Horizon Zero Dawn was arguably one of the main catalysts for the surge in popularity of photo modes and the SHARE button on PS4, with Aloy becoming an inspirational favourite amongst creative players and fans. Forbidden West then, is not only a follow-up to Guerrilla's much loved game, but is also an important sequel to their photo mode as well. A sequel that is ostensibly the most anticipated release of the year amongst virtual photographers.
- THE VP AWARDS // MOST ANTICIPATED -
Picking up where the first story left off – complete with a "previously on"-style recap of the events of Zero Dawn – Horizon Forbidden West catches up with Aloy as she journeys West across forbidden lands on a new adventure towards the Pacific coast. In search of answers that could save the earth from extreme weather and a mysterious blight that threatens another mass extinction, this journey of discovery builds on the game's interesting lore and has plenty of surprises in store.
An incredibly rich new open world feels densely populated with new tribes, menacing enemies and of course, fascinating new machines that range from otter-like cousins of the always endearing Watchers, to altogether larger and more terrifying dinosaur types on land sea and air! New weapons and abilities seek to make combat and traversal more dynamic – the Shieldwing glide and ability to climb more freely are particularly welcome – but combat does tend to become a bit of a frantic affair in my experience. Machines are regularly so close and aggressive that they often feel mismatched with the implied use of precision tactics against their intricate constructions.
- CLOSE COMBAT // HFW -
Underneath the changes though, Forbidden West still has a strong sense of familiarity; it feels like Horizon, and sliding back into its world will be a welcome embrace for fans of the original, especially as the new world provides plenty of things to do on top of the engaging story. The usual camps, cauldrons and side quests are supported by activities like challenge arenas or the tactical Machine Strike board game that are worth many an hour of your time and will help you on the way to filling out the multiple skill trees and acquiring some desirable gear.
Familiarity is not just confined to the game itself though, the same applies to the photo mode as Guerrilla have chosen not to make any sweeping changes to an area that will likely be a huge time sink for many people. There are some new features to be found, but it feels like the emphasis here has been on enabling fans to continue photographing their favourite heroine and her friends, all of whom are depicted in extraordinary detail thanks to cinema quality character models and high-end lighting on PS5, rather than advancing the medium.
There may be an element of safety in sticking closely to what has worked before, but features that were once a benchmark for a developing art form, may now find themselves feeling a bit like "the old ones".
Key Photo Mode Features:
Free camera with DoF control
Toggle look at camera
Time of day with time lapse
Controls & Implementation:
Tucked away in the Options menu, the Forbidden West photo mode may not be the quickest to reach, but it is very intuitive to use thanks to a tabbed UI that is largely unchanged from that of its predecessor, and again allows all settings to be adjusted while hidden for a perfectly clear view. Minor changes include the Toggle Grid option moving onto the UI as it makes way for a new auto focus function on R3, and field of view being replaced with actual lens focal lengths, but otherwise you'll find most things are right where you left them.
There is one crucial difference between the concept here and in reality...
The control scheme is equally easy to pick up, with movement of the free camera handled using the LS and RS for lateral positioning and look direction, while the L2 / R2 triggers add vertical craning. An optional Precision Mode further refines the inputs by reducing their speed and sensitivity, most notably applied on the pan & tilt axes, for much improved fine tuning of the composition that is great for close-up work.
Of course, the likely focus of attention was not lost on the developers and, while many areas remain untouched including the not-quite-90° roll, the number of facial expressions and body poses available for Aloy have been greatly expanded with much more varied options. Face paints are also available from the start this time, with even more unlocked as you progress through the game, and the excellent L3 toggle to make Aloy turn and face the camera makes it possible to capture her attention or direct it towards another area for versatile portraiture.
- ON THE FACE OF IT // PHOTO MODE UI -
Perhaps the biggest area of adjustment from a user's perspective will be that switch to Focal Length for control over the field of view, or rather the decision to implement just a selection of fixed lens lengths instead of a full sliding scale. Think of it like having a virtual camera bag containing 7 prime lenses rather than one all-purpose zoom lens, albeit a set that is a bit imbalanced it has to be said.
The idea here is a good one that aligns the photo mode more with the use of real world cameras and settings, and there are even a few presets for quick selection should you be unsure where to start. A wide angle lens and narrow aperture for deep-focused landscapes, or a classic 85 mm with wide aperture for flattering portraits against a defocused background; you simply choose the right lens for the job and get to work. At least that is the theory, but there is one crucial difference between the concept here and in reality – with a real camera there is nothing to restrict the distance between it and the subject.
Combat shots can be particularly challenging and distant views of journeying through the environment are off the table...
Though it may be free to move and look in any (almost) direction, the photo mode camera is significantly hindered by a bounding sphere that extends <5 m around Aloy. All of a sudden the fairly large jumps between 16 mm, 40 mm & 85 mm present a problem. This is especially so when hoping to photograph Aloy fighting some of the larger machine types where many of the lenses are either too long for such a short distance, or so wide that you cannot isolate the action. As a result, combat shots can be particularly challenging and even distant views of journeying through the environment are off the table.
As something that was such an obvious area for improvement, it is hugely disappointing to see such a tight restriction on the range of camera movement in place, one that will inevitably be a limiting factor on the types of shots you can expect to take. Once you do find a groove though, the lenses work well with the available aperture and focus functions to give some very good optical characteristics.
