Just a few days ago, Sony showed off a State of Play focused on Horizon Forbidden West gameplay, similar in style to the Ratchet & Clank one they did recently. It’s hardly a secret that I adored the prior game Horizon Zero Dawn and am incredibly excited for the sequel, and therefore I went into this presentation eager to see new footage. The roughly twenty minutes of gameplay (including a bit of developer commentary) both shed new light and also kept much of the game a mystery, and I had quite a few thoughts afterwards; so, I thought I’d do a quickfire rundown of them here! After all, the release of the game is starting to become visible on the, ahem, horizon…
Awful jokes aside, this is a game that may sway me into getting a PlayStation 5, even though the game is also releasing on PlayStation 4; the improvements that come with playing on a more powerful console are very tempting, and if Sony decide to, say, make a custom Horizon design PS5 for the launch, that would probably have me getting my wallet out. If you’d like some context, you can read my review for Horizon Zero Dawn here and my follow-up piece for DLC expansion The Frozen Wilds at this link; the abbreviated version is that I really like them, aha! Right, let’s get onto the State of Play reveal, which I have also linked below for reference.
Look At That View
How this State of Play rolled out was a bit different, as there was a five-hour build-up to the stream airing. In this time, the camera roamed around some of the extraordinarily pretty environments of Horizon Forbidden West. The first game was stunning in the open world it presented – developer Guerrilla Games used impressive technology to render detailed, lusciously overgrown surroundings with particle effects and roaming creatures all around; it felt as if main character Aloy was in a palpably living world. With the jump to a new generation of console, you’d expect this to only accelerate, and indeed, you can tell considerable time has gone into making locations a treat to be in. Whether in the morning, evening, or otherwise, there’s a sense of atmospheric energy to the cascading waterways, bustling undergrowth, and scattered wildlife. Even without the scanning capabilities of the Focus Aloy wears, it feels like you’ll be pulled onwards by the potential of the next unexplored section of the map, perhaps even moreso than in Horizon Zero Dawn and closer, as well, to the masterful environment design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (in general, I much prefer it when a game doesn’t need a scan function to make locations attractive to the player). Either way, I can just tell that many of my evenings are going to be lengthened by uncovering just one more area before bed… Or maybe two… Ah, who needs a sleep pattern, anyway?
As the State of Play began, I really enjoyed the brief. stylish top-down shot of beaches and shipwrecks; these types of environments would go on to dominate the gameplay demo. We join Aloy in a forest area before it – she meets the injured Delver, who informs Aloy of an ambush in a dialogue exchange with noticeably smooth and intricate facial animations. They appear much improved compared to the sometimes-stiff conversations in Zero Dawn, and I’ve gotta say, the character models are looking brilliant; I really like the tropical vibes of the outfit Aloy is wearing, in particular those awesome arm bracers. Right, back to the plot; Erend (a friend and quest-giver in Zero Dawn) is missing as a result of the ambush, and so Aloy moves towards the beach to search for them. As the name of the game references, Horizon Forbidden West takes place more to the west of the USA, resulting in a coastline feel with recognisable landmarks such as The Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. With the revelations in Zero Dawn of why this world is in such a state of disrepair, I had some concerns that it’d be easy for a sequel not to look distinctively different enough. Yet, the coastal look does go some way to alleviate those worries, if not entirely. On one hand, there is a wonderfully Tomb Raider/Uncharted vibe to the sandy ruins circled by pristine waters – waters which you can now dive into, finding thriving underwater habitats with a striking colour palette. On the other, once you move past this, the green grass and overhanging trees further inland are much closer to Zero Dawn. This is not to say they’re not beautifully rendered – and prospering from the power of the PS5 – but, in the context of being a brand new game, I hope that the inevitable inland moments are just as refreshing as the waterside ones. On the face of it, though, I’m confident this won’t be an issue. Reasons for me saying this are in the details of the demo; the plant life slightly deviates in the form of palm trees and vivid flowers, and the ruins themselves lend a slightly different tone with San Francisco flats, a crashed plane (again, very Tomb Raider!), and the aforementioned Golden Gate Bridge. These touchpoints of the past world, smartly blended into the way nature has taken hold, can give every area a unique flavour.
