Last year, if you were to tell me I would love Monster Hunter and would spend God knows how many hours playing just TWO of the games in the longstanding action RPG series, I’d tell you that you are full of shit – especially when World originally made me physically ill on my base PS4. Yet here we are in 2019 and Monster Hunter is just something I can’t stay away from. From the core gameplay loop to the fact that I can put dumb mods into it on PC with not a care in the world, everything about the series just gets me. Naturally, the announcement of Monster Hunter World: Iceborne filled me with both happiness and sadness, with the latter mainly being due to the fact that PC players are getting shafted with the delayed release, again. While World made vast improvements in terms of general gameplay and quality of life adjustments, it was rather lacking in terms of variety and roster size (a big chunk of the monsters weren’t really worth grinding out for the endgame). So after dumping around 200 hours (yes, you read that right) into Monster Hunter: World’s one and only expansion, I can safely say that while it isn’t perfect, Iceborne is an impressively good expansion that every fan of the original should own.
We’ll start with the story. Iceborne takes place directly after the conclusion of World. The Research Commission has taken note of the Legiana acting strangely, with its tracks being found in the Ancient Forest of all places. Following the Legiana takes you to Hoarfrost Reach, a frozen isle far off the coast of the New World full of monsters that are just waiting to have you carted back to camp. The landscape is as harsh as it is beautiful, featuring gorgeous, icy cliffs that also house dank, unwelcoming caverns (and memes). The game wastes no time introducing you to its thematically appropriate mechanics; combating cold weather with Hot Drink, slowing your movement within the deep snow and running water near the frozen cliff-faces inflicting Iceblight on the player – Hoarfrost Reach is not your friend.
After growing accustomed to Iceborne’s environmental mechanics, players are sent back to the New World to fight subspecies of familiar faces. Once you break past this part and beat the next milestone monster in Hoarfrost Reach, the writing actually picks up, surprisingly. Monster Hunter: World had an impressively mediocre story (no seriously I can barely tell you what happened in it because… wait did something happen in it?), but Iceborne sets itself apart from that. It’s by no means going to be receiving any awards for its writing, but it at least places the player in something a little more engaging than ‘a moving mountain is coming, arm the defenses! Okay now fight these Elder Dragons, oh look a glowy Elder Dragon’, which makes the campaign actually very fun to play through. In saying that, Iceborne makes the same mistake as World in terms of the climax. Where World had Xeno’jiiva, a boring and slow fight that is required to be done multiple times to get a majority of the highest rarity weapons, Iceborne has its own Elder Dragon fight that is a slow burn but needs to be done for most of the highest rarity weapons. Unfortunately this time there is a really cheap design put into the mix. Things that start out as a cool idea – like softening random spots in the ground to make them harder to walk through – turn into design that actively works against the player. Those soft spots end up being infuriating as you get staggered in them very quickly. They can also explode and do big chunks of damage and the monster tends to just sit in the sand so you have no real choice but to make yourself absurdly vulnerable like that.
Among the notable changes and additions brought in with Iceborne is the clutch claw and expanded movesets. Beginning with the latter, each and every weapon has had some form of modification or expansion on its moveset. While I didn’t play around with every weapon, my personal favourite was the Longsword with its new sheathe/draw attacks, which I always left until the end of a spirit slash combo. In saying that, I mainly use the Dual Blades because I’ve been having way too much fun with those recently (you can thank the Witcher crossover event for that). Giving the player slightly different ways to approach familiar combos allows for a greater variety of playstyles within each weapon type. So what else can you do to allow for greater playstyles? How about adding a tool for every weapon that allows you to grapple onto the targeted area of a monster and perform a small combo that can weaken that given spot? That’s exactly what the clutch claw does. While in essence the clutch claw seems like something that makes the game easier to play for people still new to the Monster Hunter series, it’s actually one of those easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master kinds of deals. If you clutch claw at the wrong time, you’re in for some serious pain (potentially enough to see you carted back to camp), but using it at the right time can see some major damage dealt to any monster you are fighting and maybe even knocking it over. The only gripe I have with the clutch claw is that it can stop players from wanting to experiment with other weapons, as weakening the harder parts of a monster makes it easier to break for weapons that aren’t the best suited for it (like softening Diablos’ horns so a Sword and Shield can easily break them). Part of my love for Monster Hunter’s design was how it used the nuanced nature of each monster to promote the use of all kinds of gear and the clutch claw can get in the way of that when it is used heavily. In terms of length, the campaign took me around one hundred hours, but this is also with a lot of grinding and clearing of optionals. You could definitely clear it faster but you might find yourself needing to upgrade a bit more.
