A reader offers his view on Horizon Forbidden West and how despite not reinventing the wheel it’s still one of the best games of the year.
I’ve just finished such a great story mission in Horizon Forbidden West. I know it was good because I had that lovely glow of satisfaction, of time well spent, once I had finished. I play games for fun (this sounds obvious but judging by some sour letters I am not so sure it is strictly true for everyone!) and I would say that little bit of satisfaction, to be totally lost in a story or a world, and to have forgotten the tribulations of the day, that’s why I play. That’s the best gaming can make me feel: happy.
The mission in question has you journeying to what becomes evident used to be Las Vegas. I had the pleasure of going to Vegas before I got married (in San Francisco, no less; Aloy’s journey and our wedding tour have been remarkably similar) and so I was delighted to see nods to Vegas landmarks along the strip, with the mini-Eiffel Tower from the Paris hotel tantalising you towards your goal, half buried in the shifting sands.
Aloy is exploring submerged ruins of the once great Sin City for reasons I won’t spoil, and more landmarks are lovingly recreated the further you go – you may find yourself recognising Caesar’s Palace or the Bellagio as you swim, full of fear as you dodge a few enormous robo-crocodiles prowling the area.
I wish I could talk more about the mission, but I feel like it’s too early for that sort of thing. I would like to say though, it was a really memorable and fun ride, and the pay off at the end of it will probably be my highlight of the game. Certainly if it gets better than that I am in for a treat.
The recreation of real-world locations has added a layer of believability to the world. The story has to tread a path between believability and incredibility – a sci-fi story about a robot apocalypse could easily descend into B-movie territory – but the recreation of real-world locations adds a certain grounding to the world, and the story gains more credibility because of the setting.
There is a nice video below, comparing some of the real-world locations with their recreations in the world. (As a quick minor aside, the beautifully recreated Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco also provided George Lucas and his team with the inspiration for the architecture of the planet Naboo!)
This grounding is also seen with the characters, and in particular Aloy. I know some see her dour nature a negative. I remember a Reader’s Feature asking why she wasn’t more fun or had more personality. While she certainly can’t be described as fun her personality is very clearly defined. Stoic, single-minded, focused, brave, intelligent. Her personality shapes her interactions with those around her: stand off-ish with friends who she knows she may have to leave, or put in danger.
I acknowledge the criticism she could be construed as boring… but would a fun, happy go luck Aloy really be appropriate for her character? The story and world is grounded in believability, so how else would she reasonably act? She is the clone of a super-successful uber-nerd who was obsessed with saving the world, and Aloy herself also has a world to save. An early interaction with a character has him say ‘The burden of your task is written clearly across your face’, and that seems to sum up Aloy’s personality, she better get cracking. She has a world to save.
There is more extraverted personality in characters around her though, and I have really appreciated how the story has Aloy organically bumping into various characters through the course of the missions. It gives the game a nice mix of solitude out in the open world, but conversely, another character for some story missions has added conversation and a different personality to allow more rounded storytelling, beyond Aloy’s (almost constant) inner monologue.
Some readers so far have been critical of the game for not doing anything new, or unfavourably compared to it Elden Ring. And it really is remarkable bad luck for Guerrilla to release the first so close to Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and then the second near to Elden Ring – games which have potentially redefined open world design. What I would say about the gameplay is simple; if you enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn, you are likely to enjoy this. If you didn’t, there is nothing here that will change your mind.
There are refinements I’ve enjoyed, particularly how the design of the missions and world have been streamlined to keep focus on progression. Side quests and missions purposefully loop you back right where you started, or if it involves climbing you’ll be able to rappel down quickly to a fast travel point or use the ever satisfying glider. Dead gaming time is kept to an absolute minimum. But these are minor refinements. It is, at its heart, the same popcorn, open world experience it was before, with no remarkable reinventions of the gaming wheel. Whether that’s a positive or a negative can differ from player to player.
Despite my experience with the game being largely positive, there is inevitably a little list of annoyances I have with the game. In particular the most egregious has to be the weapon upgrade system. Upgrades will cost you shards, of which you should have an almost endless supply, but the best upgrades also cost you rare resources. You may spend the rare resource on the final upgrade for your Hunter’s Bow. But then not one mission later the prize will be… a better ‘rarer’ Hunter’s Bow.
Much better to have a system like in The Witcher 3 or Soulsborne games, where your weapon of choice can be upgraded to make it viable for the whole game. As it is, each weapon feels throwaway, common, and the joy of working to upgrade your gear is gone, replaced with the fear that you are wasting your time.
The map, and how activities are dished out, is also a little too large and slapdash for my liking. After having played Metro Exodus at the start of the year, the thoughtful way the game introduces side activities in a manageable way, that manages to never feel overwhelming, but also keeps enough mystery that you want to explore, struck me as an intelligent design. Horizon Forbidden West is the opposite.
Scale a Tallneck (each one of these has been absolutely brilliant by the way) and you are bombarded with map icons, too many to discern what is important, and what isn’t. The games also throws so many quests, side quests, collectibles, scavenger tasks, board game players, hunting markers, and so on and so on… that I felt overwhelmed, and the game was getting in the way of its own fun.
Thankfully, you do have help here. There is a comprehensive list of icons you can toggle on or off to your preference, allowing the map to become a more useful tool for plotting your next destination without distractions you won’t enjoy. Perhaps this is personal preference. Having the freedom to explore an open world is just that. I have been free to ignore a lot of the game, but there is a reason the ‘Ubisoft formula’ is so copied: it has proved very popular.
It’s not for me though. I’ve been treating the game as basically a linear story, with the odd side quest completed here and there (which are of a very high standard).
These though, are minor quibbles in what I think is a very good game. I have three story missions left to go and each one so far has delivered some major plot point or set piece which has left me with that happy glow of time well spent. Horizon Forbidden West isn’t my favourite game ever, but it does deliver exactly what I want from gaming: enjoyment and imagination that transports me away from this sometimes miserable Covid filled, impending nuclear warring world, and into the TV screen (ironically where the world has already ended and is possibly happening again!).
For a few brief hours I am Aloy, saving the world, being a bit mardy about it, and nothing else matters until I turn that TV off. Why else do I play games if not for that feeling?
By reader Henshin Agogo
The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.
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