There's a few ways to handle downloadable content (DLC). Developers can add new modes or maps to a game. There's the side story model, giving your main character a break and offering someone else's adventure within the same framework. Then there's the extra experience, giving you a new adventure for the main character with a few tweaks and twists.
The latter covers The Frozen Wilds, the first full downloadable content for Guerilla Games' Horizon: Zero Dawn. Aloy is back, hunting more machines and solving problems for villagers in her far future nature preserve. This time, she hears that people outside of her home might need help killing rampaging machines, so Aloy heads north to help them and dig a bit more into the truth of her world.
The Frozen Wilds isn't a standalone experience. Once you've acquired the DLC, it grafts an entire new region on top of Horizon's existing world map. The Cut, known as Ban-Ur by the locals, is a harsh unforgiving wasteland of ice and snow. Breaking up the endless snow is Thunder's Drum, a volcano constantly spewing smoke into the air. Only by making her way through a mountain pass can Aloy see these new lands.
The expansion doesn't take place after the main game; think of it almost as concurrent content. Once you're around level 30 and above, you can grab the specific quest that sends Aloy on her journey for more answers. (Pro-Tip: I wouldn't try to go right at level 30, unless you're great at Horizon.) You can travel back to the rest of the map at your own leisure. Frozen Wilds expands the main map by around an eighth and once expansion is there, it's a seamless addition. If you've beaten the game, head up to The Cut. If you haven't, you can tackle it whenever you feel like it.
The core of Horizon: Zero Dawn doesn't change with this new region. You're still exploring a beautiful and detailed open-world in Monster Hunter Lite style. Aloy has a series of weapons and traps that are needed to exploit the weaknesses of the local machinelife, so you can take them down, so your can get resources, so you can build better weapons and traps, so that the cycle may continue. A little sneaking, a bit of patience, and a lot of equipment is needed to succeed. In-between all that hunting, you help out the average joe, listen to some audio logs, and hack some ancient machines.
So what does change?
First up, a new region means a new tribe. You're no longer dealing with the Nora, Carja, or Oseram, outside of a few characters here and there. Instead, you're helping the Banuk, a tribe of survivors who have been pushed back by berserk machines. This tribe of warrior-shaman isn't welcoming to outsiders anymore than the other tribes, so Aloy has to prove herself as a hunter to gain their trust. (Honestly, at this point, her legend should precede itself.)
Those rampaging machines are the fault of The Daemon, a mysterious figure that is empowering the machines and sending them into Banuk territory. Your basic enemy are Daemonic versions of the machines you've already hunted in vanilla Horizon. They have more life and stronger elemental resistances than the rank-and-file, but killing them is the same.
Then there are all-new machines, like the firebreathing Scorcher and the bear-like ice-wielding Frostclaw. The Scorcher can clear the area around itself with blasts of fire and shoot out tiny mines in every direction to make your life hard. The Frostclaw can summon elemental ice shards that home in on you, which is frankly unfair for a machine that can bear hug most of your lifebar away if it catches you.
Some regions are backed up by the new Control Tower enemies. These towers establish zones where mounts are disabled and enemies get repaired if they're not destroyed. These control areas act as the new Corruption Zones in the Frozen Wild: taking out the Control Tower and all the enemies "frees" the region. It's just a bit of additional difficulty for Horizon's most fervent players, though they're pretty easy to snipe from afar.
Finishing off these enemies and exploring will reward you with Bluegleam, a resource unique to The Cut. Bluegleam can be traded in at special merchants for improved bows, new outfits, and other special items. You'll also eventually unlock new weapons like the Stormslinger or Icerail, rifles that can shoot successive elemental shots. They're an improved way to deal direct elemental damage compared to the slower sling or area effect bombs. One side quest eventually allows Aloy to add modifications to her spear, which was an odd missing feature in the base game.
Guerilla also added a new skill tree, though it's not as huge an addition as you might think. The previous three trees are joined by the new Traveller tree, which is largely quality-of-life additions. The Mounted Pickup skill, for example, lets you loot bodies without getting off your mount, while Hoarder increases your inventory slots, and Machine Repair lets you heal any overridden machine with Metal Shards. These aren't huge game changers, they're just nice abilities to have. (Oh, and there's new pose in Photo Mode.)
The expansion will probably take around 10-15 hours to clean up for the average person. In that time, Aloy will hunt a whole bunch of machines, take on some Banuk challenges for your place in the tribe, dive further into the secret history of the world, and figure out what or who The Daemon is. It's a solid tale, delivered in a bit more dramatic style thanks to some dialog camerawork on Guerilla's part. The fact that this has to slot into the main game anywhere blunts a bit of the importance of what's happening here. This isn't a continuation of the story, it's just a story; if you're looking for sequel-level stuff or similar, that's not happening here.
One thing that does disappoint a bit is something that Guerilla probably couldn't do much about, given the DLC's focus. The Frozen Wilds is all pretty much snow and ice. Guerilla tries to provide some interesting landmarks and features, with snow drifts, heavy snowfall, and whipping winds, but the lack of color doesn't help. Sure, it's amazingly beautiful snow and ice, delivered in Horizon quality, but I admit I missed the variety of the main game. It helps that this is grafted onto vanilla Horizon, because I needed to go back to the previous regions for an additional splash of color every now and then.
Determining how you feel about The Frozen Wilds requires a little tempering of your expectations. This is literally "more Horizon Zero Dawn" in the purest sense. More weapons, more outfits, more machines, an additional region of the map to play in, and a new tribe to save. What's here are tweaks and additions, not a wild rethink of Horizon's core gameplay and a new character to experience the story through. The tale told here is decent, but it's not the continuation of Aloy's primary tale like I expect some fans wanted. This is just... more. If you like Horizon: Zero Dawn, and I do, this gives that experience a little of extra cushion before you wrap everything up.
The Frozen Wilds stands next to the base game, it doesn't surpass it. If that sounds like something you want, I'd recommend it. If not, this won't make the game any better for you. For me, I enjoy Horizon: Zero Dawn, so a little bit more is right up my alley.