Full disclaimer: I haven’t played any of the Monster Hunter games before. It is not like they are bad games (a quick check on Metacritic proves that in fact they are the complete opposite. Great games!), but I was convinced that it’s not my type of game. So I was slightly hesitant going into Monster Hunter World: Iceborne. Quickly my fears were confirmed. The first couple of hours were tedious, confusing (possibly due to my lack of backstory) and overwhelming… But then, something surprising happened: I found myself enjoying the game. Granted, I was still slightly lost in terms of backstory, but I was sucked into the world and I was hooked. How did this happen? Well, the only explanation I can come up with is that Monster Hunter World: Iceborne is a really good game.

If you are in the same boat as me, having never played a Monster Hunter game, allow me to get you up to speed (I’ll try my best, anyway). Iceborne is the first paid expansion to last year’s Monster Hunter World. From what I understand, the Monster Hunter series has always had three difficulty ranks for their quests: Low, High and G. Typically, the quests for the first two ranks are included in the base game (in this case World) with the highest rank quests only being available as DLC later, or in the Ultimate versions of the game. Cue Iceborne. However, instead of only adding new monsters and a higher tier of difficulty, Iceborne essentially replaces the original World. It adds a whole new story, along with a slew of new monsters to track, hunt and slay. The highest rank was also renamed to “Master Rank”. Accessing Master Rank requires you to play though the main quest in World.

It seems to be a trend with Monster Hunter games (or maybe it’s World specifically), but the story seems to be inconsequential. It is something along the lines of monsters are behaving erratically and you need to go and investigate. Soon it turns out (no spoilers) that a dangerous new elder dragon has appeared, and a new snow-covered land was discovered. Your quest basically involves: Follow tracks and signs of monsters, find monster, fight monster, kill monster, collect data for scientific research, and find out what is causing all of the commotion. In all honesty, the only real reason for the story to exist is to get you to the next monster to hunt. The interesting part of the whole story is that it doesn’t really revolve around you. Instead, the focus shifts to your handler and her own personal quest. It’s a bold move, but fulfills its intended purpose.

On an technical level, the game is amazing. The world feels alive, with many interesting encounters and stuff to discover. The level of detail and the activities you can perform is staggering. Even though each area will be revisited countless times, each encounter feels just as refreshing as the last. The same applies to the monsters. Even though you are sometimes forced to grind monsters just to get that elusive gear, it never get boring or repetitive. And believe me, you need that high level gear. Granted, I am a newbie Monster Hunter, but Iceborne gets really difficult, really fast. This experience could be different playing with friends, but playing solo, I definitely had my hands full with certain monsters. The argument could be made that Iceborne isn’t really for novice players, but the difficulty provides a nice challenge.

This brings me to arguably the most important component in a game like this: The gear – which is certainly the star of the show. In other games, obtaining that new piece of armour could feel repetitive, boring and grinding. In Iceborne, however, it feels earned. Each monster you slay leaves behind materials, many of which you need to earn. Teeth has to be knocked out, and tails have to be severed. This implies that skill is factored into the equation when you grind for loot, which makes each piece of loot feel earned. It also makes you feel part of the world, and not just an observer.

The combat has a relatively steep learning curve, but it’s extremely rewarding once you get the hang of it. For example, the Clutch Claw, a tool that lets you grapple onto a monster, baffled me at first. It was only after the formal tutorial that I realized I’ve been using it wrongly the whole time. Instead of being a simple tool that allows you to mount a monster, it is a strategic tool that allows you to change a monster’s direction, drive it into a wall, or wound it. Its nuances like this that make Iceborne special. Everything from the world, to the monsters, to the fighting mechanics require you to have a thorough understanding of what you are hunting and how to defeat them. The ecology feels alive and it’s an absolute pleasure to be part of it.

Monster Hunter World: Iceborne is a masterpiece of an expansion. Despite its steep learning curve for newcomers, it is extremely satisfying taking on, and eventually defeating, a monster that that could crush you in an instant. Even if you played the base game, Iceborne adds so much that even veterans have an excuse to return. If you haven’t played a Monster Hunter game before, this is your chance.