Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds

Horizon Zero Dawn is easily one of my favourite games of 2017, and I played it until 100% completion. As such, when The Frozen Wilds was announced, I was more than excited to jump back into the game for a second round. The content of the expansion is good, even great, building and improving upon a lot of existing mechanics and adding new features that really round out the gameplay. However, in saying that, there are also a few questionable design choices that hold Frozen Wilds back from being a much better expansion than it could’ve been. I don’t hate it, and I still enjoyed what I played, but dang it, I’m gonna have good ol’ whinge anyhow!

Because if there are nits, I’m gonna pick ’em – and this sucker’s a big ‘un!

Frozen Wilds is centred around the Banuk tribe, a nomadic, weird, and surly bunch that didn’t get as much of a look in during the base game as the other cultures and tribes did. There’s a new kind of corruption that’s making machines both intensely aggressive and immensely powerful, which is generally ruining the day of everyone around them. Aloy, of course, saunters in to sort things out and that’s basically the gist of the story. There’s a lot of background information and plot details that you’ll pick up regarding certain characters that should make this interesting for returning players who’ve finished the game. It certainly fleshes the world and overarching narrative a little more, setting things up nicely for a sequel.

Frozen Wilds also introduces The Cut, the new area that the main DLC questline takes place in, which is integrated with the rest of the world. The size of The Cut itself is fairly average for an expansion of this kind, with the playable area being roughly equivalent to a fifth of the base game. There’s more to the expansion than just the new area, however. New enemy types and weapons have been added, a new skill tree is available, and enemy AI has been improved. There’s a lot of feature “spillover” from the expansion into the base game, which is stuff that is introduced as part of the DLC that can then be carried forward into the rest of the game. Not all of it is great, though, and the way Frozen Wilds has been added in makes it feel very much at odds with the content of the base game.

There’s also an improved photo mode, if you’re into that kind of thing… I’m into that kind of thing.

Firstly, accessing The Cut is a pain. You can’t just enter the area, you first need to accept a quest from someone near Carja. For those who’ve finished the game already, this won’t be an issue, and anyone playing on New Game+ will just encounter the quest giver normally. That is, of course, assuming you still have your saved data on the console; speaking as someone who owns a first gen PS4, I can say that space is a luxury for some. However, for anyone who didn’t finish the game but is coming back expressly for the DLC, this means having to play through what you missed before being able to access it. Similarly, new players drawn in by the rekindling of interest in Horizon because of this DLC will be playing for a good long while before getting to play the bulk of Frozen Wild’s content.

If the DLC were expressly intended to be end-game content, then that might make sense, but Guerilla Studios’ insistence is that this is meant to be played as part of Horizon as a whole, not as a separate thing. There is the caveat that the recommended level for the area starts at 30 but, by that point, you’ll either have beaten the game already or will be powerful enough to steamroll through to the end. That recommendation is justified as well, since I went in at level 45 with top-tier weapons and the Shield Weaver armour, and still found it pretty tough. Even the first of the new enemy types in Frozen Wilds are easily on par with those of Horizon’s end-game in terms of difficulty.

“Aloy didn’t know it yet but she was way in over her head,” whispered Aloy, descending further into madness.

You are given new, more powerful weapons to deal with them, of course, but these weapons will completely overshadow those that you find at Horizon’s end-game. Assuming players go to The Cut first, a reasonable assumption given how the studio recommends it be played, they will be ridiculously overpowered by the time they reach the ending. They’ll likely be confused about the story too since Frozen Wilds reveals details about certain characters that raise some pretty clear red flags. The DLC also doesn’t appear to change based on whether you’ve completed the main questline of the game or not, nor does it change how you can act at the end either. Ultimately, playing Frozen Wilds as a part of Horizon, not after it, will probably ruin part of the ending for you if you’re not completely thick.

It should also be noted that the content that is accessible before reaching The Cut doesn’t really feel like a great boon for having bought the pack. The new Traveller skill tree has a lot of useful abilities such as foraging while mounted, repairing your mount, and increasing inventory capacity. That said, it also really feel as though they should have been in the game from the start. Given the setting and narrative, it might have been easy to make a design argument for not including them in Horizon’s initial launch. However, including them now, and charging for that inclusion no less, feels like you’re being charged for critical elements that were overlooked by the developer.

New area called “The Cut” being added to the game? Good. Content that feels like it was cut to be added into the game later at cost? Bad.

The same can be said for the improved enemy AI and camera mode, improvements that are only available if you’ve purchased the DLC. Existing mechanics traditionally fall under the purview of patch updates, unless they receive massive overhauls that require reworking entire parts of the game, which just isn’t the case here. None of this should be taken to mean that the individual components of the expansion are somehow worse than the main game. Questing, fighting, and then using the rewards from each to go and do more of both is still as enjoyable as it was before, they just feel off within the context of the expansion.

In the end, this comes back to the problem of Frozen Wilds being created as an expansion to the base game, despite having end-game style content. Guerilla would have been better off releasing this in a similar fashion to The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine, playable as both a standalone expansion with a pre-made character or as part of an existing save file. This would have catered to both veteran players who wanted an end-game expansion, and those who lagged behind who just want to try out what’s new. Instead, they tried to be clever about it, and the entire thing has wound up as a confused mess as a result.

Hell, I think I’ve gone perfectly batty just talking about it.

Just a side note, but it was also said that character model animations and facial expressions had been worked on to appear more natural and smooth, though this only applies to Frozen Wild’s content. That may be what they thought had happened but, in reality, characters still jitter and flutter when speaking as much as they ever did. I honestly can’t recall whether this is actually worse than what I remember the base game. That said, I also don’t remember NPCs looking like they were having a stroke whenever they opened their mouths, so maybe these aren’t really “improvements.” The writing and voice acting is about on-par with what was present in Horizon though; so, if you’re into great sci-fi concepts with average writing then good news!

Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds is far from a bad expansion. If you completely smashed the content from the base game and wanted more, it can scratch that itch. With more powerful enemies, weapons to take them on, and a slew of new features aimed at increasing gameplay longevity, there’s a lot to love in this expansion. Regarding how Guerilla wanted it to work within the existing content, however, it suffers from a hopelessly clumsy implementation. Its content reflects that of an end-game expansion while being inserted into the base game in such a way that you’re encouraged to play it as one big whole. Guerilla also has some curious ideas about the kind of updates that should be relegated to paid-for content. I still love Horizon, and I even enjoyed my time with Frozen Wilds, but I’m hoping for much better from Guerilla in the future.

Patrick Waring

Patrick Waring

Executive Editor at GameCloud
A lifelong Perthian, Paddy is a grumpy old man in a sort-of-young body, shaking his virtual cane at the Fortnites and Robloxes of the day. Aside from playing video games, he likes to paint little mans and put pen to paper, which some have described as writing. He doesn't go outside at all anymore.