Frankly speaking, there is nothing more exciting — or daunting — than an open-world video game. Fire one up and you’re quickly faced with enough real estate to lose hours of your life happily exploring or an abyss in which to get frustratingly lost and bored. The world map can be either friend or foe, but it’s often hard to tell at the oset which game worlds are going to be welcoming and enticing and which are going to be an unfun time suck.
Horizon Forbidden West is the former, a game that tackles the concept of an open world incredibly well. To date, I’ve spent about 75 hours in the game, and even though I completed the main story a while ago, I’m still eager to spend time in its deliciously crafted world. Guerrilla Games’ follow-up to Horizon Zero Dawn is the kind of game that stays on its rails for the first five to 10 hours, pulling you into the narrative before releasing you to explore. It creates structure and a sense of the goals for gameplay — the ideal introduction to a game built around wide-open spaces.
This kind of action stands in stark contrast to an open-world game like The Witcher 3, which, while expansive, is also just too overwhelming. A few days into the game, I threw down my controller in frustration when I arrived at a massive city and realized it would take hours to traverse all of its streets, talk to all of its NPCs, and finish the quests. I still enjoyed the game somewhat, but it failed to lure me in the way Horizon Forbidden West did.
It’s easy to assume I was sucked in by Horizon Forbidden West and not The Witcher 3 because I had loved Zero Dawn and my only exposure to the Witcher universe before the game was the Henry Cavill show on Netflix. I don’t think that’s the case. Even if we were comparing Zero Dawn and The Witcher 3we’d still be having this same discussion because even when the Horizon world was brand-new, its structured style drew me in a way that Witcher 3‘s more feral gameplay does not.
The Witcher 3 is designed to encourage you to explore before you tackle the main story quests, to the point that you’re actually punished if you don’t fully investigate an area before moving on. (If your current level is above the quest level, you get minimal or no experience points for completing quests. Let me tell you how frustrating that can be when you’re a person who likes to be constantly over-leveled so you don’t die all the time and you don’t find this out until 15 hours into a game.) I know some people thrive in games built like this, where there are no real rules or limits and the possibilities are endless; I am not one of them.
For me, it’s exhausting. Going into a game where I feel like I have very little structure or guidance and am just expected to explore and stumble upon things to do without already being invested in the world feels overwhelming. With Horizon Forbidden West, once I was really immersed and loving every second of the gameplay, I started relishing exploring every nook and cranny of the map. I really enjoyed backtracking and being able to pace myself the way I wanted to. When I started feeling aimless, I could just move forward with the main story, but I didn’t feel forced to focus on anything in particular.
There’s no right or wrong way to do open worlds. Both of these approaches are valid and work for different kinds of gamers. But sometimes people put too much emphasis on the wonder of an open world, and the freedom to go anywhere. When that starts feeling like an obligation, it’s not freedom at all.