Platforms: 3DS | Wii U (reviewed)
I've still got so much more Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate to play. There's always so much more Monster Hunter to play.
As I stride across the open plains in search of my quarry, pausing briefly to brutalise a flock of velociraptors with a pair of combat bagpipes, I can't help but wonder why I've put myself through all this again. With Monster Hunter 4 set for a summer release in Japan, Capcom's decision to revamp Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii U and 3DS initially feels like a stopgap, and an age old formula that hides its fun behind more grind than you'd ever think possible from something classed as 'entertainment.' The franchise has always been easy to love yet difficult to like, with near-infinite depth and replayability gated behind a sadistic desire to mire players in poorly-explained busywork.
And yet, I still can't stop playing the damn thing. The Monster Hunter formula is starting to show its age, but if it grabs you, it simply won't let go.
Cast as a freshman hunter arriving in a small fishing village on the edge of civilization, players are expected to chip in and do their part. Without fighters to protect them from the local wildlife, the Moga villagers (a colourful bunch of humans and anthropomorphic cats) task you with venturing out into the wilds to bring back food, resources and useful items. Once your base camp is up and running, clients will send you quests to complete against time limits, granting you a steady supply of money and gainful employment. You'll gradually unlock a massive world to explore, consisting of numerous interlinked zones with different flora and fauna to pillage.
At you'd imagine, Monster Hunter is at its best when you're hunting monsters. With a few friends in tow (either two new AI compatriots or other human players via local co-op or online multiplayer), you'll track down packs of carnivores and truly enormous behemoths on land and sea, set traps and hound them down. Watching your quarry for any signs of weakness, you'll press the advantage and retreat as the battle ebbs and flows, gradually chipping away with swords and bowguns, marking them with paint to keep an eye on where they end up. The biggest battles are a raw visual spectacle as well as a triumph of planning and execution; a fraught and rewarding experience that you'll be sore-pressed to find elsewhere.
But to get to that point, you'll have to scrimp and scrape and save and grind. You'll need to mine every chunk of iron ore to make new armour and weapons. Hunt down specific herbs and mushrooms to combine into useful potions. Cook meat on a barbeque to replenish your ever-dwindling stamina gauge. Task feline workers with farming useful plants. Practically every item and new upgrade requires you to hunt down its component parts, whether hewn out of cliffs or carved out of the corpses of your dangerous prey, resulting in a truly spectacular amount of repetition.
The sheer aggravation involved with getting anywhere will put many players off long before they understand the systems. After all, learning that the items you need are in an area that the game told you to avoid is never ideal, just one of any number of instances where MH3U completely fails to give you the information you require to complete a specific task. Even basics, such as passive skills or combining items, are barely explained and require you to hunt through an arcane list of help menus. Be sure to have a Wiki handy, or reach out to MiiVerse if you're stuck in a rut. Push through the grind, however, and there's an enormous sense of accomplishment when you finally manage to acquire the last hide or gizzard from a particularly tough monster, and real satisfaction from knowing that you've earned everything you've achieved. If you're patient and fastidious, there's a near-limitless amount of addictive content to be found here.
When you've made everything you own, when you've poured blood (often not your own) sweat and tears into creating your arsenal and building your village, Monster Hunter rises above the first few slow hours and becomes utterly compelling. To the point of full-on compulsion. The joy of constantly improving, of becoming strong enough to take down the colossal dinosaurs who used to terrorise you and carve trinkets from their bones, is addictive enough to make sunrises and sunsets meaningless. There's nothing quite like it, on any platform, so long as you're not afraid of a little elbow grease.
That said, Monster Hunter's combat will act as a stumbling block for many aspiring hunters. The franchise has always been a clunky and cumbersome beast, both in terms of movement and attacks. Controlling your character initially feels like driving a truck rather than guiding a nimble master warrior, not helped by a stubborn camera that makes it difficult to keep the biggest critters in frame. Despite new twinstick controls, touchscreen camera and even a primitive lock-on mechanic, attacking is often an exercise in pure frustration, as a massive delay between button press and animation usually lets your quarry move just out of reach. Compared to the instantly responsive Dragon's Dogma, Monster Hunter feels like wading through a vat of molasses.