Iceborne’s power climb is much steeper than that of World. You’ll often find yourself needing to grind out various monsters to change or upgrade your gear, whether it be your armour so you can tank a few more hits, or a stronger weapon so you can show that monster who is kicking your arse that you’re the boss. It’s this constant need to strive for better and better gear that makes the insane power scale of the monsters feel much more meaningful and Iceborne knows it – it doesn’t take long for Iceborne to ask you to hunt a tempered monster at Mastery Rank level. As a means of combating the expense of constantly crafting new gear or upgrading, the overall money reward for each hunt is much larger (I have an investigation that gives just shy of 200,000z per completion). It’s not enough to break even in most cases, but if you manage to do a few hunts in between each upgrade or so, you will be quite far in the positives. Also, if at any point you are feeling weak, take your MR gear into HR quests and you’ll trample everything. MR quests definitely don’t pull punches, however. If you are to get into Iceborne, you need to be prepared for everything that will be thrown your way. You can get away with your HR gear with the first two or three hunts, but going further than that might see you begin to struggle (can’t wait for some crazy Monster Hunter player to beat every monster using LR gear without getting hit and make me look stupid). Also be aware that Iceborne is happy to double down on the wombo combos that Monster Hunter is known for (my counter was just equipping max stun resistance).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that all Iceborne does is add some monsters, a new area and G-rank in the form of Mastery Rank, but it’s actually far more expansive and in-depth than it would have you believe. In its early stages it does seem like a standard expansion, but as you progress further and further into the expansion you find yourself at a need to revisit the original monster in World, but at a Mastery Rank level. This is where Iceborne really begins to show its teeth. Rather than just make players fight old friends, Iceborne expands on the moveset of each monster when fighting their Mastery Rank version. It’s something that makes Iceborne’s additions much more meaningful, instead of telling the player to ignore everything prior to the expansion, the player is encouraged to try out everything. In a way, Iceborne isn’t just a hunk of content that adds to Monster Hunter: World’s offering but actually earns the ‘expansion’ tag that comes along with it. Even in terms of endgame design, Iceborne is on a whole different level. Old systems, like gear augments, have been revamped to be more in-depth and afford the player with more choice and flexibility. Not in any way that compromises the inherent design of each focused build, but rather in a way that compliments it and makes each build feel much more potent the more you invest in it. Players can now choose from a slightly wider pool of augments for gear, better tailoring their gear to their playstyle (even going as far as being able to make custom upgrades and not just the preset ones). A great benefit of the revamped augmenting system is the reduced necessity for tempered investigations. While I’m not opposed to hunting tempered monsters, it was the type of difficulty design that was cheap, relying on harder hitting monsters that take longer to down without any form of modification to its behaviours or movesets (the only time World ever mixed things up was with Arch Tempered Nergigante).
One of my favourite ideas from Iceborne is The Guiding Lands. This is an area that is comprised of smaller areas which are regions from the first four locales in World. The idea of The Guiding Lands is that you are supposed to track and hunt monsters, find evidence of turf wars and eventually be able to lure out specific monsters. You can also gather resources like ores and bones which all contribute to their overall level of quality. The more you get, the higher quality they become – the same goes for the monsters in each region; the more you hunt the better the monsters you find in each region will be. One of the best parts about The Guiding Lands is how it is all about choice. Hunting a monster in one region may cause the level of another region or two to lower. The ultimate goal is to keep each region’s level as high as possible to ensure that you encounter rarer and more powerful monsters (like a certain electric boy). You’ll also need to become very familiar with The Guiding Lands if you wish to gather all the materials required for augmenting your gear. The best part about this is what Capcom can do with it post-launch. Due to the dynamic nature of how monsters can come and go in The Guiding Lands (monsters leave much faster here unless they are actively engaged in battle with you), Capcom could very easily bring in older monsters for limited-time returns, cycling them in and out of rotation. It would be almost like a live service game, but without all the general bullshit that live service brings with it, but that is something I’ll probably discuss in a separate article. The Guiding Lands holds a bunch of secrets behind it and if you wish to see everything that Iceborne has to offer you will have to invest time into grinding both your rank and increases the region levels in The Guiding Lands. You can also drop in and out of other players’ sessions in The Guiding Lands, kind of like a shared-world in its design.
