I love Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, even if I occasionally fantasize about ripping open my special edition New 3DS XL, yanking out the MicroSD card and smashing it to pieces with the business end of a claw hammer.
It's a weird relationship, I freely admit, which I share with the rest of the series too. As always Monster Hunter is a magnificent beast, a massive freeform hunting experience in which we track down hulking terrors, scandalise them with weaponised bagpipes (if you so choose, I'm a creature of habit) and make stylish shoes from their skulls. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate expands and improves on every aspect imaginable, yet clings to a few awkward design decisions that seem purposefully implemented to drive players insane with pure unmitigated hatred.
What makes Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate a superb game, however, is that I can understand why these decisions were made and how they ultimately make for an utterly sensational experience overall... even when I'm screaming at the screen.
Monster Hunter, as ever, feels like no other series out there in terms of tone. We find ourselves in a fantastical land of dinosaurs, talking cats and brave townships clinging to life on the edge of a wild and deadly frontier. Believable and coherent art design ties everything together, allowing us to believe in the low-tech tribal setting, yet loads of colour and cheeky humour permeates every aspect of the game; taking itself only as seriously as it has to and feeling totally unique in the process.
However, instead of being rooted to one small village, the story now takes us around the world and numerous hub zones as part of a trade caravan, introducing us to massive land trains and some great characters too. The scale and stakes are bigger than ever, while the world feels huge and expansive, allowing us to invest more of ourselves into the experience.
Structure and progression remains much the same, despite new tutorials making for smoother entry for new players. Everything you own, from potions to arrow casings to breastplates to greatswords and everything in between, need to be crafted and constructed from a dizzying range of raw materials. As such you'll need to head out into the frontier to painstakingly scrape these ingredients together, undertaking a number of repeatable quests from the townsfolk as you explore some massive maps consisting of interlinked zones. You'll mine, fish, scavenge and hunt down herbivores for their bones, meat and fluids; slowly but surely scraping and saving and grinding and grafting and eventually getting somewhere. This might sound laborious, because it is, but the payoff is fantastic both in terms of amazing new gear and intense satisfaction.
Of course, the best materials come from monsters... and they're not keen about you using their carcasses for decorative headwear.
With a few friends in tow (either an adorable new AI Palico companion who can be kitted out and customised to your tastes or other human players via local 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 tiny telltale 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.
Familiar beasts like the Great Jaggi and Velocidrome make a welcome comeback, but packing unpredictable new skills and attacks that even seasoned hunters will find themselves caught out by, while the new monsters are utterly superb. Distinctive and dangerous in terms of design and damage, they're as marvellous to behold as they are unique and deadly. The Kecha-Wacha swings from ceilings and buswhacks you from below, halfway between a bat and a super-charged monkey-sloth. The terrifying Nerscylla debilitates you with webbing and poison, while the brightly colourful Tetsucabra presents a hulking challenge.
Oh, and the new Big Bad Gore Magala is an absolute swine. A venom-spewing free-flying ebony-winged b*stard. But one that, like all the other monsters, is gorgeously realised in full 3D with fluid believable animations and high quality texturework. I'd actively suggest playing in Super-Stable 3D should you have a new 3DS, as Capcom have put a huge amount of work into ambient environmental detail that you can really appreciate one you ramp up the slider, despite a few cosmetic clipping errors from time to time.
The combat is, as ever, a stumbling block for newcomers and veterans alike. Deliberate to the point of being undeniably cumbersome, even the fastest weapons need to be perfectly timed to avoid your massively directional swings missing their irritatingly agile targets, while the sort of things you'd usually take for granted take an age here. You'll pose for a few seconds after downing a health potion, rub your stomach after scoffing a stamina-restoring steak and resist throwing your 3DS across the room when yet another nimble monster effortlessly dodges your clunky strike and mauls your face off with an attack you've never seen before.
But you'll never actually throw it, because you'll eventually realise (or remind yourself!) that Monster Hunter isn't a game about reflexes. It's about timing, skill and experience. Every missed attack is a lesson learned as you deepen your understanding of the weapons, mechanics and the monsters themselves; making mental notes about when to strike, when to tarry and when to retreat.
