After years of being pigeonholed as a cult classic, Monster Hunter reinvents itself as one of the most exciting new online games of the year.
For a series that has been going for well over a decade it seems strange to say that this is Monster Hunter’s big moment, its chance to move from niche favourite to mainstream hit. But that’s clearly what Capcom are hoping for, and the reason for the move from portable consoles to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (and PC later this year). The game is not only the best looking its ever been but considerably more accessible than before, putting it in prime position to become a global phenomenon and not just a Japanese curio.
There’s been a great deal of controversy over why this isn’t called Monster Hunter 5, and whether that means that the numbered sequels are still Nintendo exclusives. But Capcom are adamant that this, unlike 2016’s Monster Hunter Generations, is not a spin-off but a mainline entry. And since this will be many people’s first time with the series you can certainly understand why Capcom wouldn’t want to put such a large number at the end of its name.
For those not familiar with Monster Hunter it’s a third person action game that was originally little more than a clone of Dreamcast classic Phantasy Star Online. Although World does feature a more traditional plot than anything else in the series, storytelling has never been a focus. Instead, you’ve always been free to explore and hunt however you want, picking up or ignoring quests as you like. The difference this time is that you get to do it all in a proper open world environment.
The game starts with an armada of ships making the crossing to the ‘New World’, using what is essentially medieval technology – with a few steampunk guns and gadgets here and there. You’re the fifth fleet to make the journey but within sight of landfall you’re capsized by a gigantic Godzilla-like monster, the capture of which becomes the overall goal for the first part of the game.
But really, Monster Hunter has always been a game made up entirely of sub quests, where you pick your mission and head off into the wilderness. The old games used to start you off with mushroom picking and other tedious tasks, but World manages to get you up and running much more quickly. And so you find that the primary goal of most missions is to kill or capture a monster – usually some sort of prehistoric-looking creature or a dragon – and harvest its parts for rare materials to make more powerful armour and weapons.
The game has always featured an open world, in the broader sense of the term, but up until now it’s always been divided up into small sections, with a short loading pause between each. Such is the limit of portable consoles, but thankfully not modern home formats. The world isn’t entirely without barriers though, and you have nowhere near the same freedom of movement as, say, Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. You can jump and swing on vines and a grappling hook, but otherwise you’re a surprisingly ungainly hunter.
Breaking up the game world into discreet chunks used to create all sorts of odd tactics, as you ducked into adjacent areas in order to heal or re-sharpen your weapon. Monsters did still follow you, but now they do so in a much more obvious way, upping the tempo of the game and forcing it to allow you to heal and use objects on the go – something that immediately feels more natural to Western gamers.
But the series’ success in Japan – where it is one of the most successful third party franchises of all time – is due to its social elements. Not online, but physically playing with other people on a nearby portable. It’s that aspect of the game, more than any other, that never took off in the West and so World instead tries to fully embrace online. As such you start a game by joining a 16-person online session and are free to take up to three other players with you on a quest, or send up an SOS flare when you’re already in one to allow drop-in multiplayer.
What results is essentially a sort of melee-based variant on Destiny, including all that implies about repeating the same tasks and missions to gain new equipment. Something you’ll need to do when a mainline quest involves a monster that’s currently out of your league.
The other major sticking point for Western gamers has been the style of combat, which can seem very slow when using most of the bigger weapons. To a beginner it often feels clumsy and, since there are very few combos, surprisingly simplistic. But this isn’t a failure on the part of the game, it’s very much how it’s supposed to be. Dark Souls is a good comparison, not in terms of difficultly but the importance of making every attack count and of being very aware of your surroundings.
Learning the tells of monsters and predicting their actions is vitally important, and soon you begin to get a feel for the flow of combat and the almost surgical precision necessary to succeed. Although over the years smaller and faster weapons have been added to the franchise, and there are plenty of options for players that want to play a quicker game. Or you can learn to use the more complex devices, like a transforming axe/sword and an explosive-firing lance.
Despite what it might seem like Monster Hunter: World is not really a role-playing game. You can upgrade and acquire new armour and weapons but your character has no stats. Instead it’s your own personal skill that improves as you play, and you learn to master each of the 14 different weapon types. Although beyond that there’s also a huge array of specialist equipment to get to grips with, including traps, ghillie suits, and the cat-like allies whose own armour and weapons you can also customise.
But while the game does a very good job of teaching you the basics, with tutorials and a very useful practice area, some of the more obscure elements are not so well covered. The interface is still very fussy and overcomplicated, while the camera lock-on seems to begrudge its own existence. And although the landscape graphics are generally very impressive there’s a lot of object clipping that sees monsters and weapons disappearing through what are supposed to be solid objects.
We’ll be happy to see further iterations of the game in the future, but all current complaints are forgotten when you’re being chased down by an angry-looking T-Rex, while your three compatriots try to trap and distract him – allowing you to zip up to a cliff edge, jump on its back and pummel it into submission. And if that doesn’t work you can lure in a completely different monster and get it to finish your fight for you (assuming you can then stay out of its way).
This is easily the most important milestone in Monster Hunter’s history. It may not be perfect, but this is the first time we’ve recommended a game in the series without any major caveats. For those of you out there hunting for the next big multiplayer game, Monster Hunter: World deserves to be your next target.
Monster Hunter: World
In Short: The best Monster Hunter so far, and already one of the most compelling multiplayer games of the year – with an elegant balance between depth, difficulty, and accessibility.
Pros: The seamless open world works great, making hunts and animal behaviour much more organic. Huge range of weapons and equipment, well-integrated online options, and tons of content.
Cons: Still some accessibility issues, especially in terms of explaining more obscure concepts. Backdrops can feel a little sterile; distracting object clipping and fussy controls.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 26th January 2018 (PC TBA)
Age Rating: 16
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