Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate could well be Capcom’s greatest opportunity for the franchise to truly blossom here in the West. In Japan the series is a juggernaut, with a number of the Monster Hunter titles sitting alongside entries in the Final Fantasy, Mario and Pokemon franchises in the all-time best selling games in their home nation.
In some ways the fact that Monster Hunter hasn’t gained more ground in America and Europe isn’t that surprising, given the series’ emphasis on preparation, grinding and, particularly in the case of the handheld entries, community. With Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Capcom have finally brought handheld online multiplayer to the franchise, alongside a number of other refinements, and with the title launching alongside Nintendo’s ‘New 3DS’ in the West could this be Monster Hunter’s moment?
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate places you in the role of a hunter who takes up residence amongst a travelling caravan. Its leader, The Caravaneer, is set on finding out information about a mysterious gem he’s discovered, which sees the troupe travel across the world, moving from location to location whilst helping citizens with an array of monster related problems.
As a returning player to the franchise, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is both reassuringly familiar and refreshingly invigorating. The crucial tenets of the series remain largely unchanged, from starting out as a new hunter being sent on simple gathering quests, to finding your feet as you tackle increasingly large monsters in search of parts to craft new weapons and armour. In a series first though you’re treated to a variety of new home locations to explore, from Val Habar to Cathar, with some services being unique to a particular village. It makes you feel like you’re genuinely exploring a larger world, rather than a distinct corner, and each of them looks fantastic.
That simplistic hook of improving your armoury through repeated hunts of a creature alongside friends has always been the defining pull of Monster Hunter, and whilst others have attempted to replicate it, such as Gods Eater or Soul Sacrifice, they’ve never quite captured the magic of Capcom’s series. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate retains the same addictive quality as its predecessors which will see you repeat the same quest over and over again, often for hours at a time, with the simple hope of finding that one crucial part you need to complete your new sword or helmet.
The game brings in a number of improvements, with the introduction of more dynamic movement playing a crucial part in how hunters can now tackle their prey. The ability to leap from ledges and cliffs onto a passing monster is a brilliant addition, though at first I thought it was annoying and fiddly. As with many things, the more I spent time with the system the more it made sense, and it’s often crucial to attack from above, enabling you to mount the monster and hack away with your knife, with the ultimate reward being to knock your target over, giving you and your cohorts the opportunity to wade in.
The new Insect Glaive offers you even more chances to mount monsters as it allows you to vault onto them. It makes the weapon incredibly potent, and when combined with its damage output, speed and character buffs I can see plenty of people opting for it when the game releases. Unlike the new Charge Blade it’s genuinely unique amongst the Monster Hunter armoury, though those who have an old favourite will be glad to know that all of the previous weapons have returned as well.
From a graphical standpoint, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate absolutely makes the most of the 3DS hardware, with many of the locations demanding to be viewed in 3D to truly grasp their scale and detail. Sadly, as with many 3DS action games, the effect is lost when you accidentally shift your hands meaning you’ll be reaching for that 3D slider again, though hopefully the New 3DS’ eye-tracking hardware will promise a much more consistent experience. The various hunting grounds also impress with their scale and have plenty of character, though the mix of mountains, deserts, forests and frozen landscapes hardly set a new precedent for the series.
The monsters are of course the stars of the show, from new creatures like the terrifyingly mysterious Gore Magala or the amphibious Tetsucabra to returning stars like the winged Rathalos and the gorilla-like Congalala. They are all incredibly well animated, and genuinely imposing, and each time you first encounter them you’re treated to a introductory cut-scene which looks fantastic, and merges seamlessly into the ensuing hunt.
The addition of online multiplayer is of course the headline new feature and my experience with it has been fantastic, though of course this is under review conditions where the servers have not been full. Interactions have been smooth and effortless, and the opportunity to play with others online is really where the franchise’s strengths are most apparent. It’s a genuine delight to work together taking down an immense monster, with the only slight wrinkle being the reliance on text chat via the 3DS touchscreen rather than the option of voice chat, though this is due to the restrictions of the hardware. Of course, playing out and about over wi-fi this may not be that much of a loss.
What is even more welcome is the ease with which you’re able to add friends, send guild cards and interact with those in the party around you. While Nintendo has a reputation for voraciously guarding the safety of its gamers, and in some ways making interactions deliberately difficult, it’s refreshing to see Capcom take a modern and realistic approach to it, and for Nintendo to allow them to.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate refines the series rather than revolutionises, but the changes are all well considered, and again remove more of the barriers to entry, just as Monster Hunter Tri did in the previous generation. It still requires a huge time commitment, and its Japanese-centric touches, such as your Felyne companions and its often-comedic tone, may still break Westerners’ impression of the game, or of their expectations of what the game should be. The necessity of repeatedly playing the same quest, or indeed the overall lack of variety of quests, may further alienate some people though this wouldn’t be the first game to ask such things of players.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate could destroy your life. If you allow it to get its hooks into you, the cycle of hunting, carving, and crafting is so intoxicating that it can genuinely generate hundreds of hours of gameplay. The addition of online multiplayer finally brings the series to handheld in a form that makes perfect sense, and Capcom have improved the game’s accessibility without losing any of its quirky Japanese character. All in all, it’s an essential entry for both new and returning hunters, and another vital exclusive for Nintendo’s 3DS.