Monster Hunter is a pivotal franchise for Capcom, consistently delivering the company's biggest sales and securing its profits; it's a phenomenon in Japan. Elsewhere, however, it's a respectable success without truly flourishing, succeeding in capturing a relatively small, dedicated audience but struggling for mainstream attention. All of the usual noises have been made about Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate striving for mainstream take-off in the West, yet ultimately this is a slight variation of the usual demanding blend of intense hunts, repetition and grinding. That's wonderful for fans and arguably vital to the identity of the series, but is unlikely to attract those previously turned off by the demanding IP.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate - MH4U from here on in - does have one immediate notable evolution over its predecessors on Wii, Wii U and 3DS, as it strives to introduce a more cohesive story and set of characters. As opposed to a single hub - as with Moga Village beforehand - the premise is of working with the rather cheerful Caravaneer to bring together a caravan / crew that'll explore the mystery of his artifact, a glimmering relic. While the basic ingredients are largely the same - you have a chef, armourer, trader - the tale of basic exploration and constructing your ship and crew is an improvement over the lacklustre effort of MH3U.

Basic hub mechanics are refreshed, too, with some additions being new and others being subtle tweaks to the existing formula. A member of your crew runs a trading post, for example, which replaces the farm as a means of producing some vital resources, but also for trading some monster parts for others. The Palicoes - these cats are now companions on the hunting field rather than mere extras - can be collected, as eventually you expand to having a fairly large group at your disposal. Two can go out on the field with you at any time, while others can be assigned as backups, carry out alternative quests, or even do a spot of fishing. It's a way of gathering more resources, and there's even a mini resource economy specific to Palicoes for forging their weapons and armour.

That's all a taster, as the core of the experience is in hunting, gathering and forging. It's the standard Monster Hunter template and it's now refined and functions rather like a well-oiled machine, albeit one that takes a long time to get the job done. This, once again, is a title that'll demand dozens - possibly hundreds - of hours to battle through the whole thing. First encounters with monsters inevitably come through quests, though the drops from carving up their bodies after a successful hunt merely get you started. As you start to cast your eye over enhancements you realise that a particular full set of armour needs plenty of parts, so the loop of defeating a monster multiple times ensues. Alternatively you have a patchwork of equipment that's not as effective as a full set.

It calls to the obsessive instincts of the player, and it's a well crafted mechanic. It's also representative of the difficulties Capcom has with this franchise; an eagerness to grow it in the West is curtailed by its significant success in Japan, so we see few meaningful changes as the company aims to keep millions of existing fans happy. This isn't a criticism but an acknowledgement of reality; if previous entries didn't suit your gaming sensibilities, this one - likewise - will make little difference.

For fans, however, tweaks and familiarity will be a treat. MH4U is also indicative of how comfortable Capcom now is with the 3DS hardware, as this is a step up from its predecessor in terms of visual quality. The raw visuals see a slight adjustment that some may actually find grating in comparison to MH3U, with sharper colours and contrast, while monster animations have certainly been enhanced. There are plenty of newcomers - along with familiar foes - for those that have only played the series on Wii, Wii U and 3DS, and once again Capcom's done an outstanding job with its design on all fronts: from visual to gameplay.

Once again creatures have set patterns that, despite their intimidating size, can be mastered with strategy, patience and skill. Upon a first encounter stylish introductory cut-scenes sweep brilliantly into battle, and you then seek to wear down the beast and look for signs of weakness. They'll become enraged and be tough to avoid, pause to recover breath and move between areas when trying to get away from the onslaught. Experienced players will breeze through early rounds - a reflection of reduced difficulty early on, we feel - but as you reach levels (HR) 5 and upwards the challenge truly ramps up. Some of these monsters are hugely aggressive and deal out deadly status effects and combos, so packing the right gear, potions and keeping sharp instincts are vital.

The fighting is intense, strategic and exciting, as always, and environmental variations add to the whole experience. We've come across encounters where the monster will cause an entire surface to partially collapse, prompting you to frantically tap R to avoid falling out of the area. The most commonly used addition, however, is verticality. Many areas have multiple levels, or even small jumps, and timing a jump attack allows you to mount a monster and attack them with a short blade. Part-QTE, part-humourous game of buckaroo, this is an entertaining but vital method of weakening monsters more efficiently.

It's in the challenging encounters that MH4U truly shines; the tics and reactions of the monsters enhance the immersion, and this entry also serves up some terrific new worlds in which to dual. As per the franchise template there are multiple lands broken up into arena-like areas, and the new arrivals this time provide stylish variations and progressions from those we've seen before. There's certainly a vague sense of deja-vu, but credit's still due for the attractive landscapes on offer. With each land having unique resources and creatures there are plenty of reasons to go back to each on many occasions.

