Joining The Hunt

While everyone else plays this...
While everyone else plays this...

As a video game enthusiast who likes to keep up with developments in the industry while predominantly playing old games, I'm very familiar with walking the interesting line between following the latest zeitgeists while not actively participating them. The most recent release to have captured my attention from a distance is the excitement surrounding Monster Hunter: World, the latest instalment in Capcom's long-running carve-'em-up franchise. It's the first time the series has graced a home console since 3 Ultimate found its way onto the Wii U back in 2013, a migration away from the limitations of handheld hardware in a presumed effort to try and ensnare a new player-base. And, if the general buzz both here on Giant Bomb and on the internet is to be believed, it seems to have worked a treat - we're not even a quarter of the way through 2018, but by some especially enamoured players, Monster Hunter: World is already being uttered in the same breath as Game of the Year.

...I'm playing this
...I'm playing this

The fevered excitement surrounding this new Monster Hunter game has infected me too, albeit in a slightly different way. Instead of taking on fearsome creatures in glorious high definition on PS4 or Xbox One, I've been sinking a lot of time into Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on my 3DS. I'm not a total newbie to the series, having cut my teeth on Monster Hunter Freedom Unite for PSP around three years ago, but it still took me a few hours to get re-acclimatised to several of its unique quirks. Luckily the time spent in virtual orienteering was enough to refresh my memory, as well as giving me a good handle on which weapon to use - once I discovered the Switch Axe, there was no going back. Since graduating from 4 Ultimate's preliminary hunting academy I've carved my way through several Great Jaggi, Kecha Wacha, Tetsucabra and Gypceros, forging new weapons and armour from their scales, claws and hides along the way. While by no means a veteran or even a connoisseur of the franchise, I thought it might be interesting to cash in on the hubbub surrounding Monster Hunter: World to share some of my thoughts about the improvements Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate offers over my previous experience with the series.

One of my greatest misgivings playing Monster Hunter Freedom Unite was how obtuse everything was to me as a newcomer to the series. While it offered up a bunch of tutorial quests intended to ease the player into the game, a lot of the minutiae of the gameplay and systems were confined to menus that were both hidden from view and, in some instances, poorly translated. This meant I spent a lot of my initial hours with Freedom Unite reading FAQs and watching YouTube videos to learn how to play. While I can't definitively assess 4 Ultimate in the same way since I didn't go in completely blind, I feel confident saying that it does a much better job of introducing the player to its core mechanics. Alongside a similar batch of early quests that give the player hands-on experience with the mechanics of gathering, combining and basic combat, 4 Ultimate gives the player up-front access to a well-translated set of Hunter's Notes that pop up automatically whenever the game introduces a new mechanic or system. Even concepts like skills and decorations, which were almost alien to me in Freedom Unite, are explained well in enough in 4 Ultimate that I feel like I have a decent handle on them now.

MH4U lets you stay on top of the situation, literally
MH4U lets you stay on top of the situation, literally

Moving away from learning the game and towards actually playing it, I find myself greatly appreciating the increased verticality of the gameplay in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. Climbing played a minor part in traversing environments in Freedom Unite, but in 4 Ultimate it has expanded beyond mere traversal and plays an important role in combat. There are climbable surfaces and ledges to jump from everywhere in 4 Ultimate, and players can use changes in elevation to their advantage when fighting monsters by leaping onto their backs and "mounting" them. While I admittedly don't think much of the minigame that accompanies a successful mounting, the ability to deal extra damage and potentially break parts of a monster makes it worth attempting should the opportunity ever present itself. On the flip side, monsters can often take advantage of scale-able walls and ceilings too, forcing players to bear the lay of the land in mind when planning their defence as well as their attack. My personal highlights in this regard have been hunts for the tree-swinging Kecha Wacha and web-slinging Nerscylla, which move through multiple levels for some truly dynamic fights.

