Review republished on 20th April, 2021: With Horizon Zero Dawn primed to be offered for free as part of Sony's Play At Home initiative, we're bringing our original review back from the archives.
If it wasn’t for a couple of Nintendo franchises doing what they do best, Horizon Zero Dawn would be a front-runner for Game of the Year awards all around the globe. While that opening sentence may seem negative, it’s anything but: who could have predicted that Guerrilla Games would rebound from the safe but largely unspectacular Killzone franchise with such panache? Aloy’s inaugural adventure was a triumph in both world-building and combat design, and even though it fell into traditional open world trappings at times, it still had more than enough personality to standout in a genre dominated by cookie cutter collectathons.
The Frozen Wilds sees the Dutch developer return to its post-post-apocalyptic well for a good old-fashioned expansion pack, and it serves up more than enough tribal action to satisfy even the most robust robot hunter’s appetite. Set to the North East of the main map in snowy Banuk territory known as The Cut, the additional storyline sees Aloy once again embroiled in local politics as the painterly weraks of the winter wonderland face a fresh threat on their society by way of an erupting volcano named the Thunder Drum. It’s down to the strong-willed starlet to solve the problems – and learn a thing or two about the world that she inhabits in the process.
While you can pick up the new quest line mid-way through the main campaign, it’s not really advised. This is a tough piece of post-release content, with some of the fiercest enemies you’ll have faced yet. Old favourites return in Daemonic form, possessed and more aggressive than ever before, while the sprinkling of new faces will make you want to weep. In particular, the Fireclaw – a new behemoth of a brute that perhaps best resembles a bear – will push your combat skills to their very limits, as you tussle with its devastating roster of attacks in the hopes of bringing it down.
Fortunately, you’ll stumble upon a few fresh tools in order to help you to go about your business. A trio of new staffs with ice, fire, and electric elemental powers are the headline new additions, and can be upgraded by completing specific fetch quests. There are also heavily upgraded versions of some of the main game’s best bows, but you’ll need to collect Bluegleam (a new currency) in order to trade for them, so don’t think you’re going to be able to purchase them off the bat from your Platinum run.
The quests are much more rewarding this time around, with the trickle of unlocks and upgrades constant from start to finish. Unfortunately, it does feel like Guerrilla’s a little bit stumped about what to add: there’s a new Skill Tree but most of the unlocks offer inconsequential upgrades to your adventure, like 20 per cent additional inventory space or the ability to loot while you’re mounted. It’s cool that the developer’s made the effort, but you do definitely get the sense that it’s a little thin on ideas for the time being.
Not that this add-on is creatively bankrupt. The storyline is well-told and complements the campaign, and while it does fall on some narrative clichés, it’s wholly pleasant and a fun ride. Furthermore, the handful of side-quests feel even meatier this time around, with better supporting cast members and varied design – one even playing a little like an Uncharted level with an AI sidekick accompanying you through the whole thing.
And artistically, The Cut is, well, a cut above. Guerrilla’s really gone to town with its blizzard tech, but it contrasts the harsh winter environments with glittering sunsets that segue into rainbow coloured auroras. The new landscape isn’t enormous, but it’s packed with imagination: an underground water filter system installed by the Old Ones is leveraged as a makeshift musical instrument by the Banuk, while the volcano itself sheds a little more light on key narrative beats. For as gorgeous as it all undeniably looks, though, the soundtrack stands out yet again, led by some superb electronic ambience music that really sets the tone.
It’ll take you a good 15 hours to beat the primary new quest lines, and frankly you’re looking at closer to the 20 hour mark if you want to engage with all the busywork to boot, which is very agreeable when you consider the price the developer’s flogging this for. The bloat is a bit boring, and gathering up new collectibles – even though they are given narrative grounding – is tiresome, but any excuse to stay in this world a little longer before Guerrilla inevitably gets to work on a sequel is welcome as far as we’re concerned.
Horizon Zero Dawn delivers a timely reminder of why it should be a Game of the Year candidate with The Frozen Wilds. This sizeable selection of snowy quests expands upon an already excellent campaign with a decent new storyline and plenty of fresh exposition. While it is, by its very nature, more of the same, it’s hard to complain when the foundations are already so strong.