Yesterday we were cordially invited to a guest lecture at the Science Museum in London. The subject? Monster Hunter of course; in fact, it was the very first session of 'Monster Hunter University'. In a lecture led by long-time series producer Ryozo Tsujimoto, the assembled masses were educated on topics ranging from monster ecology to hunter motivation, with the odd revelation thrown in for good measure.
What did we learn? Well, for starters we learned a good deal about the art of monster hunting. We were shown some demonstrations of monster behaviour - each species will react differently to a hunter's presence. Expect the beasts to work together to defend themselves, and for monsters to fight with each other if one should make the mistake of straying into another's territory.
Your hunter will be absurdly customisable, with a vast array of weapons and armour sets to choose from to make sure your avatar is unique. Moga village will be your main hub - from here you can collect quests, gain rewards and enhance your existing gear.
Also new to the series is 'Cha-Cha' - an assistant character who will follow you around and help you on quests. Although we've been promised that he will be genuinely useful, and will grow and become stronger alongside you, we're really hoping he doesn't fall into the 'annoying sidekick' trap.
The game will be available as one of three bundles - the game by itself, the game plus the Classic Controller Pro, and the game, Classic Controller Pro and Wii Speak. After all this information, it was finally time to get to grips with the game itself!
Without a doubt our first impression was that this is the best looking game the Wii has seen so far. Visually arresting, the draw distance lets you view entire island vistas populated with monsters, all beautifully rendered with no slowdown. The monsters themselves are the stars of the show - lovingly designed with some mind-boggling animation, from the tiny placid herbivores to the screen-filling dragons, they're simply a joy to behold.
In terms of control, not much has changed from previous instalments, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. On the one hand, experienced players will be able to pick up the Classic Controller Pro and get right into the action, on the other hand there are some control niggles from previous versions that the developers have failed to address. Combat can feel clunky, and the glaring omission of a lock-on feature means that unless you're a pro hunter, you're going to spend a lot of time spinning the camera around manually, and your attacks will hit empty air instead of delicious monster underbelly.
Switching over to the Wii Remote/Nunchuk control option is comfortable enough, and although the same control quirks carry over, the translation is largely successful. Unless you think you'll desperately miss having the camera tied to an analogue stick you should cope fine with this alternative control setup. One bit of good news is that moving about in the all-new underwater environments is highly intuitive.
There's a split-screen multiplayer option in which two players can team up to kill monsters in a coliseum-style setting. Although it's fun in short bursts, it lacks the breadth and scale of the online mode.
Once you're online, your hunter will be able to hop in a party of four and go fight some monsters. The battles can be truly epic, and to succeed teamwork is an absolute must. We got the chance to team up with three other players and do battle with the massive underwater beast Lagiacrus. After what seemed like an age of dodging attacks and wearing down his health he fled to the beach. Duly following, we continued the battle on dry land. The fight was dynamic and never felt scripted, and there were enough close calls and surprising moments to keep everyone on their toes. Watching players celebrate a hard-won victory was enough to convince us that the online mode has massive potential, and will be an essential part of the Monster Hunter experience.
One final thing that deserves to be mentioned is that Monster Hunter Tri is hardcore in every sense of the word. Anticipate a harsh learning curve and don't expect any quick battles. Although tutorials will be present to ease new players into the series gently, picking up the finer points of combat will take some time. Sometimes this will be an entertaining process - for example learning the behavioural cues that indicate which attack a monster is about to unleash, or getting to understand the complex inventory-management system - but sometimes it'll mean wrestling to learn the ins-and-outs of a quirky control scheme.
Whether Monster Hunter Tri has the potential to be truly massive in the West is up for debate. On the one hand the Wii is crying out for some really deep games that make the most of its online and graphical capabilities. On the other hand, despite massive success in Japan, (where this instalment is the best selling third-party Wii game ever) it's by-and-large an unknown quantity over here, and whether a game this challenging and this deep will sell to a mass market remains to be seen. All eyes are currently on Nintendo, who have not yet announced whether they will be charging for the online gameplay, issuing only an ominous "discussions are ongoing" when pressed at yesterday's event.
This game is guaranteed to please the existing fanbase, and rightly so. However, if the free online gameplay is confirmed, a cunning marketing strategy and just a pinch of good luck, there's a chance - a chance - that this game could be as massive as the monsters it features.