Hunting Season is on again
In honour of the announcement of Monster Hunter 3 Portable, I figured it was time to get off my ass and finally write a Monster Hunter: Freedom Unite review. MH:FU is the third game in the PSP version of the Capcom franchise. Building upon the foundations of the previous entries, it's the best of the PSP series to date. Packing tons of content, an addictive looting system and fantastic co-op mode, you can lose hours upon hours tearing up beasts both large and small. But be warned, the game still remains a difficult and unwelcoming experience that suffers both from design and hardware issues.
Right off the bat it's important to say that the game has a learning curve like a brick wall. A wall you must brake through with your bare hands before you can get to any of the good stuff. While it includes a training school feature and in game manuals, neither are particularly effective at teaching you the monster hunter's trade. If you seriously want to learn how to get things done in the world of Monster Hunter, prepare for a trip to your local internet and a journey through many a forum, FAQ and fansite. Even Capcom has setup its own Encyclopedia Gigantica to try and help newcomers get their hunting feet. Another option is if you are lucky enough to know an experienced Monster Hunter player that is willing to show you the ropes and take you on a few hunts. I'd have to say it took me about 8 hours before I actually felt like I knew what the hell I was doing.
If you are still interested after that disclaimer, then lets continue with the basics of MH:FU. If you have never played a Monster Hunter game before, the setup is pretty simple. You are a hunter that has come to hunt monsters for a tiny remote village, and as you slay monsters for the villagers, you open up better gear, more village options and better missions. Your missions are given to you by the village elder (who handles the single player missions exclusively) or the Guild Hall (where you can take on missions solo or with friends). While it looks like an RPG on the surface, you have no levels, classes, or attributes to speak of. If you use melee weapons you are a Blademaster and if you use ranged weapons you are a Gunner. Switching your hunter type is as simple as equipping a weapon from one of those two categories. Your abilities and strength lay in the gear you craft. Loot is the reason for the season in this game, and your primary source for better weapons and armour is the monsters themselves. When you successfully down a monster you're awarded parts of it to be used to build better weapons or armour. Downing the monsters is probably where things get a bit sticky for most.
After accepting a mission you get whisked away to one of a variety of areas, all with distinct climates. It's important to watch out where you're heading, as temperature can affect you and make it more difficult to hunt. Proper items prepared before hand can prevent the weather from having an adverse effect on you, but early on the game is usually nice enough to give you what you need before you head off. Once in the hunting area, you will have to complete the mission assigned. There are two basic mission types; Gathering and Hunting. True to their names, each requires you to either collect or kill something to complete the mission. In either case, be prepared for combat. Even gathering missions will probably require you to kill monsters, as they either drop or are found in the area of the item you're collecting. Missions are generally timed affairs, but missions will end if you (or your teamates in a group mission) get wiped out too many times.
MH:FU's controls are tricky to say the least. You control movement with the analog nub, and use the face button for actions and attacks. A combination of the left bumper and face buttons allows you to access and use inventory items. Attacking requires you draw your weapon first, and while your weapon is drawn you mobility is altered, sometimes severely, depending on the weapon you choose. Attacks come in heavy and light, modified by movement from the nub. With proper timing, melee combos can be pulled of that can significantly damage a creature. For ranged users, a first person view or zoomed in view can be utilized for better aiming. Knowing your weapon and how it handles can mean the difference victory and defeat. On top of this you must watch your health, stamina and sharpness bars. Health will go down as you take damage, stamina decreases as you run around and fight, and sharpness decreases the more you hit things with your weapon (ranged users must watch their ammo). Keeping an eye on these things can be a handful, and this is where MH:FU hits another speed bump; the camera.
The camera is controlled by the game in a very basic fashion. It will move just enough if it detects you might not be able to see, but otherwise stays locked in position. The primary form of camera manipulation is controlled through the left bumper and d-pad. A quick tap of the left bumper will move the camera directly behind your character, and for basic movement this works fine. It's when you enter combat things become less than fine. The dynamic battles in the game demand that you move the camera constantly to keep an eye on the monster you are battling. Doing so requires you to manipulate the d-pad, and if you've ever held a PSP you will instantly realize the difficulty with this. The position of the d-pad means you have to either A) move your hand off the analog nub (and stop moving) to fix the camera or B) use your index finger in a “crab claw” like fashion. Sadly, B) is the preferable answer. I can't tell you how many times I'd finish a long hunting session and feel acute pain in the gnarled claw that was once my left hand. It's an aggravating problem that haunts the game throughout, and really should have been solved a longtime ago.
A lot of the headaches in the game dissipate though when you play it the way it was meant to played: in co-op. Up to four players can team up using the ad-hoc mode, and while this generally means you can only play with people sitting next to you, this is probably a good thing. The game has only a rudimentary communication system of emotes, so being able to actually talk to your team is a much better way to work out how you're gonna take down your prey. With other players watching your back, you can take on tougher foes, and not worry as much about if you're about to get blindside by a monster, or ganged up on by a swarm of smaller creatures. At it's best, MH:FU feels like a streamlined MMO raid, complete with great boss battles and “phat lootz” at the end.
As far as presentation, the game looks great, a real showcase for both the PSP and Capcom's art department. The various monsters and locales you battle them in are all well detailed, and feel alive and realistic (or as realistic as a quasi-fantasy dinosaur can look). For a game that is so loot focused, it's also good that the variety and design of all the armour and weapons available is top notch. Animations are smooth all around, and I rarely noticed any times of slowdown during my fights, even when the action got really frantic. Load times in general are a bit of a hassle, especially when transitioning from area to area when you're hunting. But if you have the space on your Memory Stick, you can use the games install feature to help cut down on load times significantly. The music is solid, and the game does a great job of using it to indicate changes in situation, like when you are noticed by a boss monster. Even after a couple hundred hours of listening to the same music, I still get jazzed hearing the triumphant MH theme. This is a solid translation job too, which maintains the slightly comical tone the series has always had. Overall, the amount of polish on it puts in league with Capcoms other major series.
I could go on, but before this turns into a master thesis on the Monster Hunter series, let's wrap this up simply. This remains the same craze inducing game that has both interested and burned many a gamer in the past. In an age of trying to make games more accessible. MH:FU can look like a relic of a bygone era of video games. It's not for everyone, but for those who can breakthrough the scale covered wall of frustration the game can put up, there is literally hundreds of hours of adventure to be had.