- DEPTH OF FIELD // HFW -
The use of wide apertures (small f/number) will result in foreground and background defocus for elegant depth of field, and manual focus is assisted by a central auto focus option that performs a quick "hunt" for the optimal sharpness and actually lends a sense of fun as though it is an actual camera. It is worth noting too, that the effective depth of field gets shallower as you select longer focal lengths, something that is true to life and can be used to your advantage.
Aside from a standard selection of borders, including useful 2.35:1 & 1:1 crops, and a decent set of colour grading filters that can be faded in, much of the remaining influence on the image comes from how the photo mode handles lighting. If you're here hoping to see a 3-point studio light setup, you'd better look away now; there isn't one, but that is not to say that there are no useful options.
Much like in Zero Dawn's photo mode, a general Brightness slider lifts the whole image and Over Exposure boosts highlights for greater contrast, while the trademark anamorphic lens flare from the eyes of machines can now be toggled on / off, but it is the fully simulated time of day that has the most profound effect.
- NATURAL LIGHT // HFW -
Available once beyond the initial area of the world map know as The Daunt, the complete day / night cycle can dramatically alter a scene and direction of light, just beware of some odd exposure behaviour that can occur as it transitions between night and day.
Should you be a fan of capturing moving images and cinematic video sequences, a new automatic time lapse feature adds an input-free passage of time that can run at normal or accelerated speeds of up to 32x. Gone is the need to fumble with both the D-pad and analogue stick simultaneously to create a panning shot of the setting sun, this neat addition makes it beautifully simple and lets you concentrate more on getting the shot right.
- TIME LAPSE // HFW -
The matter of lighting doesn't quite end there though. On PS5 at least, Horizon Forbidden West is able to use the same lighting elements that the studio apply to cinematic cut scenes during live gameplay. As the superlative cinematics will attest, the potential here is outstanding but with no user control via the photo mode and some degree of unpredictability around exactly what kind of lights will be shone on the characters in any given location, it is not always going to deliver the right results. One thing for certain, I know what I would like to see added in the next big update!
Hunt for elusive chances to capture their individual personalities...
The fact that shots of Aloy are still shared in great volume, even 5 years later, is a testament to how well the fiery-haired huntress resonated with fans, so it seems only right that this should continue. Between Ashly Burch's performance and exquisite details like "peach fuzz" hairs on her face (PS5 only), Aloy remains a hugely relatable character on-screen and an ideal photographic subject, especially given the interesting new outfits with colours that can be customised by visiting various dye merchants spread throughout the settlements.
While manual light placement would be transformative, it is certainly possible to capture ever more convincing and realistic shots thanks to incredible levels of detail on character models and some sophisticated in-game lighting. It may be more a matter of hunting for the best conditions rather than having the luxury of a studio setup on the go, but the potential for stunning portraits is very much still there.
- LIKE THE WIND // HFW -
This is an appeal that is not just limited to the lead though, as the story brings back several existing companions and introduces plenty of new ones (including some quite unexpected ones), all portrayed with engaging acting and animation that will inspire you to hunt for elusive chances to capture their individual personalities in intimate detail outside of the cinematics.
Indeed, the Forbidden West is a world absolutely full of interesting subjects and rich detail with each of the tribes that inhabit the land telling a cultural tale simply with their presence, well imagined outfits and everyday artefacts. From the aggressive appearance of Tenakth warriors, the hard working (and hard drinking) Oseram, or the slender forms of the more meek Utaru farmers, it is easy to see and capture a visual language that can be used to convey their unique ways of life.
- TANAKTH // UTARU -
With all of these people come more settlements, and just like pretty much every other element of Horizon, these thoughtfully designed areas are distinct and highly detailed. Merchants, cooks, social gatherings and combat training bring a sense of livelihood wherever you go, although this is tinged with a sense of sadness!
Sadness that, just as was the case in Horizon Zero Dawn, the photo mode is restricted in any of the populated zones. While still technically accessible, the camera movement and even field of view are locked down, meaning that you are entirely limited to the in-game camera view, merely with added DoF & filters, until you leave.
- OSERAM // CHAINSCRAPE -
No such problems exist out in the open world thankfully, and the new map is an often astoundingly beautiful place to be. Perhaps not the largest of maps in terms of simple area, it feels dense and full of interest with noticeable verticality to the terrain as you roam from one localised biome to another through dynamically shifting lighting and weather conditions.
Let's not forget also, that Forbidden West sees Aloy take to the skies and venture deep under water thanks to wonderful new equipment that helps to bring whole new perspectives to the game and can take your and ideas in completely different directions.
- UNDER WATER // HFW -
If at this point you're thinking "yes, yes, but what about the machines", then we probably have something in common and of course the game's iconic artificial life forms are back and looking better than ever with very tactile materials and intricate designs that really invite a closer look.
As it turns out, the machines seem to quite like getting close too, so if you want to take combat out of the equation, then some stealthy tactics and the longer lenses become very useful for capturing the mechanical beasts from a distance as they go about their pre-programmed business. Many old favourites return, but the highlights are surely the many new additions, some of which confirm that Guerrilla do have more than a passing interest in Jurassic Park. As though that was ever in doubt.
- CLEVER GIRL // CLAWSTRIDER -
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