Frozen Wilds' wintry wasteland looks awe-inspiring, but its story breeds the same disappointment as a melted snowman on Christmas morning.
There's a nostalgic euphoria I associate with the sound of crunching snow. It reminds me of childhood winters wrapped up in scratchy scarves and impractical mittens, trudging through Irish fields, white as the eye could see and making that first welly-boot footprint in an untouched blanket of glistening snow.
It's a difficult feeling to recapture but Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds manages it beautifully with scenes straight out of a winter wonderland.
The Frozen Wilds, an add-on for Guerrilla Games' PlayStation 4 exclusive, sees Aloy venture north into The Cut - harsh, frozen lands occupied by the nomadic Banuk Tribe. The Banuk Shamans believe a Daemon is controlling and influencing the machines, causing them to be much stronger and more ferocious than previously. Of course, ever-helpful Aloy agrees to look into the issue and thus the branching storyline begins.
The Frozen Wilds storyline has around 15 hours of gameplay, runs concurrently with the main story line and is accessible fairly early in the game, upon completion of the Enemy at the Gates quest line. However, it's recommended you don't start your tundra adventure until reaching at least level 30 as new machines make things challenging at times.
Alongside the new icy region comes suitably frosty inhabitants to patrol it. There's five new machines in total, including Daemonic Machines, fire-spewing Scorchers and Control Towers.
Control Towers interact with nearby machines, repairing and buffing them, while disabling your mount and any machines you have over-ridden. To give yourself half a chance of taking out the overpowered enemies, you must override the Control Tower, rendering it obsolete.
However, developer Guerrilla Games has added new Banuk-inspired weapons and armour to assist Aloy in taking down her new fearsome foes, such as the electric-spurting Stormslinger. These powerful new items can be bought from special merchants using blue gleam, a new form of currency, which is gained through the environment or quests.
Speaking of quests, side quests now offer more, giving better rewards than previously. For example, one allows you to modify Aloy's spear, an ability which was previously unavailable. Previously mundane tasks in the base game have even been given extra layers of challenge.
Take the Tall Neck task for instance, previously the player must commandeer the gargantuan machine through agility. However in Frozen Wilds, Aloy must repair a Tall Neck which has been destroyed and scavenged before she can override the machine. It's a slight change of pace that's nevertheless appreciated.
The real draw of Frozen Wilds is the environment itself. The snow texture and design is breathtaking at times. Snow-capped mountains and frosted firs line the horizon, inhabited by new wildlife such as mountain goats, owls, squirrels and badgers. There's clear thought in the little details, like how heavy snow flurries reduce your vision and particularly the way Aloy slowly labours through thick snow, her footsteps captured in the white canvas and the oh-so-satisfying crunches of each boot hitting the frozen earth.
The sheer beauty of this is partly down to subtle changes Guerrilla Games included in the DLC. Frozen Wilds features better motion-capture and facial animations, more dynamic camera-work and improved snow design. There's also the essential ability to make snow angels in photo mode. Unfortunately, these updates only apply to the DLC and not the base game, and while some of these improvements felt obvious, others still left much to be desired.
Though the lip-sync has undeniably been improved, interactions with NPCs still have all the charm of two salt shakers engaging in conversation. As a lover of open-world games, I found I couldn't connect emotionally or with any sustained interest to the story or its characters. There may be more movement in character's expressions but they still ultimately feel stone-faced and a little dead behind the eyes.
However, a welcome new feature is the new Traveller skill tree, which unlocks streamlining abilities such as being able to break down items into metal shards without having to visit a merchant, or being able to pick resources while mounted. Really, skills which should have been available in the base game and, arguably, are too-little too late. Thankfully this is one of the features which does transfer into the base game, allowing everyone use of these much-needed skills.
Frozen Wilds introduces no miraculous feature which has the ability to elevate Horizon Zero Dawn. Though there is no denying the allure of Frozen Wilds' snow-capped peaks, but its beauty is skin deep. I found myself being captivated by my surroundings but feeling no investment in the story or side quests, and no connection to Aloy herself, finding the whole thing a slog. It is disappointingly generic.
If you were captivated by Horizon Zero Dawn, and the prospect of an extra 15 hours of similar adventures sounds perfectly palatable, then you'll find more than enough to enjoy in Frozen Wilds. If not, then it's best to avoid Frozen Wilds as this is in no way a game-changer. Though the enchanting environment is a spectacle to behold, this particular winter wonderland can be quite hard to warm to.