Horizon Forbidden West REVIEW: The best open world of all time

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Horizon Zero Dawn's approach to the open-world adventure game, using towers, bases, and collectables in smarter ways, was what made it so exciting. Debuting on PS5, Forbidden West was always going to be bigger and more beautiful, but the way it's doubled down on making exploring interesting ensures it isn't just the same game in a new world.

Aloy's quest into the Forbidden West has far more riding on it, with the threat being to the entire world rather than her own corner of the United States.

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There are nuances and relationships that we want to avoid spoiling, but Aloy's journey into the West sees her chasing down GAIA to push back a plague that's infecting the land and attempting to unite the hostile tribes that call the West home.

The story of Aloy's journey from East to West is a great one too. Much like Zero Dawn's, it's cinematic and emotional, punctuated by some excellent characters.

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Some of them you'll already know, such as Sylens and Erend, but there are some fascinating newcomers that add new dynamics to the world and alter how Aloy see everything around her.

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Aloy is one of PlayStation's Best

Talking of Aloy, Horizon Forbidden West cements her place as one of the best PlayStation heroes. The writing for her, as well as Ashly Burch's performance, are a real step up.

Aloy is determined and resolute in what she wants to do, but it's her more relatable traits that stand out. She shows vulnerability, a cheeky and funny side, as well a level of unease when it comes to developing relationships. She's more than a strong, powerful hero, and that ensures you care about her journey.

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Since a big part of that journey is the formation of a team, there are a lot of characters and warring factions to understand. That can lead to some connections that are a little muddled.

Most of the ways Forbidden West introduces these characters and weaves them into Aloy's story are great, but you may find yourself pushing some of the figures to the outskirts of that story as it progresses, especially if you don't dive into the optional conversations and dialogue paths.

Combat Options

Aloy and Horizon Forbidden West also shine away from the story and character work. The combat is phenomenal once again.

Very few open-world games have combat that's so engaging and satisfying. Taking on human rebels is fun, if a little simple thanks to how easy it is to just aim for headshots with bows, but taking on machines is once again brilliant.

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Whether it's the familiar and basic Chargers or the brand new behemoth machines, fighting them is intense. Using Aloy's concentration ability to slow down time and aim for weak spots makes every attack feel important. Weaving dodge rolls and jumps into the fights, getting space for the perfect attack feels so good.

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Once again, there's a real tactical side to Forbidden West's combat. You can't just dive in and fire arrow after arrow aimlessly. There are weak points to analyse, weaknesses to work out and a host of tools to consider.

Some enemies are weak to fire, some to acid, some to frost, and each has weak points to target to take advantage of elemental effects.

With various bow types (some focused on range and others on speed), a tripwire caster, elemental bombs to throw and a couple of other tools to use on top of using stealth, there are so many ways to keep the combat varied and enjoyable.

Forbidden West would benefit from employing a bit more persuasion to experiment, as Zero Dawn did, however. Throughout, I stuck to Aloy's bows and different elemental arrows, largely ignoring the other tools because I found the former easier to use and more useful in tough fights. Bows allowed me to keep enemies in front of me, managing their position and staying at a safe enough distance to dodge whenever needed.

I never needed to trip enemies or tie them down, so I didn't. The thing is, Horizon Forbidden West combat is so fun that it doesn't really matter what weapons you use. If you're enjoying a certain one, don't feel like you need to swap.

There are some cool skills to learn by levelling up too, albeit you're likely to stick to those that match your preferred playstyle. I maxed out the range/bow focused skill tree before even unlocking five of the almost 30 overriding skills because they just didn't fit with how I played. All of the options are fun to use though, so you will see players approach Forbidden West's combat in entirely different ways.

At the end of the day, Horizon Forbidden West's combat isn't that different to Zero Dawn's. There are some new opportunities to consider and crafting on the fly feels more seamless, but the basics remain. Thankfully, those basics are fantastic.

