Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the strongest games of 2017, and that is really saying something in one of the best years the gaming the industry has ever seen. Its expansion, The Frozen Wilds, promised more of all the things that were great about the base game – more robot dinos, tribal politics, and post-apocalyptic exploration. Having loved all these things in March, I was sure more would be a good thing. But a lack of new ideas and the introduction of poor design elements make this expansion a messy full-stop on a fantastic game.
The Frozen Wilds opens up a brand-new area to the north of the map, and a story surrounding the Banuk – a tribe of spiritual mountain-dwellers you met briefly in the main game. The content becomes available after you reach level 30 (you can enter earlier, but it isn’t recommended), and takes place before the final mission of the base game.
Placing this expansion before the main game’s finale was a mistake. As you enter the new area, Sylens questions why you are diverging from the main path when the events of the base game will result in the end of the world. This conversation was clearly meant as an acknowledgement of the expansion as part of the larger narrative, but it starts the new content off on the wrong foot. After this introduction, it is hard to shake the feeling that everything you are doing is a diversion from something more important, making it feel like filler even when it is interesting and expands your understanding of the games lore.
The story of The Frozen Wilds has you investigating an AI infected by a virus, causing the robots of the region to become more aggressive… sound familiar? The entire story of the expansion follows the arc of the main story nearly beat for beat, including the sub-plot around a tribal religion that has formed around the technology. It is frustrating that Guerrilla would re-tread the same ground, especially as it demonstrated with the base game how capable it is of exploring the story in really interesting and thought-provoking ways. Why were these skills not applied in creating a unique story for the expansion?
A redeeming feature of the expansion's story is that it offers a slightly new understanding of the world's lore, and also hints at what a Horizon sequel could be about. So, for hard-core fans of Horizon, it could be worth playing the roughly eight hour story just for these breadcrumbs. And fortunately, though the main story falters, The Frozen Wilds does include some of the most memorable side-quests we have seen from Horizon. These missions demonstrate Guerrilla’s strong writing skills with interesting and unique ideas, and each has a location built specifically for that quest line.
The best example of this is a really great side-story that has you exploring and restarting a dam. The setting is ripe for exploration, but what really brings this quest and other side-quests in the expansion to life are the characters. Horizon had memorable characters as part of its campaign, but the side characters were not always as dynamic. Here, everyone is created with a similar level of care, and as a result, the new region feels full of diverse and interesting people.
The gameplay of The Frozen Wilds remains largely the same as it was in the base game, but with the combat challenge dialled up a few notches due to the introduction of two new incredibly tough robots: the fire-breathing, wolf-like Scorcher, and a gorilla-esque ice robot called the Frostclaw. Both of these new robots present a significant challenge, but not always in the best ways.
Most of the difficulty comes from their in-your-face combat style, which makes it difficult to stay on your feet and line up shots when fighting them. This means you spend more time dodging or on your back than you do actually knocking off components or lining up critical hits. These battles are still tense and exciting, but decidedly less satisfying than the challenge of a Thunderjaw or a Rockbreaker.
This flawed design also carries over to many moments of exploration in the expansion. There are several new puzzle mechanics introduced, but they are so nonsensical, they broke my immersion completely. The worst of these is a log-bridge mechanic in which you have to have water running so that a bridge will tilt up for you to traverse it. There was no logic to back up the need for such a convoluted bridge design – it was only there to beef out the traversal sections.
The expansion is full of these kinds of puzzles, with a particularly ridiculous one included in the exploration of old-world structures which has you reroute data lines in the floor to access terminals. This is so illogical and contrary to the game's reality that Guerrilla included an old-world document in which the writer complains about how ridiculous the design is, and justifies it as a security measure introduced by an over-bearing security officer.
It is the combination of this poor design with the copy/paste story that makes The Frozen Wilds feel inferior to the base game, which by contrast felt so meticulous in its design and storytelling, with every element refined and polished. This expansion does not share that feeling, appearing instead like a bunch of ideas that were hurriedly pulled together and – without much thought – applied on top of the flawless foundations of the base game. Sure, you can still enjoy the combat and the gorgeous visuals, but in terms of new content, The Frozen Wilds does not live up to the lofty standard of Horizon: Zero Dawn.