But there's depth behind the clunk, and a niche for everyone. Once you've tried out the dozen weapon types on offer, you'll find one or two that speak to your personal tastes, and suddenly Monster Hunter starts to make sense. For me, it's the Hunting Horn: an enormous pair of reinforced bagpipes that dish out ruinous damage, or can blast out a selection of buff-stacking tunes that you compose yourself. Others will favour the lance or longsword, or dig on dealing out ranged pain with the bowgun. Much like Demon's Souls, timing is everything, and practice will eventually make perfect. Since you're free to totally change your weapon and playstyle at any time, be prepared to experiment until you find something that fits. Much like everything in Monster Hunter, some early faff results in hours of fun.
As you'll probably have realised, I could have copied this straight from any Monster Hunter Tri review. It's time to talk about what the new Ultimate version brings to the table.
The Wii U version offers an HD overhaul of the original Wii title, but it's rather inconsistent. The monsters, especially the biggest behemoths, look sharp and smooth, but player character models are painfully primitive. The environments are fuzzy and sparse, lacking the crispness and clarity you'd expect from a current-gen title, and clipping issues are rife. Naturally the 3DS version can't hope to offer much in the way of a makeover (often looking rather bland and indistinct on the visual front), but personally, it's probably a sacrifice worth making considering that you can play it anywhere. The fact that content is identical between both versions is very impressive indeed.
Thankfully, MH3U is more than just a visual revamp. Alongside a huge amount of new content, including two hundred new weapons, new monsters, two adorable AI companions and a wealth of additional quests, Capcom have utilised the Wii U and 3DS' touchscreens brilliantly. Players are free to customise their touchscreens with the functions they use most, everything from an interactive map to the item bag, multiplayer gestures and the camera controls, proving that the GamePad can provide genuine gameplay convenience instead of cheap gimmicks.
Robust online and local multiplayer is where Monster Hunter has always excelled, and MH3U is no slouch in that regard. When played online via a bustling port town or with several 3DS units slaved together in the same room, the experience truly comes alive. Players all work together on the tougher quests while pursuing their own specific goals, sharing in the loot and the thrill of finally taking down one of the new hulking titans. If you can, coerce a few friends into joining you, as the first few slow hours become a distant memory once you're hacking towering dinosaurs into fillet steaks with some stalwart companions.
Both versions also have access to a slick DLC interface, which offers numerous completely free quests and events to download and participate in. Capcom has several months of content planned post-launch, which will further bulk out what is already a truly monolithic game.
Much has been made of MH3U's cross-platform save file transfers, but unfortunately it was impossible to test this functionality before launch. You'll have to download and use a free standalone 3DS eShop app to move your files between the two platforms, making the process much more awkward than it ought to be. The dream of putting down your GamePad and picking up where you left off on your 3DS is still just a dream; technically possible, but forcing you to jump through some extra hoops. It's a crying shame that this killer feature wasn't built into the core game itself. UPDATE: The app works well (it's about a 2-3 minute process all told), and though it deletes 3DS save files, the program does at least back them up in case of network failure.
Capcom is dead set on making Monster Hunter a Western success, and unfortunately MH3U is not the game to do it. We need a more visceral and responsive take on combat, something that takes inspiration from Dragon's Dogma as well as Dark Souls, and manages to provide depth and complexity without compromising fun factor. Until Monster Hunter 4 comes along, however, MH3U is the perfect way to introduce yourself to the franchise, and discover whether you have the patience necessary to discover the glittering diamond beneath the rough edges.
We have to adhere to our strict scoring criteria regarding empirical quality, but have wholeheartedly given Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate our Editor's Choice award. In this case, the number is meaningless.
- Nuanced, tense and frantic hunting against some truly terrifying prey
- Many dozens of hours of rewarding questing, crafting and resource collection
- Fantastic multiplayer, both online and local
- Inescapable grind and cumbersome combat
- Inconsistent and underwhelming visual makeover
- Many features are poorly explained (if at all), can be incredibly confusing
The Short Version: Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate delivers a near-limitless wealth of addictive questing and adventuring, but you'll have to forgive numerous rough edges to fully appreciate its enormity of content. The experience demands much from its players and certainly won't be for everyone, but if you're willing to put in the time, there's a brave new world just itching to be explored.