with the tribal tensions and was much more interested in the big picture stuff, but as I traipsed about the lands of the techno-hippie Utaru and wake-up-and-choose-violence Tenakth who inhabit the wild west, even they started to grow on me. This is aided by interesting characters throughout (including several friendly faces from the original) with God-tier mocap and voice acting work imbuing them with a real sense of humanity. Even minor side characters have had an incredible amount of work put into their expressions and animations, a far cry from the throwaway character models and uncanny valley horrors we’ve seen in other titles of this ilk (looking at you Assassin’s Creed).
Zooming out to take in the gargantuan map shrouded in fog, laden with countless icons to the point you can barely see the ground, it’s easy enough to feel overwhelmed. Like downing an entire bottle of Passion Pop in ten minutes, there was a real concern that things would become bloated and unfocused early doors.
After reacquainting yourself with the gameplay in a small contained section at the gateway to the West, you will eventually find yourself thrown into the wilds of the vast tribal lands beyond them. And when I say vast, I mean vast. Zooming out to take in the gargantuan map shrouded in fog, laden with countless icons to the point you can barely see the ground, it’s easy enough to feel overwhelmed. Like downing an entire bottle of Passion Pop in ten minutes, there was a real concern that things would become bloated and unfocused early doors. Open-world design walks a very fine line between being either content-rich and engaging, or overencumbered by pointless filler and hellish empty checklists. These sorts of games are a fight for your dopamine that developers are hoping to win, but too often I feel that safe modern design errs heavily on the uninspired side, shovelling in metric tons of meaningless side content that is neither enriching nor engaging. But despite my initial misgivings, I threw myself into the icon blizzard, heart and soul. And a good thing I did, because Forbidden West’s main triumph is that it incorporates content that feels like it belongs, feels like it matters, and most importantly, feels like it is worthwhile doing.
My enjoyment of Forbidden West’s mammoth amount of content was born from the way it doles out generous, succulent portions of one my favourite foods as a gamer: Doritos and Dew. I mean, carrot on a stick. Becoming bigger, better and more powerful was always an objective right in front of me, as addictive a motive as any in all of gaming. Playing on Hard, my first forays into the wilds were a bit shameful. While it’s not fully explained why, Aloy doesn’t have much of an arsenal at the outset. It’s a case of back to the primitive as you relearn how to hunt with just the basic tools. But it’s not long until you’ve got a few quests under your belt and the game starts drip-feeding you rewards, and that all important sense of burgeoning power creeps in in all its addictive glory. Just off the narrative path are a wealth of side missions and collectable hunts that are all incredibly well fleshed out, fun to complete in and of themselves, and almost always guaranteeing tangible benefits. Whether it’s a side mission that nets you a shiny new weapon and rare upgrade materials, a hunting challenge that actively tests you as well as teaches you new techniques, or a quiet game of battle chess called Machine Strike featuring collectible pieces, whatever content you choose to devour in the smorgasbord on offer, your time and effort will be rewarded more than adequately.
I will say that although the side missions are generally very well written and take you to interesting locales to hunt interesting enemies, some of the dialogue can feel a little overwrought, and in many cases is unskippable (I read fairly quickly and tend to skip dialogue in most games). You’ll also start to feel like you’re running a missing person’s unit, as many missions task you with tracking down a wayward relative. I forgave it all in the long run though, as there are enough good side missions that you won’t mind, and I’ll track down as many missing grandmas as I need if it means I get a cool new weapon.
There are plenty of familiar faces
XP is doled out generously for completing activities, netting you skill points that feed into several expansive skill trees. Not only can you increase base stats for Aloy and her skills, you can also unlock special weapon techniques which are like powerful alternate fire modes linked to a weapon stamina bar. Valor Surges, which are not dissimilar to ultimate moves, can also be unlocked and have several effects, such as vastly increasing damage or even turning Aloy completely invisible to evade a sticky situation. It’s not like Forbidden West is reinventing the wheel in terms of RPG mechanics, but the wheel that has been crafted here is a bloody sexy one. I felt like I was always eyeing off a new skill that would complement my playstyle, or actively hunting certain species of enemies to harvest materials to unlock the next tier for a favourite weapon, only to discover a new favourite weapon moments later. This is how action-RPGs should be crafted, not as a series of checklists and chores to complete because that’s what just you’re supposed to do, but as a collection of compelling content that feeds into a player’s growing power. The other part of this equation is the game has to demand something of the player in exchange for the increasing power it gives you, and again this is something that Forbidden West excels at, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The hunter killer gameplay will be very familiar to anyone who’s played the original. Using a mixture of assault and stealth, the bulk of the game has you hunting a menagerie of robotic and humanoid enemies. The latter are far more fun to engage with this time around with Aloy’s vastly expanded melee moveset, but the robot hunting is of course at the heart of the experience. If you’re like me, then a collection of trusty bows featuring a variety of elemental effects will form the core of your arsenal, but there’s plenty of room for new weapons such as the Spike Thrower, a devastating harpoon that lodges in armour and explodes soon after, as well as Shredder Gauntlets, which throw spinning boomerang-like disks that tear through enemies and can be caught on their way back and reused. If you’re the quieter type you can also rig the battlefield with traps and tripwires, and the great freedom with which you go about the hunt is thrilling from the first arrow you fire to the last.
