by Brandon Wright
Listen to an audio version of this post here:
Recency bias is fun right? In the moment a new experience often seems superior to those in the past, and it’s often not until after some time has passed and some careful reflection is done that we have a fuller understanding of the quality of something. This is especially true in creative works like video games where the hype and visual shininess of a new release often overshadows works that came before.
Keeping that precept in mind, Horizon: Forbidden West has been one of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory. Coming on the heels of the great Pokemon Legends Arceus and just before the much-ballyhooed Elden Ring, Horizon needed to come out of the gate swinging to capitalize on the hype (and a huge marketing push from Sony), and it manages to do so with aplomb.
I’ve played about 15 hours of the game, and feel like I’ve had a solid vertical slice of its content. I’ve experienced some story (including a pretty big twist already), NPC interactions, intense fights, exploration of the open world, side activities, skill progression, and more. If the rest of the game is anything like what I’ve experienced thus far, Horizon Forbidden West truly will be the greatest open world game since 2018’s Red Dead Redemption II, and will have challenged if not surpassed it and 2017’s Breath of the Wild in several key areas.
Paul Tassi recently wrote about some of the things (note: minor discovery spoilers in the article) Horizon gets right about its open world and I incline to agree with his points: namely that the exploration is open-ended and rewarding, and that the interactions with NPCs in side content feels fully-fleshed out and substantive. There are a number of other refinements that Forbidden West brings to the genre and as enhancements to its predecessor, Horizon Zero Dawn.
Tassi’s point about how fleshed out side quests are cannot be overlooked. The absurd amount of visual detail NPCs possess – both at a technical and design level – makes even the most out-of-the-way quest giver interesting. This is complemented by some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a video game, along with above average facial animation and expression, and lip syncing in most cutscenes. I once waited around after being given the opportunity to select a dialogue option, and a character off to the side continued to perform an extremely detailed work-related animation – with associated cinematic camera cuts – in excess of 20 seconds or more before the animation subtly looped. This is an off-hand animation occurring in the background of a side-quest conversation that the vast majority of people will simply skip through! The level of detail in these NPC interactions is incredible and is part of what makes the side content feel important and relevant.
In addition to this, Horizon does a great thing in making side activities actually feel interesting, fun, and highly varied nearly across the board. This is a key element that many open world games miss out on, with a limited number of side activities that you often are required to do ad nauseam. Even great games in the genre like Ghost of Tsushima and Breath of the Wild somewhat fall prey to this. It’s no guarantee that the freshness of these activities holds up for Horizon’s full length, but so far they’ve done a great job of adding everything from hunting contracts, multiple types of puzzles, platforming-esque challenges, metroidvania-like spots to return to for treasure after some time, shortcuts, hidden treasure, and more on top of engaging side quests which often do a good job of bringing you to parts of the map you might not have seen before. Making side content fun is one of the secret ingredients to an open world game and Horizon has done it very well so far.
Before touching on the visuals, I’d like to briefly comment on other aspects of the game thus far that have made it such a big improvement on Zero Dawn (which in itself is a great game) in addition to challenging the genre stalwarts. Forbidden West has greatly improved traversal from the first game, taking some cues from Breath of the Wild. There are many more spots to climb as well as a more-immersive clamber mechanic that was missing from the first game. A hookshot-type device has been added that though limited in freedom of usage, is still utilized quite effectively. Add onto that a glider-style mechanic and you get an open-world game that feels closer to Zelda or Just Cause in terms of traversal than Ghost of Tsushima or Red Dead, though it does not possess total freedom of movement.
It’s when you consider all of the other things that Horizon brings to the table in addition to these big enhancements that the light bulb pops in your head. The combat is more dynamic and varied than ever, between the new weapon types, new weapon abilities, and various new machines to fight. The skill progression system is also varied and satisfying. Being rewarded with skill points from various activities and quests feels like a truly meaningful reward due to how expansive the skill tree is. The game lets you tackle combat challenges from a huge number of angles, whether you like melee combat, medium to long ranged archery, explosive weapons, various types of elemental attacks with varied effects, stealth and assassination type gameplay, utilizing bait and traps, turning machines against each other, or more likely, your own personal mix of all of these gameplay styles. It’s remarkable how much choice an action-adventure game like this gives you.
The last thing before I touch on visuals I’d like to mention is the story (no spoilers), which was a big part of the first game. Zero Dawn’s story really got interesting in the second half, but Forbidden West pulls no punches from the very beginning. The level of intrigue is high and gets higher as the narrative moves forward, and I’m really looking forward to the huge amount of story left for me to discover. Few open world games really nail a great narrative (Red Dead and Ghost come to mind) and it’s impressive Horizon has managed to continue a good narrative even with all the various additions in the other parts of the game.
Finally, the visual fidelity, beauty, artistic design, and technical accomplishment of Forbidden West cannot be denied. This is hands-down the best-looking game I’ve ever played. It’s probably the first game where I’ve whistled and said “OK, so this is 4K gaming”. The resolution and level of detail is razor sharp particularly on character models during cutscenes. These pictures in this article are all screenshots directly from my PS5 – I haven’t been able to help myself using the game’s Photo Mode frequently, something I’ve never done in any game previously. The environment detail, lighting, and effects are simply spectacular and need to be seen.
Every aspect of the game from water, distant landscapes, foliage, and especially NPCs and machine detail is incredible. In general, visuals aren’t just about technical prowess – but Horizon still succeeds with a pleasant art style and a thorough level of detail in terms of environment clutter, design, and varied settings. On top of this Guerilla has squeezed out a 60fps performance mode utilizing a very smart dynamic resolution that is only noticeable when there’s a bunch of NPCs on the screen at once. The end result is a beautiful, sharp, smooth, painstakingly animated and detailed open world game. Open world games have a rich history of looking fantastic (see: BOTW, Red Dead, Ghost) and Horizon carries this legacy forward with aplomb.
I could go on and on about my experience thus far but I’d like to save my full thinking for a full review. Not to mention, a lot can change in a long playthrough of this type of game. There are certainly some nitpicks and minor flaws thus far. And perhaps some elements will end up feeling repetitive or other aspects fall through. But as it stands, in my opinion Horizon Forbidden West has managed to combine the very best of the cinematic narrative style of adventure game with the expansiveness and freedom of the open world genre.
It has all the makings of a generational gaming experience.