Monster Hunter World: Iceborne is more of the same, glorious slog for everyone who’s ever been taken down by a fire-breathing facsimile of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and thought, “I can’t wait to do that 50 times over.” The franchise has always rewarded those willing to put in the hard yards, and Iceborne is no exception. It adds more of what set the base game aside from its predecessors without feeling overcrowded, even if its narrative could have used a little more work.
Monster Hunter World was an exercise in refinement upon its release in early 2018. Not only did it manage to simplify a franchise-wide burgeoning quest system, but it also had a very successful stab at creating an open-world ecosystem absolutely teeming with things to do and colossal monsters who want to hunt you. Best of all, these changes never overwhelmed–the new mission and upgrade systems that were introduced were relatively straightforward to grasp, all whilst leaving room for experienced hunters to master them.
Since the game’s launch, the game has seen a steady drip-feed of DLC content in the form of in-game events. Many of these follow the formula of transplanting something fearsome into an already familiar environment–the Witcher 3 crossover saw a Leshenn loom large in the Ancient Forest, and the Final Fantasy XIV collaboration had you running for cover when Behemoth reared its head. The design philosophy behind Monster Hunter World: Iceborne takes a similar approach in implementing that sort of content, though on a larger scale; it uses touchstones in the form of storied foes and familiar locations to build upon the robust ecosystem of the base game to deliver an experience that will test your mettle without breaking you.
Iceborne is all about building on existing foundations. This is most evident in the narrative that has been spun out in the wake of the base game’s single-player campaign. Monster Hunter World was notable for introducing a clear-cut, story-based incentive to throw yourself against the biggest and baddest beasts out there. Iceborne takes a slightly crooked step forward by spinning a story that revolves not around you, but around your Handler.
Shortly after the successes of dealing with the base game’s Elder Dragon predicament, a mass migration event shakes the recovering ecosystem of Astera and prompts you to investigate. What comes next is a tale of family legacies, mysterious scales, and your Handler embarking on her own personal quest. To shift the focus of a story from the protagonist to what is essentially a side character is a bold one–for all the aid and assistance that the Handler gives in Monster Hunter World, she’s still fundamentally a living, breathing quest board. Monster Hunter World players will no doubt have become attached to her over the course of their travels, but is that attachment is deep enough to shoulder a full expansion’s narrative conceit? Not quite.
As soon as you’re introduced to the latest curveball about Iceborne’s new signature location, Hoarfrost Reach, and how that intersects rather conveniently with your Handler’s past, you’re immediately whisked back to lands and territories from the base game to cull a couple of monsters that have gotten too big for their boots. It’s not exactly narrative whiplash, but it’s certainly not as compelling as it would have been had we been the ones to follow the Handler from the first step of her journey to the new lands of Iceborne.
That said, revisiting those familiar locations early on to take down new and improved versions of killer dinosaurs that you’ve faced before is one of the most compelling parts of Monster Hunter World: Iceborne. As with the DLC strategy, the building blocks of the expansion are steeped in elements that existing players are already acquainted with. You’ll cut your teeth on monsters like the Nightshade Paolumu–a variant on the oversized flying squirrel encountered early on in the base game, though this time with the lethal ability to put unsuspecting hunters to sleep. The expansion arguably doesn’t open up until you’ve also vanquished the Viper Tobi-Kadachi–a souped-up version of its cousin from the Ancient Forest, albeit with poisonous projectiles and a bite that’s much more dangerous than its hiss.
The changes that Iceborne makes in the form of these variant breeds has a twofold effect: First, they provide you with a motivation to form new strategies to slice and dice their way to the next story beat. Secondly, they’re just distinct enough in terms of attack patterns and additional elemental considerations that you never really feel like you’re just fighting a reskin of something that you made mincemeat out of 80 hours ago. It’s as if there’s been a concerted effort to balance the difficulty of what many fans might rightfully view as the second coming of the coveted “G-Rank” in this latest iteration of Monster Hunter.
Despite some focus on iterating established systems, there are innovations introduced in Iceborne that truly set it apart from its predecessor. Brand-new monsters and the implementation of legacy series favourites like Nargacuga look and feel impressive thanks to all the new ways monsters can interact with other beasts and the various locations. But more importantly, there is a library’s worth of new weapon moves for you to take advantage of.
Charge Axe users can now cancel into a particularly fun multi-directional attack when caught unawares, and Gunlance users no longer have to worry about running out of ammo in an emergency before getting to use their new signature move that is, quite literally, explosive. Hunting Horn users have also had their ability to do damage buffed, with the addition of a new move that lets you stick your horn in the ground and spin it like some kind of demented Beyblade to catch whatever’s charging towards you off guard. That’s just a few new examples, but overall these additions seem to be informed by the dual precepts of style and lethality.
However, the biggest quality-of-life addition has been something called the Clutch Claw–every hunter can use this alongside their primary weapon to grapple onto their foe and, depending on what other sharp object is equipped, do anything from steering a rampaging wyvern into a rock face to weakening a specific part of its body that needs to be lopped off.
Using the Clutch Claw is by no means compulsory, so it fits in that nice niche where it can make your hunts a little bit easier or a little bit more exhilarating in equal turns. But you’re not forced to use it to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth if, say, you’re a veteran player trying to do your own version of Nuzlocke rules but with items. However, having the option and ability to scale up the side of a monster after landing a savvy shot with the Clutch Claw feels ridiculously satisfying, and so does driving a beast to its doom in the many treacherous terrain pitfalls that dot the newest, snow-covered region of Hoarfrost Reach.
That new, frosty landscape is beautiful and treacherous in equal measure. With new foes, more verticality than the Coral Highlands, and frozen terrain that can crack and send you plunging to your death, it really is a sight to behold. More than ever, it feels like the environment can be turned against you; some monsters will uproot trees and throw them at you, while the wrong move on cracked ice can mean certain death.
By that measure, however, there are also more opportunities to get the jump on your enemies, especially with the Clutch Claw giving you the ability to walk them into vine traps, blinding light, and more. Having a grasp of every bit of the map is integral to truly mastering what Iceborne has to throw at you, and it’s incredibly satisfying when everything suddenly clicks and you go from the hunted to the hunter leading their prey to a painful trap that attempts to even the scales.
Being dropped into this intricately-designed location as a relatively new player may be overwhelming, but no matter your experience level, joining up with other hunters and picking your way through this icy dens of beasts together is incredibly rewarding in its own way. Iceborne benefits from the matchmaking improvements introduced since the release of the base game, which have made it relatively seamless on console to find fellow hunters–no more messing about with PlayStation parties and friends lists–and dropping into a party to help friends tackle these fearsome monsters is easy.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne is at its best when you’re fighting tooth and nail against something that you know could crush you within its teeth in a second, even though this might feel like it came at the expense of a more interesting narrative. Nothing is quite as good as the biting chill cutting through the furs of your armor, the shrill cry of your Palico as it comes to your aid, and the wind roaring in your ears as you latch onto a beast’s flank and climb up its side while it bucks and roars.
This expansion is rife with moments like that; all of the tweaking and the improvements feel like they were done with the excellent building blocks of Monster Hunter World in mind, which means that getting to the meat of the matter is quicker and more satisfying than ever. There’s no more fussing about with new systems or worrying about ruffling the feathers of hardcore fans with a direction change in the series; those teething problems have already come and gone. Iceborne is a confident step into the future of the franchise, and it’s hard not to think about what might come next.
[Editor’s note: This review will be finalized once we’ve had a chance to experience the performance of servers once the game launches to the wider public.]