How do you follow up on your greatest hit, Monster Hunter World (MHW)? Since its release in early 2018, it has surpassed all expectations and turned a franchise that formerly enjoyed widespread popularity only within its home territory of Japan into not just a global smash hit, but Capcom’s single best-selling title ever, with over 13 million copies shipped so far. Director Yuya Tokuda was tasked by series producer Ryozo Tsujimoto to usher in the series’ return to home consoles with a title that could capture the attention of western console playing audiences by creating an entry point for new gamers and hopefully becoming the basis of the franchise for a long time to come. They made many steps towards overhauling a franchise that had so far seen only minor changes from both a technical and a mechanical standpoint for a decade.
In this pursuit, many of Monster Hunter’s trademark elements were streamlined and modernised, resulting in what was easily the series’ most approachable title, but as a result, also lost out on some of the challenge that had drawn existing fans to the series to begin with. The fast, fluid movement of hunters and their weapons’ updated move-sets made a mockery of the monsters that had, for the most part, become rather sluggish. To balance out their more far more lifelike movement, lack of animatronic-like turning animations, and pauses between discrete actions; the now nigh universally solo-scaled health pools of its monsters could hardly stand a chance against the power creep offered by the revised skill system, powerful new mantles, and the new super moves weapons could throw out at will. MHWs extensive changes to the classic Monster Hunter formula, thus, while never going so far as to betray the franchise’s soul, had created somewhat of a divide in parts of the community, and debates regarding whether MHW was a refreshment the series sorely needed after fatigue began to set in in the latter half of the series’ fourth generation, or too severe a departure from the series’ proven formula, rage on to this very day.
Enter Iceborne. The self-styled “massive expansion” to Monster Hunter: World is director Daisuke Ichihara’s second outing since his directorial debut with Monster Hunter XX/Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate. While Yuya Tokuda and the MHW team are doubtlessly already at work on the 6th generation of Monster Hunter, the role of creating the inevitable “G” version of World falls to the “B-team”. But make no mistake – Iceborne is no mere cash grab, rushed out the door in response to the base game’s surprising success. Development on the expansion had already begun as early as during the development of Double Cross’ high definition port for the Nintendo Switch in 2017, which would eventually reach our shores as Generations Ultimate a year later, with director Ichihara having to pull double duty overseeing the port’s development as progress on Iceborne was underway. Nonetheless, Iceborne seeks to address many of the most common complaints raised against the base game, from a lacklustre, repetitive endgame, to a drought of interesting higher-level monsters, balancing oversights, and a general lack of challenge, in a meaty package that promises to rival the base game in content. Big promises indeed, but can it live up to its marketing pitch?
On paper, Iceborne’s offerings are par for the course for the series, and in line with the typical “G” version formula, in spite of the absence of the usual “G” or “Ultimate” moniker. A new storyline taking place after the base game’s ending, a new tier of especially challenging quests – now designated “Master Rank” rather than the usual G Rank, an additional map, a new flagship monster, a new final boss, a number of returning monsters that did not make the cut for the base game, some variants and subspecies of existing monsters, just about all of the usual trappings of the quintessential Monster Hunter updated rerelease are accounted for. But Iceborne does not settle for the bare minimum – in fact, in terms of the sheer volume of content added on top of the base game, it’s easily the most content-packed expansion the series has ever seen.
On its own, it features a monster count falling just short of the base game’s at launch, easily surpassing the 20 and 23 additional monsters of previous G rank expansions Generations Ultimate and 4 Ultimate respectively, placing the combined monster count roughly on par with PSP magnum opus Freedom Unite, especially impressive considering this was achieved over the course of just two releases and with far less opportunity to draw from previous games’ assets. Even the new story, rather than being a mere short token addendum, has plenty of meat to it – at least by Monster Hunter standards. To top it all off, similarly to Generations Ultimate before it, Iceborne introduces new combat features to expand the range of options available to players in combat, both specific to individual weapon types, and common to all weapons. These additions to the hunter’s repertoire will be available to players from the beginning of the game so long as they have purchased Iceborne. However, all of Iceborne‘s new content doesn’t become available to players until after they’ve reached the base game’s finale, at Hunter Rank 16 – This is an expansion, you must already own the base game.
