Horizon Zero Dawn The Frozen Wilds Review

horizon zero dawn frozen wilds review

Horizon Zero Dawn was an enthusiastic win for PlayStation fans. Aloy burst onto the scene with polish and panache, evoking a seasoned developer at the top of its game. For a franchise debut, you can’t find much better. Snappy RPG systems and precise shooting put the power in players’ hands while respecting their time, and breathtaking visuals brought a compelling, original world (and its surprisingly great sci-fi story) to life.

The Frozen Wilds is a victory lap, more a reaffirmation of what’s already to love about Horizon and less an energizing statement with something new to say. It’s a fun excuse to return to your endgame character and spend another dozen hours in a new, visually extravagant territory.

The beats will be familiar: there’s a Tallneck to climb for revealing the map, a bandit camp to raid, a new hunting ground with timed challenges, and several quest-related indoor spaces. These pepper a new region roughly the size of any of the main game’s distinct areas–think the forests south-southwest of Meridian. The Cut, as called by the indigenous Banuk, is truly a frozen wasteland, with little green or brown poking through its deep snowpack and flurries. Yet it is a sumptuous visual treat: dense, furious flurries of snow cloud your vision while Aloy trudges with a higher step to make it through the deep snow. She leaves behind detailed foot- and body prints with realistic deformation. The large draw distance lets you take it all in, from Machine-dominated mountain peaks to valleys where the Banuk dye clothing in colorful pools. Like the main game, The Frozen Wilds tempts you to stop and stare in awe at the environmental beauty around you.

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The Banuk’s welcome is cold; Aloy arrives to investigate rumors of enraged, aggressive Machines and finds a fiercely proud nation licking the wounds of recent losses while falling into clan squabbles. At the center is a small but well-developed cast of characters, two of whom accompany Aloy for most of the core story. As with the main game, much of the intrigue in these meaty main missions comes from Aloy’s curiosity and knowledge of the world’s technological workings–the same technology that local tribes view as mystical or deified. As the trio moves closer to understanding why Machines in the Cut are particularly ravenous, Aloy peels back more layers on Horizon’s compelling sci-fi mythology. It takes awhile for the story to pick up this steam–the first half is a bit of a trudge through familiar platforming and “prove your worth” beats–but when it hits stride, it’s as riveting as anything in Zero Dawn’s lauded back half.

But while meaty main quests and familiar errands make The Frozen Wilds feel like a well-worn sweater, it prickles in places. With a level requirement starting at Level 30 (the base game’s final mission, by the way, is 34), The Frozen Wilds all but tells you to reload an endgame save. From there, it steeply climbs: over just a few missions, the suggested level climbs from 30 to 50, the former level cap. The difficulty follows suit and represents The Frozen Wilds’ prickliest problem. Guerrilla Games seems to assume (probably rightfully so) that most players who venture into The Frozen Wilds will have already honed their skills finishing the base game. Consequently, the difficulty is dialed up from the get-go, with the first enemy you encounter being a new type who stands among the game’s most relentless Machines.

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For a seasoned vet, this starts out manageable. It takes a bit of time to remember Horizon’s full suite of arrow types, bombs, and traps (and how to use them in rapid succession), but the comfort returns quickly. Once it does, the difficulty keeps climbing, but through means that feel artificial and cheap. The way Machine abilities seem to “drift” toward you in mid-air, like auto-aim, is readily apparent. Damage values are high enough to rip through even the Shield-Weaver outfit in just a few hits. And once you’ve had a chance to master the techniques of the new Machines and defeat them reliably, the game falls back on sheer numbers to overwhelm you. Especially toward the end, The Frozen Wilds confuses chaos for compelling. Handled well, chaos can be tense and rewarding. Here, it’s more likely to yield a spazzing camera that gets caught inside multiple large bodies stuck like glue on Aloy, totally ignoring her damage-dealing companions.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned level climb presents an issue for players tackling the expansion as part of a broader playthrough. The Cut is added to the game very seamlessly; if not for the logo added to the start menu, a new player might never notice the distinction between areas. But assuming they arrive close to the Level 30 starting point, there will be level-locked fits and starts to contend with. There’s healthy XP to be earned in The Cut, but the journey won’t flow uninterrupted unless you enter closer to Level 50, which The Frozen Wilds rather quickly asks of you.

That said, The Frozen Wilds offers up a healthy (not impressive) amount of side content. Pigments offer a chance to dye armor, a hunting ground with particularly tough time trials will test seasoned players, and the rare resource Bluegleam can be spent to swap your endgame Shadow weapons for even stronger Banuk variants. Dozens of data logs and audio snippets continue expanding the lore, with an interesting cast of characters all their own. I particularly enjoyed capturing Control Towers. These tentacle-like protrusions emit pulses that make Machines more aggressive and damage your health. The tension comes from deciding whether to destroy the tower or steal a tense 10 seconds to override it, stunning all nearby foes. Like most of The Frozen Wilds’ side content, it’s just a diversion, but Horizon’s snappy crafting and shooting make for a gameplay loop that begs to be played.

This expansion can be totally experienced in about a dozen hours, while the main story should run you five or six. With gameplay and world-building that slot neatly into Horizon’s exceptionally fun foundation, that’s a good value proposition. While inconsistent difficulty and a steep level curve present growing pains, The Frozen Wilds remains an enjoyable and gorgeous (if not terribly invigorating) victory lap for one of gaming’s all-time-great debuts.

Score

8

The Final Word

The Frozen Wilds extends the already fantastic Horizon experience into a region worth exploring, but uneven difficulty and only a few surprises await.