Weapons have also evolved a little in this entry. Notable new entries include the Insect Glave and Charge Blade. The former has its own unique levelling mechanic unlike any other weapon, and blends quick close combat with a long distance gunning mechanic in which you mark a monster and then send an insect to retrieve buffs from the highlighted area. It's brilliantly conceived, while an extravagant pole vault-style move also allows you to mount creatures with more regularity, if you get the execution right. The Charge Blade picks up where the Switch Axe came before, with a clever mechanic of charging the weapon with sword and shield before switching to the axe and an elemental attack. The old favourites are also all included, such as the long sword, lance and more, while gunners can still shoot their way to glory. With handy arena tutorials for each Capcom's done an outstanding job of providing weapons to suit all tastes.

Another tweak to the formula comes through Expeditions, which this time occur in a somewhat randomly generated new land. This replaces the Moga Woods of MH3U as an area that can be visited at any time, and is a vital area for accumulating resource points (a secondary form of currency) or other vital resources - the monsters that appear also cycle and vary. It's easy to forget it's there when rattling through quests, but it's a welcome diversion nevertheless.

The single player adventure itself is a huge undertaking, and will account for a good few dozen hours or more, with some NPCs pitching in on personal requests that add to the quest list - completing good deeds for others or members of your group is worthwhile for levelling up market options or food ingredients, as examples. That's a lot of distraction and questing, which does raise a niggling complaint - the online / local multiplayer quest structure is still entirely separate.

The single player campaign and online component remain isolated from each other, meaning that you'll either be inclined to hop between the two to keep them at a similar level, or work through one and return to the other with greater equipment to easily see off weaker monsters. In either case it adds even more repetition to the mix, and we hope the development team works towards a level of meaningful integration in future; experienced fans will be familiar with - and perhaps enjoy - the grind, but it's a questionable design that may irritate those fresh to the series.

That aside, multiplayer works rather well, overall. We initially struggled with the interface to get into multiplayer, but with familiarly comes appreciation that World Map hopping allows for intuitive access to your inventory while quickly rejoining the Gathering Hall where quests are set and embarked upon. Search options are designed to help you land in an available room quicker, too, rather than blindly trying lobbies to the point of distraction; there are certainly improvements on that score.

Once on a hunt with others the process, in our experience, is rather smooth. There are quick communication buttons that could be clearer, yes, but the most important part - the action - runs rather well, suggesting improved net code. It's certainly fun watching a colleague mount a monster and battle away while you observe and wait for one or the other to tumble down, and in our case the framerate held up particularly well. There's an undeniable thrill of setting out in a group of four and laying waste to a monster that was so bothersome in the campaign, and we expect this to be hugely popular.

The downside, unfortunately, is the absence of voice chat. There's a text keyboard available in the Gathering Hall and pre-prepared messages on the hunt, but the inability to communicate easily is disappointing and will be a hindrance in the toughest of quests. In the G-Rank (most challenging) quests the inability to talk could be a problem, and we can only imagine technical restrictions of the 3DS (particularly original models) made this so.

On the point of differences in models, for review we played initially on an original 3DS XL and then (for about two-thirds of our playtime) on a New Nintendo 3DS. The latter offers more rapid load times and a noticeably improved framerate; the performance on original models is absolutely fine, but can be prone to some dropped frames when the screen is particularly busy, just like Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on 3DS. This game isn't worth the hardware upgrade alone, but it's a slicker and therefore slightly more enjoyable experience on the New 3DS; in addition, the stable 3D meant that we went from struggling to maintain a sweetspot on the original system while battling tough monsters to having it on full the whole time. The C-Stick also takes the place of the Circle Pad Pro, naturally, which is hugely helpful alongside an ability to centre the camera on a monster at will; occasionally the camera would fight us, but it's rarely a major problem. The experience is undeniably better on New systems, but it's still hugely enjoyable on older iterations of the 3DS.

Overall, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a brilliant effort from Capcom. Long-established mechanics are refined and structured to perfection for obsessive fans, it's a visual treat on 3DS, and a dramatic musical score drags you into the experience. It's a project that's clearly driven by devotion and passion, with the monsters being more imaginative, better animated and exciting to fight that ever before.

Yet, all of that is with a simple proviso - this isn't a title that'll convert many that complain of archaic ideas or over-demanding requirements of the player. Capcom has said it wants to encourage a bigger audience, yet is too hesitant to make changes that'll lose its current audience. We may love its quirks and borderline ridiculous moments, but this isn't the title to make Monster Hunter a smash hit that wins over a whole new group of gamers; if you haven't warmed to the series before, this doesn't do much to change that opinion. It's rooted in tradition to the point that it's incredibly refined in its own unique approach, yet still has lands split up into clunky arena 'areas' with transitions that can get in the way, for example. It's two steps forward over Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, but subsequently still takes one step back.

Conclusion

If you're a Monster Hunter fan the answer is simple, buy this game - it's a significant undertaking but utterly enthralling once you're drawn in. There's a greater sense of story to make the single-player exploits a little more interesting than is typical, and online is slick and performs well; lack of voice chat is a blow, nevertheless. New weapons, locations and monsters make this a treat for fans, if still intimidating to those considering a first dip; yet if you're up for the investment in time, this is another special experience from Capcom. A true portable blockbuster.