Almost every open world game, even the good ones, eventually becomes insufferable. It’s in the nature of the genre: the whole point of an open world game is to overwhelm the player with stuff to do, to pad out this game world with so much business that it begins to reflect the variety of opportunities afforded to us by the real world. That can work when a game is smart and well-designed enough for us to actually want to explore all of its nooks and crannies, but very few open world games hit that bar. Most come nowhere close. Eventually we get crushed by the avalanche of errands and sidequests and urgent “do this RIGHT NOW to save the world but yeah it’s also totally cool if you fuck off and do other stuff for a dozen hours or so first” story missions and decide the best choice is to do literally anything other than play this game.
Horizon Forbidden West’s world is open. It is massive. It is filled with an overbearing amount of stuff to do, machines to hunt and people to talk to. And yet Horizon Forbidden West never gets insufferable.
One of the main reasons it doesn’t wear out its welcome is because we haven’t spent too much time in its world yet. Its setting—a post-technology North America a thousand years after a climate disaster and selfish billionaires destroyed society as we know it today—hasn’t been thoroughly strip mined by a litany of sequels. This is the second game in the Horizon series, the first in five years, and in that time Ubisoft has cranked out three Assassin’s Creeds and three Far Crys, diluting the impact any of them might have made. Those are the games Horizon most resembles in terms of structure, but it’s neither as exhausting nor as exhausted as them. Even as a longtime fan of the Assassin’s Creed games, starting a new one up in the 2020s is about as daunting and exciting as cleaning out your grandparents’ house before putting it on the market. And despite being set in the 31st century, Forbidden West is also more relevant than the last decade’s worth of Far Cry games; its science fiction is rooted in problems our world faces today, without the cynical political posturing of every Far Cry since the third one. Horizon Forbidden West feels fresh in a genre structurally opposed to freshness.
It also helps that Forbidden West has a more unique and better defined world than many sci-fi games. This isn’t the familiar post-nuke wasteland of Fallout or the generic alien wars of Gears or Halo. Horizon has an intricate society made up of various cultures who have quarreled for generations but are currently trying to find common ground. Different tribes bear similarities to different real world peoples from throughout history—there are threads from European-style colonizers and various indigenous cultures of North America—but they all have their own clearly developed ways of life, with philosophies and religions that reflect and inform their roles within this world and this game. It’s clear that a great deal of thought went into creating this fiction, and it imparts that information to the player in ways that are both overt and subtle. Yes, exposition dumps abound, but you can also learn about the Tanekth or Utaru people simply by observing them and their villages. Forbidden West beats you over the head with what you absolutely need to know, but lets you learn more if you care to pay attention.
That level of care can be found in almost every facet of Forbidden West’s storytelling. The main vocal performances are uniformly excellent. Ashly Burch, the voice of the main character Aloy, captures the natural rhythms of speech with such consistency that it almost starts to get annoying; Aloy often speaks in a halting manner, not because she’s indecisive but because she’s clearly thinking of how to deliver bad news with directness and tact, and Burch is so good at it that it verges on the mechanical. It’s almost like you start to resent how good she is at this role. A few ringers drop in to voice major characters—Angela Bassett, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lance Reddick—but the best performances come from the game’s troupe of professional voice actors, who imbue Aloy’s fellow warriors and hunters with life and personality.
Horizon Forbidden West also avoids the tedium of most open world games by showing uncommon restraint when it comes to combat. You can barely walk a few minutes in most of these games without having to fight off repetitive goon squads, but it’s easy for Aloy to avoid confrontation while traveling between missions. Most of the enemies you’ll face are of the machine variety, and you’ll usually notice their telltale blue glow (or find them with Aloy’s Focus ability) well before accidentally stumbling into their field of vision. You can expect a few battles during almost any quest or mission, but the persistent semi-random encounters that proliferate in other open world games are easily avoided here. You can hunt machines when you want to, and sneak past them when you don’t feel like getting bogged down in another fight. Most machine battles require stalking them like a hunter, finding out their weaknesses, and attacking accordingly, with Aloy hopping between several elementally-charged weapons and traps while targeting weak points and trying to carve armor and equipment off the robot beasts. They require a mix of strategy, luck, and quick reflexes, and can take some time to complete, even if you’re a few levels higher than your opponent. If Forbidden West constantly pumped these moments out, forcing you to fight as often as most open worlds, it’d be a far worse game.
It is still an open world game, though. That means it still brushes up against some of the basic limitations of the genre, partially as a result of trying to meet the genre’s expectations. It’s incredibly long, stretching out for dozens of hours, but at least the epic scope of the story justifies its length more than other games that pad out their story with unnecessary repetition and busy work in order to hit a more marketable length. Some of Aloy’s side-quests are too silly or disjointed to feel like a worthwhile diversion from her crucial world-saving mission. You’ll spend a sizable amount of time pressing the X button to pick plants and garbage up off the ground, because yes, this game has crafting despite nobody outside of management ever asking for crafting in games like this. It’s the kind of game that doesn’t just have a skill tree; it has six skill trees. You’ll probably find a few bugs or glitches, some minor and weird, but some significant enough that you’ll have to reload a save file. (Thankfully Forbidden West saves constantly.) If you’re simply tired of games that give you a huge map covered in icons representing a handful of specific mission types that you’ll repeat over and over, you might want to look elsewhere. At its worst Forbidden West feels like it’s checking off the list of what players expect from an open world game; it might not become insufferable, but it can get a little boring when you spend too much time exploring or working your way down the mission list.
The best thing that can be said about Horizon Forbidden West is that it proves the open world genre doesn’t have to be as creatively bankrupt as it currently is, even while sticking close to the genre’s conventions. With the right focus, the right setting, and the right storytelling, a game can remain in thrall to a familiar format and still feel inspired. If anything, Forbidden West’s creative success is less a testament to how great or ingenious it is, and more an indictment of how uninspired and flavorless most videogames are. It’s like a meal from a good fast food restaurant in that regard: yeah, it’s still overly processed and right off an assembly line, but with better ingredients and more care than what you’ll find at the other drive-throughs. (And ultimately isn’t that the true tragedy of Horizon Forbidden West, not just that humanity destroyed itself once and might be destroyed again by the ravages of technology, but that Aloy never even got to enjoy a Popeye’s chicken sandwich the whole time?) Forbidden West isn’t a game that will surprise you or make you rethink the possibilities of what games can do, but it’s proof that games can still be really fun even if they don’t try anything new, and that’s something we don’t often see from big budget corporate games like this one.
Horizon Forbidden West was developed by Guerrilla Games and published by Sony. We played it on the PlayStation 5. It’s also available for the PlayStation 4.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.