It's also a game about finding your niche. There's a weapon for everyone, and once you find it everything just clicks. For some it's the nippy dual blades with their ferocious rage mode, for others it will be ranged bowguns or versatile switch axes. The new Insect Glaive makes a strong case for best new arsenal addition, allowing you to summon a stat-boosting Kinsect while pole-vaulting all over the shop, but as mentioned I can't quit my beloved Hunting Horn. This massive bagpipe blasts out party-buffing tunes when I'm not bludgeoning flocks of velociraptors into scaly marmalade with it.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate makes it even easier to find your niche with weapon-specific tutorials that let you hone your skills and benefit from advanced techniques, helping to declaw the brutal starting experience. Definitely download the demo if you're in any doubt, and once you find your weapon, you'll know.
What separates Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate clear above any preceding title, however, is its newfound verticality. Levels are now three-dimensional playgrounds bristling with climbable walls, lofty platforms and hidden nooks to ascend to, with a complete lack of fall damage allowing you to pull off mad aerobatic feats. Ranged gunslingers can secure lofty perches, but blademasters will have more fun by leaping off cliffs onto monsters below, smashing them with ruinous airstrikes or even triggering a deadly context-sensitive rodeo. Ride 'em!
The newfound feeling of freedom is absolutely delightful, and New 3DS owners will be delighted to learn that the C-Stick earns its keep by providing convenient camera control. It's just one of a huge slew of new features, including randomly-generated expeditions (an incredibly additive new game mode that's great for killing time), new ways to customise your weapons and equipment, new merchants, tutorials and best of all online multiplayer as standard. No longer does the Wii U have to do the heavy lifting, as we can team up with other hunters online natively on 3DS, whether setting up lobbies for randomers to join or teaming up with friends. Yes, there's no voice comms and friend codes are still a sad reality of Nintendo's lack of vision, but the joy of taking on the hardest missions to ever grace the franchise with other players is well worth it.
And yet Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate tests me. It pushes my patience to my limits and teaches me new capacities for hate. Monster corpses disappear far too quickly, sometimes robbing me of potential crafting components. Monsters run away just as I've nearly killed them, forcing me to scamper halfway across the map before being KOed by an attack that wipes out a third of my health in one hit. Intense heat saps my stamina, poison wracks my veins. Sometimes the game fail to mention advanced mechanics that might help me out. The difficulty sometimes seems ridiculous and THOSE GOD DAMNED EGGS HAUNT MY NIGHTMARES.
Ugh, to explain, this is a franchise tradition. A handful of missions force you to find and collect monster eggs, but you can't put down the egg without it breaking, your walking speed is hobbled, running triggers a random chance of dropping the egg, a single hit from any source will make you drop the egg, the game summons monsters into areas you previously cleared out, direct routes back are blocked by impossible rockfalls and seriously though why can't we put the eggs down, we found them on the floor to begin with!
But the satisfaction of finally getting that flippin' egg back to my wagon makes it all worthwhile. The disappearing monster corpses force me to balance risk versus reward, leading to tough and rewarding decisions mid-battle. Environmental effects can be mitigated and worked around using different equipment or even smooth jams from my hunting horn. The difficulty can be worked around with new gear or new friends, and leads to a practically eternal endgame as more of the mechanics gradually reveal themselves over time, and numerous hidden secrets suddenly become second nature through trial and error.
Or in other words, it's an acquired taste, and one that pulls no punches. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is all about tough love, and though it's sometimes easy to hate, it's a game that deserves respect and definitely deserves your attention.
- Brutal, rewarding and deeply satisfying hunting with newfound verticality
- Astonishingly deep crafting and progression, with concessions to accessibility
- Excellent multiplayer
- Unique cohesive yet cheeky art design, tone and humour
- An enormous time investment and exhilarating challenge
- Quirky and deliberately frustrating mechanics take time to appreciate
- Stern challenge can inspire uncontrollable rage every once in a while
- A few cosmetic clipping issues
The Short Version: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is utterly magnificent. Newfound vertical freedom, extraordinary new monsters and native 3DS multiplayer makes for the best game in the series to date, coupled with a much more compelling storyline and some killer new features.
It's an acquired taste that's often as easy to hate as it is to love, sometimes it comes dangerously close to driving you mad, but you absolutely must try Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. Once you push through some initial frustration, get your head around some of the quirkier mechanics and team up with some reliable hunters, you'll find a new addiction with no equal on the system. At the very least, download the demo and see how you get on.
10 - ASTOUNDING: As close to gaming perfection as possible. The rarest of rare, these should be games that not only look, feel and play better than 99.9% of everything else out there, but bring something new to the table, pushing gaming itself forward. These are fundamentally must-own titles for anyone with an interest in gaming, regardless of genre, with the highest quality in terms of design, gameplay and vision.
A masterclass in execution and innovation.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (reviewed)