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?
Horizon Forbidden West came out this weekend, re-introducing gaming audiences to the huntress Aloy, the big and beautiful world that only she’s apparently competent enough to save, and a whole bunch of big metal dinosaurs and tigers for her to take apart to craft shiny things from in order to do so. You can read my formal review of the game here—it’s largely positive, although I’d never describe Forbidden West as a flawless game. But I wanted to pop into this space today to outline a few things I wish I’d known before I started playing this bold, expansive, epic sci-fi sequel.
Starting with: You gotta kill every goddamn raccoon you see.
“Hunting” in the post-apocalyptic Horizon world usually involves chasing down, and blasting parts off of, the animal-themed robots that serve as the games’ primary threats. But it also involves, y’know, hunting: Shooting defenseless animals in the head, and then harvesting their bodies for parts.
(Wild, on reflection, that Guerrilla Games has solved the ethical weirdness floating over “Let’s go fight some animals” games like Monster Hunter—by making your “prey” aggressive and hostile murderbots—and then still asks you to skewer like a dozen adorable foxes with arrows in order to make a pouch.)
Killing animals fulfills three major purposes in Horizon Forbidden West, the most prominent, of course, being that it helps quiet Aloy’s Dark Passenger so that the Urge to Take a Human Animal can remain just barely in check. (Note to people who have not played these games: This is a joke; Aloy kills people all the time.) Second, you can cook the meat for food, if the idea of temporary buffs that are constantly ticking down and being wasted doesn’t give you endless anxiety like it does for me. And third—because all map games must have this Far Cry sickness lodged in their DNA, apparently—your ability to carry items is gated by resource pouches that have to be made out of very specific bits of very specific animals.
An early sticking point for me was Raccoon Hide, which was required to expand my ability to carry the arrows I wanted to put in people and robots and raccoons’ faces. The game’s Jobs system—which lets you build your own in-game tasks out of crafting recipes, and tells you roughly where to go to get the parts—helps for tracking the little trash bandits down, but it was still late in the game before I could carry more than my starting complement of Hunter Arrows. Kill raccoons early and often: That’s The A.V. Club’s official, legal, stance.
Forbidden West gates its progression tools—i.e., the items that let you blow up special walls, or swim without having to worry about drowning while the “Sonic The Hedgehog is about to asphyxiate!” music plays endlessly in your head—inside the missions of its main story. So despite how distracting that big map full of icons and mysteries can be, you might want to push the main missions, at least for a bit, to reduce the amount of backtracking you’ll have to do.
(Admittedly, some of these items are just keys to arbitrary locks the game throws in your path, and more often than not, the stuff hiding behind them is the same grab-bag of crafting materials you’ll get in all the other chests dotting the landscape. But the swimming thing is clutch.)
I know: It’s frustrating to leave a bunch of grubby fog of war all over the map because you can’t climb the robo-giraffe. You’ll come back to it.
Breathe. Go kill a few raccoons to unwind.
It’s one of the weird quirks of Forbidden West’s combat system that fighting with your spear is almost completely superfluous to the larger endeavor. Aloy’s arsenal is largely made up of very powerful, situationally useful ranged weaponry that can cover nearly every violent situation you might find yourself in. (Also: If you try to poke a rampaging robot hippo with a stick at close range, you probably deserve what happens next.)
That being said, the game’s melee combat system is more complex than it looks, and there are a few key moments when you’ll want some working knowledge of how to handle your spear kicking around in your head. The Fighting Pits that pop up in major cities, while not exactly fun, serve as workable tutorials for those skills. You might not be happy when the game is scolding you for screwing up a combo like you’re suddenly playing Tekken or something, but you’ll be grateful for the training later.
Boiled down to its basics, Horizon-style combat is all about exploiting weaknesses—most commonly by targeting the vulnerable points on the various robots you battle to reduce their fighting abilities, as well as to do maximum damage to them. There’s a point about halfway through the game, though (at least, in my playthrough) where the damage to be gained from simply striking the glowing bits with my base weapon started to feel kind of pathetic and puny, no matter how many upgrades I’d shoved into it.
That’s the point where I had to give up on Old Faithful, and start dipping into the arsenal of weirder stuff I’d been picking up throughout the run of the game. (It’s also when I started to seriously pay attention to those “weak against” and “strong against” info tabs in every enemy’s profile.) Forbidden West has a robust set of status ailments you can inflict on enemies, from brittle cold that lowers defense, to fire that burns away health at a steady rate, to just covering them in a big, sticky mess of glue. Early on, these can feel unnecessary. But there’s a point where mastering and exploiting these ways to gain bonus damage, or just some breathing room from a relentless foe, tips over into being vital. Aloy’s a versatile hunter, and carrying around a decently upgraded set of weapons that cover most of your elemental bases is a great way to avoid sticking points that might otherwise impede her mission.