From a control standpoint, 4 Ultimate feels much better to play than Freedom Unite ever did, although I'm sure that's due to the fact I'm playing on a New 3DS specifically. The little plastic nub above the face buttons might not be the most ergonomic solution for camera control, but it's a damn sight better than having to adopt the cramp-inducing clawed grip favoured by Freedom Unite players on the PSP. Another advantage that all 3DS models have over Sony's handheld is its touch screen, which can be customised to a surprising degree. Having access to things like a map and an item quick-select on the bottom screen not only makes things much faster than fumbling with awkward button combinations in the heat of battle, but also frees up more of the top-screen's real estate, giving you a better view of the monster you're fighting and the surroundings you're in. Finally, it's worth mentioning the introduction of the Target Cam, a rudimentary lock-on that swings the camera to focus on a targeted large monster with a single tap of the L button. It's helped me on multiple occasions when I've needed to keep track of my quarry, even superseding the rudimentary right stick in terms of usefulness.

This is the armour I tend to take out whenever I'm not sure what I'm going to be up against
This is the armour I tend to take out whenever I'm not sure what I'm going to be up against

4 Ultimate also feels like much less of a grind so far. I recall spending hours farming materials in Freedom Unite, often falling victim to random number generation in the hopes of a specific rare drop in order to forge that last piece of armour in a set. In the time I've spent with 4 Ultimate, however, drops seem to have been much more generous. Monsters seem to drop a lot more materials in general, and the introduction of mounting and sub-quests (bonus secondary objectives that offer more rewards upon quest completion when fulfilled) means there are more opportunities to revel in the spoils of a hunt than ever before. I've typically found myself able to craft entire armour sets after only a few fights with each big monster. Don't get me wrong, it's still very much an experience centred on "the grind", but unlike my time with Freedom Unite, I've not been made to feel like my story progress has significantly slowed because of it. At least not yet, anyway - there's still plenty of time for that to change as I move forward with the game.

And speaking of story progress, that's one area in which 4 Ultimate soundly triumphs over Freedom Unite. My experience with the latter felt like a series of disconnected errands, a slew of fetch quests and big game hunts that never really fed into each other or served to bolster any kind of greater narrative thread. My goal in Freedom Unite was to take down the Tigrex that almost killed me in the opening cut-scene, and everything between those two events was there to pad out the single player experience. Contrast that with 4 Ultimate, which (up until this point, anyway) has a clear story structure and quests that serve to support it. I'm not just some village hunter cutting down monsters for sport - I'm a member of a travelling caravan, filled with other characters whose motivations justify the quests they contribute to the Guildmarm's job board. Significant quests are highlighted or marked as urgent, helping players to either prioritise or postpone moving the story along. Not only that, but they carry tangible rewards beyond raw materials - improved ingredients in the Street Cook's kitchen, or more options in the Wyporium. Where Freedom Unite felt like hunting for the sake of it, 4 Ultimate gives almost all of my actions a greater purpose, and that in turn makes its single-player story feel a hell of a lot stronger.

Moments like this will sadly remain beyond my reach
Moments like this will sadly remain beyond my reach

Perhaps my biggest regret with 4 Ultimate is that I probably won't get to experience the thrill of playing with other hunters. A great deal of the contemporary buzz surrounding Monster Hunter: World, and indeed the franchise as a whole, seems focused on the substantial co-operative multiplayer aspect. The thought of teaming up with other players, forging strategies and executing battle plans in order to take down the biggest and baddest monsters holds a great deal of appeal to me, to the point where I even gifted a copy of 4 Ultimate to a friend in the hopes we'd be able to play together some day. Sadly that's not something that is likely to happen, which means watching the GB crew live-stream their time with Monster Hunter: World is probably the closest I'm going to get to playing with others at this point in time. My time spent with Freedom Unite has already taught me that there's plenty of solo content to look forward to, and I know my AI-controlled Palicoes always have my back, but it sucks to feel like I'm not getting the "full" Monster Hunter experience.

I can tell that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is going to be a firm fixture in my gaming schedule for quite some time to come. After thirty hours of play I've only just unlocked the fourth of ten ranks of Caravan quests that comprise the game's single-player story. Right now my personal goal is to forge a set of Barroth armour before pushing on with the next batch of quests. Beyond that, who knows? As for Monster Hunter: World, I don't think I'll be picking it up any time soon, if at all. It's difficult for me to justify dropping a lot of cash on a new Monster Hunter game when I have a perfectly good one right here. As always, thanks to everyone for taking the time to read these ramblings. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (3DS)

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