That lumbering, intimidating beast that was Monster Hunter has been slain, its core charm and mechanics hacked out and hewn into a precise, perfect weapon. The action and the loop of hunting monsters and crafting gear has never felt better. Unfortunately, the fresh-faced hunter of a package which now wields this weapon doesn’t do so without making a few mistakes.
When the player is in the field, alone with a monster, experiencing the phenomenal world, exquisite combat and incomparable creature design, Monster Hunter World is an almost perfect experience. Around the edges, however, the game suffers from major identity crisis after major identity crisis.
With extravagant cutscenes, oodles of character and a wealth of voiced dialogue, this is a story-driven game in a way the series has never really approached before, even in Monster Hunter 4. This makes it ideally suited to a singleplayer experience. In fact, I played through the whole story as a solo experience. This was motivated by the lonely Xbox playerbase and my own time constraints, of course, but the constant stream of incident and the tantalising mysteries of the story kept me engaged.
If this narrative, structured, pacey experience speaks to a singleplayer-focused design ethos, the menus and HUDs do not. Starting the game for each session, I was asked to sign into an online server and when I didn’t have Xbox live, shown an advertisement. Only after trying and failing to get me to play online would the game give me an offline version to play. When played online, the system for joining other players on hunts awkwardly stumbles over making you experience story beats in solo play first.
Obviously, this isn’t the smartest or deepest tale told by the medium, but it does have laughs and excitement, and a central mystery and theme that speaks to the beating heart of the Monster Hunter series. It concerns a fleet of researchers and explorers, following a migration of elder dragons to a new continent to discover the reasons for this “Elder Crossing”. Naturally, the player’s part in this story is normally to be dropped into an area and hunt a big monster, be it for study or because it is jeopardising the other people on the mission.
The core loop of hunting monsters has changed little. The 14 weapon types are there, familiar yet fresh. The time limits, item and crafting systems, damage models and breakable bodyparts are all present and correct, as are the familiar mission objectives. The flow of play is slicker than ever, and the unbroken maps allow for a flowing, cinematic camera and complicated terrains to climb, dig into and explore.
Some monsters are more difficult than others, but I only found myself having to stop and work on upgrading my armour a couple of times throughout the quest. For the most part, I was able to constantly push forwards, always eager to unlock the next monster or locale, to proceed to the next moment of character interaction.
The game makes this easier than ever, always presenting the next essential objective obviously and tucking optional or repeat hunts in their own menus. It made a hurried completion easier than ever, but the lack of a big obvious list of objectives to tick off did make it harder too imagine continuing to play this entry for the hundreds of hours I’ve spent in earlier games.
Here, too, the game went on to contradict itself. While the first 25 hours of the game were almost a linear action adventure, once high rank showed its face the game progression became more esoteric than even the series’ earlier games. The primary objective was a side story, and the game almost demanded a leisurely exploration of optional content. Rushing to the end, wanting to see every monster before they could be spoiled, is not the way to enjoy it.
There is clearly a correct way to play this game. Less named quests are necessary because even repeating prior hunts can be more exciting than usual, the complex systems of ecology and monster interaction yielding different results each time. Although not delineated as two game modes, the story is clearly meant to be savoured in solo while accompanied by multiplayer shenanigans. This is a game to take one’s time with and experiment within, a captivating world that part of me stayed in even when the console was switched off.
All the conflicts in Monster Hunter World are reflections of the game’s central duality. Monster Hunter is quintessentially Japanese. It is quirky and silly, yet dark and cool in equal measure. It is imposing to learn, designed to inspire multiplayer sessions and schoolyard discussion. It is concerned with a balance between man and nature yet also keen to strike out against its bestiary with a great big sword.
This is the game’s great push Westward, an effort that appears to be paying off. The gameplay and loops, occasionally described as a cross between Dark Souls and Destiny in a comparison which is neither unfair nor really accurate, is ripe for the console big leagues. It is natural that such a Japanese title would struggle when confined in Western design ethos. It is perhaps telling that, in a series primarily concerned with harmonious living and self defence, to sell in the US and Europe it has adopted a new story about expansionism.
Monster Hunter has been refined into a precision gameplay weapon, and the loop of the series is still strong. In the coming months and years, with DLC updates and further games inevitably appearing, we will see if Capcom are the warriors worthy of wielding it.
By Luke Summerhayes