I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to a piece of DLC as much as I had done with The Frozen Wilds. Mass Effect 3‘s Leviathan, perhaps? There was one simple reason for my excitement – Horizon Zero Dawn has captured my imagination in a way no other game has for a long time (original review here). And I’m not alone in that opinion. Of course, the game isn’t perfect. In the original, too often are you fumbling around in dusty, dreary ruins, and it was in these environs where a large chunk of the (admittedly excellent) storyline took place. This was especially jarring when you consider the wealth of stunning vistas waiting for you above ground. What’s more, too many side quests involved staring at the ground, tracking some antagonist to some place in the world.
The Frozen Wilds goes to great lengths in order to solve these problems, and Guerrilla Games does indeed do that … to some extent. But these fixes are the cherry on top, the icing on the cake, welcome bonuses to garnish what is a superb expansion of Aloy’s story. It’s more of the same, and then some. This isn’t end-game content, unfortunately. Rather, the storyline of The Frozen Wilds takes place concurrently to the main narrative. Events that have already occurred are referenced throughout. This integration is definitely a nice touch, but The Frozen Wilds most definitely stands alone. You begin the 8-10 hour DLC (perhaps 12-15 hours if you play on Ultra Hard like a maniac) like how most things begin in Horizon Zero Dawn: by climbing. But your ascent is rewarded. At the end of the climb, a towering maelstrom of thick, ashen clouds spew from an angry volcano. Red tendrils of lightning weave in and out of the billowing column of smoke and fire, all set against the gorgeous green and blue-hued sky-dance of the Northern Lights.
One thing’s for sure – The Frozen Wilds is just as beautiful as the base game, and there are plenty of ‘photo-mode’ opportunities throughout. Geysers erupt, snow drifts downwards, stunning vistas are discovered. From the top of mountains, and from pretty much anywhere else on the map, you’ll see those volcanic emissions. It’s a constant reminder of how brutal and inhospitable this new land is. A land the Banuk inhabitants like to call “The Cut”. An icy-cold land that’s to the north of the main region, and will most definitely leave you ‘cut’ if you’re not careful about how you tread. And when you arrive, it’s clear that some recently tragedy has just occured. A hunting party (or what’s left of it) has just returned from an assault on Thunder’s Drum (the volcano), where the Banuk were attempting to free an entity known as ‘The Spirit’ from the clutches of another entity known as ‘The Daemon’. And obviously, Aloy simply cannot help but get involved. The main story of The Frozen Wilds adds extra layers of exposition to the overall narrative of Horizon Zero Dawn, and is a very welcome addition. Not in the least because some of the final locations in which the narrative takes place in are quite breathtaking. A stark contrast to the base game.
What’s more, there are a spattering of side quests with a host of colorful NPCs for you to meet. The most memorable of which has Aloy trying to fix a dam that’s flooding a portion of the landscape. Here, you meet an Oseram named Gildun. And what a character! This one man had me smiling and laughing more times than I had done during the entire base game. It’s clear that Guerrilla Games have worked incredibly hard on making people other than Aloy possess interesting personalities. As a result, the world feels much richer, and more alive than before. This is helped by the improved facial animations. Though still not perfect, characters take one huge step away from the uncanny valley. The quest in the dam itself has you jumping and climbing, solving (albeit simple) puzzles, looting, and reactivating the dam … the side missions just feel like more complete experiences overall. They’re more interesting, and a damn-sight more challenging. That’s a theme that runs through the entirety of The Frozen Wilds. It’s bloody hard; even if you’ve reached the level cap.
This is mainly because of a brand new enemy called ‘Scorchers’. They’re totally relentless in their determination to ruin your day, lunging with razor-sharp claws and spewing jets of fire. They’re especially tough on the harder difficulties. But rather than just being a massive annoyance, clashing with these beasts is always exhilarating, and finding yourself in the path of a Scorcher fills you with dread. I almost felt like the game was taunting me slightly when, during another loading screen after death by claw, one of the little tips read something to the effect of: “Try to keep your distance from Scorchers”. It’s all well and good saying that, but when Scorchers are capable of leaping ten thousand miles in one bound, distance doesn’t make a difference. Similarly with the Frostclaws (and later, their Fireclaw variants) – big bear-like machines that fling rocks and ice/fire every which way. But again, it’s not frustrating, because you know that all you have to do is figure them out. And by the end of the DLC, I was killing them significantly quicker that at the beginning. You feel god-like when you take just one down.
I would have liked a few more new enemy types to wrestle with. Just a couple, maybe. As it stands, the only other ways in which your opposition is different are with Daemonic enemies. These are your usual types (Watchers, Chargers … those chicken ones) but enwreathed in purple light. Much like corrupted enemies, they hit harder and have more health. But they’re also strong against electric attacks, so it’s best to fling as much fire and ice at them as possible, which is made much easier with one of the new weapons you find: a flamethrower called the Forgefire. There are also two other weapons that fling their own elemental projectiles, one for ice, and one for electricity. Initially, they’re not much help in a fight, but you can upgrade each to make them rather more formidable. The Stormslinger in particular. Hold down the trigger, and each shot becomes more powerful the longer you hold it down. Careful though, because the extra power causes you damage also. If you time things just right, you can take down your foe before killing yourself. These new weapons bring a brand new dynamic to combat, and rather than just being overpower war-machines you can kill anything with, you need to use them wisely. They chomp through a lot of resources, and for the first time in Horizon Zero Dawn I found myself running out of sparkers, components which were clogging up my inventory beforehand.
A little less helpful are the new skills Aloy can learn, such as collecting plants and other loots without dismounting, and the ability to repair overridden machines. Probably the best addition is increased inventory space, but this is quickly filled up with new loot. Like hearts and lenses from new machines, as well as skins and bones from a variety of new woodland creatures. Now, while wandering through forests of white, you’ll come across owls, goats, badgers and squirrels. It may not seem very mindblowing written down like this, but these animals help to make The Cut feel distinct from the southern areas where the main game takes place.
But not too distinct. With The Frozen Wilds, Guerrilla Games have given Horizon Zero Dawn a fresh coat of paint, and perhaps covered some of the areas they missed the first time around. While nothing is wildly different, I don’t think it matters, because the base game was so incredibly fantastic. The feeling of tumbling through a world so drenched in secrets is still there. I just wish that maybe they might have allowed us as players to interact with those secrets a little more, rather than keeping stuff back for a sequel. But as it stands, there’s very little wrong with The Frozen Wilds. New players and veterans alike with find something to love in The Cut.