2021 Preview: Can Horizon Forbidden West do cross-gen right?

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It’s nice when announcement trailers actually tell us something about the game they’re promoting.

Vague images and cryptic messages are OK up to a point, but give us something like June’s first look at Horizon: Forbidden West any time. In three minutes, we get the gist of the plot, a quick tour of the game’s locations and a glimpse at some shiny new machines. This was also followed by a commentary from game director Mathijs de Jonge, to fill in some of the details. Very useful, thanks.

The immediate takeaway from this initial exposure is that the environments in Forbidden West look even richer and lusher than those in the first game, Zero Dawn.

Protagonist Aloy will be exploring a different setting this time, as she heads west, taking us through a wider variety of landscapes, from grasslands and forests, to vast deserts and palm-peppered beaches. Apparently, Aloy’s far-future journey will cover what was once the western United States, from Utah to the Pacific Ocean, with the range of climates that implies.

According to de Jonge, the size of the map will be “a bit bigger” than in the first game, and we hope it is only a bit. Zero Dawn may not have been as vast as some open-world games, but it was still substantial and stuffed with memorable sights and encounters. While more might be better in terms of fully exploiting the potentials of different biomes, we don’t want much repetition or dilution.

One thing that’s clear is that even if the world isn’t that much wider, it will be deeper. With some kind of underwater breathing apparatus, Aloy will be spending time diving down into lakes and seas to see what’s submerged out of view. We have to assume she’ll have something new to defend herself within these sequences, as the idea of swimming undetected between the crocodile-like Snapmaws feels pretty daunting.

Still, the reward should be worth the trouble. There’ll be plenty of ruins to discover left behind by the ‘old ones’ (that’s us) in Forbidden West’s post-apocalyptic landscapes and waterscapes, including a number of real-world American monuments. Remnants of San Francisco and the Yosemite Valley have been mentioned, and there’ll likely be other recognisable structures jutting out above ground or hidden beneath. It’ll be like the scene at the end of The Planet of the Apes, except less traumatic, and with a photo mode to share snaps with friends.

It’s also very likely that the old ones and their ancient technology will again be key to the plot. This time, Aloy is confronted with violent storms and a terrible plague that’s sweeping the land, killing the flora and fauna as it goes. It’s a decent bet that we’ll be finding the answers to these phenomena by digging through the world’s historical leftovers, and listening to old-world audio-logs. We wouldn’t be surprised if the plague outbreak was connected to the story of ancient rogue AIs in Zero Dawn too.

“The PS4 release is a little surprising, as we thought Sony would be trying to emphasise the new-gen attributes of its tent-pole PS5 releases. Still, it has to be said that the visuals on the original PS4 game are still very impressive”

But the most important old ones tech in Horizon is always the mammal, bird and dinosaur inspired machines that roam the land. Aloy’s many encounters with these robo-beasts are the game’s real USP, and the sequel will need to find ways to keep these fresh. The good news is that alongside previous models we’ve been promised dozens of new types, including small, velociraptor-like hunters, great metal turtles and even greater mechanical mammoths bristling with armour and weapons.

Identifying and exploiting the weak points of each machine is a big part of the game’s appeal, and we assume each new kind will reward different strategies, whether taking control of them, setting traps or shooting off key components to reduce their threat. We hope there are even more tactical options this time and some new weapons to back up Aloy’s trusty bow and spear.

Horizon’s machine animals are its real USP.

If there was one area where Zero Dawn did fall a little short, it was in its encounters with humans. We’ve been told that there will be a number of new tribes in Forbidden West, some friendly, some not, including one that overrides machines to use in combat. While the people in Horizon will always play second fiddle to the machines, we would like some more memorable quests in the sequel and some deeper AI when we’re forced to battle against them.

Finally, there have been a couple of important developments since that first trailer. We now know that Horizon isn’t only a PS5 title but will also come to PS4. Also, thanks to another trailer showcasing upcoming PS5 games last month, we’ve seen the original release window of “aiming” for 2021 narrowed a little to “anticipated second half 2021.”

The PS4 release is a little surprising, as we thought Sony would be trying to emphasise the new-gen attributes of its tent-pole PS5 releases. Still, it has to be said that the visuals on the original PS4 game are still very impressive, and seeing those kinds of environments given more scale and detail with a performance boost, along with the promise of minuscule loading times, haptic feedback and 3D audio, should be sufficiently cutting-edge.

From what we’ve seen so far, Guerrilla Games seems to have its priorities straight. Frankly, if it comes to it, another Horizon with more luscious scenery, deeper exploration and a host of new machines, would be a strong offering. If they can also deliver a next-gen showcase on PS5, and complement the game’s representations of nature and technology with some more intriguing humans, it could be a real winner.

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