Whenever I approach the end of a really great story, I feel an impending sense of dread: I just don’t want it to end. If it’s a book, I’ll read slowly and savor each detail, while in games I stretch out the experience with some optional exploration. But it’s always prolonging the inevitable. That’s one of the reasons I love the concept of video game expansions, which offer a chance to jump back into a world weeks or months after I thought I was done.
That’s the case with “The Frozen Wilds,” the first major expansion for the excellent open-world role-playing game Horizon Zero Dawn. The update doesn’t really change the experience in any significant way. It gives you a new snowy mountain to explore, with more gear to collect and robotic monsters to destroy. It’s more of the same — and that’s exactly what I want.
Horizon launched at the end of February, and puts players in the role of Aloy, a skilled hunter who is inevitably pulled into a powerful mystery about the very nature of her world. As a game, it pulls from many influences. Its quest structure feels like The Witcher, while the crafting and survival elements are reminiscent of Far Cry. There’s jumping and climbing like in Assassin’s Creed and a focus on gear that feels straight out of Diablo.
What makes the game distinct, though, is its completely unique world. Described as a “post post-apocalypse,” Horizon is a game where time periods clash in fascinating ways. While humans live in small tribes and survive as hunter-gatherers, armed with bows and spears, the animal kingdom is dominated by creatures that are actually advanced machines. It’s both prehistoric and futuristic.
“The Frozen Wilds” is a mostly separate section of this world that takes place in an area known as “The Cut,” a treacherous and sparsely inhabited mountain region covered in perpetual snowfall. It’s tuned for players who are far along in the game — I started playing at level 35, which felt just right — and it tells its own distinct story that ties into the main mystery of Horizon Zero Dawn but also stands on its own. It’s the perfect setup for those who bought the game when it first came out, but might not remember every little detail from the game they played nine months ago.
The first thing I did was take a very long ride on robo-horseback. Horizon includes the option to fast-travel across its map, but since it had been so long since I last played, I decided to take the scenic route. This meant getting on a steed outside of the eastern metropolis of Meridian, and then riding through deserts, lakes, and forests to get to the entrance of “The Cut,” located in the far northwest of the world.
It took me close to 30 minutes, but was a great way to reacquaint myself with Horizon’s unique setting. Along the way I saw towering robot dinosaurs fighting each other amidst desert ruins. I accidentally stumbled on the hunting grounds of giant mechanical alligators, six of which proceed to chase me down, lobbing icy attacks as I ran for cover. I remembered just how much I hate Glinthawks when a swarm of the robotic birds attacked me in a wide open plain.
I’m glad I took this route. For all of its familiar elements, Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that takes some getting used to. It has a complex gear system that necessitates fussing over seemingly tiny details to get the most out of your weapons and armor, and combat requires you to exploit specific weaknesses of the machines, often by using carefully laid traps to slowly weaken them.
Having a brief refresher is important, because “The Frozen Wilds” is among the most difficult areas in the game. From the very beginning it challenges you: in order to even get into “The Cut,” you first need to complete an arduous climb up an icy, unforgiving mountain. From there you meet a tribe, the Banuk, who are dealing with a new offshoot of the machines, one controlled by strange towers that make the mechanical animals violent and unpredictable.
Naturally, it’s your job to set things right. Structurally, “The Frozen Wilds” is almost identical to the core of Horizon, just on a smaller scale. Solving the mystery involves taking on all kinds of quests, which often lead you to even more problems to solve. You’ll explore the ruins of human civilization, manipulating long-dormant technology to unlock new items and areas to explore, and encounter plenty of temperamental robots. There are hunting trials to test your skills and lots of hidden caches of loot to discover. It’s the same satisfying blend of exploration, action, and problem-solving that made the base game so good.
“The Frozen Wilds” adds a few things, but doesn’t change that core. It has the expected video game upgrades: a new weapon that shoots bolts of electricity, upgrades that make your spear more deadly, and a powerful mechanical bear called a Frostclaw to fight. Otherwise, the changes are mostly cosmetic. The plentiful snow and ice don’t alter how the game functions — you don’t have to worry about slipping around or dying from the cold — but they do create one hell of a view. Watching the snow fall as you traipse up a frigid mountain is gorgeous, and offers plenty of opportunities to play around with the game’s robust photo mode.
Instead of something truly new, what “The Frozen Wilds” offers is an excuse to venture back into this world. This is especially important for a game like Horizon, an unfortunate victim of bad timing. While the game was lauded when it first released, it wasn’t long before the conversation shifted to that other massive open-world adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which came out just a few days after.
Horizon was an excellent game, but it didn’t shift the paradigm in the way that Link’s most recent adventure did, making it easy to look past. “The Frozen Wilds” is a reminder that, yes, Horizon is actually a great game. It may not change things much, but it does prove once again just how exhilarating it can be to take down a robotic dinosaur with little more than some fiery arrows and careful planning.
And much like Fallout 4’s excellent “Far Harbor” expansion, “The Frozen Wilds” has sucked me back into this fictional world in a powerful way. I’m all done with the new story — it takes around 10 hours to complete, depending how you approach things — but I’m not finished with Horizon just yet. There were plenty of things I left unfinished when I wrapped up the main game, but thanks to “The Frozen Wilds,” they won’t stay that way for long.
I still have that sense of dread knowing this won’t last forever, but with expansions as good as this, I can hold back the feeling back a little bit longer.
“The Frozen Wilds” is available now on PS4.