Monster Hunter: Dissecting the Fun

What is Monster Hunter?

 Monster Hunter is a game about hunting monsters, simple. Everything in the game revolves around going out into the wilderness and taking down these big vicious monsters, then stripping them of their valuable parts. You can then take these parts and craft them into better weapons and armor for yourself or sell them.  
If you have heard anything about this series you most likely know that is is huge in Japan. The series started out in 2004 on the PS2, which appeared to have been overlooked by North America, but judging by the expansion pack and sequel released only in Japan it did okay there. I was interested in the original Monster Hunter when it came out, but I never played it myself. The PS2 games are notable for their online support, something the series has so far lost on the PSP.  
The thing about Monster Hunter is that the games are really built around co-operating with three other players to take down these big monsters, you can solo the games to an extent and they are probably better solo games than most co-op centric experiences, but to get the most out of Monster Hunter you really need to play with others, or so I hear. I like most North Americans who are no longer in grade school don't hang out on a regular basis with others who own the same portable game systems and the same games. Even though I work for a Game Developer, the prospect of trying to pull together three other people with PSPs with copies of Monster Hunter and have them all care about playing it on a regular basis is nearly unfathomable. Running into strangers with PSPs playing the same game on transit is similarly unlikely.  
Which is where I think we get to the obvious root of the problem with Monster Hunter in North America, out society is not set up to support this type of game except in rare circumstances. For this game to really get off the ground in North America one of the big things that needs to change is Online Support. Yes you can use the PS3's Adhoc Party to tunnel your PSP's connection to an online game, but this is kind of unacceptable. You need a Japanese PSN account and the knowledge of how to download this and how to set it up without the assistance of any english text. And I believe that is not acceptable for the average consumer. Now you could argue that anyone who doesn't know about all this is someone you don't want to play with, but that creates a very exclusionary society. You either will find the hardest of the hardcore Western players online or the Japanese players who if they are playing online using this method are probably also pretty hardcore and neither of these groups are very accepting of new players who want to learn the ins and outs of the game. If the Online option was just built into the game you would end up with a much larger pool of people of varying skill levels to play with and trust me this helps games rather than hindering them, you can still make your "Hunting G32 NO NOOBS!" room and the rest of us can get on with our day.  

Why do I care?

 Just the prospect that this is one of the most popular games in Japan intrigues me, I have to ask "Why is that"? I felt that Japanese developers were still having trouble with adapting to 3D game design last generation, something about the interfaces and the stiffness of character-to-environment and character-to-character interaction was off, not it all cases of course. This has continued ten fold into this generation with a lot of those interface and character interaction problems sticking out like a sore thumb compared to western games. I think it has something to do with Japanese games feeling more mechanical and western games feeling a bit more procedural. Japan has always had great Art Design, but they seem to be trying to let that carry more weight than it can bear this generation. This has resulted in many Japanese developers turning their attention to portable platforms, since this allows them a safe haven to work similarly to generations past. Avoiding skyrocketing budgets, that force them to build for international audiences, and meeting lower expectations on the portable platforms. Japan has also gone increasingly mobile so I assume that helps as well. 
Alright back to Monster Hunter, I feel these points are what poised Monster Hunter to become the success it is in Japan, while also creating the indifference seen in the west. The PSP games allowed the developer to continue their work on PS2 in a similar environment, online play was lost in the transition and due to contemporary Japanese society not only did Adhoc Wireless make up for it, it probably contributed to making it even more popular. Multi-player with friends makes any game more fun, especially co-op since there are no losers, everyone works together towards a goal.  
I have been very intrigued by the concept of these games, but knowing my experience in the past with portable co-op experiences I feared it just wouldn't work for me. I recall trying the demos of Monster Hunter Freedom 2 and Monster Hunter Freedom Unite and running into the same experiences I believe most Western gamers run into while trying these demos, "Fuck these controls are ass and the combat is infuriating!". Watching the Giantbomb quicklook of the upcoming Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii they seem to have had pretty much the same reaction. Thus my thoughts turned to "are the Japanese crazy? Are these problems so easily overlooked when playing with friends?" Co-op can make up for a lot of problems, but making up for fundamental problems with the main game mechanics is a little extreme, are the Japanese really that crazy?  

