MONSTER HUNTER WORLD REVIEW: KING OF BEASTS

Monster Hunter World is a glorious, long overdue overhaul of one of my favorite video game series of all time. It preserves almost everything that makes its unique blend of skill-based combat and obsessive loot collection so satisfying and addictive, while streamlining many of its most inscrutable systems. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be.

All of these changes represent a serious attempt by Capcom to make the series appeal to players in the West. While it’s made token efforts in this regard before, Monster Hunter World is a total revamp designed to attract new players outside its traditional base of Japan, which has proven tough in the past. But far from dumbing Monster Hunter down for a mainstream global audience, Capcom has shown remarkable confidence and self-awareness in designing World. Almost all of the changes are for the better, and almost none of them compromise the magic.

In the likely event that you’re unfamiliar with that magic, though, we’d better start at the beginning. Monster Hunter is an action RPG series about, as you might expect, hunting monsters. It’s wildly popular in Japan, having sold more than 40 million copies since its 2004 debut. You can play by yourself or with up to three friends. You don’t level up your character like in traditional RPGs; instead you gather items from the monsters that you hunt, which lets you craft armor and weapons so you can take on bigger and more powerful monsters, so you can gain items from them to craft bigger and more powerful armor and weapons, and so on. There isn’t much in the way of plot — the hook is simply that core loop of hunting and gathering so you can hunt some more, improving your skills along the way.

At the heart of this is Monster Hunter’s deep, rewarding combat system. There are 14 distinct weapon classes, each of which play completely differently and allow you to pick a style that suits you best. Monster Hunter can be a difficult, unforgiving game for newcomers — it’s about timing and patience, as the larger monsters can take you out swiftly if you over-commit to an attack and leave yourself exposed. It’s essential to figure out each monster’s weak points and use them to your advantage, or they’ll make short work of you. But when you get the better of a huge beast that you never imagined being able to scratch, there’s no more exhilarating feeling in games.

None of this has changed in Monster Hunter World. What’s different is that Capcom has put this core into a much more approachable context. A slight but reasonably engaging story now serves as connective tissue for the quest structure. That structure has been reorganized so there’s no separation between single-player and multiplayer quests, and it’s always clear what you need to do next to progress. And although figuring things out for yourself is to some extent part of the series’ appeal, Monster Hunter World is a little more generous in what it deigns to explain to you, even if a degree of occasional clunkiness remains.

Sensible, practical tweaks abound. There’s a new system that helps you find the target monster by searching for tracks, rather than hoping you randomly bump into it. There are options for more Western-style control schemes — for example, you can select items through a radial menu, or click in the left analog stick to sprint. The item crafting system is streamlined to the point of almost being automatic. Drinking health potions no longer requires you to stand in place and hold a celebratory pose for an agonizingly long amount of time, opening you up to an attack. My favorite change is that attacks now show the damage dealt in hit points, MMO-style — purists can turn this off, and I thought I might, but in the end I wouldn’t. The immediate feedback makes it easier to experiment and figure out what’s working, whereas before you had to rely on simple blood splashes; World’s complex environments enable a wider variety of attacks, and it’s useful to know exactly what’s happened when your target is hit by a falling rock or a fiery blast from a rival monster.

World is also just easier than its predecessors. I had little trouble with any of the quests I encountered in my first 20 hours, even though I mostly was playing by myself. I’ve been into the series for a long time, to be sure, and newcomers will no doubt find it more challenging. But if I compare World to, say, last year’s Japan-only Monster Hunter XX for the Nintendo Switch and 3DS, there’s a clear difference in difficulty curve. Things do ramp up later, and there are lots of optional quests aimed at veterans, but World’s main campaign seems to have been tuned so that solo novices will get to see a good amount of the game’s content.

The absolute biggest change with Monster Hunter World, though, is where you play it. Monster Hunter started out on the PS2, and each subsequent mainline game has been designed around a system of roughly similar power — from the PSP to the Wii to the 3DS. But World is coming out for the PS4, Xbox One, and (this fall) PC, representing the first meaningful technical advancement in the history of the series, and perhaps the fall of its biggest barrier to Western success.

This shift means that this is by far the best looking Monster Hunter game yet. While the series has always had wonderful art direction, World finally has the power to do it justice; Monster Hunter’s take on fantasy is wholly unique, and the combination of fantastic beasts, exotic locales, and cute-but-tough cats loses nothing in the leap to bigger screens. The monsters in particular are beautifully animated, many with imaginative designs that go way beyond the typical fire-breathing dragon template. Worldhas an earthier, more naturalistic color palette than the kaleidoscopic 3DS games, and its new lighting engine looks particularly stunning in HDR if you have the TV to match. That said, I played the game for review on a PlayStation 4 Pro, and if you have one I’d recommend using the setting that prioritizes framerate at 1080p — the high-resolution mode is often unstable, and the frantic combat benefits greatly from the extra degree of smoothness.

The move to modern consoles doesn’t just bring a visual upgrade. Monster Hunter World’s areas are now vastly bigger and, crucially, not segmented into sections separated by interstitial loading screens. That changes much about how World plays out, because the ability to leave an area was an important part of combat strategy in earlier games. But it’s the right move — the prior design would have felt anachronistic on powerful systems, and the new approach frees up Capcom’s designers to make complex, multilayered areas that open up the game’s action. And tweaks like the aforementioned ability to drink health potions on the go, for example, mean that you don’t need to escape to entirely separate areas as often.

Bringing Monster Hunter to home consoles in 2018 also means that Capcom has had to make a serious effort with the online experience, which has always felt like an afterthought. The series took off in Japan based on the popularity of local multiplayer, which is why it’s always sold best on handheld systems; World, however, is designed around the assumption that you’ll be online. You can play just about any of the quests solo or with others, and you’re now finally able to use voice chat. If you’ve ever played a game like Destiny as an excuse to hang out with friends, you’ll probably find Monster Hunter’s absorbing loot grind amenable to that purpose. I won’t say this entirely recreates the experience of huddling around a bar table with four PSPs, but it’s close enough.

The most radical online feature, however, is the ability to start a quest by yourself and send an SOS flare for help if you’re having trouble, which could be a godsend if you’re half an hour into a gruelling battle. I haven’t been able to test this out during the review period due to the lack of players, but it’ll be interesting to see how or if it takes off. Monster Hunter World’s online modes aren’t particularly ambitious, and even then it can be a little confusing to figure out how everything works at first. But it’s hard to pass judgement on things like the lobby system without a full player base.

My only real concern with Monster Hunter World is the amount of content and how Capcom plans to support it going forward. The number of monsters is lower than recent series entries, which is to be expected given the significance of the overhaul. But most Monster Hunter games have been repackaged and re-released at full price in Japan with extra monsters and harder quests soon after their initial launch, which I don’t think will fly with Capcom’s intended global audience. The company has announced free updates to bring new monsters as well as unspecified paid downloadable content, and the handling of this could determine whether World has serious legs or fizzles out.

But I’ve already played Monster Hunter World for more than 40 hours over the past ten days, and I’m looking forward to the next 40. And probably the 40 after that. It’s an incredible game that is just about everything I could have hoped for from a return to home consoles. I can’t tell you whether you’ll love Monster Hunter World, nor whether it’ll be enough for Monster Hunter to finally take off in the West. The series is never going to be for everyone. (Stay tuned until later today for thoughts from my colleague Andrew Webster, who’s also been playing the game after repeatedly trying and failing to get into the series.)

What I can say, though, is that you owe it to yourself to give Monster Hunter World a shot.

Monster Hunter World is out tomorrow on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A PC version is expected to launch this fall.

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