At a time when industry talk is dominated by terms like accessibility and casual appeal, Capcom's Monster Hunter franchise remains firmly attached to its hardcore roots. The latest version of the game is Monster Hunter Tri for Nintendo's Wii, bringing its brand of third-person real-time beast-slaughtering action and addictive item acquisition systems to a new audience. For franchise fans this is going to be a very familiar experience, as much of the game remains the same, though with noticeable improvements to the camera control, visuals, and the online experience. If you're new and wondering what it is that makes this game worthy of the label hardcore, then you should know this is in no way a pick-up-and-play product. Only those with patience, a willingness to learn, and an appreciation of high levels of difficulty should apply. There's a significant time commitment associated with getting the most out of Monster Hunter Tri, but those who put in the hours will find the game offers the kind of satisfaction few other titles can deliver.
When it comes to high levels of difficulty in videogames, there can be two types. There's difficulty built to pose a challenge and that can be overcome with careful planning, perseverance, and skill, and there's the type of difficulty that's completely unreasonable that's meant to mask a lack of creative design ideas, technical limits, or simply to pad gameplay hours. Monster Hunter Tri's level of difficulty is the former. It's a tough game that readily tosses you into situations where laziness and lack of focus can swiftly result in failure. Yet its challenges aren't so difficult that they step beyond the bounds of sensibility, and its punishment is far from Demon's Souls severe.
The game is split into offline and online components. While the best experience is to play with others, I'd recommend most everyone start offline to build up equipment and familiarize yourself with the setup. It's an action-role-playing game with little story and character development. The main reason you'd play this game is to tangle with gigantic and challenging monsters and then upgrade your gear with the spoils of combat. Keeping with that focus, there's only one village in the game that serves as your hub for quests, item purchasing, trading, farming, and weapons and armor upgrading. The non-player characters (NPCs) you interact with often offer witty and humorous comments, but the main reason you're talking with them is to get to a menu to buy things or accept a new quest. So while it'll be a disappointing game for someone looking for a developed tale, the convenience of having all quests and vendors centrally located makes managing your inventory and weaponry much more efficient, saving time as you consider how to power yourself up for the next challenge.
The game isn't entirely without a story, however. A sea beast called Lagiacrus is disrupting life in a fishing village. As a new hunter it's your job to train, upgrade, and wipe him out, which isn't going to happen for a number of hours. First you'll need to wade through a range of introductory missions where you'll kill simple enemies or harvest resources that help familiarize you with the basics of combat and mechanics of scouring the battlefield maps for items. As you'll soon discover, there is no direct character leveling in Monster Hunter, meaning you don't gain experience for kills in the field. Instead, you power up by fashioning new sets of armor and purchasing and upgrading weapons, the best of which can only be obtained by slaughtering powerful monsters and carving up their corpses for components to be used in crafting. This is why facing off against new boss monsters in the game is such an event. Not only does each major fight represent a new level of challenge requiring skill and cunning to overcome, but it also represents a potentially new and powerful set of gear you can equip.
It's also how the game forces you to learn by requiring that you replay boss encounters numerous times in order to get the requisite amount of components for new gear. Some, like myself, appreciate the challenge, since it gets noticeably easier with each subsequent playthrough as you familiarize yourself with your prey's attack patterns and when to evade and strike. However, I can understand how someone might be put off by this kind of repetition. If you're the type of player who would rather just move through one encounter after another without looking back, then this likely isn't the type of game for you.
That being said, there's so much depth to the combat in Monster Hunter that repeatedly hunting the same boss monster is far from dull. Before heading into a fight, you need to be ready. Are you going to be fighting in a hot desert? Then you should bring along cool drinks to keep you in shape. Don't forget your Mega Nutrients to boost your health, extra whetstones to keep your blade sharp, food to maintain high stamina reserves, plenty of health potions, paintballs for tracking purposes, and potentially traps and tranquilizers if you're trying to capture your prey instead of simply killing it. Since not all of these items are available as direct purchases, you'll need to consider how to farm resources and combine them in your item box to produce everything you need. Then, when it's all ready, you can head over to a weapon vendor and decide which style of combat you prefer.
The game initially offers five weapon types, from massive Great Swords to giant Hammers to the more nimble Sword and Shield. As you continue through, you'll also unlock Long Swords and the new Switch Axe, which swaps from axe to sword and back again with the press of a button and can do some serious damage when properly wielded. Each weapon type is essentially a character class, offering distinct rhythms of movement, attack, and unique special abilities. If you bring a Great Sword into battle, you'll need to consider how to best position yourself in a fight as you deal with slowed movement speed when the weapon's drawn and ready to strike. More defensive-minded players may want to stick to the Lance instead, which comes with a shield capable of deflecting enemy attacks. The variation in fighting styles provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to play, adding more depth to the experience and giving you even more of a reason to experiment.
Enemies all have tells, and paying attention to when the winged Rathalos is going to blast a fireball at you or being able to recognize when Lagiacrus is going to emit an electrical field discharge can be crucial to success. In offline play, you'll find things go fairly smoothly until you square off against a Barroth, at which point the high level of challenge Monster Hunter is comfortable throwing at you becomes clear. By the time you've unlocked tier five quests against the likes of Diablos and Barioth, you'll know all too well the significant commitment the game's quests demand, and the level of concentration required to survive an encounter. It could be exhausting for some, but those willing to push through will be greatly rewarded. When you defeat a powerful adversary, you feel as though it's a direct result of your own talent, planning, and resolve, instead of a result of having held down the fire button for long enough to cause the enemy to fall over and die.