Leader of the Pack
After the introduction phase of the State of Play that focused on showcasing the sights, Aloy runs into some machines patrolling around. Stealthily watching on, Aloy witnesses an alarming development; a human raider appears riding a machine, and appears to order the other ones around. In Zero Dawn, Aloy could override and, er, ride machines herself, but wouldn’t meet anyone else who could do the same. Opening up this doorway definitely gives Guerrilla more options for constructing fights, as whilst Zero Dawn very much splits them into ones against machines and ones against humans, now it appears that they’ll be increasingly blended together. This actually reminds me of The Last of Us Part II and how it started to mix up encounters by having both infected and human enemies together. However, this is personally a disconcerting development for me, as I found the human fights in Zero Dawn the least engaging conflicts. To start with, I generally don’t enjoy the ludo-narrative dissonance of mowing down loads of people in video games, and in a game where you could essentially go up against towering robot dinosaurs, it was much less novel to clear out a bandit camp than it was to take down a Stormbird. In Zero Dawn, machine fights were the much more prevalent ones, but with the focus on raiders riding machines in the demo, I get the impression it’s going to be much more of a 50/50 split this time around. In which case, I hope that the game finds a way to not only make these into clever combination fights, but avoid straying into the territory where Aloy is murdering hundreds upon hundreds of people…
Not Just a Bow, Y’Know
One of my standout takeaways from the State of Play was the selection of new moves Aloy has at her disposal. Discovered by some machines early on, it starts out familiar, with Aloy shooting arrows at different parts of the enemies for specific damage; but then we see the new smoke bomb as Aloy decides to outrun the chasing pack instead. It’s a very Batman moment that I can see being extremely helpful in desperate situations! As Aloy climbs up a nearby building, there is a nice verticality to how the machines chase her up the building, with Aloy utilising her new Pullcaster grappling hook to get some distance before diving underwater with the Diving Mask to escape. These new parkour moves supply some welcome extra fluidity; I just hope they’re not too situational (e.g. the disappointment of the rope in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End) and you can feasibly make them part of your usual traversal. Furthermore, in the fight against a group of raiders, we see the new Valor Surge, an attachment for the spear that cues a short, satisfying close-up animation as Aloy slams her spear into the ground to deliver various effects. Speaking of the spear, there are a bunch of combos to learn for it, and it can also be charged up to help against stronger enemies. Once we get to the climax of the State of Play, which is a battle against the new, mammoth-like Tremortusk, Aloy demonstrates a bunch of weapons (both new and returning) in the weapon wheel: a slingshot can fire adhesive grenades that literally slather a glue-like substance over enemies to slow them down; the spike launcher latches onto enemies for targeted explosions; and there are arrows that rip off machine armour. The versatility of how Aloy could approach battles in Zero Dawn was one of the numerous strengths of the game, and it seems as though this’ll continue to be the case in Forbidden West!
A Mammoth Task
That final Tremortusk fight is definitely one of the highlights of the State of Play, and reminded me a lot of some of the thrilling larger-scale fights in Zero Dawn. Watching Aloy ride in on a machine of her own and then slowly take the machine apart, dodging out of the way of rampaging attacks as she goes, brought back to me how invigorating the combat of Zero Dawn was. We see the aforementioned Pullcaster being used to help stay ahead of the machine, combined with the very-Breath of the Wild Shieldwing to float down slowly when up in the air. The Focus scanning effect also shows up points where Aloy can grab onto surfaces and climb, pairing well with all these new options. In this fight, Aloy removes the raiders from the top of the Tremortusk first (it’s very Lord of the Rings) before focusing on the damaged, isolated machine, and it is evident that there are a lot of ways you could tackle the scenario. New machine types are, of course, going to be crucial to Horizon Forbidden West, and I hope that seeing the likes of the Tremortusk is just scratching the surface, with a lot of new enemy types to be revealed; it’d be very disappointing to see much the same selection as in Zero Dawn. Especially with all of the new underwater areas, there is so much potential for new machine designs based on deep ocean dwellers!
Eye of the Storm
Being a sequel, a key part of Forbidden West is of course going to be how it builds upon the story of the first game. The ending of Zero Dawn definitely pointed to a potential direction for the sequel, but actually, so far, we’ve seemingly heard nothing about that unresolved plot thread. The demo, as mentioned, is centred on Aloy finding the captured Erend, and upon saving them we find that Erend was sent here by Aloy to find a particular piece of tech. Upon activation, it shows a map location; at a guess, this is where they need to go next to find something they need (I know, such a bold prediction!). We are told that a blight (not to keep bringing it up, but very Breath of the Wild) and storms are threatening the remainder of the human race, and Aloy and co. are searching for the means to stop it. Clearly there is more going on, with an unnamed enemy out there somewhere, and I am thinking that this is where that ending tease from Zero Dawn is going to come into play; but we shall see! Right now, I am happy to not know too much. In the first game, the way the story unfolded was packed with dramatic reveals and exciting set pieces, only lacking that seemingly-inevitable fight against the giant, dormant spider-like machine seen in the mountains. Perhaps, this time around, we’ll get that fight, or something similar? Either way, it seems as though there are some difficult times ahead for the characters – the State of Play ends with Aloy and Erend looking towards the flashes of an intimidating red storm in the distance, as their surroundings darken…
Going into this State of Play for Horizon Forbidden West, I was not particularly expecting anything, and mainly excited to be getting a new glimpse of the next Horizon game. In many ways, the core of the gameplay appears the same as in Horizon Zero Dawn, with a bunch of new moves and equipment types that should suitably mix it up – especially if the underwater sections are utilised well. When the mechanics established in the first game are so good, an evolution instead of a revolution makes a lot of sense. As for story details, we did not get much, but as I say, that is fine at such an early stage – I can put my own theories on the backburner for a bit longer, aha! My main concern is the possibility of an increased presence for human enemies, which I’ll have to wait until launch to properly form an opinion on. Visually, it’s super smooth and a treat for the eyes, though I’ll say that I’m currently not quite feeling the need to jump to PS5 for it – it may well end up that I play it on PS4, but we’ll see how my thoughts on that develop as we get closer to launch, aha! Speaking of, we were originally told this was a 2021 game; however, I would be extremely surprised if it does launch this year. As such an important PlayStation franchise, I think Guerrilla will get plenty of time to make Horizon Forbidden West into something amazing, and I reckon an early 2022 release (roughly 5 years on from Zero Dawn) is more likely. For me, the State of Play did not necessarily knock my socks off; instead, it personally confirmed why I am so looking forward to another adventure with Aloy! Seriously, though, Sony, make a custom Horizon PS5 and you’ve got me…