This does mean that new players can jump immediately into Master Rank after MHW’s ending, skipping straight over the high-rank post-game content the game featured both at launch, and the many free updates the game received since. Iceborne’s story starts out slow, with the player character and their Handler sidekick being tasked with investigating the sighting of a Legiana, usually native to the Coral Highlands, in the Ancient Forest. The breather doesn’t last long, however, and you quickly discover the origin behind the out-of-place beast: a mass migration of Legiana to lands unknown, accompanied by a sound akin to song. The Research Commission organises an expedition in pursuit of the flock of Legiana aboard the Third Fleet’s airship, eventually reaching what appears to be their destination – a hitherto undiscovered landmass with a frigid, inhospitable climate, dubbed the Hinterlands. You’re given the objective of scouting ahead in search of a safe landing place for your airship, and after donning some more weather-appropriate clothing, you get the first taste of Iceborne‘s new locale, the Hoarfrost Reach. And it makes a strong first impression indeed – emerging from the narrow passage you’ve set up camp in, you step into a snowy meadow surrounded by pine trees, some standing tall, others tipping or fallen. Herds of Popo, docile herbivores sporting huge tusks and thick fur, tread through the snow, accompanying their young as they graze or drink from a nearby shallow stream.
But you’re not given much time to explore and admire the newly discovered land before you run into the first threat – a piscine wyvern called the Beotodus, serving as Iceborne’s introduction to Master Rank, stands in the way of your airship’s safe landing. At first glance, it’s little more than a winter-themed knockoff of the Jyuratodus, and you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as such, but despite its status as a mere tutorial monster, this frosty fish nonetheless serves as a reminder that you’ve just stepped foot into master rank – not just via its much more varied and dangerous attacks and more aggressive behaviour compared to its muddy counterpart, but sheer bulk and power as well. Expect this to be the standard with Master Rank – health pools of early game monsters can increase from a modest 5,000-6,000 in high rank, to 17,000-18,000 in master rank, with a hefty defence modifier slashing your damage by around 30% on top of that. MHW, more so perhaps than any title in the series before it, featured an absurd level of power creep in its postgame. Kulve Taroth weapons, Drachen and Gamma series armour sets and decorations all contribute to what is probably the largest gap between players within the same rank yet. The developers acknowledged this, and were faced with a dilemma on how to approach the problem – either linearly increase monster stats from high rank and accept that seasoned players will curb stomp the game’s content with little difficulty, or design the content to challenge players who have been keeping up with the game, and leave new players faced with a massive grind in order to catch up.
There really was no solution that was going to please everyone here, but the developers decidedly leaned towards ensuring a good experience for the existing fans – but not exclusively so. New players will definitely face some growing pains as their unaugmented late high-rank armour will protect them about as well as paper, and their lacklustre damage output will most likely turn some of the earlier hunts into exercises in endurance. Experienced players will be able to keep wearing their endgame high-rank armour for a while, but newer folks will be well advised to upgrade to some master rank armour as soon as possible, for the significant boost in defence if nothing else.
Luckily, it does not take long for the Commission to establish their operating base in this new region, named “Seliana”, whereupon the game opens up a little, allowing players to revisit lower-tier monsters in their Master Rank versions for an armour upgrade before progressing with the story. Seliana itself, as a hub, is a significant improvement over Astera in the base game. The homely, welcoming atmosphere does not come at the cost of practicality, with key facilities all placed in a compact, accessible manner. From the canteen where you eat for useful stat boosts and accept quests located near the centre, to key facilities such as the resource centre, botanical research and smithy which are all only a few seconds away. The gathering hub, as well, now houses all of the necessary facilities to minimise loading screens, even if I still do not see it receiving that much use when MHW‘s multiplayer system still makes fixed lobbies almost sort of redundant, and encourages you to simply rely on SOS flares to fill up your quests with random players you will, most likely, never interact with. It’s a much nicer place to be than MHW’s multiplayer hub, but it’s still a feature you will have to go out of your way to get any use out of it.
