Developed by: Guerrilla Games
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: Out Now
Horizon Zero Dawn‘s major DLC expansion delivers more of what made the action adventure so compelling to begin with – beautiful environments, visceral action, and an engaging story about woman and machine (you can read my review here). The Frozen Wilds also makes subtle but noticeable improvements on weaker areas of the base game, which bodes well for the inevitable sequel.
A Cut Above
The Frozen Wilds is set in The Cut, a brand new addition to the north of the map. As we know from popular culture, heading north often means cold, harsh conditions, and it is no different here. Horizon is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where sentient machines caused widespread devastation and led to the human race essentially hitting the reset button; The Frozen Wilds introduces a new handful of these imposing robot dinosaurs, and the linear path up to The Cut forces an encounter with one straight off the bat.
This is the Scorcher, to be precise – a machine that is ferocious at close range and can produce devastating bursts of fire. Even the players who are experts with the the way combat works in Horizon will find a big challenge here, especially when multiple machines are attacking at once later on. Whilst the recommended level for entry was 35 (the previous cap was 50, which is raised to 60 in this DLC), even my lv50 Aloy struggled at times. Another introduction is a machine based on a polar bear, which can unleash consecutive melee attacks that leave Aloy reeling. The added challenge is welcome for those who had perhaps gotten too comfortable with the cycle of strategic combat.
A big draw of Horizon was not only the gameplay but the intriguing story that was interwoven in; the Banuk were a tribe that were involved at times, mainly though the enigmatic Sylens, who assists Aloy at crucial points. They remained mysterious, though – however, The Cut is the residence of the Banuk, and reveals a lot about them. The overarching plot does little to deviate massively from what Guerrilla presented in the main story, with dangerous machines populating the freezing mountain known as Thunder’s Drum due to a hostile AI.
It’s what The Frozen Wilds gives you within that structure that supplements what came before. Aratak, the Banuk Chieftain, and Ourea, who discovers a friendlier AI, are the most developed side characters and provide the main emotional payoff, but the Banuk tribe is full of other perspectives and troubles that Aloy can help with. It’s like learning a different culture – one quest requires finding missing hunters that didn’t return from a survival ritual, and dealing with the morality of saving them when they think their failure makes their lives void. Other quests teach you about new materials and techniques, adding slight variety to gameplay whether it is spear modifications or a new flamethrower weapon. Horizon was already good at giving you side quests that weren’t just busywork, but felt unique and worthwhile, and The Frozen Wilds continues this.
Ice, Ice, Aloy
The mini-open-world addition that is The Cut is full of notable things to do. Some are changed-up versions of what came before, such as a Tallneck machine which needs putting back together. Others are new additions, like the Control Towers that repair nearby machines. The latter is one of the better introductions, as it makes you think about new approaches; if you sneak in and disable the tower first, the ensuing battle will be much easier. The Frozen Wilds is at its best at times like these, where it is ever-so-slightly changing up the the gameplay while sticking true to what made Horizon one of the gaming highlights of 2017.
It’s the little things that you notice, as well. In my original review of Horizon, I noted the animation as sometimes looking a bit stiff in conversations. The Frozen Wilds features exchanges where characters look more natural – swaying, using hand motions, and pacing as they express emotion. It makes everything a little more believable, and is a good sign that Guerrilla know what to improve for the sequel that they are surely working hard on.
It’s just a shame that not everything can be magically fixed in DLC. The timing of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s release – so close to the groundbreaking Zelda: Breath of the Wild – emphasised the clunkiness of traversal when ascending more awkward, mountainous environments. The Frozen Wild‘s snowy world is full of these areas, awkwardly limiting where you can and can’t go. At one point, I got lost in The Hunting Grounds of The Cut just because a small wall was blocked for me; one issue with being given another chunk of the same game is that you have more time to examine the intricacies of how it works – flaws and all.
Then again, it is saved to a degree by the stupendous beauty all around you. Even by Horizon‘s already-high standards, The Cut provides another level of technical achievement. You’re either journeying through tranquil, crisp white sheets of snow, or you’re being battered by relentless blizzards that block out everything further than a few feet in front of Aloy. In the spirit of Horizon, this is mixed in with the remnants of the old world, like the massive, frozen dam in the centre of The Cut; in both art direction and raw technical prowess, Horizon remains at the pinnacle of games as an art form.
The 8-ish hours it took me to get through the majority of The Frozen Wilds gave me a strong sense of closure. There is enough DNA from the base game to keep it feeling familiar, but also enough new ideas – and considerable challenge – to make playing through the entirety of the DLC both justifiable and enjoyable. Learning new bits and pieces of info about the events of Horizon act as a neat epilogue, but also set up what might come in the future; just like being reminded of some weak points raise the excitement for what an improved Horizon sequel could achieve.