Expanding a game like Horizon Zero Dawn was never going to be easy. Guerrilla Games’ first foray into open-world action felt like a remarkably complete experience, with a finely told story, a wonderfully realized world, and tightly interlocked gameplay systems that fed on each other in surprising ways. As is perhaps fitting for a game about the collapse and rebuilding of Earth’s biomes, Horizon felt like an ecosystem, and a remarkably healthy one at that.
Perhaps that’s why The Frozen Wilds, its first and evidently only expansion, feels so tentative. Now, it would be unfair of me to say there’s nothing new here. The Frozen Wilds has plenty of box-ticking additions: a new area of the map to explore, new weapons, new gear, new collectibles, and new animal-inspired machines to hunt. It’s all good—and all a little stale.
Take, for instance, the map. Once you’ve installed The Frozen Wilds, you gain access to The Cut, a region attached to the northeastern corner of the existing game world. The main point of difference between this new region and the rest of the game is ostensibly supposed to be that it’s cold and snowy, but that’s not exactly distinctive in the context of the game. The main game already had plenty of snowy, mountainous regions. Is the snow a little deeper here? Are the mountains a little taller? Sure. But with few exceptions, I’m not sure I could look at a screenshot and tell you with any certainty whether it’s from The Frozen Wilds or the rest of Horizon.
Outside of a handful of areas that draw heavily from the setting’s real-world equivalent, Yellowstone National Park, The Cut doesn’t have much of its own identity, either in visuals or in gameplay. I found myself wishing that something, anything in the gameplay might change to justify all of Aloy’s complaints about the extreme cold. Maybe my choice of clothes should matter, less I takes damage from exposure. Maybe I should need to change my combat tactics when I’m in deep snow. These may not be the right choices from a design standpoint, of course, but I’d rather the game have taken chances to make the region feel meaningfully different in some way, rather than just throwing in some hot springs and a few tougher enemy encounters that could have happened anywhere.
Part of the problem is the way the game criminally underuses the tribe that was supposed to be its focus, the Banuk. Members of the Banuk tribe appeared in the main game, of course, and we learned a lot about their quasi-Inuit, heavily shamanistic culture from those encounters. The Frozen Wilds, however, sold itself as a chance to interface more directly with the group. In truth, you don’t really learn much of anything you didn’t already know. They paint massive murals in bright colors. They feel a spiritual connection to the machines. They hunt in smaller groups called weraks. Rather than showing us any large-scale Banuk settlements or delving deeper into their culture, the expansion settles for a handful of peripheral camps, a few new characters, and a general rehash of what we already knew.
Even the story, while ostensibly new, doesn’t really expand the scope of Horizon in any meaningful way. You learn a little more about the world, and possibly about the threat Aloy will face in the sequel, but it’s all a matter of coloring in details around the edges of basic concepts we already knew and understood well enough.
To be sure, there is a sense of purpose and consequence to what happens during The Frozen Wilds. (Without getting too much into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that there’s a large mountain smoking in an area of the world known for lots of volcanic activity.) But given that everything here is stuffed into the middle of the game, rather than as any sort of standalone story set after the ending, it’s hard to buy into the stakes that are being presented.
For one thing, the danger is much less menacing than the potential world-ending threat of Horizon‘s primary storyline. If you’ve got a late enough save game when you first go to The Cut, Sylens, your mysterious mentor throughout the game, will actually berate you for stupidly leaving behind a much more serious concern to go on a field trip somewhere new. He’s absolutely right. It doesn’t really play.
What’s more, you’ve likely already beaten the main game at least once by the time you play this, which makes for a strange dissonance. You already saw Aloy ride off into the sunset. She didn’t save The Cut, and yet everything was still fine in that version of the world. It’s awkward to retcon in a threat like the one in The Frozen Wilds to a story that already felt so self-contained, and Guerrilla did almost nothing with that tension. While there’s room to appreciate the story that’s being told on a more human level—you’ll meet some fun new characters along the way and work through plenty of drama—I’m not sure that’s enough to make the whole endeavor feel worthwhile.
I can understand why Guerrilla chose not to tell the next real chapter of Aloy’s story in the abbreviated form required by an expansion. Clues littered throughout the main game make it clear that the studio already has some ambitious ideas for where the story might go next, all of which will no doubt require a full sequel to explore fully. In so hesitantly straddling the line between old and new, The Frozen Wilds can’t help but seem a little out of place, awkwardly grafted onto a game that was just fine on its own. Spending more time in the world of the game is a welcome pursuit, given how well the formula works, but there’s a real sense that this is some combination of ideas cut from the main game and filler material designed to vamp until Horizon‘s true successor can arrive.
Still, for as down as I’m being on The Frozen Wilds, it’s worth reiterating that more of the same isn’t inherently bad. That’s especially true for Horizon, given that the formula worked so well. The gameplay in The Frozen Wilds, whether it’s the combat, the puzzles, the sidequests, or the more linear missions, can happily stand alongside the content in the main game. It’s just as good, and there’s easily more than a dozen hours to be spent tearing through it all. None of the new weapons or enemies are revolutionary, but they’re smart extensions of what was already in the game, and they offer a great mix of increased power and increased challenge.
In fact, because I stupidly failed to realize my only save game was on Ultra Hard mode, I had to tackle all of The Frozen Wilds on that highest difficulty. To call it intense would be an understatement. All three of the new machine types feel more punishing than anything in the main game, and they achieve that difficulty in a way that forces you to mix up your tactics. Horizon already did an excellent job making you feel like a prehistoric hunter outsmarting beasts far deadlier than you, but I’ve never felt more tension than trying to chip away at the grizzly-like Fireclaw from a distance, then retreating to the safety of the bushes before it burned me to a crisp.
But the highlights aren’t quite high enough to justify the clumsy way The Frozen Wilds fits into the main game. It’s a far more difficult challenge than the actual ending, but it must be tackled before the actual finale of the game. The impact on the rest of the game, apart from weapons and gear that make you slightly overpowered when tackling the machines that used to be the deadliest in the game, isn’t huge. After finishing The Frozen Wilds, I replayed the ending of the main game and noticed only one minor difference: A new character makes a cameo when you’re making the rounds to prepare for the final battle, but then disappears from all the subsequent cutscenes without a trace.
As a result of all these minor issues, The Frozen Wilds doesn’t really serve as a true continuation of Horizon Zero Dawn, nor does it change enough about the main game to make it worth replaying from the start the way, say, Mass Effect 2‘s DLCs did. The expansion’s biggest shortcoming isn’t the quality or breadth of the content that’s on offer. It’s how vestigial that content can feel.
If you’ve yet to dive into Horizon Zero Dawn, then The Frozen Wilds—or, more accurately, the Complete Edition of the game launching in December—marks an excellent chance to jump in. The combination of the two only serves to make an already expansive game even bigger. Viewed as a reason to go back to a world you’ve already spent dozens of hours in, however, it’s far from essential. By all means, go for the added challenge and more of the excellent gameplay you’re used to. Just don’t expect more than some pretty vistas, a few interesting character beats, and a longer to-do list.
While the new content in The Frozen Wilds is on par with the rest of Horizon Zero Dawn, it’s hardly a must-play expansion. The story tells us little we didn’t already know, and the new weapons and quests feel like more of the same.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
T - Teen
|Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds is available on PS4. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|