It speaks volumes about the kind of endlessly fascinating world that Guerilla Games built with Horizon Zero Dawn that the game’s first expansion, The Frozen Wilds, could be considered a worthwhile addition to the core game just by giving players a new piece of magnificently rendered countryside to inhabit. Even in such a harsh, unforgiving place as Ban-Ur—the expansion’s snowbound wonderland—just taking Aloy into the area, with vibrant greens giving way to wind-blasted, crystalline frozen lakes and trees, is a special experience. One should savor that initial impression too, because within 30 seconds of stepping foot in Ban-Ur, you’ll find yourself getting mauled to death by a Frostclaw, a giant cybernetic bear that needs to be taken down before you can even access the bulk of the expansion. Welcome back, Aloy.
Make no mistake, Guerilla does want players to do their diligence before tackling the DLC, recommending that you reach at least level 30 in experience before proceeding, and for good reason: The Frozen Wilds ups the ante on Horizon Zero Dawn’s difficulty, even beyond some of the challenges in the later hours of the core game. Many of the new quests involve large numbers of enemies that can’t just be taken down in one hit with stealth tactics as they could before; to some extent, you’ll have to take on these enemies face to face. Aloy herself doesn’t get a whole lot more extra help to deal with the new threats, though a new branch of the game’s skill tree does introduce a little over a dozen new quality-of-life enhancements, and three new elemental projectile weapons of varying effectiveness are made available over time.
By comparison, old enemies now have “daemonic” enhancements, raising their strength and health. Control Towers, new on-the-field enhancement machines that you’ll stumble across, can now repair enemies in the area, and disable Aloy’s own hacked machinery. And the new environment-appropriate enemies—from Frostclaws to fire-breathing robot dire wolves called Scorchers—are just as ravenous as their organic counterparts and tend to show up in frightening numbers. The initial Frostclaw fight is a harsh warning that The Frozen Wilds isn’t meant to be a cakewalk.
That’s a feeling echoed in the primary quest line that plays out in Ban-Ur. After the introductory Frostclaw fight, Aloy meets the Banuk, a tribe of indigenous snow-dwellers who see the biting cold and vicious wildlife as perpetual challenges from the Great Spirit to make the tribespeople as strong as they can be. The Great Spirit, as it turns out, is an A.I., running a program called Firebreak from within an active volcano. However, when a Banuk priestess goes missing atop the Great Spirit’s mountain, Aloy finds herself having to brave Ban-Ur’s worst in order to gain knowledge from the old world, and maybe bring peace to yet another of this new world’s tribes.
The narrative rewards for players’ persistence aren’t as impressive as they are in the main game. There are no major new revelations about the world that once was, but the expansion’s story maintains the baseline of quality that the core game’s mid-level quests hold. Somewhat humdrum fetch quests and linear stealth set pieces are given life and urgency due to Guerilla’s commitment to strong acting, well-drawn characters, and an earnestness in its storytelling that makes even minor inconsequential details warm the heart. The best example in the DLC is a running set of audio logs from two old-world technicians who start a two-person punk band, and whose friendship grows stronger under a more mundane sort of strife than fear of the pending apocalypse. The larger story, however, still manages a level of poignancy throughout, mostly via a three-pronged exploration of a Banuk leader’s relationship to his estranged family, the priestess’s relationship to the A.I. spirit that guides her, and the A.I.’s relationship to her own sentience.
Despite the lower stakes, everything that made Horizon Zero Dawn the outstanding work that it is undeniably carries over to The Frozen Wilds, and with roughly 10-to-15 hours worth of new quests to complete, it’s still as fine an excuse as any to visit with Aloy again, and revel in her worlds.