"Capcom has done a stellar job of managing the power creep, which was necessary..."
Since Monster Hunter: World (MHW) launched in January 2018, Capcom has released a plethora of content updates for players to enjoy. We have had myriad new monsters to hunt, gear to smith, and a few crossovers to enjoy that keep the end game very much alive. A little over a year and a half later, the first major paid expansion brings much more to the table for fans of the game in Monster Hunter World: Iceborne.
Upon hitting Hunter Rank 16 (earned when completing the base game's main story), you will have immediate access to the new content Iceborne offers, taking players back to where it all began in the Ancient Forest. Rail-roading along through this expedition leads to the big reveal: a new land to explore and mystifying monster behaviour that revolves around a strange "song." A curious migration of the Legiana is at the core of Iceborne's story, and like in MHW, largely serves as a vehicle to justify the next strange new monster to hunt. But the big players of Astera, your Handler especially, get far more development as the adventure unfolds this time around. A surprisingly rich and sentimental story plays out around The Handler and The Tracker, strengthening your relationship to both characters and the rest of the crew. By tale's end, you truly feel a part of the New World family, and the tale is left open to new hunts and the inevitable slew of more free content Capcom has already begun to feed to fervent hunters.
The heart of the Iceborne setting is the new base Seliana, bringing a welcome change from Astera and the Research Base. Most of the Astera crew have made their way to Seliana, though the Meowscular Chef is one of the few that stayed behind. While this buff Palico is easily one of my favourite characters, the new canteen boss, Grammeowster Chef, is an incredible delight. Even Poogie makes its way there eventually and has some new costumes to find! All the same amenities are present but with more ease of access and some welcome quality of life upgrades. You can access the Botanical Research and Argosy (when in port) from one NPC, manage Tailraider Safaris without needing to travel elsewhere, and have access to the smithy from the Seliana Gathering Hub, allowing Squads to forge and upgrade between quests without needing to leave the Hub entirely. This not to say Astera is inferior in any way, but having everything within a shorter running distance makes inter-quest tasks a breeze.
As you progress through Hunter Rank in the base game, your personal chambers are slowly upgraded and allow your pets more room to roam about. Iceborne introduces the ultimate room experience with a robust customization system allowing you to personalize your space even more. Wall and floor materials, different pieces of furniture, decorations, and wall hangings can all be personalized, with many options to earn as players progress through the Seliana story and complete quests, or simply purchase them using Research Points. Furthermore, you can share your chambers with other players, making it the perfect hub between hunts to chat and chill in. If you don't want to "chill," it also has its own hot spring!
Another new attraction in Seliana is the Steamworks, keeping everything running and warm! The Steamworks adds a minigame where you match a hidden three button sequence to generate more and more steam. The minigame requires fuel and recharges its own natural source as you quest, but you can also fuel it with materials mined on hunts or with traded items. The longer you go and better you play, the better the items you earn until the ultimate culmination as the machine reaches maximum output! The game is a bit obtuse, and really, you'll win if you have a boatload of fuel stored up. Still, it's a great way of netting some quality items for your hunts.
Also, our old friend the Lynian Researcher has returned. Players are given the Surveyor Set, which acts as a camera for you to "observe" Lynians in their native environments. You're tasked with photographing them under specific conditions to turn in for rewards. It's another fun minigame that encourages further interaction and exploration of your relationships with the local Lynian tribes. Increasing these bonds further now introduces Pawswaps where players can trade with Lynians in their camps for items and hints leading to rare treasures! While the trading can be hit or miss with what you receive, the Tailraiders that join you will use the traded items in battle, so giving them traps or curatives ends up paying off regardless.
Iceborne also introduces new gameplay elements that even non-expansion players can partake of. The Clutch Claw adds a new dynamic to hunts, allowing you to grapple onto monsters and manipulate them with more ease. Players can unleash a heavy blow that leaves the target softened up for further attacks, or manoeuvre monsters around the area and into potential traps where they can perform a Flinch Shot to leave their quarry unbalanced and at their mercy. Unlike mounting a monster, this is a one-shot attack that can be easily interrupted if not timed right but offers a lot more flexibility for many less agile weapon wielders. Another new mechanic spanning both games is the ability to call Tailraider (small) monsters to ride! Players can now hop onto any monster your Palico can befriend and ride it to a designated target. This new method of transportation is a welcome quality of life improvement as you can sharpen your weapon or quaff much needed potions, cutting down on some of the more time-consuming prep. Lastly, for the more fashion-forward player, you can get what's called "layered armor," which is a cosmetic set that covers your existing equipment but does not alter skills or stats in any way. Palico gear has also received a boost, allow you to level up their various support implements even further with a new added ability for each, like a Vigorwasp that offers a one-time revival should you faint on a hunt.
