When a series gets to a decade old it naturally becomes ripe for experimentation and evolution, as fans crave fresh gameplay and executives dream of bigger sales. It's no surprise, then, that Monster Hunter Generations dabbles with a range of new ideas that allow players to approach the hunt in different ways. Looking in from the outside it may look like more of the same-old formula, with a few minor additions and throwbacks to the series' Sony hardware days - dig a little deeper, however, and you find a surprisingly ambitious release from Ryozo Tsujimoto and his team.
We've spent a decent amount of time with the final build already, and as is typical of a Monster Hunter game we're still only scratching the surface. It's an enormous game, with systems layered upon systems and a level of complexity that immediately ties it to a certain audience. The series is still only for gamers that like a challenge, are willing to engage with complicated mechanics, and also those happy to sink dozens of hours into the experience. Those aren't weaknesses, they are ultimately strengths, but established fans need not worry that Generations drifts away from this IP's 'hardcore' credentials. Quite the opposite, in fact.
In the interest of not writing a 12,000 word thesis, this preview is going to focus on what's new in Generations, at least in terms of what we've discovered so far in the early parts of the game. What we will say for those considering this as their first Monster Hunter game is that, ultimately, this is as good a place as any to start. The dizzying range of weapons and the gathering, combining and field mechanics are impressively covered in a range of Tutorial quests right from the off. If you take the tedious Monster Hunter Tri early missions and throw in the arena weapon tutorials of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, you have the crux of the tutorial missions here. They're entirely optional (so can be ignored by experienced players) but provide hours of learning for new players, while also serving up useful early rewards. Even experienced players can benefit from the the weapon tutorials, especially as that's the area that's undergone the biggest shake up.
Generations introduces Hunter Styles, with four from which to choose. 'Guild' is essentially normal service resumed, 'Striker' encourages an aggressive approach to access 'arts' more frequently (more on those shortly), 'Aerial' unlocks an air-bound dodge and the ability to leap off barrels and other players, while 'Adept' allows 'insta-moves' (powerful counter-attacks) if you dodge at the last minute. You can swap your Style at any time, while the variations in moves and controls are slightly different for each weapon. This affords an extraordinary amount of customisation and freedom in approach.
As also mentioned, there are the 'Arts' to consider. The number of arts and their availability varies depending on your Style and weapon; they're essentially special moves linked to a gauge that gradually charges up as you attack monsters. When charged you can execute them through a touch screen button (or a combination of button inputs), and they can be fierce and powerful when used accurately. With a Long Sword we've unleashed a powerful double slash, while an Insect Glaive move, when landed, charges all of your weapon's Kinsect buffs at once. Some Arts can be defensive, too, such as a swarm of flies that temporarily surrounds your character and hurts all that get close, even allies. Choosing a style, weapon and arts for the occasion adds a lot of extra strategy, while giving players more combinations to try out master as they gear up (over the course of many hours) for the tough end-game encounters.
When the controls and moveset click it feels like a far more dynamic and intoxicating style of play, adding pace to the standard tension and strategy of Monster Hunter's combat.
These styles and arts, in action, transform the feel of the game compared to its predecessors. Though we've been experimenting, we've started to settle on the Insect Glaive and Aerial Style, which is perfect for fast attacks and mounting monsters - fun tip, when others are 'mounted' you can still attack the monsters without disrupting matters, unlike in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. With this combination the conventional vault move becomes an aggressive lunge forwards, hurtling your hunter forward and through their foe. It's fast, athletic and thrilling, and there's also the aforementioned aerial dodge, which is quick and propels you to a height to dodge pretty much any attack. When the controls and moveset click it feels like a far more dynamic and intoxicating style of play, adding pace to the standard tension and strategy of Monster Hunter's combat.
The fresh approaches go further elsewhere in the game, too. Palicos have had a major overhaul, with more depth to managing your team of felines; you can scout new companions largely at will, and you also send them off to execute trades. Training and the Palico Dojo are also important - the latter is amusing for its inclusion of a 'catnap' to max out a felyne's enthusiasm, but you can also pay to teach your buddy new special and support moves. The range of choices can feel a bit overwhelming, but in the long game it's worth looking into maximising your Palico's abilities, as in the solo campaign they can be extremely helpful. Under the new setup, once acclimatised to, it's easy to build a team with a variety of abilities - such as fighters, healers, and bombers - and adjust companions on the fly depending on the quest.
