Monster Hunter Tri has a lot resting on its broad warrior’s shoulders. An online-enabled, unashamedly hardcore title for Wii with huge amounts of advertising and hype behind it, anything less than a critical and commercial success would be a huge blow to Capcom, as well as Nintendo’s never-ending crusade to market the Wii as a great console for serious gamers. Luckily for both companies, at least the quality is there.
For those new to the series, Monster Hunter Tri can be a daunting beast to tackle. Stripped of the luxuries of many third-person action games such as lock-on, monster health bars and automatic camera control, it can feel like taking a trip back in time as you wrangle with the controller. Ten hours in and you start to get a feel for it, learning your chosen weapon’s strengths and range of attacks, observing the monsters’ signs of weakness and deftly navigating the twin-stick controls for camera and character.
Although you can use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk to play, it’s absolutely not recommended: fiddly button arrangement and a lack of precision mean a Classic Controller or Pro model are the only serious options. Of the two, the Pro is recommended as its digital triggers will come in handy for cycling through item menus, but both function far better than the Remote.
However you control your mighty warrior, you’ll spend almost all of your playtime staring at some of the finest graphics the Wii has so far produced. Environments are full of detail, with an excellent palette and texture definition on a par with anything on the system. The monsters are the real stars though, with superb modelling, animation and design turning each hunt into a believable, exciting quest, with all the close calls and unexpected attacks you’d want from any action game.
So far, so similar to the PSP Monster Hunter games, but one of the major innovations of Tri is the addition of underwater hunting. The full freedom of movement is initially every bit as disorienting as stepping onto land, and the game’s pre-eminent water wyvern Lagiacrus shows up early to test your evasion skills, but mastering the point-and-swim controls takes very little time. Most of the items and skills you use on dry land work identically underwater, but the slower movement helps hone your dash-and-slash patterns, and being able to chase a weakened wyvern under the waves makes you feel suitably ruthless.
With a story mode for the first time in the series’ history, solo players finally have a reason to hunt alone other than to gather gear for multiplayer. You learn the ropes slowly and, for a few hours, the name Monster Hunter seems totally inappropriate as you collect eggs, herbs, go fishing, tend to a farm and mine for iron ore. What you don’t realise is the game is gently easing you into a hypnotic routine of killing, carving and creating equipment, until each new discovery sends you rushing to the craftsman to see if any new armours or weapons are available. The patience required to see meaningful rewards is not to be underestimated, with even seasoned series veterans taking ten or fifteen hours to see any sort of progress, but each incremental step is sweet as nectar.
Each new monster presents a whole new set of attacks and behaviours to learn: Royal Ludroth has a damaging roll attack that can be anticipated if you learn to read the signs, Qurupeco’s call can be silenced with a Sonic Bomb and Barroth’s tail can be carved off with a sharp enough weapon. Learning how best to apply everything in your arsenal is genuinely the key to success and crucial to getting the most from the game: it’s the difference between hunting well and losing time and again.
Being able to practise against these wyverns in the offline cooperative arena mode should help sharpen those hunting skills. Although it's not the same as taking two hunters on a regular quest, you can partake in specific arena battles for special rewards. You’re not allowed to bring your own equipment and items, forcing you to adapt to preset classes, and the ability to take your character and rewards to (and from) a friend’s place on the Wii Remote is a small touch that opens this up to a great deal more splitscreen play.
Although there’s a wealth of gameplay for offline hunters, undeniably the game’s greatest achievement lies in its online city mode. Far from the crippled multiplayer so often seen in Wii titles, Monster Hunter Tri sets the bar with an experience so well-crafted it outshines everything else on the system. With no Nintendo-set Friend Codes, hunters can communicate with anyone in their City Gate (essentially a huge lobby) via Wii Speak or text input, sending direct messages to anyone whose username they can see. Want to add a friend you just met? Send them a message, attach a friend request and it’s done. To users of other consoles it might all sound laughably commonplace, but an online experience this uncluttered on Wii is an absolute triumph and Capcom and Nintendo should both be commended for its creation.
In fact, the online mode is so complete you may never even touch the single player mode. Every offline quest is available online with greater difficulty – and therefore greater reward – and you can still buy, sell, trade and forge new weapons and armour, not to mention enjoy the community aspect of chatting with other hunters, sharing tips and even drinks. Questing with other players is straightforward too: create a City (a smaller lobby) and specify the type of play you’re after, then wait for people to join and begin a quest, or search through the available groups. Online play is smooth and hugely enjoyable: a balanced team taking down one of the greater wyverns is an absolute joy, and the blend of tactics and action forms a potent combination. With the promise of regular quest updates, there’s practically no end in sight for hunters who want to go the distance.
Monster Hunter Tri is slow out of the gate; even experienced hunters take ten or fifteen hours to understand its new features and learn the monsters’ behaviours. Playing with a team of fellow hunters is some of the most fun you’ll have online with any console, although solo play is enjoyable too. If you have the dedication to get through the hard-going introduction, you’ll uncover an addictive, innovative and beautiful game of ever-increasing depth.