Horizon Zero Dawn was a surprise for many people, this humble reviewer included. Of course, we all had high expectations for this post-apocalyptic action RPG where you can go toe to toe with giant robot dinosaurs. But for a brand new IP to look as good as it did, have rock-solid gameplay, a fantastic story, and one of the best female leads in…well…ever was nothing short of amazing. And now, a mere eight months after Horizon’s release, Guerrilla Games has brought us The Frozen Wilds, an excellent expansion to an already excellent game.
The Frozen Wilds sees Aloy travel to the edge of Banuk territory — an unforgiving place known as The Cut — to investigate rumors of new dangerous machines and some sort of strange curse afflicting the land. When she arrives, she quickly learns that the rumors are to be believed and sets out to stop the mysterious Daemon responsible for this new threat. What follows is an adventure that, while not as epic or impactful as the main game, is still very enjoyable and satisfying while addressing some lingering questions left unanswered by Aloy’s original odyssey.
Aloy meets a host of new characters (as adventurers are wont to do) while exploring this new land. The main two new additions work well enough for the story, but I don’t feel that they quite measure up to the supporting cast from the main game. They’re not bad by any means, and a certain revelation midway through the story ratchets up the intrigue somewhat, but I ultimately didn’t find them as memorable as I would have expected given their prominent screen time. By contrast, I greatly enjoyed the side characters and their related quests. I was actually sad to see a few of them go after I finished their missions, a feeling I didn’t quite share for the primary cast.
The Frozen Wilds does a good job fleshing out the Banuk; they felt especially underdeveloped compared to the other tribes in the main game, so this DLC adds some much-needed depth to them as a people. However, it must be said that the cultural appropriation issues in the main game are still present here, a sad fact that perhaps seems inevitable given the expansion’s focus on the Inuit-like Banuk but which is nonetheless regrettable. There’s one plot point in particular where this issue is perhaps more pronounced than even in the original story; I won’t spoil it, but trust me, you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about when it happens.
Being an expansion, The Frozen Wilds requires the base game to play, but it takes place during the main story. You can access The Cut at any time once you pass through the border fort known as Daytower, but the area is designed for players who have reached level 30 or higher, so you’ll want to ensure you are sufficiently prepared before heading up north. In my personal experience, the higher your level, the better. The Frozen Wilds mean business, and the combat challenges you’ll face represent a significant uptick in difficulty over the enemies you’re used to fighting in the rest of the game.
Most of the enemies you’ll face are “demonic” variants of existing machines. These foes are more powerful and less vulnerable to status effects than the enemies you’re used to, and you cannot override them. But that’s nothing compared to the brand new machines you’ll come up against in The Cut. They are deceptively fast for their size and considerably more aggressive than even some of the mega-machines you face in the main story. They’re also capable of leaping up on ledges and destroying parts of the environment you might think to hide behind; there are very few places that are safe from these monsters and their weak spots are not easy to hit, so you must be quick on your feet and whittle them down as best you can. Definitely brush up on your archery skills and invest in some of the powerful new weapons offered by local merchants before you take on these creatures.
The only weak link combat-wise is the control tower, a stationary new enemy type that does nothing but send out a pulse every few seconds that heals any machine in the nearby area. If you override a control tower, it will immediately throw every enemy around it into shock status, giving you a few precious seconds to pile on the damage. But this is rarely enough time to outright kill enemies and it apparently only happens once, which means that after the machines recover it’s no different from a normal encounter. I eventually decided that overriding the towers wasn’t worth the hassle in most situations, as it made far more sense to take out the tower from afar and then pick off enemies in small groups. But as with most things, your mileage may vary.
Between story and side quests, there’s a fair amount to do in The Frozen Wilds. Guerrilla Games says there’s 15 hours worth of content, and it took me about 20 hours doing just about everything I could, so it’s definitely a meaty experience. Of course, some of the things you’ll do…you’ve done before. There are collectibles to find, a bandit camp to take out, a Tallneck to scale, etc. But what’s nice about these familiar tasks is that almost all of them feature a twist, a little something extra for you to do. The Tallneck, for instance, is actually broken down when you first find it, so your quest becomes a hunt for the parts you need to repair it and only then can you climb it to scan the environment. Another welcome change in The Frozen Wilds is the presence of actual puzzles beyond the tired holographic locks that the main game relied a little too heavily on. None of these puzzles represent a significant challenge, but they’ll make you think for a few minutes, and the variety is greatly appreciated.
Between story quests, side quests, optional activities, and taking on the deadly machines of The Cut, you’ll gain lots of experience in The Frozen Wilds. Which is why it’s great that the level cap has been increased to 60 and a whole new skill tree has been added. Unfortunately, I didn’t find many of the new skills on that tree to be absolute must-haves, and they didn’t really change the way I played the game; most of them are more like quality of life fixes than skills that add to your arsenal, which is a bit of a letdown. For instance, several of the skills have to do with making mounts a little more useful, like allowing you to pick things up while mounted or launch an attack from your faithful robot-steed. While these are definitely improvements, they don’t make mounts any less sluggish to control or stop enemies from alerting if you ride past, so I found I still preferred to travel by foot in most cases. After all, taking things a little slower gave me more time to appreciate the scenery.
And boy, is there a lot to appreciate. Horizon is a really pretty game. Really really pretty, as in I’ve-spent-more-time-in-photo-mode-than-I-care-to-admit pretty. The Frozen Wilds lives up to the very high graphical bar set by the main game, and even exceeds it in some areas. The particle effects with snow are a sight to behold; snowflakes fall in fluffy white clumps and sparkle in the moonlight. Aloy trudges through snow drifts and leaves a trail behind her as she moves. Swimming through water where snow has fallen on the surface — always a good idea when it’s frigid out, by the way — causes it to break apart. To borrow a phrase, it’s all so magical. And it’s not just the snow; the vistas themselves are a sight to behold. Rugged mountains, frozen lakes, icy caves — you name it, The Frozen Wilds has got it. The only real downside is that because the expansion takes place in a single region, there isn’t a huge amount of variety in the color palette. There’s snow, snow, and then more snow. Aside from the locales, cutscenes are also improved by better animation; characters now move around more naturally when Aloy talks to them, instead of being rooted in place and gesturing ineffectually with their hands.
A few things haven’t changed much. The voice acting is still excellent, as is the gorgeous new music (which I certainly hope will see a soundtrack release). The controls are also unchanged, which means that combat is still smooth as butter, while jumping around the environment continues to be a somewhat awkward experience. Few surprises here, of course; all of these elements were either great or excellent at the time of Horizon’s original release, so The Frozen Wilds being more of the same is a definite plus.
Sadly, The Frozen Wilds is the only planned piece of DLC for Horizon Zero Dawn, which means that we’ll have to wait for a sequel to learn more about Aloy and the utterly captivating world she lives in. But with a sizable new region to explore, new machines to master, and over a dozen hours of content, this expansion continues the excellence established by the base game. If you enjoyed Horizon and want more, then The Frozen Wilds is absolutely worth your time.