Every time a new Monster Hunter games comes out, I think: surely, I must be done with this now. After several hundred hours over at least three versions, I’m not going to get sucked in again. But I do, every time. It’s because Monster Hunter’s world is so absorbing, and the gentle rhythm of prepare, hunt, and collect is so innately satisfying. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is the slickest game in the series to date, and it’s an ideal introduction to the hugely enjoyable business of cooperative monster-slaying.
The basic idea is to venture out into the wilds, find an impressive monster, kill it, and then make hats and swords out of its entrails – but there’s a lot more to it than that. There are 12 weapons, hundreds of items, and more than 100 hours’ worth of quests, but it’s the thrill of the chase and the addictive rush of hard-earned victory that continually hooks me in.
Monster Hunter has a reputation for being intimidating, but really it’s a lot easier to get to grips with than it looks. It’s challenging, sure – thrillingly challenging – but it’s hardly Dark Souls. In Japan this is a game played by mums, little brothers, couples… something like five million people, going by Monster Hunter Portable 3rd’s sales. All you need is someone to show you the ropes.
There are a few new monsters, a rearranged single-player experience and a whole new multiplayer area, but the meat and bones are the same as 2010’s Monster Hunter Tri –
with updated graphics on Wii U, of course, and much better loading times. It’s got the same finely-tuned selection of weapons, the same storyline, and many of the same single-player quests, though they have been reshuffled to incorporate new monsters and the difficulty curve is slightly gentler this time around – some of the toughest missions have been moved up a rank or two, evening out a few of Tri’s difficulty spikes.
Whether you’re playing on 3DS or Wii U, you’re getting the same experience, which is pretty remarkable in itself. You can transfer your save between the two platforms using a free app from the eShop. You can play online on Wii U, but not on 3DS – and if there’s four of you in a room together, you can play locally on three handheld consoles and one Wii U, and the TV screen becomes an HD showcase for your battle – which is by far the most exciting way to play. Monster Hunter really comes alive in multiplayer, so you’ll want to coerce some friends into playing with you. Show them a few of the best battles, though, and they probably won’t need much persuasion.
The graphical update is a touch disappointing for players of Tri, though. It’s clear that Capcom has spent most of its time making the monsters themselves look better; the environments, by contrast, are still very sparse, with some textures that are noticeably out of place in HD. The smaller monsters and non-player characters in the single- and multiplayer towns also haven’t been remodelled.
Touchscreen features, though, are a valuable addition. The Wii U gamepad and 3DS touchscreen can be customised with panels, so you can put your map, health and stamina, item pouch, and whatever else on the bottom screen if you want, giving you an unobstructed view of the action. It unclutters the screen, it’s customisable to your tastes, and it’s more convenient to actually play.
Monster Hunter quests come in three broad flavours: head out and gather some of this thing, kill a number of smaller monsters, or kill one big bad monster. The third flavour makes up about 75% of the quests on offer, and those are the ones that progress you through the ranks;Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate knows we don’t want to spend hours collecting mushrooms before we’re allowed to fight anything.
That said, crafting is integral to Monster Hunter, and gathering materials out in the wilds to make the tools you need provides the slower-paced, more soothing counterpoint to the lengthy battles. You need ore and metals for armour, herbs for making potions, plants and animal parts to combine into useful things like performance-enhancers and, of course, weapons and armour. There are only six large areas, from desert to volcano to beautiful mountain to the obligatory frozen tundra, and one new area that looks like a mystical Chinese jungle. Almost all of the quests take place in these same six areas (excepting a few that have their own special arenas); it might seem stingy, but it forces you get to know them intimately, mentally mapping every shortcut and resource point.
It’s all preparation for the main event. Monster Hunter’s battles are among those rare video game confrontations that truly qualify as epic: they last up to 50 minutes, and at their most gut-wrenching they are battles of attrition that go right down to the wire, as you launch your lance into the air with your last sliver of stamina just as a monster opens its jaws and miraculously kill it with seconds left on the clock. It’s these tremendously rewarding struggles that deliver the most powerful adrenaline surge, and if the first one works on you, you’ll be chasing that hit through the 200-odd quests in the game.
