There is an important note that needs to preface this entire review and it's one that I think is important to understanding the context of where I'm coming from here: I've never played a Monster Hunter game. I tried about two hours of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on the Wii U, but I found it fairly insufferable. Conceptually, as a big lover of… well, big monsters, it is absolutely my jam. Nice, methodical fights against amazingly designed monsters, both visually and play-wise, is something I think a lot of people could sink their teeth into. However, especially for many in the West, and for me, it was just too abstruse. The franchise was full of idiosyncrasies that felt like it held the key for entry too high and the loop of play just a little unpolished, at least for what we've become accustomed too. The prospect of learning all of its systems and getting into a groove to get to the part where you were having fun just never lined up with my downtime.
Yet, here I am. 30 hours down into Monter Hunter: World and about to type the words: "Monster Hunter: World is excellent"
Monster Hunter: World is excellent. See?
I mean it too, with perhaps the wildest thing being that, honestly, that abstruseness, those idiosyncrasies are still present (albeit curbed). What remains though is a wonderful adventure driven by gear and exploration with a seemingly bottomless well of depth.
Let's take a step back though. For those of you new to the series, and I'm sure there are many of you, Monster Hunter is perhaps unsurprisingly about hunting down monsters. In Worlds', the main story had you arriving in 'The New World', a new and mysterious place. Before long though, you meet the central thread of the narrative. The Elder Dragon, Zorah Magdaros, quite literally smashes into the story as a towering walking mountain of lava. You'll pretty soon find out it's migrating to the New World, and the central question to the story is 'Why?' This will take you on a jaunt around the New World in one of the games several biomes, tasking you with taking down all kinds of beautiful, bizarre and nasty monsters. As you do this, you'll begin to harvest materials from their corpses to then start to make some pretty fantastic looking gear.
The gear is a huge part of the experience, often the key driver in your progression. There is a lot of it too. Each large monster drops a different set of armour, all of which can be upgraded. On top of those, you are also trying to craft weapons of which there are 14 types. Things from a simple sword and shield, a hammer and bow and arrow to much more intricate and complicated things like gunlances, transforming axes, bowguns and the charge blade. Each changes up your play significantly, but each has its place. It means there will almost always be a weapon for you. They feel fantastic to use as well. They have an incredible heft to them with the entire game, from the AI, animation and camera all trying to sell how terribly powerful each one is. To complicate things, each weapon has various trees to follow down based on the monster parts you use to craft. You can change the property of the weapons entirely as you go, sometimes changing the sharp end of your sword into a blunt bludgeon, which can be more effective against specific monsters. You can also imbue them with elemental powers again which act differently against each enemy. This means, if you want to get intricate with your management, you might want a couple deviations on the same weapon on hand. However, if you want to ignore all that, and just keep going down the basic path with just the same weapon, you can get quite far in the game, as I did. It's less satisfying than perhaps bending the game's systems to your will, but if you're belligerent, you can force a dual blade shaped block into a square hole with a bit of effort. You might just miss some of the intricacies.
Those intricacies are deep too. It seems there is always something you didn't realise, a new system you didn't know about and a new effect that changes the way you play. These depths are a double ended sword though. While they add complexity to the title, this is where the abstruseness of the Monster Hunter franchise lives on. You'll soon learn this isn't the 'dumbed down' version of the game and it doesn't spend a lot of time tutorialising either. It'll essentially throw an idea at you, and the only thing that will accompany it will be a screen of text before it is gone. You can get re-read it, but in terms of doing, there just isn't a lot there. I didn't realise how important it was to understand a monsters weaknesses before going into a fight, using the botanist to keep a steady stream of harder to find ingredients and how investigations are generally a better way to get the goods you need than just replaying a quest. Monster Hunter: World usually just wants to mention something is there and then just plough on. Like J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, the game demands you get on its tempo and if not you'll miss a lot of important systems to the central loop. For example, I went through the game for a long while, knowing that you could capture monsters, but never once did the title quite tell me how to do that. It makes the first five hours or so for newcomers hard to swallow. That said, Monster Hunter: World remains fascinating through these hours due to mor tangiable improvement and that is where I think its accessibility lies.
