After enduring one of the hottest days on record last week, it was a godsend that Capcom granted me a few hours with Monster Hunter: World’s Iceborne expansion, a cool escape to a virtual world evidently unaffected by climate change.
World had already been a huge evolution for the series in its leap from handheld hardware to home consoles and PC. It also graduated from being a mere Japanese phenomenon to global smash with over 13 million sales to date, making it Capcom’s best selling title ever. But series veterans will also know that’s only half the story: every Monster Hunter entry always has an enhanced and expanded follow-up.
That is to say Iceborne isn’t your run-of-the-mill DLC to dust off your hunter for a few new missions; it's essentially the ‘Ultimate’ version, which also unlocks the all-new Master Rank. I’m not entirely sure if it’s accurate to call this the equivalent of G-rank; in past games, that rank has always been the preserve of the rarest of elite hunters who’ve braved the toughest of hunts in the very late post-game, as opposed to a rank you’re given after the base game has been beaten. Regardless, once you drop down onto the new cold and hostile Hoarfrost Reach, you quickly realise that when they call it Master Rank, they mean it.
Your first mission in Iceborne isn’t technically a hunt but an expedition since you’re clearing the way for the Research Commission to set up base in this new area. That means there’s no limit on time or how many times you can get carted – which is quite the blessing, it turns out.
Now I would pride myself as a veteran hunter who’s sunk a good hundred-odd hours into Monster Hunter: World, but I’d also got my hunter to a build I was quite content with months ago before moving on to other games, so I expected I would be a little rusty. But oh boy, this was one cold shower of a wake-up call.
Don’t expect another walking piñata like the Great Jagras to ease you back in. Iceborne assumes you’re already a master – after all, this expansion only unlocks after you’ve beat the base game’s high rank campaign. Instead, your first fight is with Beotodus, a piscine wyvern that burrows through the deep snow, leaping up at you and whipping its icy tail fin at ferocious speed. It also serves as a reminder of what a pain in the arse Monster Hunter’s cold climates and ice-based monsters can be.
First, you’ve got to deal with the freezing temperatures sapping your stamina, which also recovers much more slowly. It’s basically time to get the hot drinks in, which are fortunately easy to craft by collecting hot pepper plants in the area. There’s also the snow, which may look pretty as characters and wildlife leave a trail as they go, but wander in too deep and you’ll find it actually slows you down, so you’re better off moving to higher ground during a fight.
Regardless, I was put in my place when Beotodus sent me packing within the first five minutes. As a Long Sword main, I might have put it down to my reckless comboing, but the fact that most of this monster’s attacks will instantly hit you with the extra stamina-sapping Iceblight, which hot drinks won’t work on, meant I quickly found my poor hunter winded and vulnerable. Suffice to say, I ended up adopting a more cautious approach. After attempts to capture it to end the hunt early failed miserably – I guess I was so out of practice I couldn’t tell whether it was actually close to croaking – it felt like an age before I took it down, definitely longer than the 50 minutes you’d get in a typical hunt.
Fortunately, Iceborne also introduces new abilities for hunters, including for every weapon. For instance, Long Sword wielders can sheathe their blade then whip it back out like a bad-ass samurai with the Iai Slash, though the pitiful damage numbers suggests it’s a bit style over substance. Much more effective, however, is the aptly named Clutch Claw which uses your slinger to hook onto a monster, considerably easier to perform than mounting and almost as effective – just don’t try it when they’re enraged.
But as much as I do relish a hardcore hunt, this was also a chance to take in the delights of Seliana, the new steam-powered hub area. It’s a pretty pleasant place to be, with all the amenities you’re familiar with in Astera, including a canteen staffed by a friendly old cat lady who is actually a cat (or Grammeowster Chef to you). And yes, the food in this game continues to look unbelievably mouthwatering.
The real highlight, however, goes to the new gathering hub, a huge step-up from the rather lacklustre one in World, and far more spacious. It’s basically a hunter’s ski resort, a place you’d want to hang out and let loose after a long day’s hunt.
It’s also got hot springs, that rather popular (and usually cringe) anime trope. But Iceborne isn’t anime and actually, it’s all rather tasteful since everyone’s wearing bathing suits. There’s also some fun emotes available so you can splash water at each other or jump on your back and have a well-earned lie-down. There’s even foot baths where you’re accompanied by your palico, and the emotes here are just adorable. It’s these little touches that should encourage more hunters to use the hub to rendezvous and muck about in their downtime.
You can also find new emotes for your hunter to use in and outside of quests. My new favourite isn’t even a typical emote but one that actually changes your movement animations so that you’re going around performing a kabuki dance. I daresay it may even supplant the prance.
Frankly, I could’ve stayed there for longer, but I had to get in a few more hunts, including the big moose-like Banbaro who hits like a truck but which I successfully captured with tranq bombs. We’ve already had announcements that monsters from past series will be making their return, including Barioth, Glavenus and Tigrex. I didn’t get to encounter any of these during my hands-on, but I was surprised to see some other surprise remixes.
I hadn’t expected to run into a Tobi-Kadachi - incidentally, I actually had my hunter kitted out in a new Kadachi armour set - but this was an all-new variant, and not just a palette swap. I’ve fought Tobi-Kadachi plenty of times in World, and as one of the early monsters in the game, it’s something of a cakewalk. The Viper Tobi-Kadachi on the other hand is a proper toughie, not only capable of paralysing you but has poisonous thorns all over its tail, which it won’t hesitate slamming you with or whipping out the thorns as projectiles in an arc.
There’s hints of more variations, as this hunt was also briefly interrupted by Fulgur Anjanath. I didn’t really stop to see how it differed from its fire-breathing counterpart as I thought better of provoking it and just focus on ol’ Tobes. It nonetheless has me excitedly anticipating what other variants will show up in the final game to keep pro hunters on their toes, and whether that will also mean the ‘old’ new world will also get a bit of a remix. But if it’s true that the Hoarfrost Reach’s map will end up being as big as the base game altogether, I might be content just staying in the big chill.
Even if it doesn’t explicitly bear the ‘Ultimate’ title or ‘G’ rank, Iceborne is exactly the kind of big, meaty (of the well-done steak kind), and challenging content that Monster Hunter fans crave. You’ll just want to make sure that, like any good hunter, you’re properly prepared with sharpened weapons when the expansion arrives on PS4 and Xbox One on September 6th, and PC in January 2020.