Underpinning Monster Hunter’s grand battles is a lovably quirky sense of humour. It’s got eccentric gestures, ridiculous armour, talking cats that cook your dinner, pigs in Babygro onesies, a cheesy barbecuing mini-game, and wittily translated dialogue – and the sight of my hunter haplessly sprinting away from a monster before falling on her face still raises a smile 40 hours in.
The best moments in Monster Hunter are when you meet a new beast for the first time. These creatures look incredible; aggressive, distinctive, and properly alive. They don’t have anything so obvious as a health bar – you have to ascertain how close you are to victory by observing their behaviour, watching for a limp, a damaged wing, or signs of tiredness. This is one of the best things about Monster Hunter – you have to rely on your instincts and get to know your quarry.
There’s a lot to learn about here, too. Even 50-plus hours in you will be seeing new monsters – though you’ll also be seeing a lot of the same ones, or a subspecies of a different colour. If you want to make a full set of armour out of a monster you’ll have to hunt it a lot. It can start to feel like a grind; friends come in handy here to alleviate the repetition. Working together towards a common goal feels a lot less like grinding than hunting the same monster on your own to mine it for parts, and gives you more room to experiment with the different weapons.
These different weapons are the key to Monster Hunter’s lasting appeal – whenever your hunting style is starting to feel stale, you can just craft yourself something new, and combat transforms. Playing with a greatsword feels almost like a different game than playing with a bowgun. Each of 3 Ultimate’s 12 weapons is easy to learn, but there are nuances to the combat system that reward those willing to dig deeper, and within a team the dynamic of each one changes. Ranged weapons can feel a little sterile playing on your own compared to the up-close thrill of a sword or switch-axe, but in a team the bowgunner’s role is more exciting.
The single-player sees you trying to save a quaint little fishing town called Moga Village from mysterious monster-related earthquakes. It’s a place I already know and love from Tri, but if you’re new, this is where you’re taught how to hunt. It has a farm where you can enlist feline minions to grow useful items for you and a fishing fleet that can bring back treasure, whilst free-hunting in Moga Woods gains you resources that you can use to help the villagers out.
Playing alone, you’re gifted a little companion called Cha-Cha who comes in very handy on quests, distracting monsters for you whilst you land big hits. As this is a game designed for multiplayer, his help is invaluable. In MH3 Ultimate, there’s a second companion called Shakalaka who unlocks towards the end of the single-player story, just in time to help you with the high-rank quests. There’s some cute competitive interplay between the two sidekicks, but essentially he’s extra monster bait; it’s not exactly a game-changing addition.
When it’s time for real multiplayer, you head to Port Tanzia, where you can meet up with friends. Local multiplayer is easy to set up, but the online interface on Wii U is unfortunately still as archaic as it was in Tri; one connection error and you’ll be booted aaaaall the way back to the start screen. Once you’ve managed to connect to a lobby, though, it rarely stumbled in my experience. The player population will obviously ramp up post-release (and in April, a patch is coming that will let American and European friends play on the same servers), but it’s difficult to imagine that the servers will be slammed.
Monster Hunter has often been a series where you have to work around its quirks, whether it was the absurd claw-like hand position needed to operate the camera on the PSP versions or the inconvenient lack of online multiplayer. With 3 Ultimate, a lot of these frustrations are gone; both versions control well. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate wasn’t made for the Wii U controller and it does feel a little awkward at first, but it never gets in the way of enjoying the game.
On 3DS, even without the Circle Pad Pro attachment, controlling the camera using the touchscreen works surprisingly well. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s certainly a lot better than it ever was on the PSP; it’s only noticeably slow when you’re fighting underwater. Target Camera, meanwhile, lets you focus the camera on large monsters, which is a godsend for newer players.
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is a good update of a great game that is starting to show its age, but it’s still very much worth your time and money. The monsters are stunning, the fights can be incomparably exhilarating, and the 3DS and Wii U connectivity is really impressive – even if the online infrastructure is still rather archaic. There’s just enough new stuff for Monster Hunter addicts to get into, and if you’ve never dived into this complex and rewarding series, this is the best opportunity yet.