My Irish blood approves of this casino light show
…every new tool of death I received or upgraded was instantly tested on the battlefield, and rising to the steadily increasing challenge I went from feeling like I was the prey, to systematically dismantling enemies with cold precision, aided by an arsenal that would make Rambo blush.
Many new species of enemies join the ranks, such as the woolly mammoth-inspired Tremortusk and the plesiosaurus Tideripper, and you’ll develop a healthy respect for all of them. On Hard, these guys really don’t muck around, and encounters are often crafted such that you’ll be facing multiple enemies at once in challenging combinations. A single kangaroo-esque Leapslasher might not pose a great problem, but when you’ve got a few running around and a Thunderjaw spewing lasers at you simultaneously you’ll know you’re alive. Further to my earlier point, every new tool of death I received or upgraded was instantly tested on the battlefield, and rising to the steadily increasing challenge I went from feeling like I was the prey, to systematically dismantling enemies with cold precision, aided by an arsenal that would make Rambo blush. The difficulty eventually does drop off once you’ve upgraded your weapons, armour and skills to a certain level, but even if I had managed to catch the carrot on a stick, the task of becoming a more lethal hunter was its own reward.
When you’re not killing things, you’re climbing things, and this is unfortunately where HFW comes unstuck a bit. Much more of the world is climbable this time around, and these climbable sections can be highlighted by activating your focus or looking for tell-tale yellow handholds. But perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the likes of Tomb Raider and Uncharted, as much of Aloy’s non-combat moveset leans on the side of slightly janky. It takes a fair amount of the fun out of the climbing puzzles because it has just enough imprecision to be frustrating. I was also disappointed by the incorporation of the Pullcaster, a tool you can use to grapple to predetermined grapple points. This should be super cool (who doesn’t love grappling hooks?), but its implementation lacks fluidity, unceremoniously yanking you to a grappling point and then plonking you heavily on it before allowing you to climb further. You can press circle at the last moment to launch yourself off the grappling point instead of sticking to it like its covered in Araldite, but this manoeuvre comically launches you at a bizarrely steep angle, and more often than not when you land on the ground you’ll gracelessly plonk down on the spot; altogether too much momentum-killing plonking going on.
Cauldrons were the initial inspiration for Eiffel 65’s only hit
Zero Dawn was a very pretty game, but leveraging the full power of the PS5, HFW is a technical marvel. As mentioned, the world is positively massive and features a ludicrous amount of minute detail that is simply staggering. Several biomes are represented in the West, from expansive deserts, to lush forests, to open plains and even the ocean. The topography is beautifully varied and masterfully captured, and the dynamic day/night cycle frames the savage natural beauty in profound ways and provided several stop and stare moments. The care extends to the characters which feature amazingly intricate armour designs, and they bustle about painstakingly-detailed busy settlements that are filled to the brim with the sights and sounds of everyday life. One does wonder if they could have squeezed a few more ounces out of the engine if they’d managed to get a grip on Aloy’s hair though. Seriously, her hair flails around wildly like it’s possessed, and the physics calculations required in its collisions with her armour might well be worthy of Stephen Hawking. Aloy’s hair aside, the enemy design is also impeccable, with creative visual designs that highlight weak points, and damage done is always accompanied by strong visible feedback, especially the elemental effects and explosions. To see your prey go from a hulking formidable beast to an electrified pile of nuts and bolts never grows tiresome, and even if I didn’t actually need to hunt a certain enemy, I often stopped for a bit of mischief just for the hell of it.
Some technical blemishes such as occasional slow texture loading and animation oddities take a little bit of the shine off things, but for a game of this size it’s probably inevitable. Issues like the screen quickly going black while the game microloads have largely (but not entirely) been fixed by a recent pre-release patch, and some progression issues with bugged missions and hunting challenges seem to have also been addressed. All things considered though, it’s a polished production and unlikely to disappoint for day one adopters, something that can’t be said for a lot of releases in the modern age.
Tomb Raider, is that you?
For me personally, open-world games have lost a lot of their allure. Too often they present meaningless swags of content to slog through with no real reason for completing any of it outside of a sense of gamer duty. I feel they very often don’t respect my time, at a point in my middle-aged gamer career where time is a dwindling resource. But much like Zero Dawn, Forbidden West reminds me just how awesome open-world games can be if all the elements of the equation are there. It may present a crazy amount of content to wade through, but the bulk of that content is of a high quality, and the benefits of completing it are almost always tangible, empowering you to tackle the growing challenge. I spent 45 hours seeing the story to its end with significant meandering, and I feel like I could spend another 45 and still struggle to see all of the world’s wonders. My 10 or so hours post credits have done nothing to dim my spirits, and while my Aloy is now a fully-levelled force of nature, I will continue to scour the West. The difference with Forbidden West is that I return to its world not because of a compulsion to tick off some checklists, but because I can’t stay away.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Guerrilla Games
- Sony Interactive Entertainment
- PS5 / PS4
- February 18, 2022