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Horizon Forbidden West: Everything you need to know before you play

a Horizon Forbidden West screenshot
(Image credit: Sony)

Sony first announced Horizon Forbidden West on June 11, 2020. After a few delays and a lot of fevered speculation, the game will finally arrive on Feb. 18. As a long-awaited sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, Forbidden West will follow protagonist Aloy as she ventures to the post-post-apocalyptic ruins of San Francisco, uncovering more about the deadly robots and bloodthirsty warriors that stalk the land as she does so.

Horizon Zero Dawn came out in 2017. As such, if you played the game when it first came out, your memories of what happened may be a little fuzzy. Similarly, if you’ve heard a ton of buzz about Horizon Forbidden West, but don’t really know what the series is all about, this is the place to learn. Just be warned that if you’re in the latter camp, you’ll probably want to check out before the “Story so far” section. We’ll recap the events of Zero Dawn, and if you want to play the sequel, you’re probably better off just experiencing the first game for yourself.

Read on to learn what you need to know before you play Horizon Forbidden West.

What is Horizon Forbidden West?

New Horizon Forbidden West trailer image key art

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony has marketed Horizon Forbidden West aggressively, so you’ve almost certainly seen some kind of ad, trailer or press coverage related to it. But if you didn’t play the first game, it may be hard to parse what’s going on with this red-headed archer, her robotic dinosaur foes and the colorful world they all inhabit.

Briefly, Horizon Forbidden West is a sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn. Like its predecessor, Forbidden West is an open-world action/adventure game from Sony-owned studio Guerilla Games. You play as a warrior named Aloy, who wields a bow and a staff as she does battle with both animalistic robots and cunning humans. In one sense, Horizon’s setting is post-apocalyptic, as it takes place after a cataclysm has wiped out most of humanity. However, enough time has passed that plant and animal life has recovered, and humans have set up complex, semi-technological societies again. Think less Mad Max and more Final Fantasy X.

What sets Horizon apart from many other open-world games is its focus on ranged combat. While Aloy has some melee moves at her disposal, most enemies require complex tactics and pinpoint precision to take down. Each robot has a different weak point, as well as different behaviors. The skittish, fragile Watchers, for example, require only a standard arrow or two to dispatch, while the towering, aggressive Sawtooths may require a combination of traps, stealth and specialized arrows to take down.

Horizon Forbidden West appears structurally similar to Zero Dawn, following Aloy as she explores wilderness areas, towns, ancient ruins and everything in-between, fighting off both flesh and metal foes as she does so. If you want a polished open-world game with a unique combat system, setting, story and central character, this series is probably a good bet.

What happened in Horizon Zero Dawn?

horizon zero dawn

(Image credit: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe)

Horizon Zero Dawn is a long game with a complex narrative. If you haven’t played it, frankly, you should probably take some time to do so before you jump into Horizon Forbidden West. (Granted, we’d expect some kind of recap to kick things off in Forbidden West, but it’s not going to give you every nuance of the plot.) This PS4 game is easy to find on the PlayStation Store or in most retail shops, and fans even had a chance to snag it for free last year. If you’re looking for a refresher, though, read on.

Horizon Zero Dawn stars Aloy: an outcast from the secluded Nora tribe in the 31st-century American West. When she grows up, Aloy proves her worth and claims her place among the Nora. But just as she does so, a warlord named Helis attacks, killing many of the Nora and setting Aloy on the path of vengeance.

As she pursues Helis across the vast, mountainous, robot-infested landscape, Aloy learns a great deal about both herself and the world she inhabits. Among other things, she discovers that she looks just like a pre-apocalypse scientist named Dr. Elisabet Sobeck. In Sobeck’s time, out-of-control self-replicating robots began a war against humanity and used Earth’s biomass to fuel their self-replication. Sobeck devised a plan to stop the robots. Unfortunately, it resulted in the extinction of all life on the planet.

The plot twists and turns for a few dozen more hours, but Aloy eventually learns the truth about herself: she is a clone of Dr. Sobeck, created by a beneficent AI called GAIA, in order to combat an evil AI called HADES. GAIA, being true to her name, was responsible for re-seeding Earth with life and for creating machines meant to help humans build a utopian society. But HADES, being an evil AI, mucked everything up.

In the end, Aloy confronts Helis, thwarts HADES, and generally pieces together how humanity arrived in its current predicament. Without rehashing the whole plot, the bottom line is that Aloy survives, and humanity is safe — for now. But the AI threat remains, and the dangerous robots haven’t gone anywhere, either.

Aloy has further adventures in The Frozen Wilds expansion, which is standalone story. There are two more AIs: a good one called CYAN, and an evil one called HEPHAESTUS, both of which survive in the end. It’s possible we’ll see some more of them, as well as the taciturn chieftain Aratak.

What to expect from Horizon Forbidden West

Horizon Forbidden West

(Image credit: Sony)

Now that Aloy has one big adventure under her belt (two, if you count The Frozen Wilds separately), Horizon Forbidden West can hit the ground running. The devs at Guerilla Games have revealed a lot of information about Horizon Forbidden West, and what we can expect from both the setting and the gameplay. (Understandably, we haven’t heard much about the story yet.)

First and foremost, the setting for the second game will be quite different, set in the ruins of coastal San Francisco and the Yosemite Valley rather than Colorado/Utah/Wyoming. This also means that swimming will play a much bigger role than before, and that Aloy will be able to explore various underwater environments.

The devs have also shown off some of Forbidden West’s improved melee combat, which will give Aloy a wider range of staff skills and upgrades. While melee combat was available in Zero Dawn, it was generally either a last-resort tactic, or a way to push enemies off while you scrambled to put distance between Aloy and her target.

Beyond that, Forbidden West seems like it will play to the same strengths as Zero Dawn, with a bold, colorful art style, a variety of striking robots to fight, an inspired setting and a memorable main character. We hope that the story will forge some new ground as well, but we’ll have to play the game to find out.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for an open-world game from a Sony studio, you can (and should) try Ghost of Tsushima or Spider-Man, both of which are best-in-class experiences.

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.