Another reason it's worth expanding your Palico's abilities is to play as them. The new 'Prowler' mode can be activated at any time and lets you embark on standard or Palico-specific quests as your little buddy, and they certainly play a lot differently to the hunter (as you'd expect). They have no stamina bar to worry about, and attacks (so far, in our case) include a core melee option (with flashy combos) or throwing boomerangs at range; we have experimentation with a bomber Palico in mind, of course! They also don't use items such as potions, but have limited use of the aforementioned abilities instead, so if you have a Palico in mind for Prowler mode it's worth exploring Dojo Training.
It can be fun to tackle small monsters in Prowler mode, though at this stage we're not sure of the merits of taking on more powerful beasts in this form. Yet Palicos are fantastic for 'gathering' quests, as they have infinite bug nets and pickaxes, which are both breakable and annoying expenses for Hunters. With that in mind gathering quests with modest threats are ideal for these little critters, and it adds a humorous change to the mechanics of the game; it seems like a smart addition, and certainly not the silly gimmick this writer initially expected.
As the name Generations also suggests, while looking to the future with new mechanics this one also has firm roots in the past. Bherna is a new village and also a de-facto HQ, but three more villages - Kokoto, Pokke and Yukomo - are from past-gen entries of the series, going back to its Sony days in particular. In turn they introduce their own hunting environments - both revisited and brand new - and there are also plenty of maps, monsters and characters that the Nintendo generation of fans will recognise. You also tackle village-specific quests, and in return you accumulate points (essentially reflecting how much you've helped that village) and special rewards that can include access to new armour sets. On the one hand this a game jam packed with throwbacks, yet to many that pick it up a lot of these references will be new. The play on nostalgia is done cleverly, too, giving you incentive to help multiple villages, characters and causes. Players from the earliest games, up to Wii and 3DS converts, will likely enjoy this mix of retro nods and fresh content.
Overall, Monster Hunter Generations is perhaps best summed up as a Greatest Hits double-side - one side is full of classic references, and the other has new features that take the series forward in a positive way.
Overall, Monster Hunter Generations is perhaps best summed up as a Greatest Hits double-side - one side is full of classic references, and the other has new features that take the series forward in a positive way. Experienced players will recognise a number of the maps and monsters, though there are all-new arrivals to keep them on their toes - the owl-like Malfestio, seen in the demo, is a fantastic example of this. There are lots of clever tweaks to suggest that the development team has also been closely following feedback, such as new 'values' applied to resources that enable some crafting to be done with more diverse items than before, in theory reducing some of the painful luck-based grinding of the past. Undoubtedly there are multiple adjustments to improve the flow of the experience, but these don't appear to strip away any of the depth that dedicated fans evidently enjoy; to answer a frequent question, there are sub-tasks in quests once again.
We've not even touched on multiplayer yet, either, which we plan to test fully ahead of review time. As was the case in previous releases there's a separate hub where you can tackle tough quests alone or in local / online multiplayer. They're essentially multiplayer-only quests, largely, as the monsters are far tougher and take more hits to defeat than the solo campaign equivalents. It's the same old formula on the surface (Low, High and 'Special Permit' quests splitting up the ranking stages), so will add countless hours to the experience beyond the offline story campaign. On the presentation front we also have the same graphics engine and level of performance (on our New 3DS) as in 4 Ultimate - which is to say it's running smoothly with 3D enabled - while there's some lovely new music to accompany familiar favourites.
As is always the case with Monster Hunter, there'll be areas we've missed. We've not really touched on the story yet, as we're still waiting for it (and the 'Deviant' monster encounters) to get up to full speed. We're still running around with early-game armour and weapons and getting used to unfamiliar maps, with the knowledge that in about 50 hours play-time our hunter will look a lot different and we'll have an instinctive knowledge of environments and their zones. It's another huge, engrossing adventure; more important than that, though, is the fact that it may be the best yet. With a new variety of hunting styles, crafting methods, Palico management and much more, it feels like another step up for the series.
Generations could, based on our early dalliances with it, be a Monster Hunter game for the ages.
Further Reading (for those that are new to Monster Hunter):