There's no denying the tremendous stature of the Monster Hunter franchise in Japan. Mirroring Japanese gaming habits, it may have started out on a stationary console back in the day (PS2, 13 years ago), but it found most success on handhelds from PSP and 3DS, with the occasional stop off on home consoles, although those were generally afterthoughts. With Monster Hunter: World Capcom aims to bring a fully fledged current-gen console experience to gamers worldwide and it feels like they're finally making a full effort to bring a broader Western audience to the party.
We were recently invited to an event where we got to play the first three quests of the game. We got to experience a turbulent arrival in the New World, we got to create a character, and we got to walk around in the main camp of Astera where the Research Commision hopes to learn more about Elder Dragons, and as you'd expect research generally means killing things and collecting the remains.
There has also been a second opportunity for us to experience Monster Hunter: World, namely the beta on PS4. Consisting of three quests set in two regions (Ancient Forest and Wildspire Waste), this beta includes content previously made available at events such as Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show. As such, they lack the sort of introduction that we were treated to when starting the game from scratch, and if you're new to the series the wealth of options when it comes to gear and items may seem overwhelming and cumbersome (even if it's just a fraction of the depth available with the main game), but rest assured that the game will ease you into its features more gently.
One thing that should be said right off the bat is that while Capcom has made a great deal of effort to make the game more accessible, the complexity and foundations of Monster Hunter are there. This is a game where you'll soon realise there is much to learn, not just about mechanics and items, but also about the world.
The character creation tools allow for some rather deep customisation and it's difficult to imagine you'll run into a player character exactly the same as yours while playing. At first, the options may seem a bit limited, but in addition to templates you can tailor and adjust these within each category. You'll also get to tweak things like expressions and voice (though we didn't hear much from our player-character). Of course, you'll also be able to customise your feline companion, or Palico as they're called.
After an opening cinematic we won't spoil, you find yourself on the new continent and in the hub city of Astera, a place which made us think of an Ewok village, where the Research Commission has set up shop. They've got high hopes for you and you'll jump straight into the action as soon as you're through a guided tour of Astera. You'll have your own home here, and there are a number of useless locations such as the Cantina, the Smithy, shops and the all-important quest board. Speaking off quests, once you've picked one you'll be swept away to a base camp and start out. All of the game is playable both solo and in multiplayer and you can either team up ahead of a quest or simply send out a signal flare in case you run into trouble on your own, at which point you might have helpful hunters join you. It's a flexible setup and given the complexity of some of the larger, later monsters we're sure it will come in handy.
The general premise takes us back as Monster Hunter in many ways is the evolution of Phantasy Star Online, the first game we played online on console back at the dawn of the century. It's much more varied, deeper, but there's still some of that rigid, yet rhythmic combat and some of the same co-op dynamics. But clearly, the weak-weak-strong tapping of PSO is a lot different here and you'll need to invest a little effort in learning the specifics of each weapon. We took a liking to the more brutish up close and personal options like the Great Sword, Long Sword and Switch Axe. We also spent a little time with the bowgun, but it may not be the best beginner weapon as you need to get to grips not just with its mechanics, but also with what sort of ammo is best for a particular beast. One other thing that ensures Monster Hunter is a more core experience is the lack of health bars for the monsters; you really need to study and learn their weak points and strengths to take them out optimally. It's a learning process and if you're new to the series you should be prepared to spend some time learning and developing strategies (or check Youtube as it may be).
At its core Monster Hunter: World is a class-less action-RPG that's designed with co-op in mind. But while class-less there are certainly many roles to fill, it's just that any one player can fill multiple roles and adapt to the situation. It makes for a dynamic game where true team-play and co-operation flows organically from the needs of the current situation. The 16 or so weapon types offer plenty of different strategies. Add to that the five elements in play and the behaviours of the monsters and you've got complexity that requires a bit of thinking on your feet. Much has been made of the way the monsters interact with each other in this game and we've seen some of that. Great monsters clashing heads, and even during one of the quests another beast got caught up in the action. Exactly how dynamic this is remains to be seen, though from our experience it does appear to be fairly static/scripted (meaning these clashes will occur in a specific phase of a quest). From what we've seen and experienced, however, there seems to be a lot of things to discover in these regions beyond the quests.
Tracking involves fireflies; it's really a rather simple system, maybe even too accessible, but we're sure that more advanced creature will require a bit more effort if you're to discover them. By finding clues you level up the flies and they will then lead you in the right direction, later on you will be able to search out specific monsters with the aid of the scout flies, something that is sure to come in handy as we're hunting for specific crafting ingredients.
The beta for Monster Hunter: World is a bit of a weird one, consisting of three beasts to take out, the Great Jagras (Ancient Forest), the Barroth (Wildspire Waste), and the Anjanath (Ancient Forest). There were additional non-quest related beasts in the various environments and we once fought hard alongside some Japanese folks to try and take down a Diablos in Wildspire Waste (the Barroth intervened in one phase here which made for a spectacular scene). The Great Jagras quest is actually one of the early quests in the main game, though the beta encounter was somewhat edited down. It's quite intriguing, particularly for a relative newcomer to the series, to see some of the more advanced skills in play as certain players performed multiple "rodeos" (mounting the creature to pepper them with damage), and make smart plays with the slingshot. We would have liked to have been able to play more of a questline in each of the areas available during the beta as the time limit made exploration and discovery feel a bit rushed.
Either way, having spent a few hours getting to know Monster Hunter: World we cannot wait for the game to launch properly so we can develop our hunting skills and really dig into the deep and tactical gameplay that's on offer here.