One of the joys of last year's Monster Hunter World was how it introduced a whole new audience to the charms of Capcom's long-running series - that delicious loop of combat, conquest and then popping back home to craft a new set of trousers out of whatever giant beast you just felled so you can go back out to the wilds and do it all over again. There's another part of that loop, though, that's just as essential to it all - the part where you're humbled by a new beast that appears at the top of the food chain, and the part where you lick your wounds and make plans about how to exact your revenge and craft some new trousers as proof of your abilities.
Humbled? Actually, maybe that should be humiliated, which would be a more fitting a term for lapsed players like myself getting to grips with the opening hours of the forthcoming Iceborne expansion. You'll need to have completed the main campaign and reached Hunter Rank 16 to step foot on the new landmass the expansion introduces - called Hoarfrost Reach, it's out beyond a chilled ocean to the north west of the existing map - and even then you'll need to have polished off your skills. The first scrap you have, against the all-new beast Beotodus, can get pretty serious.
And so you'll be turning the air blue well before Hoarfrost Reach's chill air turns your fingers azure, because Beotodus is an absolute bastard. With an appearance like the chilled-out cousin of Cephadrome, he's a snow shark - a snow shark! - who speeds along underneath the tundra, his fin tearing through as a tell of his presence. So yeah, Beotodus is mostly concealed, has a hell of a hide and to make things even more entertaining to deal the most damage you'll have to get him to expose his hindlegs. It's a little on the tricky side.
As a statement of intent, though, it's quite something. After the more open-armed approach of vanilla Monster Hunter World, Iceborne feels like a stern, arms-crossed and slightly meaner proposition. And I'm all for it.
That's not to say Iceborne doesn't have its soft edges - and just as it wouldn't be Monster Hunter without a bit of brutality, so too it wouldn't be Monster Hunter without a huge dose of character and personality. Once you've - finally, eventually, good god at last - beaten Beotodus, you set up camp and are free to explore the new hub, which offers a more compact collection of quest givers and shopkeepers than that of the base game. The big news, though, is that there's a new cook in town, the applaudingly awfully named Grammeowster chef. She's a fat old cat that's frayed around the edges. What more could you want?
Out in Hoarfrost Reach itself, there are similar delights to be found. Hot springs - which can be useful places to warm up during a fight, or to recover some health - play host to wide-eyed macaques, while out on the plains dung beetles scuttle along and roll up balls of snow out. There you'll find glittering ice caverns, thick alpine forests and rocky outcrops beneath which herds of Mammoth-like popo move peacefully along.
There are plenty more hostile beasts, too. The Babaro is another new monster you'll face early on, and while not quite as tricky to deal with as Beotodus he still puts up quite the fight. Babaro is a weaponised, amped-up ram who tears through the scenery, crushing rocks and lifting whole trees up before running at you with them. So, it's not exactly a walkover, and neither are the new takes on older monsters that pop up in those opening hours. Viper Tobi Kadachi, as the name suggests, has an added sting, Coral Pukei Pukei fires out water like an angry pressure washer and Nightshade Paolumu has the neat trick of emitting clouds of sleeping gas that he'll then waft around the stage. Fun!
It might be all too much if it weren't for the new tools at your disposal to deal with it all. Perhaps the most obvious is an upgraded slinger, complete with a clutch claw that makes mounting monsters much, much easier. When you're riding rodeo you can also knock an enemy's head and try and direct them towards traps or environmental hazards (which ties into the new tailrider mechanic, which I sadly didn't see, where you can ride lower rank monsters as mounts - a cute lift from Monster Hunter Stories). The slinger can also be brought into play when your weapon is unsheathed, and all weapon types have new associated combos to experiment with.
Did I master them all? Lord no - I was too busy wincing at the damage being dealt out to me by Iceborne's entry point beasts, blundering my way through encounters with my rusty old techniques. Did I enjoy all that punishment, though? Hell yes, and after too many months away it's a joy to get reacquainted in all that's mighty and magical about Monster Hunter. Iceborne puts up a heck of a challenge, but it's one I can't wait to face in a few short weeks time.