Minor equipment spoiler warning! This review doesn’t mention any monsters that haven’t already been announced and doesn’t contain story spoilers, but the video does show off some new weapons and armor from the early-to-mid points of Iceborne’s campaign. Keep that in mind if you’d prefer to go in blind!
The line between an expansion and a full-blown sequel is one Monster Hunter World: Iceborne comes close to blurring into oblivion. While this is not an entirely new game in feel or structure when compared to Monster Hunter: World, it adds a new story nearly as large as the base game’s with almost as many new monsters to kill, carve, and wear like a celebratory tuxedo. Couple that with innumerable quality-of-life improvements (plus a few exciting surprises along the way) and Iceborne manages to hit the high bar set by Monster Hunter: World no matter what you call it.
The story this time around is just as amusing and inconsequential as the original: monsters are behaving erratically, a dangerous new elder dragon has appeared, and an exciting snow-covered land unlike any of the others has been discovered. Just like last time, you follow tracks, fight monsters, and try to figure out what’s causing all this commotion so you can promptly kill it and turn it into a sweet pair of pants – you know, for research.
While the story is (once again) pretty much just there to pull you through the bulk of the new content, Iceborne adds a welcome new emphasis on its cast. The excellent cutscene quality you already know is back, but now with more of a spotlight on existing side characters like the Tracker and the Field Team Leader (which does make it a little funny that they still don’t have real names). Without spoilers, these characters have actual story arcs this time – they’re still pretty shallow, but it made the story more engaging and far less forgettable than the first.
Out With the Old Gear, In With the New
But let’s get into the meat and potatoes of Iceborne: the gear. This expansion picks up after the end of the base game’s main campaign, but I was curious how it would tempt me away from my High Rank armor and weapons, which were full of augments and synergistic skills I’d grown so used to. It turns out the answer is by looking you square in the eye and saying, “That fancy augmented Gamma armor you like so much? Yeah, it’s trash now.” I’m exaggerating here… but not by much.
Here’s a quick comparison for context: a typical piece of World’s best High Rank armor will give you 72 defense, which can then be bumped up to 92 if you augment and upgrade it to the max. Enter Iceborne’s all-new Master Rank missions with an entirely new tier of equipment where Bone and Alloy Armor – the bottom-of-the-barrel basic stuff – has a whopping 114 base defense. Master Rank gear offers a jump in power that truly leaves High Rank in the dust.
And, just so it’s clear, that’s the worst armor in Iceborne. I was able to stubbornly hold onto the High Rank armor I’d worked so hard to get for the first half-dozen quests or so, but when I finally decided to upgrade my total defense jumped more than 300 points in a single trip to the forge. Crucially, while it made me sad to leave my lovely Xeno’Jiiva wings behind, this reset was far more exciting than frustrating. It didn’t really feel like it was devaluing what I had earned in the base game because I was just too dang excited about what I was getting in return. The loot chase is fully reinvigorated.
In addition to the higher stats, new skill combinations to experiment with, and cool new armor aesthetics (most of which are fantastic, though some do look disappointingly identical to their High Rank counterparts), you’re also getting the new level 4 Decoration slots. One of these is on every piece of Beta armor, allowing you to easily use powerful new Decorations that can come with two different skills in one. This helps any Master Rank armor set offer more than just a numerical draw.
Iceborne also clearly wants you to upgrade fast, as early armor can be hilariously cheap to craft. Each piece of the Master Rank Jagras set, for example, only needs one of each of its required materials, acknowledging that you didn’t fly across the ocean to a snowy new land just to immediately go back to the Ancient Forest and hunt Great Jagras all day. It’s a wonderfully self-aware decision, leaving the classic Monster Hunter equipment grind to the more interesting fights.
However, the same level of courtesy isn’t offered to the new weapons. Every weapon tree has been extended, with the previous peak of Rarity 8 now potentially stretching all the way up to the ever-sparkling icons of Rarity 12. It took me longer than I would have liked to get my hands on these cool new toys, as most of the needed materials don’t arrive until much later. Where World stretched eight tiers of rarity over its roughly 40-hour campaign, Iceborne has to stretch just four tiers over a similar length, making weapon progress feel ever so slightly stunted in a way getting new armor doesn’t.
In case you missed it, you can watch our review of the base game above or read it here.
This isn’t helped by the fact that upgrading weapons can sometimes force you to grind old monsters in a way the armor system explicitly avoids. Rarity 9 acts as sort of a new baseline for weapons in Iceborne, and while many of them can be crafted outright to skip the early tiers, a few bafflingly can’t, for seemingly no reason. Just as I didn’t come to Iceborne to fight Great Jagras, Master Rank or not, I especially didn’t think I’d have to go back and fight a bunch of Low Rank Legiana or a now trivial Vaal Hazak five times in a row just to get the materials I needed to build up to the new and exciting weapon I actually wanted.
Thankfully this didn’t happen too often, but the inconsistency of some Rarity 9 weapons being craftable on their own and others requiring the previous weapon to upgrade from was aggravating all the same. It was also annoying that some of the new weapons are simple, slightly disappointing recolors of old models. However, the ones that do use unique models were often among the coolest in World so far, like the return of a Rathalos hammer that is literally just the entire dragon’s head on a stick.
