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In any other year, Horizon Zero Dawn would have likely won a haul of Game of the Year awards. I loved the universe Guerrilla Games created in this action-adventure masterpiece (CNET's Jeff Bakalar had a bit more of a love/hate relationship with it in his review), and Aloy stands out as a capable heroine who's also full of compassion.
But this isn't any other year. It's 2017, so HZD will be battling it out with the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and more. Seriously, y'all: as far as games are concerned, 2017 is an outright embarrassment of riches.
Maybe that's why it feels like we don't deserve Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds in the same calendar year as the original game. I was a little worried as I downloaded the expansion, which is available on Tuesday, Nov. 7 from the PlayStation Store for $20, £16 or AU$30, with a discount for PS Plus subscribers. Am I exhausted from all of this year's outrageously good games? Will I experience some kind of overhyped expectations? Could Frozen Wilds let me down because I enjoyed the main game almost too much?
I'm happy to say the answer to all of these questions is a resounding nope. The Frozen Wilds is an excellent continuation of Horizon Zero Dawn and neatly lays the groundwork for future expansions.
In this expansion, Aloy travels to an icy northern region called The Cut, which is filled with new allies, new enemies and new mysteries. If you've got a post-completion save from your first time through HZD, you'll be able to load it up and head to The Cut immediately… but I should warn you, if you're not sufficiently geared up (read: end-game equipment and mods, and probably around level 40), you'll probably struggle right out of the gate during the very first fight you encounter. The Cut is an inhospitable place, but the Banuk, a nomadic tribe you might remember from the first game, say there's a new kind of corruption in town. It makes the machines stronger. Meaner.
"Easy mode," I thought. "I have my Shield-Weaver armor from my first play through. I'm basically invincible in it."
Yeah… not so much.
Not only are machine foes more difficult to dispatch in Frozen Wilds, there are also towers littered around The Cut that pulsate with purple light, healing any machine in the vicinity. And and it shorts out the Shield-Weaver armor's force field, rendering it effectively worthless anywhere near those towers.
Translation: Some fights will challenge even the most seasoned HZD alumni -- myself included!
Combat works essentially the same, with some upgrades and new weapons to test out in the field. Generally, if you had a combat strategy that worked before, it'll work fine here. You'll have to spend a little more time considering machine weaknesses and carefully choosing modifications for your weapons and armor to turn the fight in your favor, since they're almost all tougher than their pre-expansion counterparts.
Unfortunately, if you were hoping all this new loot meant larger pouches to store it in, you'd be wrong. If, like Jeff, you didn't enjoy managing Aloy's inventory before, that will not change in Frozen Wilds, and it's not very fun figuring out what's a rare modification or a resource to trash. You'll also have some new abilities to unlock, including repairing overridden machines and harvesting crafting material from atop a mount (thank the maker for that), but they're not particularly game-changing.
It took me around 18 hours to finish every mission and grab the complete sets of the three different types of collectibles hidden around the region. All in all, Frozen Wilds is a pretty decent expansion. It's a little different in that it's more of a companion instead of a continuation to the end of the original game -- you can experience Frozen Wilds even if you haven't completed the main story -- but bring your A game to The Cut, because it's a brutal place if you're not prepared.
Frozen Wilds does all the same things its progenitor did beautifully: the graphics are gorgeous (I played on 4K TV using a PS4 Pro), the voice acting is tremendous, the story is gripping and the combat is challenging (and sometimes chaotic!) but never impossible. There's no reason for Guerrilla to reinvent the wheel here, so it kept the elements that made HZD a winner, and the result is another fantastic chapter in Aloy's story.
As for the rest of those insanely good games released in 2017? Easily Frozen Wilds' greatest foes. But if I know Aloy, she's already got a plan to take them all down.