Horizon Zero Dawn was one of the best games released this year. It had a unique post-apocalyptic story told through strong characters and excellent writing, a visually stunning world populated by machines ranging from small animals to massive dinosaurs, and a relatively deep combat system that let you feel like an expert hunter. Horizon Zero Dawn didn’t reinvent open world games, but it’s one of the best examples of the genre. The Frozen Wilds offers more Horizon: more machines, more weapons, more outfits, more territory, more characters, etc. It’s the main game turned up to eleven but somewhat surprisingly the end product suffers as a result.
The Frozen Wilds takes place before the end of the main campaign and opens up a new snow-covered part of the map known as The Cut, home to the Banuk tribe who were notably under-utilized in the main game. An ominous pillar of smoke fills the sky above the mountain Thunder’s Drum and a Daemon is powering the machines, making them even stronger and more aggressive than before. Aloy offers to help because, well, that’s what she does.
Aloy is still the same incredible character she was in the base game. She goes out of her way to help, while simultaneously calling people out on their bullshit. When a merchant tells Aloy that a group of hunters has gone missing, she agrees to help find them but also scolds the merchant for being concerned about profit over human life.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters are as memorable. The voice acting is still incredible and the facial animations are now consistently strong instead of varying from person-to-person, however none of that matters much when the characters are so dull. The main Banuk members you interact with make the characters in DC superhero movies look like the life and soul of the party. The two most memorable characters—the aforementioned merchant and a man you meet on a side quest—are both outsiders to the Banuk and have a sense of humor to provide a welcome relief to all the doom and gloom.
Many of the side quests ended up being more interesting than the main story. It’s hard to care about a second daemonic force when you know it’s a detour from the main event, however the side quests are meaty and offer opportunities for less intense character moments. I genuinely looked forward to a new green exclamation point appearing on the map. Side quests include rooting out the cause of a sudden flood, repairing a tallneck, and exploring a factory complete with old-world technology. They’re from the trademark Witcher 3 school of side quests, including the need to use your focus device to find clues and solve a murder.
As you explore The Cut, you encounter “daemonic machines” which are more aggressive than the corrupted machines in the base game which in turn were more aggressive than regular machines. Aloy is now spotted the second she pops her red locks out of the tall grass and there’s barely any delay between the machines entering a suspicious stage and them leaping through the air as you hopelessly try to dodge out of the way.
There are only two completely new machine types in The Frozen Wilds (or four if you’re feeling generous in how you count them). The Scorcher is perhaps modeled on a panther, tiger, or just a really pissed off cat. It’s fast and has a fire breath attack, but it doesn’t look particularly distinct from similar machines in the base game. The Frostclaw, on the other hand, is like nothing we’ve seen before. It’s a huge bear-like creature that can summon ice from the ground, throw boulders, pick up rocks for use as both a shield and a weapon, and even shoot ice from its teats. Oh, and it can grab you and practically rip you in two.
The daemonic machines are often found close to control towers which continually heal nearby machines. You can destroy the towers, but you’re better off overriding them to temporarily stun the machines.
The recommended level to start the DLC is 30, but I strongly encourage you to get up to the late forties before starting. The new machines are deadly from both range and up close, and some of the older machines have been upgraded to have area of effect attacks and shields. Perfect dodges aren’t always enough as fire often bursts from the machines as they land from jumps. It’s brutal.
The addition of three new weapon types helps slightly. They’re best suited for up close combat and once upgraded have a special mode that deals huge damage so long as you have the time to fire up the shot. However, these new weapons are suited to a completely different approach to combat than the one I adopted in the main game and I didn’t enjoy it as much. I preferred setting traps, occasionally using my ropecaster for some of the feistier enemies, and then taking careful aim with one of the many bow types. For better or worse, daemonic machines don’t hang around waiting to be killed this time.
