Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
The characters in Guerilla Games’ Horizon series of PlayStation hits spend their lives exploring the wreckage of a vast cataclysm that they are completely unequipped to understand, scavenging the Old World for any trace of meaning or usable resources that can help them thrive in the New. More than a year after playing through the sequel game Horizon Forbidden West, I finally understand their accidental Luddite plight: I’ve been playing through that game’s very long-in-the-works end-game expansion, Burning Shores, this week, and, like some poor dumb futuristic cargo cultist with a cell phone stuck to my hat because it looks shiny, I’ll be god damned if I can figure out (or remember) how any of this stuff actually works.
I remember reviewing Forbidden West, of course; remember giving it a pretty good review, charmed both by its blending of post-apocalyptic and current-apocalyptic storytelling, and by a combat system that slowly layers on more mechanics to the series’ iconic robot dinosaur fights as you go. What I don’t remember is how any of that crap works now, having been dropped right back in to my end-game save file for the first time in more than a year for the Burning Shores content, with zilch in the way of handholding or re-onboarding. Or which of the dozens of weapons clogging future messiah Aloy’s inventory I’m supposed to be using to take down all these extremely aggro robots. Or, in my darker moments, why the hell I thought any of this stuff was so terribly, engagingly fun.
Partially, that’s just a function of being thrown into the end of a 60-hour video game—complete with end-of-video-game difficulty curve—after a year spent playing many, many other games. The enemies in Horizon, who can typically only be dispatched with carefully aimed shots, get better and better at knocking you out of your rhythm as Forbidden West progresses, and the fights in Burning Shores thus operate at deliberate maximum irritation. Meanwhile, the fact that I don’t remember how the hell the upgrade economy is supposed to work means I was stuck, at least for the early going, with whatever weapons I’d beaten the game with. (I eventually found a few new weapons, including the expansion’s signature space gun, to spackle in the gaps.) Overall, I still grasp most of the basic principles of Horizon fighting, but my ability to execute them just can’t keep up, and so I spend a lot of my time knocked on my ass at the hands of giant, engagingly designed robo-frogs.
But there’s also the fact that a year away from Forbidden West may not actually have been long enough. Those things I labeled as persistent irritants in my initial review—the wonky climbing mechanics, errand-ish quest design, endless harvesting and crafting—are still in ready abundance here, and they all ping the parts of my brain that were getting pretty sick of them back in early 2022. (Also, even after a year of patching and a big fancy PS5, the game’s animations still look endlessly off to my eyes, Aloy never entirely seeming sure of which surface she wants to stand on at any given moment.) It doesn’t help that Burning Shores’ storyline feels like Horizon-by-numbers: Backwards locals, arrogant modern-day tech assholes, MacGuffin huntin’ aplenty, etc. (Also not helping: The fact that this is my second open-world trip through a destroyed version of Los Angeles in as many weeks.)
I want to like Burning Shores, honest: When the combat clicks, I can still feel the excitement and thrills that the mid-game of Forbidden West provided me oh so long ago. (Even if the fact that every new enemy seems to knock me down twice as much, and require twice as many hits to take down, drains a lot of that joy.) I still like Aloy (with Ashly Burch continuing to do a great job of grounding the character through the voice acting), and hearing Lance Reddick’s voice introducing me to the expansion couldn’t help but give my heartstrings a tug. But at the end of the day, the expansion can’t help but feel like it’s for people who, well… wanted more Horizon Forbidden West. And I have to conclude, in the end, that I no longer automatically fall into that camp.