Horizon: Zero Dawn - The Frozen Wilds review

A welcome change of scenery and a solid story awaits, but this first expansion won't answer any questions left by the main game.

Horizon: Zero Dawn ends with most of its own questions answered. The nature of its "post-post-apocalyptic" world, ruled over by animalistic machines and the people who hunt them, is well-explained and settled. Then a post-credits teaser blows the door wide open for a sequel in a way that undercuts a lot of that closure.

The game's first expansion, The Frozen Wilds, doesn't seek to close those fresh plot holes. Instead, it looks backward and to the sides, adding information about the far, far future story's "Old World" while spinning a yarn focused on an entirely new cast of characters, rather than protagonist Aloy. At the same time, it opens up a new, frosty zone with much of the same demanding monster hunting seen in the main game.

Despite the lack of closure, The Frozen Wilds' tent pole ideas snap together snugly for a fine excuse to return to Horizon's world. The story plays out like the main game in miniature. Tribal politics in the new zone have flared up in response to greater machine aggression. Aloy intercedes and of course has to fight said new and corrupted machines with bow and spear in hand to help the local populace. Each story mission signals a new fight—a new hunt—and peels away more layers of the mystery.

What sets said mystery apart from the main game's is that Aloy isn't the focus in The Frozen Wilds. She's present and important, in her own Chosen One-y sort of way, but the meat of the conflict surrounds two tribal leaders with very different ideas about how to combat the machines. Their story includes its own twists and emotional turns in ways that most of Horizon's supporting cast never did. Before, it was very much Aloy's story, but with that mostly wrapped up by the existing game, The Frozen Wilds has room to flex its character writings into other corners of the world.

It works. The micro-story has personal and overarching implications with a great deal of closure—just like the main game did, before its last-second wink and nod. We learn one of the leaders, a shaman, has been in contact with an artificial intelligence from the Old World—and that it's colored her religious beliefs by being a very powerful friend when she needed one. We learn that her opposition, a tribal chief, has been driven to cold pragmatism by years of war with a neighboring state.

All of this ties back into the existing culture, politics, and technology of the main game. Horizon already did a great job of making its disparate cultures feel unique and genuinely motivated. So it's nice to see that continue, almost seamlessly, into The Frozen Wilds. Players coming to the game for the first time shouldn't feel any whiplash after entering the new zone.

Returning players, meanwhile, will get quite a lot of added context to go with their side story. Without spoiling too much, beating the DLC unlocks a sort of encyclopedia of the game's world. Most of the major side and story missions you complete, inside or out of The Frozen Wilds, get added exposition which further colors their importance to the game's world.

It's a nice reward, if a bit passive. One of vanilla Horizon's biggest issues was that it already didn't always know when to shut up. Answers to questions are fine, but the main game had a tendency to resolve them in large blocks of exposition.

If the developers seem to have taken any criticism to heart, though, it's that talkativeness. The Frozen Wilds features a number of the same exposition dump dungeons—ruins of the Old World filled with audio recordings and holograms of nearer future humans—but spices them up with more puzzle solving and robot fighting. All the best parts of the game are still on display, but paced one after another in a way I'd love to see replicated in the inevitable full sequel.

The Frozen Wilds tries to fix another fundamental flaw with the base game, too, but only mostly succeeds: its inventory system. Inventory management continues to be a major pain with this expansion, despite two new skills that ease the pressure on your bulging backpack.

The first inventory upgrade is also the most effective. It lets you recycle almost anything you're holding into raw currency. You'll only get half of what you would from merchants, but it's more satisfying than just dropping a pile of Watcher Hearts where you stand to pick up rarer resources. The second skill isn't so flashy; just a 20 percent increase to your overall inventory slots.

Both of these improvements only delay the inevitable. More inventory space just means you can stop worrying about running out of room for an extra hour or so before the whole thing fills up again. Resource recycling is better, but still puts the onus on the player for cleanup duty. It's still more micromanagement than it's usually worth, given how little you actually need most materials near the end of the game.

I can see why developer Guerrilla Games didn't bother with more foundational fixes. There wasn't any need to think that long-term.

Horizon's DLC doesn't add end- or post-game content, narrative or mechanical. If you came back for more excuses to battle robots—laying traps and shearing off weak points with a mix of archery and stealth—you'll find them. But the new content, including two new large machine types to master, is as finite as Zero Dawn itself. There's still no in-game reward for continuing to harvest the metal monsters ad infinitum.

The Frozen Wilds is a side story. It's a good side story, one with better pacing that gives its supporting cast as much pathos as Aloy got in the main game, but not essential. Whether you're in it for the story, the combat, or both, you won't find postgame closure or endless excuses to shear plasma cannons off steel dinosaurs.

I still recommend the DLC, though, for all the same reasons I recommend Horizon: Zero Dawn. Its challenging robot battles look just as gorgeous against the backdrop of ice, metal, and a looming caldera that defines the skyline. The characters are even more well-defined as they propel an equally tight story of sci-fi archaeology... and blowing stuff up with electrified arrows.

If nothing else, The Frozen Wilds gives a taste of real closure within the open-world game, even if it doesn't deign to close the much bigger story just yet.

Verdict: Yes