My Freedom Unite

 Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is the latest Monster Hunter game to be released in North America, it was released in June 2009. it is an expansion pack to Freedom 2 and is knows as Portable 2G in Japan. It is the Japanese definition of an expansion pack however, which means all of the original game with new content, so you don't need Freedom 2. I played the demo of this game before it came out and ran into the  "Fuck these controls are ass and the combat is infuriating!" problem. So I didn't buy it, but the prospect of picking it up has been gelling in the back of my mind since then. I figured there has to be something else that the demo does a terrible job of presenting. I have friends who will not touch a game if they find something fundamentally wrong about it. I am the opposite, if I find something about  a game that I really like, that I can latch onto I am willing to endure the bad bits to see the good ones. So I spotted Freedom Unite for 20 bucks and decided to pick it up for this long weekend with the intention of digging into it and seeing if I can find that fun enjoyable aspect to latch onto and after playing it last evening and this afternoon I feel I'm close to finding it. 
First of all I have not tried Multiplayer, I have the Adhoc Party downloaded on my PS3, but I have not ventured there. I feel with my limited knowledge and lowest level gear I wouldn't be doing myself any favors jumping in there this late in the game's life. My goal is to get in, find the fun, play around for a bit and then transition into Monster Hunter Tri in a couple weeks assuming the game still holds my interest. I am hoping the built-in online functions of that game and getting in there day 1 with the rest of the westerners will be the right mix of ingredients to get me into this franchise. But watching the Giantbomb quicklook has told me that the Wii game has the same fundamental gameplay issues that are present on the PSP. 
Those fundamental issues are the Camera and the Combat, mostly stemming from seemingly terrible control choices. The analog nub moves your character, fair enough, but the d-pad moves your camera, meaning that you need to play finger twister to move the character and control the camera at the same time since they are both on the same side of the PSP. I can see why they did this, to free up the right side buttons for combat and other interactions, but it is really awkward. While fighting a monster the camera is often your biggest enemy. You can hit the L button to center behind your character, so most the the time I don't bother with the D-Pad, but there are situations where I want to be running in one direction while turning the camera to face the monster and this is nearly impossible to do.  
Combat is centered around three buttons. Triangle is your main attack, Circle is your secondary attack and the R button defends. Each weapon has variations on these controls. For example, the R button doesn't defend when you have two swords it instead activates an ability that trades stamina for power. Similarly, the R button on hammer weapons makes you perform a running charge and if you hold it for long enough you will do a spinning attack when released. Long range weapons like bowguns use Triangle for reloading and circle for shooting, taping the R button takes you into a 1st person shooting mode while holding the R button places you into a 3rd person mode. This is something that came off terribly in the demo, you had a bunch of choices for pre-made characters with different weapons, but you had no idea how to use those weapons. I think most people probably pick the guy with the big bad ass looking sword or axe, but they get into combat with an excruciatingly slow to attack weapon that they have no idea how to control. Simple things like the fact that pressing Triangle and Circle at the same executes a 3rd attack is lost on the demo audience. I came out of the demo feeling like the weapons controlled poorly and that the whole game was limited to two basic attacks. After playing through the tutorial with all the weapons types I now appreciate the stunning variety and tactics that can be employed with these weapons but that doesn't solve a large problem with the game, there is no lock-on. With terrible manual camera controls and weapons attacks that can lead you into long un-interruptible combo attacks that leave you swinging at air this game screams for a lock-on system.  
I hear that a lot of hardcore fans think a lock-on system would ruin the game and make it too easy. They claim that being able to attack certain parts of a monster is fundamental to the gameplay experience and that a lock-on system would not allow for this. To these people I say that they are crazy, just because it has always been like that doesn't mean it is the best way. I feel tightening up the combat in this game would make it a lot more accessible and would result in a lot more players, especially north american players. The lock-on would make up for the lack of a right stick on PSP and even on console it would be welcome, there was a lot of depth available in the lock-on system in many of the Legend of Zelda games, I feel a similar system would do wonders for Monster Hunter. I would say they should take the L button and make that the lock-on button, holding it locks on to a foe, tapping it cycles through targets. D-pad left and right cycle through your inventory, tap up on the d-pad to use the current item. Down on the D-pad sheathes and unsheathes your weapon. The triangle button is a contextual use button when the weapon is sheathed. The circle button is used to crouch or climb depending on the context. The Square button rotates the camera left and the x button rotates the camera right (depending on settings). In combat triangle is main attack, circle is secondary, pressing them both is a 3rd attack (The reason circle isn't camera right) and the R button is shield/special. While locked on the square and x buttons cycle through different parts of the monster, allowing you to lock on to a specific part, pressing both at the same time resets to target the whole monster. Select is still kick, I guess. To dodge you tap R and a direction, though this doesn't work so well with all weapons, so more thought has to be put into this. I feel something similar to this control scheme would give the flexibility the hardcore are looking for while making the combat much more manageable for everyone else, more time fighting the monster, less time fighting the camera. 
I am getting used the controls the more I play though, I don't think I'll get to a point where I accept them, but I think I can deal with them. And I hope the right stick on a Classic Control for Tri will make the camera more of a moot point. Though I still feel even then I want lock-on for combat or something similar to God of War style automatic lock-on to direct attacks towards enemies and be able to change the direction and target of the attack on the fly. I have made my way through the tutorials, which are informative but too long in the tooth and quite text heavy. I feel the tutorials could have been compressed into something smarter and quicker, unless I am misreading information, a recent interview on G4TV about Tri seemed to indicate the tutorials are going more in this direction for that game.  