Art and sound is another area where Iceborne excels. Monster Hunter: World already had some pretty great art and some really dope music (big fan of Nerg’s music), and Iceborne is no different. Scales and hides absorb and reflect the light coming from the environment in a way which makes the monsters feel much more believable than normal, which is further complemented by their fluid animations. One of my favourite monsters to fight is the mascot monster, Velkhana, due to how crisp and entrancing the animations are. Even things which aren’t tied to animation add to the spectacle, like how when you roll around in the snow your character and weapons become covered in snow. Even then new monsters and monster subspecies are all really well designed, Capcom has set as really high bar and they continue to raise the bar the more they add to MHW. Now to the music, I actually found myself loving the music in Iceborne much more than in World. The general fight music for Hoarfrost Reach is playfully tense, and monsters that have their own tune, like Glavenus, are made more intense with the redone music. I do really enjoy the music for the final monster in the campaign too.
Naturally, the expansion runs a bit poorly (that’s putting it nicely), especially on the base PS4. There’s not really much else to say here.
The weirdest thing that Iceborne does has to do with the private quarters in the new hub area Seliana. I could describe Seliana’s problems at length, but to put it bluntly, the layout is still too spread out, to the point where I can definitely envision players reverting back to the original Gathering Hub (the new Gathering Hub is even more spread out than Seliana). In Iceborne, you can fully customise your Seliana private quarters, from the materials that are used for the walls and floor to the items on a shelf – there is quite a bit to work with. Naturally, there are a variety of things to unlock, but Iceborne does this weird thing where it doesn’t ask you to drop additional real-world money into the game to unlock those things. Crazy, I know. It’s almost as if the game can be a game without being a storefront, but I digress. The private quarters are actually a really cool way to spend your research points, buying things like patterns for tapestries or different chandeliers to change the light in your room, giving more reason to grind out the secondary currency. There’s also a pool you can chill in (pun intended). Back to the gathering hub, there isn’t really too much notable with Seliana’s gathering hub outside of the fact that you can play with your Palico. I’m tempted to give this expansions a perfect 10/10 purely based on the fact that I get to play with my Palico and I get to see him splash his little paws in the water with a big smile. If you hate Palicos I’ll have to fight you (you’ll probably win, I’m scrawny as shit).
Speaking of the Palicos, their level cap has been raised from 30 to 50 and the Palico Gadgets have been raised from 10 to 15, with some new abilities. I’ll let you all discover the majority of them, but I will say that I really like the free revive that the Vigorwasp gives you. If only I could have more Palicos.
As for the PC version of Iceborne, I was rather surprised with how well the expansion areas run. Naturally,more effects and rendering techniques have been added alongside Iceborne which push the available technology as much as it can, but Capcom has done an admirable job at supporting the PC platform. Updates and optimisations as well as new features like FidelityFX and DirectX 12 support have been added, which make for more favourable performance while still allowing for a great set of visuals. Hoarfrost reach is a fairly demanding area, all things considered, but my PC managed it well. Use of the aforementioned tools meant that I very rarely went below 60fps and when I did it was so close to the mark that you wouldn’t even notice it. The only time I ever suffered bad dips was when there was so much going on, in terms of particle effects and fog volumes, that it made sense. Sure, the dips to around 45fps in those cases aren’t the greatest but with the amount going on you can’t really complain. I haven’t been able to test the effects from every monster available to see if there are some that murder frames more than others (like OG Teostra) but if the general behaviour of the game is anything to go by, it shouldn’t really be any different. However, Iceborne’s PC support inclusion of DirectX 12 is not the only positive to talk about. For a lot of PC players, Iceborne will be their point of return after an admittedly sour launch state. The game has seen significant improvements and a solid chunk of my initial criticisms and complaints for the PC port have since been addressed and resolved. Additions like the aforementioned FideltyFX lend themselves perfectly to the entire spectrum of PC builds (yeah DLSS is supported too but it’s kinda average, through no fault of Capcom’s). There are also some neat little features like the ability to change the quality of the snow within Iceborne without changing any of the other texture quality settings. This is probably due in part to, what appears to be, some level of subsurface scattering on the snow itself (which is not a cheap thing to do). Unfortunately, it is very hard for me to do a benchmark given how varied each instance of a hunt can be – wildly changing the results for each run. If I can figure out a way to make a benchmark work I will, but as of the writing of this I haven’t been able to.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne has blown me away with just the sheer quality that it puts forth. From the meaningful additions like Hoarfrost Reach, the new monsters and the new Palico Gadget skills, to the changes and expansions of movesets, both for the hunters and the monsters – Iceborne is truly deserving of the expansion title. New endgame design and changes like the new augmenting system and The Guiding Lands also lend for an experience that is entirely unique, even in its own IP. Even with drawbacks like a really boring and cheap final boss monster, less than stellar performance, potential mitigation of the allure of different weapons with the introduction of the clutch claw and Seliana being too spread out, I can still say that Iceborne is a must-own for fans of the series or just the singular game.
Reviewed on PS4 and PS4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher
Updated on 8/1/2020 to include PC coverage