Release Date: November 7, 2017Platform: PS4 Developer: Guerilla GamesPublisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment AmericaGenre: Open-world action RPG
Horizon Zero Dawn was one of 2017’s most impressive games. Fluid combat against robot animals in a post-apocalyptic wilderness complemented a deft science fiction story about catastrophe and human resilience. The first and only DLC adds a substantial new region and a story that feels a bit like the main game’s journey in miniature, with nearly perfect gameplay. Horizon is the story of Aloy discovering her own mysterious origins and that her world is not what she thought it was. The Frozen Wilds adds a satisfying amount of gameplay while feeling like a step sideways instead of forward.
Perhaps that’s appropriate for its placement. With the main quest in The Frozen Wilds set at level 50 and guiding players up to the new level cap at 60, the best way to play this DLC might be both before and after the main game’s finale. Most of the new region, the Cut, can be explored at level 40 or so before the big machines start seriously ruining Aloy’s day. The journey puts her right into the middle of the Banuk tribes roaming the Cut, site of the former Yellowstone Park.
The Banuk were one of my favorite tribes in the base game, so I’m glad they’re being explored more here. The landscape is beautiful, decorated with paintings and ribbons. People dye clothes in hot springs and use machine legs, clearly recognizable from the Watchers that stalk around herds, to make sleds to pull through the snow. As in the base game, I found myself often pausing just to look at things: the delicate footsteps of a machine through the rainbow pools, incredibly detailed mountains, a patch of snow where brown grass had poked through after a Strider machine was killed on a slope and then slid down, leaving a lumpy track. I could almost feel the weight of the snow clotted in Aloy’s clothes.
The new machines seemed simply like bigger versions of the base game’s heavy-hitters at first, but soon after I figured out how not to be utterly destroyed by a Scorcher I began to see the differences. The new bear-like machines called Frostclaws are very similar to Thunderjaws in terms of tactics, but also throw their weight around, and tend to attack in terrifyingly weighty groups. Their ice attacks and tendency to destroy trees mean that fighting them also requires constantly adapting to a differently shaped landscape. Scorchers are perhaps the most difficult to fight because of their speed and extreme range of their fire attacks. Control Towers, the DLC’s version of corrupted zones, must be either destroyed or repurposed, and figuring out how to do that while also fighting some of the bigger machines was a fun challenge.
New weapons and upgrades also come with the package. The additional skill trees provide nice quality-of-life options, including foraging while riding a mount. (You still can’t save while riding, though.) Sylens’ Lance can now be upgraded, after a short quest. The Banuk also specialize in some elemental guns that provide short-range bursts of fire or ice, but I didn’t find these to be particularly effective for my play style — maybe next time I’ll try to build for specific elemental resistance and get used to their gradual rate of fire.
I encountered a couple glitches in the press copy where weapons clipped through Aloy or outfits did not display the correct appearance in the menu. Some loading times were long, lasting several minutes, but otherwise the game performed smoothly. Overall, however, the combat kept me pleasantly on my toes: I had missed the way Horizon allows a little leeway in player strategy while also giving each machine very distinct behaviors.
The story also feels polished until it shines. As in the base game, though, the DLC’s greatest weakness is its endings. The base game’s solid science fiction story ended with an anticlimactic slugfest in an essentially flat arena, and The Frozen Wilds changes things up for a while with some extreme obstacle courses. But Aloy’s actual role in the story feels both inflated and inessential. She saves the day because many Banuk warriors have already died, throwing themselves against the thing that is corrupting machines in the Cut. But this isn’t the great city of Ban-Ur. It’s a frontier country immediately after a disaster, so there’s a sense that there might be more story ahead in which the Banuk establish themselves as more resilient and entrenched force. When Aloy saved the world (and, by association, the Carja) she was clearing up decades of injustice. With the Banuk, she feels a bit more like an interloper.
The story touches on themes that could resonate with the main game: a potential mother figure for Aloy, death and survival of both humans and machines, political policy, and environmental degradation. One of my favorite bits of in-game text, called “Compensatory Damages,” is a bit on the nose with its anti-corporate message but nevertheless works as a screaming story of women being friends at the end of an era. Side characters and the history of the park itself are treated with a gentleness that does not shy away from the horror lurking in the background. By the finale, though, the journey is more of an adventure story than an emotional unveiling, Indiana Jones with artificial intelligence. It’s a lot of fun, but treads more familiar ground than the main game’s finale did.
The DLC also edges further toward the atrocities only hinted at in the memories of the Red Raids: one Carja woman was whipped for “refusing” a priest; another one standing just behind her casts shade on the idea of allowing women in the hunters’ lodge. The Carja are supposed to be a vicious tribe recovering from their own turn as an evil empire, but there’s also some unwanted physical contact from an Oseram character that is never really remarked upon outside Aloy’s glares. Aloy is supposed to be a bit naive, but not calling this stuff out within the text can make players uncomfortable and muddles the game’s generally positive messages. I trust that it will not happen again.
The Frozen Wilds returns players to Horizon’s robots-and-arrows aesthetic in a big way, with a lot of side quests and collectibles to keep players engaged. It’s definitely a hefty amount of content for $19.99, even if it feels a bit odd that we’re only seeing a fraction of the Banuk society. The wintery Yellowstone Park setting is rendered beautifully, and moments like a herd of Bellowbacks unexpectedly spewing flames next to a hot spring make it feel like the best possible robot safari. If you liked Horizon Zero Dawn’s world, The Frozen Wilds is definitely a good way to return to it — as long as you keep your expectations high for the robots and a bit less so for the story.