The Fun?

 So I have come to a point where I believe the most enjoyable thing about these games is the character progression. Going out, fighting monster and collecting their hides, tusks, livers or whatever and then crafting that into more powerful cooler looking shit is kind of addictive and I could see if I had more people to play with this would be even more addictive not to mention make the battles much easier. 
The battles I have been in so far against the monsters have been pretty intense. I came out of all those tutorials feeling like I could take on anything and then proceeded to get the crap beat out of me by my first hunt. Even the smaller monsters put up more of a fight than in the tutorial. I feel it is because my Sword / Shield combo are pretty crappy at the moment and worse than the Sword/Shield in the Tutorial, so I am working diligently to improve my weapons. The monsters are hard, no thanks to the camera. I am learning ways to be more efficient at combat ,  mostly involving rolling around to their sides or back and chomping away till they turn my direction, then rolling around them and continuing my attack. This doesn't work quite as well against monsters who do attack damage as they are turning, need to figure out a better strategy for them. I also don't understand how to get more traps, I get one free shock trap at the beginning of the hunt and it is very useful but it is gone too fast. I don't see where I can buy more of those, but I do have this trap tool I don't know how to use, that is probably the key. 
The learning curve on this game is steep, but the payoff is quite handsome. I also have this farm I can upgrade, these cats I can hire as either cooks or party members during my hunts. The cats can gain new abilities in different ways, there seems to be a lot of depth there. I can also fish and mine at my farm or while on hunts. Combine items into new items. There are also specific Missions that only involve fishing, mining and trying to figure out how to transport an egg back to my camp without cracking the egg from falling too far. There is a heck of a lot to do once you get into the game and I heard Freedom Unite boasts around 500 hours of gameplay, providing you can find friends to tackle the harder stuff. So for 20 bucks I am pretty satisfied with my purchase at the moment.  
The game also has a surprisingly quirky sense of humor. While roasting some meat over a fire you play a little minigame where you need to press X at the exact second it is ready for the best results, this is accompanied by some cheerful bouncy music and if you pull it out of the fire at just the right moment your character jumps up and cheers while proclaiming "Tasty". Similarly if you order something from your felyne cook you get some more bouncy music, your character holds a giant fork and knife and bounces to the music while the cook throws a large riceball in time with the music. I should have probably expected this from a Japanese game, but the atmosphere this game gives off belays its more goofy undertones. 


 This blog entry has gone on far too long now, but I felt I needed to write down my thoughts about this series and my experience so far with Freedom Unite. I will continue to play that game, but I may not write anything further till I have Monster Hunter Tri in my hands. If you can look past its problems the game offers some great experiences with a wealth of content. Despite the combat feeling iffy, there is a lot of depth there with the different weapons and all the monsters have unique behaviors that almost gives them a Shadow of the Colossus feel.