In its opening moments, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne hits many of the same narrative notes as the original game. You, the Fifth Fleet’s foremost A-Rank hunter, are here to “study” the ecology of the New World. In the pursuit of this knowledge, you’re sent out to follow a pack of Legiana that are behaving oddly. What you end up finding is a vividly detailed new snowbound continent, full of fascinating and surprising new monsters, and a story that openly embraces the settler-colonialism that the core game tried to keep at arm’s length.
The new environment was obviously crafted with the same care and attention to detail as the base game. Frozen plants twinkle in a sun dappled forest. Small round creatures that look like a mix between a bushbaby and a macaque float in hot springs, a dusting of snow covering their heads. A cliff made of ice creaks underfoot, threatening to give way at any moment.
In kind, the new monsters in this expansion are ferocious and terrifyingly fast. The expansion adds a new rank to the base game’s Low/High rank distinction, and the Master rank monsters are appropriately scaled up in difficulty. They are more relentless and hit harder, making your choice of armor and skills that much more important. Where before I’d mainly used offensive skills, in Iceborne I began stacking defense boosts and elemental resistances. The monsters also have a few more tricks up their sleeves, with a wider variation of move sets and abilities which keeps each fight engaging and fresh, important when players are possibly on their hundredth plus hour.
There are a few new wrinkles to the combat in Iceborne, meant to help mitigate the new monsters’ aggression and speed. There are new moves for each weapon, most of them adding an extra step to the already established rhythm of their combat in exchange for higher damage output. The new clutch claw allows you to grapple to a monster and direct its movements, ideally into the closest wall so you can create an opening to attack or a moment to heal. You can also do an attack while grappled that will either drop some slinger ammo if you’re using a light weapon, or create a new weak point if you’re using a heavy weapon. Both of these options, like the overall narrative, give the player a greater sense of control over their environment.
Which is really what Iceborne is about, in ways both large and small. It’s not moments after you’ve first set foot in the new area that The Handler, the consistent voice in your ear throughout Monster Hunter World, begins making plans for a new forward operating base. She convinces the rest of the The Commission without much trouble, and you’re tasked with making the chosen area safe by hunting a monster that’s roaming too close. As you finish this quest, the Field Team Leader remarks “This freezing cold place was out here waiting for us the whole time.” This land, wild and untamed, was “waiting,” precluding any sort of natural state without humans. It is here for our use.
The colonialist fantasy in Monster Hunter World was often couched with a weak framing as “ecological study”. We must learn more about the ecology so that we may be its shepards. The Elder Dragons need to be driven out or they could cause catastrophes that would change the “natural” ecosystem, ignoring that much like forces of nature in our world, they are part of that ecosystem. That hedging is gone after the early moments of Iceborne—you’re sent to hunt monsters in order to get clear access to natural resources, or to make sure a trade route to the New World is established enough to send over fortifications. The new base, Seliana, is built in a matter of in game moments, and immediately the new continent is named “the Hoarfrost Reach.” You’re the vanguard in establishing Seliana, and after a certain point, every quest is directly related to the protection of this new settlement.
There comes a moment, somewhere around the 10 hour mark, when Seliana is under threat of being wiped out by the titular Iceborne Wyvern, Velkhana. The Field Team Leader gives an impassioned speech as to why The Commission should stay in the Hoarfrost Reach instead of retreating back to their original base in Astera. “Aren’t we part of the ecosystem too? Then let’s fight as part of this ecosystem.” Gone are the half-hearted attempts to “research the ecosystem, and be in balance [with it]” as The Commander said just moments before (a statement not without its own colonial baggage). Now those ecological concepts are rendered synonymous with the self-interest of the invading settlers. This notion drives the central themes of Iceborne. No longer is the game couching your actions as “investigating” new monsters. This is now a fight for land. You’ve staked a claim in a new environment and by god, as a Monster Hunter you will defend that claim.
There is no escaping this narrative, hard as I may have tried to hand wave it. I enjoy the challenge that Monster Hunter provides, the way each hunt shifts between moments of aggression and desperation, never quite feeling like you have a true grasp of the monster’s behaviors, and the process based move set of my prefered weapon, the charge blade. The level of detail in the environments, the way the Feylines at Seliana spend their time painstakingly making the bread that accompanies every meal made by the matroshka-shaped Grammeowster Chef. Even the process of tracking monsters, and learning more about their physiology (read: weaknesses and rewards) as you uncover more tracks is legitimately satisfying to me.
The colonialist power fantasy is enticing because it is, like most power fantasies, ultimately about control, and in this case, giving control to the player in a way that simulates struggle and dominance over “untamed” lands. As a player, chasing that ever elusive sense of true mastery, one that Monster Hunter World masterfully gives and takes from me fight after fight, is thrilling. The game’s colonialist framing ultimately bothers me the most when it pushes towards the extremes, when one capture or kill quest becomes dozens upon dozens, an endless parade of half-hearted justifications to go have awesome fights against monsters. Iceborne is more of everything that I love about Monster Hunter World, but it also is far more honest about what your character is taking part in. I feel implicated by my own enjoyment of this process, even if the game doesn't know that I should.