Developer: Capcom / Publisher: Capcom / Played on: Wii U / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence]
This is the kind of game that outlets dislike. It’s offered to the pool of reviewers, hoping that among them at least one has already played and understood the series. If not, then the coverage will invariably be flamed by the dedicated audience, mocking the fact that the reviewer didn’t even know this bit of minutiae after fifty hours of gameplay.
Well I’m drawing a line in the sand. If you want a review simply validating your love for Monster Hunter, you won’t get it here. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has real problems, and while I’m starting to understand the game underneath that has developed such a cult following, I can’t neglect its shortcomings because of that.
First, let me start with what Monster Hunter does well. Through various revisions of the game (and there have been many), the Monster Hunter experience is slowly approaching what I imagine as the perfect MMO of the future. It’s the sort of game you see in science fiction; a realized, fully-interactive game that becomes the opiate of the masses. It’s a breathing world that feels bigger than you… a world that exists without your input; you only travel through it. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has that quality in fits and spurts in between design decisions that range from confusing to downright antagonistic.
As you’d guess, you hunt monsters in Monster Hunter. Your home base is a small coastal village that offers typical RPG services like item shops, weapon upgrades, and a cozy bed that doubles as a save point. From here you can rearrange your inventory (which you will do frequently), pour over stat screens to suss out the numbers you want, and gawk at the sheer amount of stuff on tap. The amount of content in the game is absurd: 12 weapon classes, each with dozens of weapons to be crafted and upgraded, loads of armor pieces, 22 pages of craftable items, bugs, worms, fish, horns, claws… the list goes on and on. Let it never be said that MH3U is hurting for activity.
Once you get your inventory in order, it’s time to hunt a monster like the title promises. If you’re familiar with the series you know what to expect, but in Monster Hunter, just stabbing a monster to death is not as simple as it sounds. A hunt is like a protracted boss raid in World of Warcraft with controls deceptively close to a third person beat ‘em up. Basically, a huge monster romps around performing various attacks telegraphed by short animations and you have to swat at it with your weapons until it dies. If you’re equipped properly and prepared with the right potions, bombs, and buffs, some of these hunts can end in ten to fifteen minutes. If not, expect a single hunt to hit the 45-minute mark easily.
Fighting in Monster Hunter has ups and downs, and at the very least it’s unlike any other game. The most immediate and polarizing aspect of Monster Hunter’s combat is its tempo. Enemies move very quickly and you… do not, even when using the fastest weapons. The speed of your attacks changes depending on your weapon type: dual blades will have you spinning around the battlefield while the giant sword requires a one-second windup before your character gets the sword in motion. If you start attacking at the wrong time, you either whiff completely or eat an attack while your character musters up the energy to move his damn weapon. To put it in Capcom parlance, you plod along at Lost Planet speed while your enemies move in Devil May Cry time.
That makes the game harder, and not in a way that always feels fair or interesting. Take the simple act of drinking a health potion. Not only do you have to watch your character knock back the bottle, but then he / she flexes with renewed vigor after finishing it, tacking on an extra half second to the time you have to stand motionless and vulnerable. This is obviously meant to prevent you from dropping heals in the middle of a fight, but the manner it’s enforced in the game feels cheap and blunt. Surely there is a better, more interesting, and more intuitive way to enforce these game rules than immobilizing players for long periods of time.
It’s not all bad though. By enforcing certain restrictions, the game mandates the proper planning and information gathering before a fight. You can’t simply carry 99 potions into a fight and bash your head against a monster until it dies. Scouting out the enemy, laying traps to take advantage of its behaviors, and avoiding damage is rewarding in a Batman sort of way. Just because the barriers in your way are artificial doesn’t make them less satisfying to overcome.
But artificial difficulty is not the most bewildering design decision in the game. Monster Hunter’s world itself is an anachronism; rather than give you one large field to explore and hunt, the play area is divided into small numbered zones. This is presumably a design limitation inherited from the series’ birth on the PlayStation 2 and it’s silly that the game is still structured this way. Yes, it has been adopted into the gameplay to some degree — discrete, numbered zones make communication simple, and changing zones is a quick means of escape in near-death situations. Still, the game’s immersion would benefit by dropping the loading screens between areas and offering the large wilderness its facade implies.
At least Monster Hunter has awkwardly modernized with online multiplayer. It works, though just like everything else in the game, it requires traveling through a series of menus that muddy what should be a straightforward ordeal (for instance, 3DS link play is called “Multi” while online is called “Network”). Once you learn how to navigate the system’s kinks, playing with friends is a functional experience. Voice chat with the Wii U tablet is surprisingly positive as well; I didn’t experience the echo or terrible voice quality I expected.
Still, Monster Hunter takes for granted a lot of extracurricular effort on behalf of its players. How much extra research are you willing to do on a game’s systems before you expect to have fun with it? How many nonsensical, anachronistic hoops are you willing to jump through just for a slight taste of what this game will hopefully become in ten years’ time?
Your answer to those questions probably boils down to disposable free time, and MH3U has the potential to consume all of it. If I had to pick one game for the rest of my life, it’d be Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. But I want to do something else with the rest of my life, and the game doesn’t feel any inclination to help me out with that.
But hey, I remember having way more free time than money, and that’s the ideal audience for this game. There is a very fun game underneath the decade-old design, and if you don’t mind killing a handful of evenings to cut through it, you’ll be satisfied. However, if you haven’t already made that concession, don’t expect to now.