The easier accessibility of this title over others of the franchise, while sanded down, isn't through changing the core of what Monster Hunter plays like. Instead, it's making use of the new technology. What will keep you hooked in the early hours of the game is its gorgeous landscapes plus the spectacle of seeing this universe designed and rendered on a PlayStation 4. You can move seamlessly from area to area, see the wildlife going about its business without you and enjoying the detail and lushness just oozing from every pore. Set free from its handheld shackles, you want to get to where Monster Hunter is asking you to be because of just how compelling the game's world is. This is to say nothing of the game's truly wonderful and charming hub town of Astera. It's bustling, beautiful and honestly, a place you want to just exist in. Here is where I put special shout out to the cat-like Palico chefs that cook your meals in probably one of the best cutscenes in games in a long time. Once you spend enough time there, you will start to understand the flow of the game and that should come far before the charm of this technological buff wears off.
I've said a lot here, and I've not even gotten to the monsters. Let's get to that. Obviously, this is where you'll be spending a lot of your time, both in hunting and fighting the beasts. They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, strangeness and ferocity. Each one is essentially a boss fight you have to overcome, dodging flipping, slashing and smashing your way to victory. These fights aren't short either. The game gives you a 50 minute time limit on most quests to track down and kill the beast, and I went over that time limit a couple times. Don't be surprised to regularly be spending 30-40 minutes hacking and slashing at a monster until it finally falls. To find the monsters, you will have to stay diligent in the world, picking up various clues of their presence. Once you've found enough your scout flies will show you where they are and the fight will ensue. You will have three chances to kill the beast before you lose the quest and have to start over. They are really intense fights, that require you to understand each creature's movesets and tells in order to best them. As I've said, they can take a long time and running out of time or getting killed for the third time is always agonising as you know you have to build your inventory back up again and start over. It's the worst when it happens, but it definitely adds to the edge of your seat nature of fights. They really are the culmination of your efforts of exploring, foraging, crafting and your understanding the game, all distilled into an intricate dance of a brawl. Of course, you can take on all of these monsters with up to a group of four other players too, ramping up the challenge and teamwork. It really adds something to have two players focusing on two different things weapons and equipment wise and certainly helps you keep up your best in those tough, long to do fights.
There is something specific that needs to be highlighted as I think it gets to the heart of what sets World apart. The moment all of the game's systems and oddities fade away when two ,onsters meet each other. These moments are true 'spectacle' and justify the franchises move to console only. Because the bosses are persistent and move around the areas, at times they can run into each other. All your planning, your efforts, everything falls away as you see a Rathalos swoop in to take away your Ajanath and proceed to pummel it. These truly are the game's high moments. Seeing two hulking monsters face off, (each with custom animations) while you sprint around trying to figure out how you can turn the situation to your advantage is a truly thrilling experience. (For a good example of this, check out here.) It's the basest, most primal thing in this complex and intricate game, but they just never ever stop being… well, cool.
It's a great example of how Monster Hunter: World succeeded grabbing my attention opposed to others in the franchise. The complexities are still intact and it takes a lot of learning to get up to speed. Not helping things, it has an expression problem, never showing the player how to manage and deal with all these parts optimally. However, it isn't afraid to put all that aside and just let some Monsters have a cool as hell fight in a compelling connected world. Monster Hunter no longer feels like a series solely about its systems and depth, but rather a pay off on its concept. The monsters, the world, they are centre stage here, and that is all thanks to the hardware letting the developers let this franchise stretch its legs. That stuff isn't the glue of the game, the loop, the massive weapons, the repetition to kill monsters and claim their resources are the bread and butter of what you are doing. This is still a title that should satisfy the longtime fans who love what this franchise is. These moments of spectacle though, be it being wowed by Astera or seeing a huge bank of water breaking and washing away a massive dragon, that is the special BBQ sauce on top of this rough steak that makes this one so much more palatable. It really is a bit of video game magic.