In the events that follow, unusual ecological phenomena begin to occur all over the New World, even outside of the Hinterlands, and it’s up to you to preserve the New World’s ecosystems and deal with the appearance of all sorts of new monsters that have appeared, including the elusive elder dragon Velkhana that has awoken thanks to the same events that set the Legiana’s crossing in motion. If you think this all seems rather familiar, then you wouldn’t be wrong. Iceborne’s story is at times rather blatant in its reuse of ideas from the original, but it manages to distinguish itself in a number of ways that elevate it somewhat above MHW’s own very mediocre plot. Velkhana as a rival to the player has a much more significant presence than Nergigante. It’s a constant, looming danger that demands a sense of urgency, and its threat level is sold to the player much more convincingly than Nergigante’s was. The blame for this should not squarely be placed on Nergigante as a concept, as Iceborne also does that monster more justice than the base game ever did, but the original plotline essentially fizzled out after the climactic encounter with Zorah Magdaros, with a sudden sharp decline in scripted assignments and cutscenes until the sudden appearance of the final boss with little buildup or fanfare.
Characters’ personal motivations are also fleshed out more, which works wonders when in the base game, most characters may as well have only existed to spout exposition at you. There’s only so much these details can do to improve the story when the stale writing hasn’t improved much – dialogue still sounds like the writers threw darts at a dartboard full of stock phrases and constructed a script from it – but compared to MHW’s story, whose paper-thin characters only really served to support a mystery with a conclusion just about anyone could have seen coming from a mile away, Iceborne‘s more personal struggles and discoveries manage to be vastly more engaging, even if it still really never amounts to that much more than a justification to go out and hunt. But this is Monster Hunter, after all, so what more do you really need?
The real meat (pardon the pun) of Monster Hunter has always been its monsters and combat, and Iceborne does not disappoint in this regard. The initial reveal schedule going at a snail’s pace may have given rise to some doubts at first, but this expansion truly is massive in its scope – no PR half-truths here. The highlight here is, of course, the selection of returning monsters from just about every generation of Monster Hunter: Yian Garuga representing the series’ PSP debut Freedom. Tigrex and Nargacuga, cover monsters of Freedom 2 and Freedom Unite, the titles that turned the franchise into a system seller. Barioth, Zinogre and Brachydios representing the third generation of titles on Nintendo systems. And lastly, Glavenus, an icon of the flashy Generations titles of the 4th generation. No matter which title they started with, returning players will almost certainly be greeted by a familiar face from their first experience with the series, and new players will be able to experience the history of Monster Hunter and how its monster designs have progressed over the span of multiple generations, only appropriate for an expansion released in the middle of the franchise celebrating its 15th anniversary.
Every one of these monsters has been remade from the ground up in meticulous detail in a manner that is faithful to the originals, yet still fresh and updated to look as lifelike as World demands. And most importantly, unlike some of the returning monsters featured in World (looking at you, Diablos), they are for the most part every bit as quick and aggressive as you would hope them to be, with some adjustments to some attack recovery times and hitzone values in order to compensate for the lack of slow turns, but otherwise with their challenge left intact. The new subspecies and variants, too, receive significant increases in aggression, as well as revamped movesets that are not just different from their base forms, but highly distinct in their own right, a breath of fresh air after the disappointing dullness of World’s monsters mechanically once you looked past their aesthetics. In fact, these variants are unique enough that it strikes me as rather odd that in some cases, variants seem to replace their basic counterparts outright in Master Rank. A rather bizarre decision when updating those monsters’ basic forms for Master Rank probably would not have taken that much additional time and would have been an easy way to have a bit of additional content. That does not, however, in any way detract from the quality of the monsters the expansion does add in any way.
Monsters returning from MHW also get some revisions in their behaviour for Master Rank, and in almost all cases get at least one new move as well, which change a fight enough to feel fresh again even after you’ve hunted their high-rank versions to near extinction. Two of World’s most significant issues were at times somewhat uninspired monster move-sets, and the dismal variety in higher-end monsters to hunt, and Iceborne addresses both of them in one fell swoop.
