Capcom have been in the extremely big game hunting genre for nearly 15 years now, with the Monster Hunter series selling millions of copies worldwide as well as garnering critical acclaim. Despite their popularity they’ve never had the same mass market appeal in the West as they do in the East, but the aim is to change all of that with the release of Monster Hunter: World. Hitting 3 platforms and multiple countries at once in one of the quietest release schedules of the year, this will be a game that brings phenomenal commercial success, though can it avoid the traps of pandering to the new players whilst maintaining the lure that the hardcore love?
The series is known for a steep learning curve and high difficulty spikes, Monster Hunter: World’s first hurdle to mass market appeal is making the game accessible to those who’ve never played before, and in that Capcom partially succeed. Once you’ve done the standard look creation and determined which Palico (which is really just a cat) is going to accompany you, it’s time to be thrown in at the deep end and literally on to the back of a humongous beast. It all works as the setup for the story that’ll have you trekking across an island in the New World, trying to research what’s going on with Elder Dragons whilst not getting eaten by everything that moves around you. The narrative is typical RPG stuff that makes little sense unless you’re prepared to do a lot of background reading online, yet it doesn’t drag and hold you back, it decently acknowledges that the core appeal here is tracking and taking down the weird, wonderful and highly dangerous creatures that inhabit the various biomes across the world. Learning how to become a hunter takes patience, timing and being prepared to wade through lots of menus with small text.
By drip feeding the mechanics to novices through regular text tutorials and simple missions, how the game works is conveyed at a reasonable pace, though you’ll be a dozen hours in before you’re fully up to speed with it all. Not that there will have been loads of content in the first hunts – no, this is not a fast paced hack and slash. Monster Hunter: World has a methodical observe, react and pre-empt style of play which lends itself to each mission taking a decent chunk of time to complete. With most having time limits of 50 mins to an hour, you can guess that whilst you’re still building your skills it’s going to take some perseverance to despatch a beast at least five times your size. Interestingly, the levelling up here is handled differently to most RPGs, and even though your rank goes up it doesn’t bring any material benefits beyond unlocking more advanced hunts. Character progression is determined more by equipment and armour levels which means getting used to crafting and upgrading very early on to survive some of the initial encounters.
Fortunately the quests are structured around knowing you’ll want to make the most of any loot earned out in the wilds, so after each successful (or failed) mission you end up back in Astera – the main hub settlement. Here is the place to manage items, store the pieces of kit that aren’t useful at that moment in time, visit the blacksmith forge and the canteen, as well as utilise the knowledge of various departments to pick up tips for hunts and new items. There’s the obvious side quests to be found too, this is an open world RPG after all. This is also the place to pick what you want to do next and decide whether you want some company along for the ride. Your Palico will always be with you out in the field, and whilst effective they aren’t a substitute for other people. Posting a quest or expedition is as simple as selecting where you want to go and what you want to tackle, then sitting back and waiting for anyone on the server to join. If you’re impatient then head off on your own, others can appear later on if you haven’t restricted access with a password.
It’s clear that Monster Hunter: World has been built to be a co-op game. Joining or inviting others is easy and fairly open ended too so that there’s not much in the way of restrictions. If you’ve gone out solo and find yourself in trouble then sending out an SOS will alert other players that you’re after some support and they can spawn in on you to help out. This is a superb way of getting out of tight spots with some of the hardier creatures as the chances are you’ll get some more experienced players with better equipment making mincemeat of the beast you’ve been battling with. The difficulty does increase when more players enter, so don’t think it’s a shortcut to victory, but having others around that will take the fight on whilst you swig some much needed health potion or re-sharpen your blade takes a surprising amount of the burden away. In these moments when everything comes together with the minimal communication between parties there’s a sense of achievement that’s hard to beat.
As you explore the vast and spectacular worlds there are details that really stand out to make each ecosystem seem full of life. Ants crawling between plants and cover, grazing herds chomping at marsh grass, or my favourite, a bigger, badder monster lurking around when you’re in the middle of a fight. There’s nothing quite like seeing a turf war kick off because you’ve strayed into another animals territory. Hang back and watch your opponent get distracted and have crucial health points knocked off… just make sure you’re not the focus of the encroached upon creature at the end of it all. It simulates a living and breathing environment with some fantastic touches to convince you that you’re the interloper and don’t belong in this land. Couple this with how resilient the monsters are and it can be awe inspiring. It can also be extremely frustrating.
With this being Monster Hunter: World, 95% of the activities you’ll do is hunting a monster and taking it down. Each encounter is pretty similar regardless of which part of the map it’s set in. Arrive at your base camp, read the tracks and marks to get a fix on its location, run after it to trigger combat which largely consists of dodge, dodge, dodge, hit, dodge. Regardless of weapon you choose, patterns for attack are pretty much the same – it’s all about managing stamina and avoiding getting hit. There’s an art to it and one that comes with time, but for a long period into the game it’s very clunky and annoyingly weak. Once you have it mastered it means it’s proficient yet still not stellar. Given the way Horizon Zero Dawn plays and tackles the large creature combat there, it feels like stepping back in time here. When you factor in that there’s no definitive indication of how much work you’ve left to do to kill a monster, and that at various intervals the monster will just run off to another area, it seems a lot less sophisticated than the world building would have you believe.
Movement itself it reasonably well handled, though there’s no manual jump as such, and the way your character switches between weapons and items is clumsy. Fine if you’re running around in the desert collecting plants and dealing with pests; difficult to maintain composure when in the middle of a large scale fight and you get eaten whilst trying to put your sword away to get to the health potion. There are ways to compensate, usually by selecting another weapon to see if it’s more suitable to your play style, and there’s logic in that because weapon upgrades are easy to earn and apply so you never feel like you’ve invested too much in one item. Likewise with armour upgrades, they all do the same job and just look cosmetically different. Leather has the same defence as chain mail so pick what you think looks best for the environment. By managing the levelling up slightly differently to other RPGs, Monster Hunter: World encourages more experimentation, and ultimately needs you to know your enemy well so that you take the right gear into battle.
It’s an interesting game with a large set of environments that are distinctly different, and a hugely impressive array of monsters that will make you gawp at their exotic nature. The emphasis is all on one hunt at a time, preparation, research and being properly equipped. When you have the time to put in it can be highly rewarding, and I’m sure for long term fans of the series Monster Hunter: World delivers in spades. For newcomers there’s a great game here too if you can accept that it’s built with older, precise combat controls in mind – it’s just not the type of game that delivers free flowing arcade fighting. You also have to be aware that this is an online focussed experience and one that is absolutely at its best when you’re a party heading out for adventure, though that doesn’t mean you can’t play on your own. There’s a tricky verdict here though because Monster Hunter: World offers a great experience on nearly every level, except the part that counts… the actual hunting of the monsters. The structure is follow the marker, engage, defeat a pre-defined amount of health, then repeat until one of you is dead. At times this can be tiresome, exasperating and even a little boring, taking the shine of what should be a complete package. However, if you can live with that there’s a game here that will last you for the rest of the year.
A PS4 copy of Monster Hunter: World was provided by the Capcom PR team for this review, and the game is out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £42.99 (depending on retailer).