After a heartbreaking year of waiting, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is finally nearing release on Nintendo 3DS. The latest instalment launches next month, promising another enormous adventure as we stalk massive beasts and make clothes from their hides, teaming up with friends and gradually transforming from peasant weakling to master hunter. It's about time and we're so very ready.
We'll bring you our full review in February, but for now I'm delighted to report that the recently-released 3DS demo provides fascinating insight into how Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is shaping up; a smartly-designed piece of software designed to introduce new players to the franchise while allowing experienced hunters to get to grips with some of the brutal new mechanics.
After choosing a monster to hunt -- the velociraptor-esque Great Jaggi, rock-throwing Tetsucabra and the menacing flying Gore Mangala that extrudes a poisonous virus mist -- and your weapon of choice (more on those later), you'll be thrown into a segmented map in search of your quarry. As usual each stage is a sprawling selection of interconnected zones containing passive animals to hunt, resources to scavenge, dangerous predators to engage and your main target itself, which you'll track down with your Felyne AI companions or other human hunters, seeing as MH4U now includes full 3DS online multiplayer rather than having to rely on the Wii U to do the heavy lifting.
Once battle is joined, you'll pour the hurt on the collossal beast and desperately defend against its attacks, learning its moves and relying on subtle visual cues to tell how badly it's injured; pursuing it through the stage if it retreats and finally carving up its corpse for much-needed supplies to craft your next set of armour, weapons and sundries. You'll need to balance licking your wounds and regrouping with a tight time limit, working together with your allies to ensure a successful and satisfying kill. Though the demo doesn't let you access the hub town or offer anything in the way of progression, it's a neat way of getting back into the swing of things.
In many ways it's business as usual. Monster Hunter's unique handling is tied to your weapon of choice, from quick and deadly blades to massive swords, long-range bowguns and my personal favourite Hunting Horn: a massive bludgeon that lets you compose and play a selection of stat-buffing tunes mid-battle. Some armaments are quick and slick, others are more powerful yet slow and unresponsive, meaning that you'll need to carefully time your swings to avoid a missed attack and leaving yourself wide open. As such, the demo is a great way to work out which of the myriad armaments best suits you ahead of launch.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate uses the New 3DS c-stick to give you better camera control, helping to fix a major longtime issue with the series (the Circle Pad Pro is also supported). Interestingly, the visuals are also on par with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, in that the engine seems to be the same. This means that the game looks reasonable by default but absolutely fantastic once you activate stereoscopic 3D, which gives you a seriously impressive impression of real depth. The New 3DS provides a more stable 3D viewing angle with its eye-tracking tech, so I'd encourage you to use it.
So far, so good then, but so familiar too. What's new?
For my money, the biggest new addition comes in the form of a brutal new mechanic that seems to take its cues from Dragon's Dogma. Capcom's underrated action RPG injected new life into hunting monsters by letting you clamber all over them and stabbing them up in horrible yet deeply satisfying ways, which you can now pull off in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. Hunters can leap onto the biggest beasts from elevated perches, grabbing onto their hides and then laying into them with a hunting knife as the monster desperately tries to throw them off.
Succeed and maintain your balance, and the monster falls for free attacks, so long as your team-mates don't accidentally knock you off! It's a brilliant system that adds an extra new dimension to the hunt. Literally. The third dimension.
However, just as importantly, the level design has changed to support this new mechanic. Most zones now contain an interesting mix of high and low topography linked together by climbable walls, adding a welcome new feeling of verticality and strategy to the proceedings. These high points make for great sniper perches as well as potential grapple diving boards, making proper placement and positioning just as important as your weaponry and communication.
Speaking of weapons, the new Insect Glaive is an exciting new damage-dealer that challenges players to think very differently about combat. This lengthy quarter staff provides some deceptively quick and fluid attacks in its default form, but at any point, you can send out a symbiotic Kinsect to attack a target at range. This vicious insect can lock onto different parts of a monster if you throw out a pheromone tracker, granting you a deadly accurate ranged option, while it can also be called upon as an ersatz pole vault in order to evade incoming attacks. Much quicker than it looks and exceptionally versatile, I daresay that the Insect Glaive will become a firm favourite for more advanced hunters.
The demo also includes an exclusive Beginner's Mode with increased health and tutorial prompts. Though it's unlikely that this mode will make it into the final game, it's proof that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is trying to be as accessible to newcomers as possible in an effort to finally attract a decent number of Western gamers to the franchise. A strong storyline should give players more context and stake in the narrative from the get-go, while more in-depth tutorials and tooltips have been promised in order to demystify the often-impenetrablesystems that lurk under the surface, from item set stats to crafting.
Coupled with the brutal grapple mechanics, more vertical levels to explore, in-built online multiplayer and dozens upon dozens of hours of questing, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might very well succeed in bringing a fresh audience to the franchise while delighting existing fans. We'll find out on February 13th.