First off, there's something you should know about me: I'm a total, unashamed scrub when it comes to most video games. I'm the king of cheese; the leg-sweeper extraordinaire. If there's an easy mode, I'll take it. And yet, despite all that, I'm loving my time with Iceborne, the hard-edged expansion for Monster Hunter World - itself a breakout success for the long-running, much-loved series, earning 13 million sales and the title of Capcom's best-selling game to date.
Capcom was kind enough to supply early access to Iceborne, and a decent amount of early access too - it's been sitting on my PS4's hard-drive for well over a month. And, for the most part, I've been absolutely terrified of it. Iceborne is best seen as an analogue of the old G Rank editions that used to follow in the wake of mainline handheld Monster Hunter games, folding in the base game along with a suite of new features and some truly testing challenges. Iceborne does all that, but being an expansion to Monster Hunter World it gets straight down to business, its opening monster - the bastard ice-shark Beotodus - not being shy in savaging new players. We're not in Astera anymore, Toto.
Iceborne players should, in theory, be prepared for Beotodus, given that you can't even knock on the front door of Hoarfrost, the new area introduced in the expansion, without having first completed the base Monster Hunter game. Going back to my original save file, I realised that - shock horror! - I couldn't even quite claim to having done that; despite some 80 hours invested, I stopped playing while in the midst of taking down the final three elder dragons. Blame my ability to get sidetracked by one of the countless other diversions in Monster Hunter World, or my desire to simply go out into the wilds and run alongside my beloved Paolumu one more time.
So I was faced with one final grind, and given how muscle memory had atrophied in all those months since I was last fully invested in Monster Hunter World, it wasn't one I relished particularly. Indeed, I put it off for almost the entire month, finding other games to play, and other things to do. After a week of getting stuck back in, I regret dragging my heels; Iceborne is a revelation, not just for the hardcore but also for the more casual player like myself.
Part of that's in how, like all really good expansions, it elevates the base game. There are the small improvements - the radial menu you can now specifically use in the hub, the events schedule and the more regular events, the new difficulty level for smaller groups, the new HUD options - and there are the major ones. The clutch claw, for one, which makes mounting marks a breeze, or the simple, brilliant fact that you can now ride a Popo, taking one of Monster Hunter's shaggy mammoth-a-likes for a ride around Hoarfrost reach.
It's enough to refresh some of the older challenges, and blunt their difficulty (be warned, though, that the Guardian Armour that's introduced in Monster Hunter World as a way to speed new players' path through the base game is no match for any decent piece of late game armour - and once you're in Iceborne itself, your high rank armour will soon be swapped out for Master Rank gear that packs a much bigger punch). It's enough to make me consider starting an all-new character just to enjoy some of those old monsters all over again, though having inched forward in Iceborne and seen how many of the original cast are repurposed and remixed I'd probably advise returning players against it.
What Iceborne really does, though, is make a great game even better. Some of the chest-thumping about Iceborne's difficulty is an unfortunate byproduct of a game that's all about showing off. Indeed, it's woven into the very fabric of Monster Hunter - or, more accurately, in the gristle and bone and skin that makes up the clothes you fashion out of your kills, wearable trophies that let everyone know exactly how badass you are. You know that big bastard that's been knocking you sideways out in the Rotten Vale? Well, I'm the boss of him, and here's the hat to prove it.
What's easy to lose sight of - and what I've been reminded of this past week - is how Monster Hunter has one of the most open-armed, approachable communities around, one that's all-too-happy to show you the ropes and usher you through so that you can enjoy the series' many delights. I've no shame in leaning on the kindness of others, making sure to play early in the morning so I can run with the expert Japanese hunters who tear through a tempered Nergigante like it's a lowly Aptonoth.
Iceborne, with its stubborn challenges, can feel like it's pitched more towards those expert players, but the joy of Monster Hunter - now, as ever - is how it embraces all playstyles, whether you're thrashing about with dual blades or keeping a watching brief with a bowgun. Or, whether you're veteran who wants to solo some of the biggest, baddest monsters, or a scrub like myself who's happy to wade in the shallows and simply enjoy the spectacle. Iceborne does a decent job of catering to both, and there's enough there to satisfy all corners of Monster Hunter World's 13 million strong audience. So, don't be put off by Iceborne - in truth, there's never been a better time to get into Monster Hunter.
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