Monster Hunter, Monster Hunter, Monster Hunter. I want to love you, but you make it so frickin' hard. Two years ago, I was a wet-behind-the-ears reviewer here at IGN and Monster Hunter Freedom 2 was dropped on my desk. A franchise that's more popular than air in Japan, Monster Hunter tosses you into a world of swords and gun lances that's infested with beasts the general public just isn't ready to deal with. The weapon creation, multiplayer, and massive amount of content in Freedom 2 made me weak in the knees, but the cumbersome camera and lackluster combat didn't do much for me. I gave the game an 8.3, the fans flogged me for complaining about the camera and the world moved on.
Yup, that's the same intro movie as the last game.
Jump ahead about 24 months. Unite's in my UMD slot and every praise and complaint I had about Freedom 2 is here -- along with a few new ones on both ends of the spectrum. Why you may ask? Well, it's because Unite isn't a sequel to Freedom. Unite is a special edition. I'm sure Capcom and the rabid set of Monster Hunter fans out there are going to try and convince you otherwise, but calling this a sequel is crazy talk. Yes, there are some additions, like five new monsters, the ability to have a Felyne comrade join you in battle, a mix of maps from the original Freedom and Freedom 2, and some other bells and whistles -- but this is still Freedom 2 at its core. These are mostly the same maps, the same items, the same characters and the same creatures.
Is that bad? Well, no, but it's really disappointing.
If you haven't read my Freedom 2 review
, you might as well double back now. I'm not joking; this is the same game (it even has the same intro movie when you start a new character), and I'm not going to bore you with repeating everything you already know about the BBQ spit, herbs, and using a whetstone to sharpen you blade because it's the exact same experience here as it was back then. When you start the game, you're the village monster hunter and you show up in Pokke Village (yup, same town), get single-player quests from the mayor, get multiplayer quests from the guild hall and you can have your cats cook for you. When you create your hunter, you'll choose his or her voice, skin color, and so on. The customization is deep and welcome because you'll be playing with the character for so long, but if you played the hell out of Freedom 2, you can just import that character and some of his or her stuff as well.
Obviously, this ability to carry over your character and items is awesome and welcome, but it only serves to drive home the disappointment in this offering. If you completed a Freedom 2 quest with the mayor, it's still marked as "cleared" in Unite. If you planted some seeds in your Freedom 2 garden, they're ready to be harvested when you turn on Unite.
Why did you buy this new $30 game again?
Of course, I might be being a bit too hard on this title. Unite isn't an exact carbon copy (there are 79 new missions that push the game's total past the 400 mark) and the gameplay is as deep and as addictive as ever. If you've never played a Monster Hunter before, you're in for a treat -- if you can take the learning curve. See, Monster Hunter is an RPG without a story. You're a hunter in a town… that's it. There are no relationships to maintain, no long conversations to get into, and no levels to grind. Your purpose is to hunt and upgrade your equipment with the rare items and resources you come across. When you take a monster down, you can carve the baddie to obtain items; you can have your team of cats grow you vital items; and there are thousands of armor sets to create and weapons to find. Please don't equate my disappointment with Unite as me saying "it sucks." Monster Hunter is a super-deep title and you should give it a shot.
Of course, Monster Hunter is also an incredibly difficult title to wrap your head around. There are some training missions in the game, but the best way to learn is by taking on a quest with a buddy who has been around the block (the game supports four-player ad-hoc). Learning how and when to attack certain monsters is pretty much an art form, and most brawls don't boil down to just running in and slashing. Once you get the basics down, the game can be incredibly rewarding, but it's also going to be filled with frustration as you run out of healing elixirs and find yourself freezing on the battlefield because you forgot to put on warmer clothes.The game does refine and add to the content found in Freedom 2. For starters, you can now install part of the game to your memory stick (you'll need 580 MB free and 14 minutes to pull off the operation). That might not sound like much, but the loads in Freedom 2 were a bit much and this process definitely makes the load screens go by in a flash. Need examples? It took more than 28 seconds to get from the opening movie to a new character's house in Freedom 2, but in Unite, that only takes eight seconds. In Freedom 2, loading up that liver quest I mentioned before took 27 seconds, but in Unite, it took six. That's a nice chunk of change.
Another addition speaks to lonely Monster Hunter players like myself. Yes, this is a game that excels when you team up with three other friends and run wild across the plains while using shock traps and slashing the hell out of foes, but not everyone has three friends who dig Monster Hunter… or own a PSP. Back in Freedom 2, this meant you had to just trudge out to face the beast of the day by yourself, and you can imagine that it's tougher to defeat a crazed lizard when it only has you to focus on. In Unite, you'll have the ability to bring Felynes into battle.
I slay with a little help from my friends.
Yes, the race that was once only allowed to cook you dinner is back and this time you can buy the kitties and train them to join you on solo adventures. Sure, they won't do much damage, but they will provide welcome distractions (and look adorable while doing pushups). At one point, I was trying to kill a trio of Cephalos (sand sharks) when this damn Genprey (kind of looks like that spitting dino that ate Newman in Jurassic Park without the mane) popped up and screwed up my plan. Thankfully, my cat (named Tracy) stepped in and took the reptile heat off me while I tried to hack the sandies to death.
If you're a seasoned player and you're sick of seeing the same ol' monsters, you'll be happy to find out that there are five new beasts in Unite. The Nargacuga lives in the old forest and is super-fast, the Lavasioth is a "lava-breathing reptile," and the Hypnocatrice is a bird-like beast that produces sleeping gas when in battle -- these guys and their other two friends are welcome additions to a title that is borderline déjà vu at times.
All that's good, but the problems I had with Freedom 2 are along for the ride here as well. Once again, multiplayer is limited to ad-hoc only. You'll need to get all of your monster hunting friends together to play, so get used to a stable of cats if you're a lonely kid out there. On top of that, this is the exact same control scheme I complained about two years ago. I'm fine with the face buttons governing different kinds of attacks and item usage, but the camera still sucks in this series. There's no lock-on and there's no easy way to rotate it seeing as how tapping the Left shoulder button will swing it to your back. This makes it hard to see your surroundings and often leads to your techniques being off, as well as you getting cheaply attacked.
Now, last time when I complained about the lack of lock-on, the board kids flipped out and said I was just playing incorrectly. Apparently, aficionados play with their middle finger on the left shoulder button and their index finger draped across the D-Pad so that they can rotate the camera when they feel like it. This is not a proper control method. This is a fix for a busted scheme. It's not comfortable.
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