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Horizon Forbidden West is actually getting me excited for underwater levels

Everyone knows that water levels are where games go to die, but I think Guerrilla Games might actually manage to make the hated game design trope bearable

Have you too been scarred by the sound of Sonic the Hedgehog drowning after that frantic countdown music starts playing? Have you huffed and sighed in frustration as Lara Croft bonked uselessly against an underwater wall in a cave for the 800th time? Have you rolled your eyes and turned off your PlayStation after making Crash Bandicoot eat submerged nitro, again, in your best Time Trial run to date? Then you probably hate underwater levels as much as me.

But I think Horizon Forbidden West can actually make something of its oceanic focus. The PS4 and PS5 game, set to release on February 18, hasn’t been shy about showing off its new-found obsession with H20; from the very first trailer we saw from the game, it was made clear that protagonist Aloy was going to be strapping on a scuba mask and hitting the depths as she explores the titular Forbidden West.

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Cue eye-rolls, groans and haunting memories of waterlogged platforming mascots as they suffocate in some God-forsaken underwater temple. But between watching the most recent trailer for the game and a new BBC documentary series over the weekend, something dawned on me (no pun intended): Horizon is the perfect game to show off what water levels can do for this new generation.

Let’s start with the environment itself: Zero Dawn made a huge impression on critics and consumers alike with its spectacular rendition of post-apocalyptic flora. Built on the Decima engine (which has been continually improved since its inception to provide state-of-the-art physical-based rendering, top-of-the-line post-processing effects, and cinema-level animation), Zero Dawn presented us with a rich world, teeming with incredibly-detailed plant life and foliage. The game was Guerrilla’s opportunity to show off, and show off it definitely did.

Forbidden West lets Guerrilla take another step forward with its tech and give us more natural beauty to ogle at. Diving beneath the surface of the water, we get to gaze, slack-jawed, at aquatic plants swaying as the tide pulls in and out. We get to see dense ecosystems, full of life, luminescent in the sun that breaks through the ocean’s surface. We get to see how Aloy interacts with the complicated and fascinating physics in the water as she sinks deeper into the depths of this mysterious new locale.

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In the UK, at the time of writing, there’s a new David Attenborough show called The Green Planet that’s getting a new episode every week. Last week’s hour-long educational voyage took a custom-built camera below sea level to show off the sorts of plants that anchor themselves in rivers, streams, and the briny deep. Seeing the footage – caught in breathless 4K by a team of enthusiastic experts – prompted me to say out loud to my partner: “God, I bet Horizon will look like this”. And I truly believe it will.

Thanks to the lovely way the camera works in Decima engine games, I can fully imagine seeing vivid, floating plant of some kind in the foreground, Aloy suspended in the water in the middle of the screen as she explores, and the diffused, water-warped real-time cloud simulation illuminating the space behind her – not fully visible, but completely adding to the effect of this world as you swim around some fresh-water lake. If Zero Dawn made mountains, plains, and caves look that good back in 2017, imagine how good Forbidden West can make water look in 2022.

Adding water zones into the mix will make all the other aspects of the game better in the same way that the amazing skyboxes, richly-detailed wild biomes, and dense city areas complemented each other in the first game, too. More variety means more to keep you engaged, and lessens the chance of boredom. When the whole game looks this good, too? It’s practically a walking, talking nature documentary where you control the (well-armed) camera. Taking a dip in a cave pool you've not explored yet after chatting to a wealth of well-meaning but ultimately useless NPCs? Yes, please.

If you’re playing on PS5, too, you can likely expect the water to be rendered and dealt with better than it was in Zero Dawn on PS4; the water in the last game didn’t deal too well with reflections, and didn’t react properly with robots, humans or weapons interacting with it. It was all a bit damp and flat. Since water is such a big draw of this game, you can expect it to be more dynamic and reactive – and (hopefully) we’ll even see it used for some nice little physics puzzles here and there, too. That’s something Rise of the Tomb Raider did quite well – if Crystal Dynamics can do it, I bet Guerrilla can.

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Further to all this, Guerrilla has been experimenting more with animations since the first game in the series came out. You can check the video above for a big rundown about what this means, but the long and short of it is this; Aloy’s animations are going to be smoother, more diverse and more human this time around. Hopefully, watching her – and controlling her – as she sinks to the dark depths of lakes, rivers and seas will feel more natural and intuitive than swimming mechanics we’ve seen in games before.

Given how good movement, traversal and combat felt in Zero Dawn and its DLC, I’m not too worried about how our plucky protagonist will feel in this new game: Guerrilla knows how to make a character feel good in your hands, and the studio would not be putting as much of an emphasis on water if it didn’t have something really special to show us when the game comes out. I'd be willing to bet there's at least one underwater boss or biome – why not, if you've got the tech? – and I am truly, genuinely hyped to see how white-knuckle it gets when those machines start gnashing at you in the depths.

I’ve always praised Zero Dawn for having some really deep traversal tech underpinning the entire gameplay experience; tech that keeps you sharp and precise even when you’re under pressure. Let’s see if I’m going to have to eat my words when Horizon: Forbidden West launches on February 18, 2022.

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