More and more lately, it seems video games are all about empowering the player, about taking every possible step to make sure players don't get frustrated, don't quit due to difficulty, don't get lost, and don't feel overwhelmed or weak.
Then there's Monster Hunter, which very quickly teaches you just how far down the food chain you actually are. Ever since its 2004 debut on the PS2, the gameplay of the series hasn't changed much, mainly because it hasn't needed to--the series has been topping Japanese charts on every platform it hits, from the PS2 to the PSP to the Wii and PS3, and now the series arrives on the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.
Ultimate is an upgraded version of 2009's Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii, featuring additional quests, weapon classes, items, equipment, monsters, and hunting grounds. Starting off in Moga Village and the strangely not-deserted Deserted Island, you'll be hunting and foraging for resources to help rebuild the village and improve your equipment, eventually getting permission to take on higher-level hunts and fight stronger monsters. There are no player levels or experience in Monster Hunter, with the game built around resource-gathering, crafting, and developing your all-too-fragile equipment.
"You have exactly five seconds to tell me why you've woken me up--what? Another Hunter? *sigh*"
Now, being completely honest, I haven't touched Monster Hunter since the first game on PS2, so picking the game back up--and finding it had barely changed at all--was kind of a shock. There's no target lock-on of any kind, the controls are a little loose, and sometimes objectives or basic instructions aren't explained very clearly. This is a very text-heavy game, so I strongly suggest you pay attention to everything that everybody says, even if sometimes you want them to just shut up so you can play the damn game already. But after a slow start, the game just turns you loose on a huge, hungry world, and I found it to be a very freeing experience.
If you're familiar with Monster Hunter, this is all going to feel very familiar--start with one-star hunts collecting various resources or taking out groups of smaller monsters, then move your way up the ladder and fight bigger monsters in more dangerous environments. The game has a real Metroid feel of needing the right equipment for the right places, and is almost like Demon's Souls or Dark Souls in needing to be prepared for anything at any time. Your "final" goal in single-player is to defeat Lagiacrus, a powerful amphibian wyvern that's causing earthquakes and damaging the village--you'll run into him early-on just to see how woefully underpowered you are against it. Beating Lagiacrus is far from the end, though, as there are still plenty of postgame quests of all levels, and even more if you decide to go online.
Both versions of the game are identical, so you'll get the same experience whether you're playing at home or on the go. Naturally, the Wii U version has bright, upscaled 1080p graphics and better sound, and most players will have an easier time using the Wii U's second analog stick or the 3DS' Circle Pad Pro instead of the somewhat-clunky touchscreen camera control, although it feels much more natural over time. The Wii U Gamepad lets you pull a lot of the on-screen information onto the touchscreen to free up the beautiful visuals, and the menu can be comfortably organized with exactly what you need for hunting, whether you need quick access to your Item Pouch or special attacks, or a button for your Gestures if you're like me and enjoy dancing like a jackass while your friends are getting eaten alive.
This many years in, it should go without saying that Monster Hunter is designed for multiplayer, and while the single-player hunting is enjoyable and hardly a grind, there's something truly satisfying about teaming up with your friends and taking on these titanic creatures. Your quarry never has a health bar, so you'll have to watch it for sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious visual cues like damaged wings, a limp, or if it stumbles during big attacks to see if you're wearing down your prey. Communication is imperative, and while I appreciated sinking time into the review copy with a friend on the 3DS version, I can't wait until more people pick this up so I can have three decoys fellow hunters out there with me.
Video games nowadays are short--even the very expansive and exploration-heavy Tomb Raider, which I loved, clocks in at around 20-25 hours if you're taking your time. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has a lot to do, but I think it's fair to say that a lot of that can blend together. There are only three types of quests: collect X amount of a certain item, kill X amount of small creatures, or take on one big, badass monster. The first two quests can eventually wear on you, but once you start taking on the big guys, things quickly take a turn for the amazing. These guys will kick your ass if you're not prepared--coming back with the right equipment, the right mindset, and most importantly experience through failure will often see you come out on top, after massive battles that will often take up the better part of an hour... maybe a little less if you've brought some friends with you.
Thankfully, even the one-huge-monster confrontations have quite a bit of variety, as you'll have to capture some monsters and kill others--capturing monsters takes a lot of patience and excellent timing, while killing them can turn into insane knock-down drag-out fights to the finish. Some monsters can even call in help--I am not ashamed to say that I failed a one-star quest to kill a Qurupeco (we were curbstomping it, by the way) when it called in a goddamn Rathian as backup. Dusting myself off, making adjustments to equipment and inventory, and jumping back in for another round feels especially satisfying when the game fights back. Not enough games do that nowadays, and it's nice to have a game that gives me stories to tell about my adventures and my experiences.
"Well you're a big'un... awright, let's get this show on the--"
With all that said, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is a solid game that is still held back by some frustrating flaws. At the start of the game, you're constantly interrupted by tutorials, making your first few quests an irritating slog. While it's nice that the game then turns you loose and lets you go at your own pace, certain features, like how to team up for multiplayer, are very poorly explained in-game--I recommend you find a good FAQ or a friend who's familiar with Monster Hunter if you're new to the series. Monster Hunter is a series that rewards patience and dedicating plenty of time to putting together that perfect set of armor or crafting that ultimate weapon--even with the insane combat, gamers looking for a quick, action-packed fix should probably look elsewhere. Finally, while the environments are gorgeous and the monsters all feel truly alive, character and NPC models have a very dated look even with their shiny HD coat of paint.
"--OH WHAT THE HELL, he can fly?!"
If you're a longtime Monster Hunter fan, or a gamer looking for something a little different that has tons of content and rewards long-term play, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate will give you what you're looking for on either system. It demands your time, but pays you back with some truly exciting battles and adventures.
+ Solid challenge with plenty of gameplay variety
+ Vast, open world with loads of monsters to hunt, resources to gather, and equipment to craft
+ Built for excellent and hilariously fun multiplayer, but has great single-player to go with it
+ The exact same game on both Wii U and 3DS, with plenty of cross-system options for multiplayer
+/- The game lets you learn and play at your own pace, but sometimes neglects to explain important features
+/- Less-experienced gamers, or gamers more used to modern gaming conventions might get put-off by MH3U's steep learning curve and intentional clunkiness, like friendly fire, no lock-on, and no enemy HP display
- The early part of the game constantly interrupts play to give obvious, unskippable tutorials
- Dated character models can stick out like a sore thumb