How do you fill up a giant open world so that it doesn’t feel dead and empty? You can litter the map with points of interest, unleash a swarm of prehistoric robots to roam its peaks and valleys, and make sure every other vista is exploding with lens flair. Or, in Horizon Forbidden West’s case, you can do all three and then top things off with never ending gusts.
Guerrilla Games’ sequel is bigger and better than Horizon Zero Dawn in almost every way, but my favourite upgrade by far is the wind. It’s everywhere in Horizon Forbidden West. It’s out in the fields, flittering through a million blades of grass. It’s in the mountains, blowing snowflakes against the rock face. And it’s in the desert, kicking up plumes of earthy rust while ominous Sunwing machines glide overhead.
The first time it really hit me was right after I left Forbidden West’s initial canyon area, and had the whole rest of the map ahead of me to explore. The first thing you come to is the ruins of a battlefield, filled with bombed-out tanks and the sprawling tentacles of an ancient Horus machine. A storm started to pick up, and by the time I was on the other side, heading into a shallow forest, the wind looked ready to crack the trees like twigs. In Forbidden West, Aloy is charged with trying to heal a planet which is always, in one way or another, making its presence felt.
Here’s how Ben Lindbergh described it in his review for The Ringer:
But the breezes of Forbidden West aren’t just for show. They visually link the varied ecosystems that make up Forbidden West’s massive open world, which is significantly larger and denser than Zero Dawn’s. They visually propel the player onward, as Aloy’s quest to fend off disaster drives her. And they subtly speak to the stakes of the narrative, reminding players that the wind is so restless not just because it looks cool, but because the biosphere is falling apart and humanity is months away from going extinct.
One of the most notable games to use wind to give its open world an identity was 2015’s The Witcher 3. “Wind’s howling,” protagonist Geralt of Rivia loved to mutter under his breath. And it was, often, and quite loudly. “[The wind] is, in many ways, the energy bringing the world of The Witcher 3 to life in a way no other video game has ever managed,” wrote Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett years later. The wind heightened the game’s naturalistic aesthetic, but it also helped propel you through its world and kept you coming back.
Other open world games have caught on. In Ghost of Tsushima the wind literally guides you to new quests and characters. The weather was something to marvel at back in Horizon Zero Dawn as well. But like I said, Forbidden West kicks everything up a notch. There are simply more things blowing more widely, from endless gusts of leaves just off screen to Aloy’s own braided locks. And this time around it feels like the light has found a dozen new ways to bounce off of, and filter through, each little squall of foliage.
Here’s how Ted Hughs described the wind in his poem by the same name:
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye
There is no shortage of stuff to do in Forbidden West. Some critics have even argued there’s too much. But whenever I’ve been getting overwhelmed or tired or just need a break, I hop on my Charger to search for the nearest outcropping to sit and watch Horizon’s world move on its own.