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Horizon Forbidden West is the sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, which was released in 2017. We spend the new game, as we did the first, in the company of Aloy, who is played by Ashley Burch. Over four years on, it’s tiring company. Burch still delivers many of her lines in a harried whisper, hinting at the gruelling weight bearing down on our heroine. “The burden of your task is written across your face,” one character says, and he’s not wrong. What is this burden? Aloy herself sums it up thusly: “Everything dies unless I succeed.” Fair enough. Still, you would think that her load would be somewhat lightened by the prospect of riding a mechanical velociraptor, as she does in the course of her adventure. But no. Even up there, perched amidst the creature’s steel feathers, her spirits fail to take flight.
The crux of these open-world games is that life on Earth has both leaped ahead and lapsed into rubble. Society has been razed—by forces not so much unknown as intricately uninteresting—and toyish robotic beasts prowl the shells of cities, as though our doom were like data, to be sniffed on the breeze. This is apocalypse, Hasbro-style. More than Nintendo and Microsoft, Sony has catered to our odd, unslakable hunger to witness, and play through, our own ruination. We have the elegiacally zombified variety, dished up by Days Gone and The Last of Us. Then there is Resistance and Bloodborne, wherein monsters besiege us from the cosmos and brew within our veins. And, more recently, Death Stranding, in which we wobble drearily on the rim of extinction, cheered only by the sight of Norman Reedus’s abs, as he steps out of a steamy shower cubicle.
His journey, in that game, was a westward trek, with the aim of repairing a splintered America by hooking it up to high-speed internet: the pioneer trudge, retrodden with the promise of an unlimited monthly package. Likewise, Aloy, as befits the title of her game, must go west. In fact, she, too, is plugging something back in. An A.I., called GAIA, is missing chunks of its former self, which have spun off and forged their own fiefdoms. In order to prune back the surge of a scarlet vine, whose poisonous tendrils have crept across the land, Aloy must gather up these so-called subordinate functions—DEMETER, POSEIDON, and HEPHAESTUS—and restore GAIA’s ability to govern the ecological balance. This mission takes her, ultimately, to the baked crust of San Francisco. Typical. You have a Dutch developer, owned by a Japanese company, and the salvation of all mankind is achieved how? By heading to Silicon Valley and hoping for a software upgrade.
There are further complications. America is carved up and tussled over by various tribes, and the Forbidden West is home to the Tenakth, who bedeck their bodies with torn-off hunks of machine. “As you may have noticed, violence is the native tongue of the Tenakth,” someone warns us. “To survive, one must master it.” This will come as good news to fans of the previous game, who will flock to this one already fluent. Ranged against Aloy are certain factions of the Tenakth, and, more entertaining by far, a menagerie of metal animals. Along with returning favourites, there are plenty of new additions, such as the Tideripper, a kind of plesiosaur; the Sunwing, an environmentally friendly update on the pteranodon which flaps and glides on stretchy solar panels; and the monkeyish Clamberjaw—no mate has ever been more prime.
You are free to approach these skirmishes as you see fit. My preferred tactic was to hang back and scan my quarry, heeding its weak points and rustling up explosive traps and tripwires to ensnare the poor thing. (Special mention has to be made of the Acid Blast Trap, which spews guacamole-hued gloop all over your foe, chewing through its armoured hide with a pleasing hiss.) If you would rather get up close and personal, you will find Aloy fitted with a few more melee options. Her trademark spear can now be charged, using her nifty new combos, until its shaft blushes with blue light, ready to unleash a super-powered swing. Plus, she now boasts a grappling hook, though, like Master Chief in Halo Infinite, no actual boasting will be done; like fashionistas suspecting a fad, Aloy and the Chief clearly resisted the gizmo until it passed into the realm of the passé, before quietly adopting it and wielding it with éclat.
I was always surprised at how compelling the combat is in this series. Not least because your enemies look capable of not much more than inflicting a really nasty bruise on the arch of your foot, as you clomped on them in the night. But the clashes in Horizon Forbidden West are like miniature versions of the terrain-chewing bouts of Monster Hunter. They gain a narrative momentum, as you retreat, set traps, and sally forth. This being an action-R.P.G., you will find the menus laid out with main and optional quests, with a grove of upgrade trees for the cultivation of a personal strategy.
Before making Horizon Zero Dawn, the developer, Guerilla Games, was known principally for the Killzone series, an array of military shooters in which dark-clad invaders, with eyes like orange headlamps, battled dour marines under skies as bright as concrete. Hence the explosion of colour that attended Aloy’s first outing—all damp sap greens, and clouds smeared in yolky daybreak. It resembled an advert for TVs with high dynamic range. With Horizon Forbidden West, Guerilla is armed with the grunt of the PlayStation 5 (though the game is also out on PlayStation 4), and we get not just a catalogue of alluring tones but a richer palette of ideas. One of those pesky A.I. fragments takes after Frank Sinatra and hides out in Las Vegas. Only, the place is submerged in an underground sea, with Tiderippers drifting by the sunken tables like would-be high rollers. It turns out that Vegas took some notes from Andrew Ryan and clasped its lights in glass. When Aloy drains one such dome, boots up a dormant casino and ascends into a hot desert night, she finds the dunes flooded with the holographic ghosts of long-gone attractions—a mirage of the Mirage!—shimmering on from here to eternity.
In the wake of imagery like that, who needs a plot? I have to confess: the story of these games has never grabbed me. Partly, this is because combing through reams of matted lore in an effort to uncover the origins of its cybernetic bestiary always felt foolish; one look at a Tallneck, at the proud white plates that adorn the lofty black curve of its spine, and it’s clear that the man to blame is Mark Cerny. And partly it’s because the stern and steely impatience of our tour guide seems to rub off on me. Aloy has the pissed-off air of an I.T. support technician, summoned to solve uninteresting problems. When one character talks, with wide eyes, about lost and forbidden knowledge, Aloy is quick to cut her down: “Not lost. Not forbidden. Just a newer format,” she says, prescribing an updated dongle.
It’s little wonder that no one in Horizon Forbidden West, not even her allies, can draw close to her. The one person who would really get Aloy isn’t even in her game; that would be the Link of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which came out the same year as her debut. He, too, was out of his time; roused from a watery slumber, he slogged out into a broken world with the aid not of a Bluetooth earpiece, as favoured by Aloy, but of a tablet PC. Despite pitching in to help, the pair of them seem to float above the troubles of ordinary folk, borne aloft by destiny or mild boredom. In her new game, Aloy even pays homage to Link’s paraglider, gripping a crackling laser umbrella as it wafts her off over the horizon. Everything may die unless she succeeds, but the burden of her task, for a few moments, has lifted.
Developer: Guerilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4
Release Date: February 18, 2022
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