To ensure that these improvements don’t go to waste, Iceborne’s monsters got a noticeable increase in durability that seems far more appropriate for the hunters’ capabilities. In MHW, with good enough gear, it became fairly common to take down most of the basic monsters in less than two minutes, with elder dragons only lasting slightly longer, and spending much of the fight incapacitated. The developers appear to be well aware of this, and as a result, not only did even basic monsters get health pools that put Generations Ultimate’s hyper monsters to shame, but several safety measures were put in place to make the infamous stun locks of MHW more difficult to achieve. Getting multiple flinches or trips in a row on a monster will instead put them into a special stagger state that gives you a free opening, but also serves as a “return to neutral”, in fighting game terms. Continuing a true lock from here would require a KO, trap or environmental gimmick, otherwise, your setup is broken. Monsters also gain a resistance to flash bombs, with monsters now getting up instantly from being flashed out of the sky, and gaining temporary immunity to flash bombs entirely if you attempt to use them repeatedly. Of course things might turn out differently with min/maxed gear, or once the title update power creep sets in, but it was incredibly refreshing to be playing MHW and actually have a fight last beyond the 10 minute mark, and if there was only one thing I could have asked of Iceborne, this would have been it.
However, hunters do get some new tricks up their sleeves against these tougher monsters. The first of which is the Clutch Claw, a grappling hook device of sorts attached to your Slinger allowing you to latch on to a monster at any time. The Clutch Claw has two main purposes in combat: Softening up monster parts with weapon attacks, or using your slinger to force a knockdown with a Flinch Shot. The new wounding mechanic of Clutch Claw attacks increases the hit zone value of whichever part of a monster you targeted, allowing you to turn just about any body part you want into a weak spot. On paper, I’m not too fond of this mechanic, as monsters’ hit zone values and how they force you to approach a fight have always been an integral part of the monster design, and the ability to simply bypass this was worrying. It’s not quite as bad as I had feared in practice, and the clutch claw doesn’t do too much to change which parts of a monster you target. Moreover, the formula used for the wounding mechanic ensures that using it on already weak body parts has a diminishing returns effect, to limit the amount of damage players can do. Clutch claw attacks also need to be timed properly during a time where the monster is unlikely to attack with the body part you are targeting, lest you get knocked off immediately, but even with all of these prudent measures, a part of me questions just how necessary this addition really was.
It’s disingenuous to simply dismiss the claw as an optional tool and thus something you can easily ignore, when the aforementioned new stagger state for monsters is tailor-made as an opening to use the clutch claw, and monsters are very clearly designed with it in mind, and while for most weapons, it integrates into their ideal playstyles reasonably well and without too much fuss, it can sometimes just break up the flow of fights in a frustratingly unnatural way, visually more subtle than having a button prompt for a contextual action shoved in your face, but in practice really not too much different. I don’t outright dislike the Clutch Claw – at least, not nearly as much as I do dislike its finicky targeting and occasional awkwardness when moving around on a monster – but I can’t help but feel it might not be a feature we’ll be seeing again in future titles.
The weapons themselves also received significant changes, from balancing tweaks to entirely new moves for each weapon. The intention was to both balance weapons better against one another and increase gameplay variety for each weapon, as balance issues created some very linear gameplans for certain weapons, and while they succeeded, for the most part, some additions definitely worked out better than others. Three of the biggest winners are the Hunting Horn, Switch Axe and Gunlance, three struggling weapons that got significant improvements in this expansion.
The Hunting Horn, on top of general speed improvements and a stronger backswing, got a rather significant amount of burst damage potential from its new echo waves attack and the Impact Echo Wave song. The weapon got a very nice selection of high raw damage horns with the ever-so-desirable Attack Up Large song, as well as Impact Echo Wave. What is a shame is that not very much was done to make setups without this incredibly potent song more desirable. Elementally focused horns, with their own dragon-element variation on the Impact Echo Wave song, are presented as an alternative, but even with the two element-boosting songs combined, you only get around a 20% improvement to elemental damage for your party, an equal increase to the Attack Up XL effect, but even on elemental-focused weapons, physical damage still makes up a majority of your damage output.
The Switch Axe got some much-needed improvements to the Axe mode, including increased damage, a new fade slash, and a new finisher that significantly increases your axe’s stagger potential, making it useful for purposes other than just the Morph Slash Finisher and refilling your sword gauge, but the most weapon-redefining change is easily the buff to the Zero Sum Discharge. Not only does it do very respectable damage over time now, but being able to execute it from the Clutch Claw makes landing it where and when you want it much easier than before, so long as you pick the right timing to not get interrupted. What makes the strategy border on the exploitative is the blind spots certain monsters have – some monsters very rarely use certain body parts to attack, making it exceedingly safe to simply latch on to that part, weaken it and then unleash one Clutch ZSD after another. This isn’t simply limited to lower-level monsters either, as even Elder Dragons like Namielle and Velkhana are vulnerable to it. The “ZSD spam” playstyle is already proving to be rather unpopular with fans of the weapon, and its severity is already being put under scrutiny by developers, so if it turns out to be a genuine problem, you can expect this to be one of the first things on the chopping block.