Exclusive to the Iceborne expansion is the new ranking system, Master Rank (MR). If you haven't completed the quests that capped your Hunter Rank in the base game, this removes it, allowing you to level up further in High Rank quests. MR governs access to quests in Iceborne, which are all Master Rank, and necessary for progressing the story. Another cosmetic upgrade introduced in Iceborne are pendants, small decorations that players earn by completing certain hunting conditions which are displayed on your favourite weapons. While they add no statistical benefit, they're a neat physical achievement to prove your hunting prowess.
The icy climes of Hoarfrost Reach are as expansive as any of the locations explored up until now, and introduce new endemic life, small monsters, natural traps, and of course, large monsters to hunt. Early into Iceborne's story, you meet the first of these new beasts: the Beotodus, a "palette swap" of Jyuratodus that carves its way through the deep snowy landscape and afflicts you with a chilly "Iceblight" that causes accelerated stamina drain. Of course, as you progress through Master Ranks and further explore the beautiful winter landscapes of Hoarfrost Reach, more new monsters are certain to be found. With them, some old beasts have returned with a bit of a twist. Subspecies of classics like Anjanath or Tobi Kadachi bring new mechanics to their previous movesets and shake things up for seasoned hunters. Viper Tobi Kadachi may not zap with lightning but can certainly take you down quick with its increased mobility and combination of poison and paralysis-inflicting attacks! You are also able to take on hunts against old favourites from MHW and past Monster Hunter games, as the story takes you out of Hoarfrost Reach and back to the usual haunts around Astera now and again.
The poster-monster, mighty Velkhana, is one of the new Elder Dragons introduced for Iceborne. While its battles aren't as much of a set piece as those against Zorah Magdaros in MHW, one of the major defense missions involving it brings the entire field team to the fore in a way that makes you feel a part of a team (even if playing offline). The various beats in the battle make for an interesting engagement, much like the final fight against Zorah Magdaros, but it feels less nebulous in terms of tracking your progress throughout the encounter with much clearer, higher stakes in play. It is a rewarding, if hard-earned, victory by the end. Though much like the base game, Velkhana isn't the true final hunt, as more to the mystery remains. Again, the story leads us to an inevitable final encounter, though it doesn't stack up to be as interesting as the hunts before it. Players are pit against these epic monsters in a seemingly simple arena setting with few elements to interact with, rendering the space somewhat uninspiring, unlike the Xeno'jiiva fight in MHW.
Regardless, felling the final beast is satisfying and leads you to the Guiding Lands, an exciting island that seems a crossroads of each location in MHW. Players can journey across the Guiding Lands and find themselves in each of the different climates, encountering the monsters found therein as well as the native resources and endemic life. Gathering points here also offer a chance at rare resources you cannot gather anywhere else. This is also where players are introduced to the powerful Zinogre, first introduced in Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, making a comeback to challenge hunters once more. Whether hunting this great beast or any of the other monsters from the New World, each region of the Guiding Lands has a level that increases as you successfully hunt monsters in that specific location. This causes monsters of a given region to increase in challenge, offering better materials and rewards. However, this may cause the levels in other regions to drop as a result. You have to pick and choose carefully what you want to hunt and focus on in a specific region at any given time to maximize rewards.
With all these new monsters to hunt, there are of course myriad sets of gear to craft. Furthermore, new looks from many of the base game monsters freshen up the old hunts. All weapons and armour can be upgraded further now, and new item slots for level four gems offer a great deal of power with skill customization. Some level four gems also compound benefits, giving two skills in one gem! Capcom has done a stellar job of managing the power creep, which was necessary given that all these new monsters are sponges for damage that will test even the most seasoned hunter.
Capcom has gifted us more than just simple paid DLC with this massive expansion. The amount of fresh content packed into Iceborne amounts to a sequel for all intents and purposes, built on the original engine. The new locale is beautifully rendered, offering exciting new sights and sounds as you explore the crisp snowfields and frozen caverns. Visually, each new monster is fantastically detailed in all their intimidating might, even the ones built upon the models of previous designs. What's more, they keep you on your toes when visiting the original locations from the base game, adding a new edge to each hunt. Original compositions round out the experience as you explore the newly discovered Hoarfrost Reach or battle any of the new monsters roaming the New World. As well, you can truly feel the chill in the air with the brilliant sound engineering that brings each place naturally to life. If you came out of MHW with all the best gear there is on offer and needing more, then Iceborne is what you need. It certainly won't let you have it easily though, as these hunts are a grind. But any true hunter will gladly welcome it.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.