Video games are by their nature a copycat medium. The recent explosion of looter shooters in the wake of Destiny attests to the desire of big-time developers to go with what works. But with all due respect to God Eater, which certainly has its fans, I've yet to find an imitator that tops Monster Hunter—the series that continues to define its particular niche.
As with Pokemon and Super Smash Bros., you can duplicate the basics, but it's hard to match the history, the depth, and most importantly, the personality of Monster Hunter. I think of moments like getting into a life-and-death struggle with a Pink Rathian, or a Palico Babushka mixing together a hot stew just before an expedition, and I'm reminded of how little like it there is in triple-A console gaming. Perhaps only vintage Blizzard can match the mix of originality, depth, and accessibility that Monster Hunter: World brings to the table.
This marvelous mix made Monster Hunter: World one of my very favorite games of 2018, aided in no small part by Capcom's wise decision to make every area fully seamless. But for all its excellence, fans rightfully complained about the relatively small monster count and frustratingly slow drip of online events. Enter Monster Hunter World: Iceborne—an impressive expansion that refines almost every aspect of the gameplay, and features a campaign that comes close to matching the size of the original.
As its name suggests, this expansion extends into the icy forests of the Hoarfrost Reach, a brand new area developed specifically for Iceborne. I hail from the frozen north myself, so I have a soft spot for snowy areas in games. Hoarfrost happily doesn't disappoint. Upon changing into cold-weather gear, I set off into snow that went up to my character's waist, the air chilling their stamina unless I had them drink a special Hot Drink item. Monster Hunter: World's rich ecosystems are perhaps its best feature, and the Hoarfrost Reach is beautiful as any of them.
As Iceborne is technically endgame content—you have to finish the main game and achieve Hunter Rank 16 to access the expansion—it largely dispenses with tutorials and almost immediately throws you against your first new monster. That would be the Beotodus, a shark-like creature that moves swiftly beneath the snow, occasionally leaping out from the drifts to deal damage and sap your stamina with Iceblight. (You'll be dealing with Iceblight a lot in Iceborne.) Having long since tired of MHW's original menagerie, it was bracing to have a new challenge, and while I dispatched it with relative ease on my first attempt, it very much got me back into the swing of hunting.
What I really love about Monster Hunter, especially in comparison to other action games, is the way it imbues each one of its weapons with a certain style and personality. Even a relatively straightforward weapon like the Longsword can't be swung around randomly; you need to master its own unique rhythm if you want to maximize its potential. It's a really special feeling to go from awkwardly swinging your sword like a fat club, to becoming an elusive samurai as you dodge and execute riposte after riposte against your hapless foe.
Iceborne doesn't add any new classes sadly, but it does augment its already impressive depth with a host of new moves. Basically every weapon has some sort of new wrinkle in Iceborne, and successfully incorporating it into your arsenal of moves is very satisfying. There are also new Palico gadgets to unlock, with upgrades including a special Vigorwasp that offers a one-time battlefield revival.
But it's the Clutch Claw that truly stands out among Iceborne's collection of new mechanics. This new gadget basically works as a short-range grappling hook that allows you to grab on to a staggered monster, requiring careful timing. Once you've got a firm grip, you can either strike for guaranteed damage, or more optimally, empty all of your slinger ammo into its head. The latter will send the monster careening blindly ahead, and if it runs into an object, it will be knocked down, whereupon you can combo it into oblivion.
Probably my favorite moment in all of Iceborne comes when a monster is on the run and I manage to snag its tail with the Clutch Claw, crawl up to its head, and leave it concussed and wriggling on the ground. It's such a brutal and effective moment that I almost feel bad for the thing. Suffice it to say, the Clutch Claw is an essential new tool—so much so that I almost wonder if it's overpowered. I can certainly imagine better players than me abusing the hell out of it.
With these new tools in hand, you set off to hunt more than 15 new monsters across the Hoarfrost Reach, as well as more familiar locations like the Ancient Forest. Many are imports from previous games like the ferocious Barioth, which spins across the ice in vicious arcs and can pounce from halfway across the stage. Some are remixed versions of familiar monsters like the Viper Tobi-Kadachi and the Ebony Odogaron, which bring new movesets and elements to the fray. Only a tiny handful are brand new, the icy elder dragon, Velkhana, foremost among them.
The Velkhana is your arch-nemesis throughout Iceborne. Its appearance is what draws you to the Hoarfrost Reach, and you will have multiple encounters with it. This includes a substantially less tedious version of what I would call the "cannon battle" from the base game—a multi-part setpiece where you use cannons, ballistas, and other tools to subdue a particularly powerful monster. In the Iceborne version, you actually have to fight the monster in question, and you have A.I. helpers to load up the cannons. I like it a lot better.
By the time I got to Iceborne's final battle, I felt as if I had played a borderline sequel. True, its main campaign doesn't have quite as many missions as the base game, but it also isn't loaded with the aforementioned "special missions" and tutorials. It's pretty much pure monster hunting from start to finish.
Per usual, Iceborne's will leave you with plenty of optional missions and online events to grind through when the campaign is complete. Just today Capcom announced that Iceborne's first title update would feature Rajang, a classic beast whose debut dates back to Monster Hunter 2. I was able to get through the entirety of Iceborne with my trusty Extermination's Edge and just a couple armor upgrades, but I expect I will soon be investing in a much heftier set of upgrades, as the new Master Rank brings with it a whole new tier of weapons and armor. It's the sort of update that can easily tack another 40 or 50 hours onto the 100 or more that you already spent on the base game.
Honestly, it's tough to criticize an expansion this well-rounded. I suppose my only quibble is that it leans a little too heavily on remixed creatures from the original Monster Hunter: World campaign. Yeah I know it's a series staple and all, and designing monsters as elaborate as the ones in Monster Hunter: World is an enormous task, but facing even a brand new Anjanath has a little bit of a "been there, done that" quality to it. With such a rich setting to work with, I would have liked to have seen a greater array of unique creatures instead of retreads. But as it is, it's not a dealbreaker, mainly because even the recycled creatures play so much differently than their counterparts. I would be more annoyed if they were just the same stock monsters with better stats.
Anyway, Iceborne does exactly what any good expansion should do—refresh the base game and remind you why you loved it in the first place. I've put probably 150 hours total into Monster Hunter: World at this point, but I'm still floored by all of its little stylistic flourishes, like the way that the camera subtly tilts into a dutch angle while a Barioth snarls above after a knockdown. So many games try to build in these artificial "big moments" to make their setpieces more exciting. Monster Hunter: World makes these moments of desperation feel effortless and real.
Basically, Monster Hunter: World is one of the best action games of the generation; a game that propelled a formerly niche series into the big-time. Iceborne makes that game even better, which makes it an essential purchase for fans of the series. Now if Capcom could just make it so I could join a hunt before finishing a cutscene, it would be perfect.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne skimps a bit on introducing totally new monsters, but it's still a large expansion filled with very smart refinements. The campaign alone comes close to matching the scale of the base game, and it wisely ditches some of its more tedious elements. If you played through the original and wanted more, then Iceborne is almost everything you could ask for. It's not a full sequel, but it's pretty darn close.