In the base game, Aloy was a hunter who sussed out her prey’s weaknesses, set traps, and sprung up from the grass for critical hits. I nearly always fought at range, with melee attacks being a last resort. You rarely get the choice this time. It’s like being forced to play as a barbarian in an RPG when I used to be allowed to play as an elf archer. In The Frozen Wilds, Aloy is no longer the hunter; she’s the prey.
By the end of the DLC, I had twelve distinct weapon types with each weapon capable of dealing up to three different types of damage. All of these weapon and ammo types have their uses and there were times when I wanted to use every single one of them. So it’s a shame that you can only add four at a time to the weapon wheel. Having to constantly pause the game to switch out weapons ruins the pace of the encounters and was enough of an annoyance that I would often persevere with the wrong weapon type for a fight rather than change things around.
The Frozen Wild’s other issues relate to the negative aspects of the base game that have not been fixed. Inventory management is somehow even worse. A new ability on the skill tree adds a whopping 20% to your inventory, but it’ll be full again in minutes. Basic crafting supplies like wood for arrows don’t stack past 100, so you’re punished for collecting too much. I spent a ridiculous amount of time freeing up space in my inventory. It was tedious from the first minute to the last and is even more annoying for how hopelessly unnecessary it all is. No one wants inventory management in games like this. It adds nothing.
The skill tree in the base game had far too many skills that should have been part of Aloy’s move set by default. The DLC takes this and runs with it. “Skills” like being able to dismantle gear and get a larger inventory should have been patched in as standard, and being able to repair your mount slightly faster is as boring as it sounds. The skill list is so uninspiring that at this point I’m expecting the sequel to require unlocks for volume control and the ability to pause the game.
There aren’t many bandit camps this time around and I’m fine with that because they were never all that exciting. The human artificial intelligence was always heavy on the artificial and light on the intelligence. Nothing has changed here. The new marksmen bandits are deadly with a bow and arrow and seem capable of getting headshots judging by the amount of damage they do. There are also scanner bandits who carry around heavy equipment that can detect Aloy when she’s close by. This doesn’t change the balance of encounters as much as you might think because the scanner bandits are strangely reluctant to do any actual scanning. I often alerted scanner bandits to my presence with whistles from the grass, but instead of scanning for me, they simply walked on over and let me get more stealth kills.
While Guerilla Games didn’t fix Horizon’s problems, it somehow found a way to improve on one of its major strengths: the visuals. I still can’t quite believe how good this game looks on a base PS4. The snowstorms obstruct your view while managing to look so good you won’t care and the level of detail on the new machines and the Banuk character models is impressive. However, it’s the small details that really caught my eye this time, such as the way Aloy runs differently in the deep snow compared to the lightly covered paths. It’s complemented by a satisfying crunching sound as each foot compresses the snow beneath her.
It’s honestly hard to oversell how good this snow looks. Machines don’t just lie on top of it when they die; they sink into the snow where they fall. If you break off pieces of a machine on top of a hill, those pieces might roll down the hill and leave a trail in the snow as you run after them. Nearly the entire DLC takes place in a frozen wasteland, as you’d expect from the title, but it’s probably the best frozen wasteland I’ve ever played in. It was a joy to spend nearly fifteen hours here.
Ultimately, I didn’t have as much fun playing The Frozen Wilds as I did playing the base game. The introduction of daemonic machines doesn’t just up the difficulty, it nudges you towards a less satisfying playstyle. Combat is no longer about planning out the encounters to take down the enemies in the most efficient manner possible. It’s more about hammering dodge and hoping you don’t get hit by all the AOE attacks.
The story is also less compelling this time around although that’s to be expected in shorter content. I appreciated the huge exposition dump at the end, although at times it felt like the writers at Guerilla Games just wanted an excuse to explain all the things they never got to cover in the base game. Still, you don’t have to listen to it if you don’t want to. Personally, I’ll take any scrap of information about this world that the game throws at me.
The Frozen Wilds isn’t a must play expansion, but it’s a damn good one. It will challenge skills you thought you’d already mastered and there’s more Aloy. That’s enough to get a recommendation from me.