I need to stop comparing Horizon Zero Dawn to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ve done it a couple of times already and probably sound like a broken record, but the close proximity between their respective release dates makes it impossible not to analyse what they both achieve in terms of open world design. To me, Breath of the Wild is the clear winner, with Horizon being held back by a selection of archaic design decisions that simply make its vision of the post-apocalypse a little boring to explore. I’m absolutely in the minority here, but I hope Forbidden West is able to take my criticisms of its predecessor and crumble them into dust. Cool female heroes and robot dinosaurs should absolutely be my jam, even if the wider narrative is drenched in tired fantasy cliches.
Horizon Zero Dawn suffered from one fundamental problem across its open world – discovery was far too often dictated by icons and objective markers, instead of encouraging you to explore each new location on your own terms. Opting to abandon pathfinding indicators would often just lead you into sparse fields with nothing to do in them or across enemies that were far too powerful to contend with. Freeform exploration was met with punishment or boredom, or simply lacked the rewards that came with playing Horizon Zero Dawn by its own strict rules.
Now it isn’t the only open world game that’s guilty of such things – Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Mad Max, Watch Dogs Legion, and more all expect you to access the map, click an icon, and drive/walk/fly obediently to your destination. You can cause some chaos along the way, but this engagement is ultimately an empty gesture, one that rarely pushes the narrative or your own internal progress forward. Player agency is limited, and it becomes far too easy to glance around and point out the mechanical components that make this world function. It’s unintentionally hollow, an obstacle that Breath of the Wild manages to supersede by making each small decision matter, no matter how random or inconsequential it might be.
Horizon Zero Dawn was Guerilla’s first shot at the genre, and knowing this, it’s a masterful effort. Having spent decades focusing on the Killzone series, the studio decided to abandon this narrow perspective and strive for something greater. Regardless of how I feel about the finished product, its mission was a tremendous success. I can’t help but admire what has been achieved here, and like many sequels in new franchises, there’s often an opportunity to build upon previous shortcomings and deliver the intended experience, one that isn’t hamstrung by experimentation and establishing a new fictional universe.
From everything we’ve seen of Forbidden West thus far, it seems to be doing exactly that. Aloy is now a far more capable heroine, able to climb any and all structures across the open world without abiding by laughably obvious environmental clues. She can zip up treacherous cliffs and dive into sprawling bodies of water to explore at her leisure, coming across new discoveries in a way that feels natural and rewarding. It’s what I’ve always wanted, and now I’ve seemingly got it. Guerilla must have seen my takes.
The gameplay preview was a fairly linear demonstration of traversal and combat, so it’s difficult to determine how much the open world itself has changed, but I can see many of its small tweaks translating beautifully to a larger landscape. Aloy’s control over the environment is now infinitely more liberating, so the collectibles and secrets hidden amongst it must be changed to accommodate such a shift in topography. We can no longer collect a generic number of goodies, clearing the map of most of its optional items before we’ve even made a dent in the narrative campaign.
Things are different now, with Guerilla clearly taking inspiration from Breath of the Wild and other titans that have emerged in the wake of the first game. There’s no shame in learning from the best, especially if you stand a genuine chance at surpassing them. I still have my doubts about Forbidden West, but each new glimpse at the sequel is chipping away at them to reveal something I can’t wait to get my hands on.
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