Horizon: Zero Dawn – The Frozen Wilds Review
With its incredible-looking environments and an ornate combat system, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an easy game to slip back into (even if you’ve ignored it for the better part of a year). The Frozen Wilds expansion makes a return visit even more enticing with new gear and challenges to seek out in the frozen north, with fresh enemies balanced to fit into the game’s latter half. There’s also a new storyline, which slightly expands your knowledge of the past and hints at events to come. Those revelations alone aren’t terribly exciting, but as an excuse to revisit one of the best games of the year, Aloy’s new journey hardly suffers from that small disappointment.
The Frozen Wilds primarily takes place in a previously unforeseen stretch of land that encompasses roughly 10-15 hours of new side quests and errands. Snow isn’t new to Horizon, but it’s never felt as ubiquitous as it does here. Mountain passes, valleys, and forests are choked with snow both on the ground and in the air. And when the sun cuts through the atmosphere just right, individual snowflakes take on gorgeous pink hues that make an already pretty game even prettier.
This scenic territory belongs to a tribe known as the Banuk, who have long lived in isolation from the rest of society. They follow a strict code of conduct that has more to do with self-reliance and pride than it does with justice and order. The constraints therein put pressure on Banuk in various ways, and most of your objectives in The Frozen Wilds focus on helping individuals overcome their personal struggles with tradition.
Your primary task has bigger implications, however, as a Banuk shaman living on the outskirts unknowingly holds the key to a new chunk of historical data and a new facet of the technological powers operating behind the scenes. Both this quest line and personality-driven side quests deliver heaps of dialogue, which, like Horizon’s exchanges at large, range from heartfelt scenes to perfunctory filler.
But as excuses to clash with new sparking mechanical beasts, practically every mission in The Frozen Wilds feels valuable. The three fresh monsters are hugely formidable opponents that require considerable effort to defeat, and they are joined by a new power tier for every enemy–one step above “corrupted”–which makes pre-existing machines faster and stronger than ever. As you’re shepherded along to new points on the map, you’ll also discover strange towers that heal nearby enemies, their loud bellows making stealthy approaches even more stressful than usual.
Of the few new additions, the two grizzly bear machines–one uses ice, the other fire–stand out from the pack. They are capable of running on all fours or standing tall on their hind legs, and employ a wide range of hard-hitting attacks that punish delayed thinking in a heartbeat. Taking them down calls upon expert targeting and intelligent use of elements, the latter of which is linked to the new casting staffs introduced with the Banuk. These purely elemental weapons are perfect for putting enemies into a vulnerable state, to be followed up by attacks from more traditional weaponry. They prove useful beyond the frozen north as well, and it’s easy to imagine (as a returning player who’s already finished the game) how their capabilities would have come in handy during past trials.
Beyond new weapons, you’ll also find a new grade of armor that adds an additional modification slot to standard armor types, as well as the Banuk’s new gear, which carries auto-healing properties. Most new gear, if not given to you, is acquired through the usual mix of resources, which also includes the territory exclusive currency, Bluegleam. These gems are rewarded for completing quests and exploring the wilderness, and are in very short supply. You have to work to earn your new toys, but that’s OK; the “work” is what makes Horizon so enjoyable.
The biggest and farthest-reaching addition has to be the new Traveler skill tree. Geared towards making your life easier and more efficient, traveler skills include things like disassembling extra items (rather than selling or discarding them), procuring resources while on horseback, and expanding your resource stash at large–all things that would have been immensely useful throughout Horizon. Seeing these new skills having already finished the main game isn’t terribly inspiring unless you’ve got a lot of lingering quests left to hunt in the main map, or if you’ve been holding off on starting a New Game + run.
That said, coming back to Horizon for The Frozen Wilds alone is still worthwhile for the fights and sights, but it ultimately feels like a missing chapter, rather than an eye-opening extension of what came before. It’s easy to imagine how newcomers to Horizon will benefit from its new gear and skills the most, for example. Likewise, its story feels better suited as an interlude than the revelatory companion to the conclusion it tries to be. Yet these are feelings that come up after more than a dozen hours of riveting battles and serene hikes flew by, so it’s hard to get too upset at such a captivating experience when it’s all said and done.
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