A Familiar Menagerie of Monsters
Regardless of what you are turning them into, the new monsters themselves are awesome to fight and look at. As I said, there are nearly as many new monsters in Iceborne as were in the base game at launch, and every single one of them is unique, exciting, and an awesome addition to the lineup. Honestly, there isn’t really a dud amongst them. Some are cooler than others – like the antlered Banbaro which can pick up a rock with its horns that will change elemental type depending on the location in which you fight it, or the incredible new elder dragon Namielle that has surprises I won’t spoil – but I loved every single fight I had in this expansion regardless.
Monster Hunter has also brought back what are seemingly some of its most vicious creatures from previous games, as these returning enemies probably kicked my butt harder than any of the others. My fight against Nargacuga was the first time I got carted (knocked out) during Iceborne, and those surprising and scary step-ups in power as you continually encounter the “bigger fish” in each ecosystem are alive and well in this expansion.
I want to be clear about how much I enjoyed fighting Iceborne’s monsters, how creative and exciting they are, because I do have one bone to pick – but it’s a complaint veteran Monster Hunter fans might not have as much of a problem with. It’s that Iceborne relies too heavily on Subspecies and Variants of existing monsters. About half of the roughly two-dozen monsters added in the expansion fall under these categories, essentially acting as reworked remixes of existing ones.
That’s not to undersell these fights. A Subspecies like the Coral Pukei-Pukei does more than just color it red, drop it in the Coral Highlands, and replace its poison with water – it has new special moves, new behaviors, and that change in location can make a tangible difference. These fights are fun ways to turn an encounter I knew like the back of my hand entirely on its head, and I absolutely love that about them.
They really do feel like new fights, but only to a certain extent. Learning to avoid the Nightshade Paolumu’s clouds of sleep-inducing smoke or its new wildly erratic mid-air attack is exciting, but it’s still not as exciting as fighting any of Iceborne’s entirely new monsters – or even the returning ones that are simply new to World. Subspecies are great, but those Paolumu and Pukei-Pukei are still a bit too familiar (especially when the visuals of their armor sets and weapons are often just reskins).
Again, this could be an issue long-time Monster Hunter players won’t care about because their expectations for expansions are different. The series has a long history of filling out its expansions with an influx of Subspecies – but as one of the roughly nine million players who likely started with World, it was a touch disappointing to see Iceborne’s campaign rely so heavily on familiar faces rather than new ones, no matter how fun they were to fight… and turn into pants. It is worth noting, however, that more monsters will be added for free post-launch (similar to the base game) with the returning Rajang the first to arrive next month.
That all said, I was happy to see that Iceborne introduces subtle changes to old monsters as well. Even if they never feature in the story or get a Subspecies, monsters get more than just more health in Master Rank (though they do get a helluva lot of health too, so fights can last far longer than you may be used to). Some tweaks are as minor as Rathalos now seemingly staying in flight longer and deflecting attacks against its wings more easily, or Jyuratodus deflecting attacks on any body part after you break through its mud covering.
But my favorite changes were ones that more noticeably influenced how a monster behaved, like Tzitzi-Ya-Ku now hopping to change direction in the middle of its signature flash-stun attack – it’s awesome in the completely infuriating sort of way, but I love that it manages to make that fight a little harder without just bumping up numbers. Master Rank monsters are stronger and more resilient too, but these tweaks made them feel different to fight from the base game’s buffed up Tempered versions.
It’s not an overstatement when I say Iceborne feels like a reset, a new starting point that ratchets everything up and leaves you with little reason to head back to High Rank (unless you are missing some stupid Vaal Hazak fangs, of course). But interestingly, Iceborne doesn’t wait very long at all to start introducing Tempered versions of Master Rank monsters, so you’ll be able to amp things up even further once your gear makes the jump.
A Wider World
While the snowy new location called the Hoarfrost Reach is the focal point of Iceborne, only about half (at most) of the campaign is spent there. You’ll return to the mainland of the New World a fair amount, but there’s actually a great balance struck between exploring this beautiful new playground and facing fresh threats in familiar places. It keeps that winter wonderland from ever getting dull, though it was never at much risk of that to begin with.
While the constant need for Hot Drinks and the slow pace of moving through heavily snowy areas can be tedious at times, the Hoarfrost Reach is a fantastic addition to World. The different sections of its map feel varied and exciting, from icy caverns to hot springs to snowy fields to acid-filled underground lairs. My favorite spot was a frozen cliff face where whole sections of the ground can come crumbling down, dropping you to an underground area far away if you don’t escape to stable footing in time.
Seliana, the new town established just outside of the Hoarfrost Reach, is exciting for a different reason: it’s flat. This is clearly a location that was designed with usability in mind, and its spiderweb of paths makes moving around easy while keeping all of your needed stations (the Resource Center, the Canteen, the Blacksmith, etc.) a mere moment away from each other. Form suffers a little for function here, as the drab white and grey of Seliana make it nowhere near as lovely as the ramshackle ships and colorful foliage of Astera, but it’s so wonderfully convenient that I rarely wanted to go back.