The Gunlance, meanwhile, has always been a weapon that had to dread G rank titles. Historically, it’s always had difficulties with its shelling damage being unable to keep up with weapon damage in the endgame, and these fears were all the more prominent with the absurd power of armour sets in MHW, potentially making shell damage look even more pitiful in comparison. Iceborne attempts to address this age-long problem with several changes. First, all non-scaling explosive damage in Master Rank is increased by 50%, up from high rank’s 20% – don’t be alarmed when using a Gunlance for the first time in Master Rank and seeing low-rank values, that’s simply the defence modifier at work. Second, a certain endgame armour set’s set bonus allows the Artillery skill to increase up to level 5, granting 50% increased shell damage and 70% reduced Wyvernfire cooldown. Third, the new Wyrmstake Blast, while extremely poorly received in the first beta, has since been buffed significantly, and provides a massive boost to all of your shelling attacks as long as you can consistently hit the Wyrmstake with them, on average just about doubling up on all of your shells, while also adding some depth to a weapon some argued should never be allowed to be strong due to the thoughtless nature of its hit zone-ignoring shell attacks. The Wyrmstake Blast rewards precision, though it still lets the weapon play by its own rules by letting you choose your “weak point”. As the Wyrmstake blast buffs were not available to try in the review build, one cannot say for sure yet how strong the weapon will be with all of these factors combined, but this might be the first time the Gunlance may have a promising future ahead of it in a G rank title.
In general, while those 3 weapons may have stood out the most from the new additions, just about every weapon got improvements to their playstyle that make the gameplay experience more varied and less linear, with only a few weapons like the Dual Blades not benefitting much from their additions. Time will tell how everything will pan out under the scrutiny of the game’s top-level players, but the consensus on Iceborne’s weapon changes so far is predominantly positive.
Iceborne’s new locale, Hoarfrost Reach, impresses with the same attention to detail you’ve come to expect from MHW’s ecosystems. A far cry from the barren open worlds that have so tragically become the norm these days, the Hoarfrost Reach does not sacrifice density in pursuit of sheer scale. That is not to say that the new locale is small – in fact, it’s the largest area yet, to the point where parts of it are barred off until you progress further in the story. But what’s most impressive is that none of this gets in the way of your gameplay experience. The Ancient Forest was an incredibly impressive artistic showcase, but actually traversing it and fighting within it can be positively miserable with its convoluted layout and multi-layered areas with massive travel times between individual zones. The Hoarfrost Reach is no less gorgeous, with its varied zones ranging from snowy forest clearings to icy cliffs and overpasses overlooking the sea, with penguins frolicking in the distance at the frozen shores, mountain passes, and at the end of it all, Velkhana’s positively otherworldly lair.
It’s all incredibly intuitively laid out, individual areas come closer to the open arena-like feel of the older titles while still preserving the feel of a living ecosystem that World seeks to achieve. Its varied zones can lend the right kind of atmosphere to any fight as needed, from barely-lit caves littered with monster carcasses, to picturesque winter landscapes, narrow passes between unstable mountain faces, and arctic landmasses sculpted out of pure ice, where the ground itself threatens to crumble beneath a monster’s onslaught, but none of it ever detracts from the core components of the combat, unless you’re really not a fan of environmental traps, and you never have to chase after monsters for the sorts of distances locales like the Ancient Forest have become infamous for. The Monster Hunter devs have come a long way since the horrific ledge spam and quicksand pits of the 4th generation when it comes to the map design, and the Hoarfrost Reach is easily one of their best efforts yet.
