Horizon Zero Dawn is a fantastic game with unfortunate timing. The past decade of open-world video game design culminates on its post-post-apocalyptic Earth. The world is denser, the fiction more coherent and the combat more inventive than in its contemporaries. And for all that effort, it held the spotlight for a paltry three days before surrendering the glow, along with so many superlatives, to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that doesn’t build on the open-world genre so much as it upends it.
Of all games released in 2017, Horizon deserves a second chance. With The Frozen Wilds, a single-player expansion available on Nov. 7, it gets one.
The Frozen Wilds takes place within Horizon’s campaign. In true video game fashion, it adds a new biome, amending a snow-covered mountain range called The Cut to the game’s largely tropical, arid, and occasionally snowy (but not this snowy) map. The story begins with our hero Aloy venturing into this Great White North, where she is promptly eaten by a giant robot bear.
At least, that’s what happens if you’re an average player beneath level 30. The Frozen Wilds embraces Horizon’s reputation for difficulty, guarding the entrance to the expansion with a boss fight that should encourage underpowered players to unlock a majority of Aloy’s skills, and stock up on weapons and upgrades, before hiking further into the mountains. (Completing Horizon Zero Dawn resets the game just before the final quest, so those who finished it can still enjoy the expansion without starting all over.)
Once equipped with enough heavy weaponry and ammunition to support a small army, Aloy partners with the Banuk tribe in The Cut to learn the truth behind more top-secret science facilities. This should sound familiar. The Frozen Wilds largely retreads the path of the core game: Aloy must perform favors, prove herself in combat, pass a variety of hunting trials and assemble allies to learn a few details about why the world is covered in robotic dinosaurs. It’s serviceable — Horizon has some of the more charming mythos in its genre — but I hope the creators have richer ambitions for the ongoing narrative than digging deeper into the minutiae of a mystery that’s more or less resolved.
The Cut has the essentials of an expansion zone: some familial melodrama, a handful of new beasts, and a few additional weapons and outfits. Unfortunately, Horizon is already so dense that The Frozen Wilds would have benefited more from adding better organizational tools rather than new items. In the late hours of Horizon, its item management system struggles beneath the weight of dozens of robot hearts, ancient knickknacks and crafting materials. An arbitrary storage limit adds unnecessary stress to the player, especially if you can’t remember what’s more important to keep: a Watcher lens or a Shell-Walker heart? An unlockable ability expands storage space by 20 percent, but it’s buried deep in the expansion’s upgrade tree. And still, 20 percent? Come on!
A few other issues from Horizon’s final act similarly hinder The Frozen Wilds: The arrows and triplines that make the beginning of Horizon so novel are less useful for the expansion’s powerful enemies, which are better attacked with the game’s equivalent of a rudimentary grenade launcher. The new weapons in The Frozen Wilds behave like rifles and flamethrowers, bringing Horizon even closer to the more humdrum combat of other open-world games.
It takes time to relearn these systems, to master the complex combat, to remember how to exploit the weapon modification system in order to turn challenging bosses into easy prey. But once The Frozen Wilds clicks, it rekindles the flame. Guerrilla Games has an uncanny ability to create worlds both realistic and fantastic. Rocks glow neon blue and dayglow lightning cuts through plumes of smoke. It’s like prestige nature photography warped into a black light poster.
The Frozen Wilds’ mountains are especially striking. Snow falls in flurries and drifts, cakes beneath Aloy’s feet, tumbles down hills and rests on the edges of frozen lakes, is as good a showpiece as any for the studio’s craft. Graphics do not make a game, and so it falls on the animators, writers and voice actors who continue to give this series its vibrant compassion for life.
The Frozen Wilds arrives in time to petition for a spot on Game of the Year lists. The expansion accomplishes this goal with ease, rehashing what worked the first time around. Sure, The Frozen Wilds doesn’t add much new, and shares Horizon’s flaws, but the expansion operates fine when taken as simply more of a great thing.
In fact, the most generous reading of The Frozen Wilds is not as a prequel or sequel, but as a collection of missing missions. I suspect those who skipped Horizon earlier this year and find time this holiday to play the game with The Frozen Wilds interwoven into the campaign will enjoy the offering more than those of us returning nine months later. They won’t have to relearn the controls, the value of so many items or the names of tribes and their leaders. The Cut will be just another beautiful stop in Aloy’s spectacular adventure.
Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds was reviewed using final “retail” PS4 download codes provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment America. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.