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The platforming/climbing side of the sequel is vastly improved, though. The Breath of the Wild comparisons feel like a joke at this point, but a portable glider and the ability to climb a lot of surfaces that aren't signposted by yellow handholds are both added to Aloy's arsenal.

That makes traversal feel much quicker and far smoother, in combat and while exploring, and that's before some more game-changing abilities you get later on.

Designed to Take Advantage

Forbidden West's quests are also designed to put a spotlight on that brilliant gameplay. Whether it be the main quests, the challenging Cauldrons, or the open-world side opportunities, they're all designed to ensure the combat and traversal shine. No quest is simple, employing a puzzle aspect to make them more interesting.

No matter what you're doing, you're required to plan your approach and take some time to work out the puzzle in front of you.

Just getting into Cauldrons, reaching Tallnecks, or finding collectables has been made more challenging in Horizon Forbidden West, which makes them significantly better and more engaging than any equivalent in any other open-world game.

It ensures Guerilla's game feels fresh at all times, preserving excitement long after the credits roll.

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Greatest Open World Ever?

And you'll want to keep exploring too. Horizon Forbidden West's open world is the single best open world I've ever explored. It's beautiful, yes, but it's unmatched in terms of variety and intricacy of design.

Travelling from east to west, you'll venture through open plains, tree-top towns, stormy deserts, snowy mountains, dense jungles, redwood forests, lush beaches, and fallen cities.

Forbidden West's map isn't overwhelmingly large, but the variety adds a level of scale that makes it feel massive.

That sense of scale is also enhanced by the focus on the spectacle the design has taken. Look around Aloy at any moment, in any quest, and you'll be blown away by sun-drenched horizons, stunning vistas, or towering Old World titans. Just look at the screenshot below, which is taken from really early on.

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The way Guerilla has managed to make the Western United states feel both familiar and like a fantasy world is masterful.

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The Forbidden West features a fascinating blend of stone age sensibilities, science-fiction technology, and the history of our own modern world, and it's presented in such an excellent way.

The level of detail in the world you get to explore makes it feel like there's a real history to it. It's not just impressive because it's beautiful (and it really is). It's impressive because it uses its visual flair and meticulous design to elevate the gameplay.

Every fight, every journey from waypoint to waypoint, and every conversation is made interesting thanks to the world-building. The orchestral score cannot be overlooked either. Much like Zero Dawn's, it does a great job of adding to the spectacle and adding emotion at all the right places.

Surprising Technical Issues

The only disappointment is the surprising lack of polish in some aspects, which are particularly surprising for a blockbuster PlayStation exclusive. They're usually the pinnacle of polish and technical prowess.

Horizon Forbidden West isn't a buggy game, far from it, I just encountered some issues I didn't expect to.

Even since installing the day one patch, micro-loading which sees the screen go black for a second has been an issue. I've had five or so hard crashes, run into a room that thought it was underwater when it wasn't, making it inaccessible, curiously watched Aloy phase through ladders every time she grabs one after a jump and laughed at hair physics that are all over the place in cutscenes. It's as if someone shakes Aloy every time the shot changes, her hair launching into the air before settling back down again.

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I have no doubt that these issues will be fixed really soon, and aside from some dramatic framerate drops in Performance Mode that can only be stopped by fast travelling or reaching a cutscene, they're far from significant issues anyway. They're just somewhat of a surprise to see.

However, it's easy to forget the issues when you're frequently being amazed by the majesty of the world Guerilla has created.

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I spent a lot of time with the photo mode

Verdict

Horizon Forbidden West is a phenomenal second part of Aloy's story. While not hugely different to Zero Dawn's, the combat is intense and satisfying, the Western US setting makes for the best open world I've ever explored, and the story really cements Aloys' place in the pantheon of iconic PlayStation characters. I can't wait to see where Aloy's travels take her next.

RealSport Rating: 4.5 out of 5

We reviewed Horizon Forbidden West on PlayStation 5 with code provided by PlayStation.