What may create some more decidedly divided opinions is the equipment. Whilst numbers-wise, the restraint the developers showed in the weapons’ stats after the rampant number inflation of the past few generations is praiseworthy, in some cases, the stat budgeting weapons receive can feel rather arbitrary. Much-needed elemental damage buffs are often balanced out by frustratingly low damage values on some elemental weapons, while in other cases, weapons from monsters such as Acidic Glavenus and Zorah Magdaros receive barely any penalties for having near-maxed out raw damage values. Weapons eligible for custom upgrades also don’t seem to actually be penalised with lower base stats compared to their uniquely-designed counterparts, as if the game sought to punish you for a preference for classic Monster Hunter weapon designs. And yes, this means that weapon designs are still a mixture of unique and generic, which is sure to disappoint the myriad fans that were hoping for an end to that practice, though the increase in higher-end monsters also naturally shifted the balance closer to having more unique designs. Compared to MHW where the distinction often felt arbitrary, Iceborne at least gives these weapons with “modular” designs a unique role in that their lower maximum rarity, while giving them usually a smaller stat budget, also makes them less likely to require rare materials, and makes them hit their peak power earlier than rarer weapons with unique designs do.
Additionally, in the endgame, you unlock the ability to customise the looks of these modular weapons by replacing the monster parts of the weapon with that of another monster, while preserving the same iron or bone base, which also increases one of the weapon’s stats depending on the monster whose parts you selected. The fact that each upgrade level only gives a single point of raw damage, affinity, element, or whichever else you choose makes the system likely to be quite a daunting grind, however. In terms of armour skills, Master Rank armour sets don’t improve much over what we’ve seen on Gamma sets and Drachen in World’s endgame. Most of the increase in power comes from slots, especially the all-new level 4 slots present on all Beta armour pieces, making skill setups likely to be more decoration-reliant than ever. Said decorations are, as usual, obtained from tempered investigations, which are now available even as you’re progressing through the game. Players going into Iceborne with a huge selection of decorations will definitely have the advantage, as the master rank decoration pools are naturally diluted by the new level 4 decorations, but armour sets still come with plenty of slots for your old level 1-3 gems.
Until someone discovers the precise odds for each kind of decoration from the new tiers of Feystones, it remains to be seen whether Master Rank content still offers better odds for these old decorations, or if players may have to go back and grind High-Rank content for them if they do not want to be reliant solely on possible time-limited event quests offering these charms.
Augmentations meanwhile are no longer tied to RNG streamstones from investigations, but to a new endgame system, using special materials from monsters to add augments with different point costs to your weapon, with your maximum point budget being dependent on the weapon’s rarity. All of the augments from World return, but with the addition of elemental damage augmentations that costs only a single point, doubtlessly added to coincide with the various other buffs to elemental damage. The fact that augments are no longer tied to investigations means more variety in the content you’re participating in in the endgame, but it also splits your time between grinding decorations and grinding for augmentation materials. It’s difficult to say for sure until the exact rates are known, but the result may actually be a longer grind than before, albeit a definitely much less soul-crushing one.
In the grand scheme of things, a few remaining balancing concerns that the developers already stated would be addressed in future if they remained too prominent, a few odd choices with equipment that may only last as long as until the first title update shakes everything up again for all we know, and some extra, decently varied grind added onto the game when we’ve already had to live through the hell of Kulve Taroth, do very little to detract from the fact that the core of Iceborne is an incredibly solid Monster Hunter offering. If Monster Hunter: World was ambitious, financially extremely successful, but still quite flawed experiment at a new direction for the series, then Iceborne is certainly one hell of a follow-up act. It certainly got me, who was just about ready to give up on the franchise, to feel some hope for what’s to come once more.
Maybe Monster Hunter: World becoming the basis for the franchise for the next 10 years might not be so bad, after all.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne£34.99
- - The Hoarfrost Reach is both gorgeous and a wonderful map to fight in
- - Expanded endgame, while no less grindy, is much more varied than World’s endless Elder’s Recess TED investigations
- - Great strides taken in the monster roster, both in quality and quantity
- - Most weapons received significant improvements to their gameplay experience
- - Lots of content still to come in free title updates
- - A few weapons’ new additions don’t feel very impactful
- - Clutch Claw has a few balancing concerns and doesn’t feel like an entirely natural addition to Monster Hunter combat
- - Generic weapon models are still just as difficult to like
- - Controversial rotating event quest model remains