The Frozen Wilds is a Great Addition to Horizon: Zero Dawn
February 13, 2018

Horizon: Zero Dawn exists in a strange paradox. It was positioned to be one of biggest games of the year thanks to a series of impressive showcases at pre-release events. As a game from a first party studio for the best-selling console out, it didnít lack for promotional backing from Sony. Reviews praised the game almost unanimously. Yet it feels like the game became yesterdayís news way too quickly, its moment in the sun extinguished prematurely. The gameís arrival was immediately superseded a week later by Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that revived one of the mediumís oldest franchises and reset the standards for what to expect from open world games. That, along with the other two dozen great games released in 2017, took a lot of the air out of the room. Even accounting for the dizzying pace of the daily news cycle, it was still shocking that Horizon lost its place in the conversation so suddenly.

Because Horizon is a really good game. The world Guerilla created was immediately intoxicating, the gameplay was iterative but well-executed, and the robot dinosaurs looked dope as hell. Perhaps Iím complicit in the gameís quick plunge from the spotlight. I sold the game after I finished so I could purchase 2017ís most overrated game, Nier Automata. Horizon was my second favorite game of last year, but after fifty hours exploring and fighting, I had run out of reasons to keep playing. The Frozen Wilds, Horizonís DLC, provides a good excuse to return to the game.

The Frozen Wilds sends Aloy to The Cut, a wintry enclave where the Banuk, a proud warrior tribe, call home. Their traditions and sense of self are founded in the strength and temerity it takes to live in such a harsh place, but theyíve had their pride bruised twice over recently because of something they call the Daemon. This Daemon, allegedly residing in the shadow of the smoldering volcano billowing smoke in the distance, is responsible for making the local machines stronger and angrier than usual, killing most of the Banukís strongest warriors. It falls on the player to stop this Daemon, learning how and why this is happening in order to save these people.

There is an unavoidable awkwardness to revisiting a game so long after you put it down. According to trophy data, I finished OG Horizon back in August, which might as well be 35 years ago. Many of the basic controls had slipped my mind. I tried to get reacquainted with the controls before getting the ball rolling on this quest, and that led to me getting stuck on a mountain for five minutes. Then I got a message from someone named Sylens and I realized I had completely forgotten what his deal was, or that he was played by Lance Reddick. Horizonís story was really good, but I hadnít thought about it much since I finished it. A lot of shit has happened since then.

What I didnít forget was how beautiful this game is, a fact re-enforced by subtle, but noticeable improvements Guerrilla has made to the game. The snow tech is truly incredible: There is so much attention to detail given to make the snow more than just a palette swap to make the ground white. The animation of Aloy wading through the snow makes it clear that it is truly a trudge for her to move in this environment (She also shivers in the cold if you leave her idle for couple seconds and comments on how cold it is at pretty regular intervals). The snow is everpresent, but the weather oscillates between the idyllic calm of a Christmas stock photo and a torrential blizzard that can make a tallneck disappear from five feet away. It succinctly captures the breadth of feeling winter gives me every year. Scenic shifting into miserable shifting back to scenic by the time the Northern Lights illuminate the night sky.

As great as the game looks, Horizonís best traits lay in its world-building and The Frozen Wilds continues to display Guerrillaís surprisingly good writing chops that made the game stand out initially. The central plot expands the mythology in some neat ways, and the underlying familial drama adds some emotional heft to the proceedings, but it ultimately retreads on the ground already covered by the original game. The most interesting stories in the Frozen Wilds live in the side quests.

Horizon had a tendency to go self-serious as Guerilla fleshed out the conceit, but the denizens of The Frozen Wilds utilizes more of the emotional spectrum. Thereís more room for light-heartedness here, and that results in more living characters that earn memorability and empathy for their respective plights. The mix of melancholy and goofiness make each sensation pop a little brighter. My personal highlights were the three runaways and their relatable inability to come up with a name for their would-be crew, and the amateur archaeologist Enjak whose awful grasp on history is both funny and fascinating in what it says about the ways people will invent meanings for things they canít ever understand. It is both a commendation and an indictment of Horizon that most of the best characters in the base game had been dead for centuries. The Frozen Wilds remedies that a bit.

The gameís more nuanced voice also filters down to the look of the people you talk to. Maybe itís my poor memory playing tricks on me, but I noticed more people of color in the roles of quest givers and anonymous villagers. Horizon caught some understandable flak on the grounds of cultural appropriation, and I canít help but wonder if the increased diversity of The Cutís population was a response to that criticism. (Iím totally okay with that if itís true.)The production of these conversations is better too. Those stilted, two-shot cinematics that shaped every meeting Aloy ever had are enlivened by increased facial animations and a camera that actually moves once in a while. A merchant shuffling their feet or an occasional wide shot to show several characters at once doesnít sound like a lot, but it goes a long way to keeping the obligatory act of quest finding feel like less of a chore. The optional audio logs and diary entries that litter the world are still great as ever. Finding that stuff out for yourself is the main reason to explore, so I wonít spoil anything. Iíll just leave it at this: Long Live Concrete Beach Party.

The gameplay sees some subtle changes. The Daemon makes hostile machines, four of whom are new to the robot animal kingdom, more resistant to certain buffs, regenerate health, and impossible to override. They get these new powers from nearby control towers, large mechanical stalks that have to be disabled in order to have their effects erased (the towerís regular pulses also erase the rechargeable shield on the special, unlockable armor from the base game). As a trade-off, Aloyís arsenal gets some extra juice. The Frozen Wilds includes two new weapons: the Icerail, a flamethrower but for ice, and the Stormslinger, a charging, electric shotgun. Theyíre decent from the outset, but I really learned to appreciate them after completing a side quest to expand their capabilities. You also gain the ability to add modifiers to your spear, an obvious addition thatís nice to see nonetheless. It introduces a new challenge that is needed after playing a game for over sixty hours, but the trade-off still leaves the combat in these scenarios feeling more repetitive since stealth is no longer an option. The big setpieces do their best to spice things up, but their quality fluctuates too much to be reliable. Any game that reminds me of Anakin and Padme's platforming adventure on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones needs to do better.

In all likelihood, you know how youíll feel about The Frozen Wilds before you start playing it. Itís more Horizon, packed into a leaner, eight to ten-hour package. Thereís one new Tallneck to unlock. There are some new armor sets, although none of them were an improvement on what I already had. There are several new collectibles to scour the land for, the additional mythology intriguing enough to pique your curiosity. More of the same. But you know what? The basic loops of Horizon are still really good. That should be remembered.

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