Straight up: if you own a PlayStation 4 and haven’t played Horizon: Zero Dawn yet, remedy that shit ASAP. It’s an astonishingly beautiful game, with deep world-building, exciting action, and a truly original, meaningful science fiction story holding it all together. Had it not launched opposite Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it’d be all we talked about in the first half of 2017. I say this not just because it’s true, but because the game’s story DLC, The Frozen Wilds, brings it all flooding back.
In The Frozen Wilds, Zero Dawn’s heroine Aloy ventures into a brand-new map region for all-new adventures. "The Cut" is an icy, inhospitable region in the game’s far north, populated by the shamanistic Banuk tribe only hinted at in the main game - and by increasingly aggressive “Daemonic” machines. Something weird and dangerous is going on in the Cut, with rumours of new machines and talking spirits spreading around Banuk campfires, and it’s up to Aloy to stop it.
The Cut itself presents environmental extremes thus far unseen in Horizon: Zero Dawn: thigh-deep snow, frozen rivers, towering glaciers, geothermal vents - and frost-empowered machines to match. Even the wildlife is different here, with goats, badgers, and owls joining the Zero Dawn menagerie. Looming over the region is Thunder’s Drum, a smoking volcano constantly threatening eruption. It’s all starkly beautiful - fitting, given that it's meant to represent Yellowstone National Park.
Most players will come to The Frozen Wilds with endgame character builds, and though the expansion technically takes place during the main story, its difficulty suggests it’s meant to be played late in the game. These “Daemonic” machines are some tough fuckerinos, with greater resistances and strength than before, and even Aloy’s fanciest regenerating armour can’t withstand attacks from the new Scorcher and Frostclaw machines. Luckily, there’s a bunch of new gear available, some with intriguing tactical tradeoffs, that can help to keep Aloy alive. Which is part of the objective here.
Initially, The Frozen Wilds’ main quest seems built from cliches. It’s yet another story in which the protagonist must rise to the top of an unfamiliar tribe in order to save it, and were it not for Zero Dawn’s diverse casting, its white-saviour flavour would be overpowering. As the story progresses, it delves into one of the many unexplored parts of the Zero Dawn mythos - and into a surprising degree of depth for its characters. Animated with a greater volume of true motion capture than the main game, The Frozen Wilds’ characters are beautifully designed and well-acted - which is lucky, given you’ll be spending much more time with AI companions than before.
But as with the main body of Zero Dawn, what makes The Frozen Wilds a true gem are the stories beneath the story.
In the settlements scattered around the Cut, you’ll find a wealth of sidequests, almost all of which tell strong stories based around interesting characters. You’ll help exonerate a failed warrior sentenced to die in the ice; track down an old, wounded hunter’s nemesis, Ahab-style; go on expeditions for parts with a trader’s daughter teaching herself engineering; join a jolly treasure seeker in plundering a disused dam; and help out a renegade group of hunters seemingly unable to agree upon a good name for themselves. Even the expansion’s collectibles - pigments and animal sculptures - have their own unique NPCs and storylines attached to them, giving a real sense of meaning to what other games would be content merely to put on a checklist. All of this stuff has been seen elsewhere, but Guerilla Games infuses it with so much character, it actually feels fresh.
After being emotionally wrecked by Horizon: Zero Dawn, I came to The Frozen Wilds looking for the really buried stuff - the lore explaining the Old World, and how the tech industry fucked it up. Many people (and I’ll be honest, I’m mainly talking about BMD’s Scott Wampler here) walked right past the main game’s cornucopia of text logs and audio diaries, complaining that they were mere collectibles - but they’re where the best writing lives. In The Frozen Wilds, you uncover tales of an anti-corporate punk band working for the Man; a micromanaging boss using surveillance drones to spy on his employees; and most heart-rendingly of all, an artificial intelligence cursed to live a thousand years without anyone to talk to. I’m still all about the bittersweet stories of this world.
The Frozen Wilds is a strong expansion on its own. It brings along more of what you loved from its parent title, while changing up formulas here and there. That its central plot ultimately revolves around the friendship between a lonely AI and an outcast human seals the deal for me. But it’s also worth it simply to dive into Horizon: Zero Dawn again - to soak in its exceptional atmosphere and music, to take photos using the new-and-improved photo mode, to marvel at one of 2017’s finest games. If you played Zero Dawn, The Frozen Wilds is probably a no-brainer. And if you didn’t, well...that just makes Zero Dawn itself the no-brainer.