And even if it’s not quite as pretty a picture on the surface, it’s packed with lovely little details all the same. A new chef named the Grammeowster contrasts the Meowscular Chef’s style by cooking with love and delicacy as felynes bake bread and mix stew around her, the new forge is stunning to look at, and the crisscrossing paths and intimate layout of the town give it a much younger feel than the decades-old Astera. Iceborne also continues World’s trend of downright incredible music, as I’ve been whistling Seliana’s lovely theme song for the better part of a month.
Seliana’s Gathering Hub is also a cut above, full of extravagant saunas and pools to sit in and interactable foot baths where you can pet and play with your palico. Unlike Seliana itself, it flaunts style and substance together because it also has access to absolutely everything you might want to check between missions, making its usefulness over the Astera Gathering Hub incomparable. This is suddenly a place where you can easily socialize with groups of friends between missions in a way that’s far more functional than before – which makes it even better that Iceborne also added a freecam photo mode to mess around with.
Meanwhile, the new personal room in Seliana is about style and nothing else. Placing pets in your Astera rooms is fun, but this is on another level entirely. There are pages of pet spots, all of which can now hold small groups of Endemic Life instead of just one. But more than that, the room itself is customizable to a hysterical degree: floor type, wall type, furniture, curtains, paintings, hanging decorations, items on shelves, plant life, and the color, pattern, or wood grain of many of those things can be changed to your liking. It’s a needlessly elaborate system that affects nothing at all, but that didn’t stop me from spending hours of my time and WAY too many research points buying and customizing this space to my liking.
Tweaks On Tweaks On Tweaks
The quality-of-life improvements don’t stop at Seliana, either. It seems as though a billion tiny changes have been made across the board, including tweaking the UI, how you interact with certain systems, and more. Stuff like not having to return to your room to change your Palico’s equipment, getting a headquarters-specific radial menus to use emotes, and being able to fire your slinger with your weapon drawn. None of it will flip the way you play Monster Hunter on its head, but they’re meaningful enhancements that show Iceborne is intent on doing more than just adding monsters.
One of the most tangible tweaks is an entirely new mechanic that lets you ride small monsters either toward the monster you are hunting, following its tracks, or a location you set on your map. This monster taxi service is leaps and bounds faster than running, and makes the time spent in transit feel useful because it even allows you to use items or sharpen your weapon while riding. It cuts out so much of the tedious in-between of hunting when a monster runs away, especially one you’ve fought a dozen times before. It’s also just cool as hell.
Weapons themselves have also been tweaked in subtle but exciting ways. Every weapon type has received a couple new moves or combos – ones that don’t completely change how they handle or anything, but add a bit more nuance for experienced users. My main weapon is the Insect Glaive, which has two new mid-air attacks that are fairly basic, but you can now also use slinger ammo to power up your Kinsect. The type of ammo influences the effect, so I found myself thinking just a little bit differently while fighting as a result, adding a touch of freshness to a familiar weapon.
A bigger change, no matter what weapon you’re using, is the addition of the Clutch Claw. This tool lets you grapple onto a monster and either wound a part, change its direction, or try to drive it into a wall, depending on what you do. Don’t think of this like mounting a monster; it’s a very different and specialized mechanic which lets you grab on, accomplish a task, and retreat. It was relatively confusing to understand how it behaved at first, but my party and I eventually realized just how powerful it is. That realization made me very thankful it doesn’t take up one of your two tool slots.
Wounding a monster part makes it take more damage and be less likely to deflect an attack, which is nearly vital against things like that High Rank Jyuratodus I mentioned earlier, which has had its deflecting capabilities increased by a lot. On the other hand, driving a monster into a wall felt inconsistent at first, but once we realized how reliant this attack is on the state of the monster, it became borderline insane – it can deal at least 1,000 damage and also knocks the monster down. The Clutch Claw seemed like a neat boondoggle at first, but learning its nuances and mastering it with a group allowed us to better take on the hardest Iceborne had to offer.
And that difficulty is a tricky thing. The main campaign took me about 40 hours to reach the credits, and that was at a somewhat leisurely pace with a bit of grinding mixed in to improve my gear. Everything in it is a good challenge, but it’s also not quite the spike in difficulty veterans may have been hoping for after honing their skills in the base game – especially if you’ve been taking down tempered monsters for the last year (though I bet even Extreme Behemoth will get a fair bit easier with Master Rank gear). I think it’s good that the main story is still achievable, and of course the credits rolling has never really been the end of a Monster Hunter game by any means…
Avoiding spoilers, Iceborne’s endgame shakes things up in a very unexpected way. You’ll spend your post-credits grind time in a vastly different manner than anything you’ve seen in Monster Hunter: World so far. It’s hard to speak vaguely about it, but what I will say is that it’s an extremely cool direction to go in – though one which potentially relies more heavily on some of the less exciting parts of grinding for materials than I’d like. Still, it’s a wonderful surprise and more than worth getting to and spending time with after you’ve “beaten” Iceborne.
This article was originally published by IGN.COM