Thankfully, like in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on PSP, you get a little AI-controlled helper in Monster Hunter Tri named Cha-Cha. This guy can be customized with a number of different moves and abilities. Though he can heal you in battle and attack enemies, his primary value is to simply act as a distraction for enemies while playing offline, giving you a larger window of opportunity to recover against the more challenging boss monsters. He's not consistently reliable, but certainly a welcome ally that makes offline challenges less severe. If you decide you've learned enough and venture online to test your skill against the more challenging missions there, you'll find joining with up to four others to quest in the City portion of the game can have its advantages.
Online you'll eventually face off against foes otherwise inaccessible. So not only is there the opportunity to net better gear, but a greater degree of challenge for the more dedicated players who exhaust all the offline portion of the game has to offer. It's also a much more interesting dynamic to work as a team to conquer foes than working alone. The thrill of cooperating with others to conquer huge challenges can be a powerful incentive to keep playing as any PvE MMO player can attest to. If you're sitting there thinking that sounds cool but worried about the Wii's ability to handle the fundamental infrastructure of such a complicated social game, then you should be happy to know it's actually pulled off well here
. The game doesn't require Wii Friend Codes or anything like that to get into a party with others. It's an entirely self-contained system that lets you mingle in public spaces, meet other hunters looking for quests, communicate via Wii Speak, emotes, and text messages, and compile a friends list that lets you monitor others' online status and warp directly to them if you're trying to get a game going. It's still best to try and get a group of friends together to tackle challenges since you can be sure they'll be respectful and behave appropriately, but it's also possible to join up with random groups if you don't know anyone else playing. Who knows, maybe you'll wind up with some other smart hunters on the same path as you. At worst, there'll at least be three other targets for your enemy to consider attacking instead of just you and the intermittently helpful Cha-Cha.
The online questing system differs from what's available offline as you increase your rank and unlock new challenges. This means there's a huge amount of content in Monster Hunter Tri that could easily encompass hundreds of hours of your time. Even the vendor NPCs have different functionality online in the City, offering things like unique item combo opportunities and ways to customize your furnishings. Should you not have the option to connect your Wii online, there is still a multiplayer element of the game. Two can join up for split-screen Arena quests where you pick from pre-made armor and weapon sets to beat up bosses. This can be useful for training or simply to give a friend who doesn't know about Monster Hunter a chance to try it out as you explain things along the way.
If you do get a newcomer to sit down in front of the game, one part you'll probably have to spend the most time explaining are the controls, which have been a historically touchy subject for the franchise. Ensuring the camera is properly positioned in a fight can be the difference between failure and success. On the PSP, it was more of a problem since you had to employ an irritating 'Finger Hook' or 'Claw' method of arching your index finger to spin the camera around with the D-pad. In Monster Hunter Tri, provided you're using a Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro, camera control is far less annoying. With the left thumbstick you guide your character around, and with the right you rotate the camera. It's simple, effective, and second nature after a few hours with the game.
On the subject of control, I would highly recommend you pick up a Classic Controller Pro to play this game (there's a bundle available if you're interested
). If you only have a Wii-mote and Nunchuk, the game is still technically playable, but in my experience more of a hassle than it needs to be. Moving your thumb between minus, A and 1 buttons and then moving it all the way up to manipulate the D-pad to adjust the camera is fine in fights against weak opponents, but when you're in a battle that could take upwards of 30 - 40 minutes against an extremely challenging opponent, you're going to want to go with the most comfortable option, and that's the Classic Controller Pro.
One area of the game that all players will need to get used to is underwater control. Putting aside questions about how it's even possible for a person in such heavy armor carrying a weapon three times their size to even float at all, you'll find the action isn't ideal, but manageable. I was able to put down underwater creatures such as Lagiacrus and Gobul while swirling around beneath the waves, but was still relieved when they took to land for brief stints. The additional consideration of Z-axis movement in an underwater space can be a little overwhelming at times, especially considering how difficult some of the encounters can be.
Monster Hunter veterans are going to see a lot of familiar menu assets here and the frequency and length of load times can get tiresome as you transition between zones, but the game can still be strikingly pretty. From the burning skyline in the Volcano zone to shooting stars streaking through the nighttime sky, each questing zone is a pleasure to look at. Monster and character animations are wonderfully smooth, but what I really appreciate about Monster Hunter are the armor and weapon designs. It's one thing to have a statistics page tell you a weapon is more powerful than another, but it's a different thing entirely to look at a weapon and know at a glance that it will mercilessly shred anything it touches. It's obvious Capcom understands this perfectly well, building in tons of detail into each piece of armor and weapon, making them even more rewarding to fashion and use. It's especially cool to see features of the boss monsters reflected in the armor pieces, like the ridges along Barroth's brow represented as sturdy spines in a chest piece that gives a clear and powerful sense of connection between prey and its associated armor set. The enemy designs are equally impressive. The boss creatures are utterly enormous, imposing, and created in a way to strike fear in the player, especially as they bellow and roar at to kick off a fight.
©2010-04-14, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved