While the arrival of a new Monster Hunter title, particularly of the handheld variety, in Japan can probably cause retailer's systems to crash, it's a franchise that's been unable to capture that same fevered audience in the West. Capcom's latest attempt is Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, an expanded and enhanced re-release of the moderately successful Wii exclusive Monster Hunter Tri. That description does do this experience a disservice, despite the inevitable overlap between the two versions, as this entry has some clever, thoughtful design choices that make it a different beast altogether.
If you're unfamiliar with the Monster Hunter series and haven't experienced it yet, there are some key points to understand right from the start. This is a time-consuming and all-encompassing game that demands your commitment; it won't serve occasional dabblers well. Ignoring its many intricacies, it's a title that places its emphasis on preparation, skill and grinding, with gradual progression teasing you along. It's also, if you skip or get any of these aspects wrong, brutally difficult. The challenge isn't unfair if you've put in the required time and effort, but if you try to rush ahead the game will repeatedly thrash you without mercy. If that level of immersion and dedication to a game isn't up your alley, then it's not for you — it really is as simple as that.
However, if those elements have you rubbing your hands together with glee, then this is a title that delivers in impressive fashion. Based in a mythical, primitive land occupied by hulking leviathans, dragons, bear-type creatures and all-manner of enormous things with sizable teeth and claws, you create and live as a hunter with nothing but an over-sized weapon and some companions to help you. Based within Moga Village, there is a storyline about rescuing the humble community from unexplained earthquakes, but in truth it's merely filler for the gradual monster progression. The first half a dozen hours serve as a tutorial of picking mushrooms and wailing on unfortunate herbivores, but the dozens — potentially hundreds — of hours that follow will see you swinging your blades at some fairly horrifying monsters, with the majority being a fantastic challenge.
So far, so much like the Wii version, and the early going may fill some with dread that there isn't much new content to be found. Yet just as suspicion kicks in, a new enemy — at least to Nintendo gamers — emerges as a gorgeously animated, honey-eating bear; as the adventure progresses the new creatures appear more regularly, some offering subtle variations on those that came before, and the occasional example that's a little more left-field. One is all-new, there are some variants that shake up the behaviour of the original monsters, and a large number (28) are drafted in from previous series entries.
How you fight these monsters is vitally important. Simply charging in while spamming the attack button will end with your hunter flat on his or her back within moments, to be wheeled back to base camp by the title's quirky feline creatures to try again — three times and you're out, however. First encounters often revolve around watching the creature's patterns, gauging its "tells" and figuring out how many hits you can land before it retaliates. There's also no life bar for the monster, with you having to judge its health by watching its mannerisms — drooling and erratic attacks tell you it's weakening, and if your goal is to trap and capture rather than kill, close attention is needed to identify its final moments pre-death before laying a trap, when it'll typically limp to a new area, or fly somewhere for a quick recovery nap. Strategy and quick thumbs are a necessity, as well as ensuring that your little hunting "Shakalaka" partners — you eventually have two to take along, Cha-Cha and Kayamba — are equipped with the abilities to distract and trouble the beasts as much as possible.
Moving onto increasingly dangerous monsters also brings you to a small range of different lands, each comprising of 9 - 12 arena-like areas where you can find resources or battle your target. You'll go from quiet woods to deserts, an icy tundra, a volcano and some particularly gorgeous lands later in the game. As well as being home to different kinds of ore and other retrievable goodies, each land has its own set of native creatures and challenges — if an area is hot you need a cooling drink in your rather limited item pouch, or the opposite in the icy tundra. Throw in underwater sections (which require camera control practice with the second stick), monsters that hurt you with elemental attacks, poison and more, and you've got a lot to consider and prepare before leaving base camp. Inventory management — combining basic items for useful tools and many more essentials besides — is as pivotal as improving your weapons and armour.
While Capcom has been good to its word in maintaining the challenge in all of this activity, it has made small concessions — some utilising the Wii U's capabilities and others being simple design choices — to offer some minor streamlining. At the very start you have basic versions of all weapon types, allowing you to judge which best suits your style in the early challenges. Great Swords and Lances are slow but relatively powerful, sword and shield or dual blades are quick and weak, Long Swords are somewhere in between. Those that don't want to get close can opt to be gunners, which brings its own extra level of complexity with forging and buying special ammo. The aiming as a gunner is a little clunky, for our tastes, though auto-aim and control options help, while getting up close and personal to land some blows — before promptly dodging to safety — has its own thrills.
Mission structure is also simplified, with the tricky sub-objectives ditched in favour of a single goal; some may bemoan this, but it does allow you to focus on gathering and hunting without distraction. There's also a "lock-on" camera, which is optional and swings the camera to point at the main monster with a tap of L, which is particularly useful underwater.
Use of the GamePad is kept rather basic, with the touch screen used for some useful shortcuts and information — surprisingly, the task of essentially "scanning" monsters in Tri is dropped in favour of buying the information from a store. Customisation of the touch screen is impressively broad, with the ability to move information from the TV HUD to the GamePad, while panels can be customised to manage items, activate combos on the fly and more. It is, in truth, a crude recycling of the touch screen from the 3DS entry, even down to using the same aspect ratio and leaving real-estate on the GamePad unused, which seems lazy on the developer's part. The core controls are instinctive to the point that we used the touch screen relatively little, yet a nice touch is that the GamePad screen still works as a tablet-style extra to use even if playing with a Wii Classic Controller or Wii U Pro Controller — the Remote and Nunchuk control option has been dropped.
One area where this title easily outstrips its Wii predecessor is in its multiplayer options. Port Tanzia is the new hub for the local and online multiplayer quests, which can also be taken on solo with Cha-Cha and Kayamba. Gone is the unrelenting and repetitious grind of Tri, and in its place is a far more intuitive setting — still with its own stores and resources — and ranking system. As opposed to gaining ranking points at a painfully slow rate, you now simply complete a fixed number of hunts or tasks before taking on an Urgent Quest to upgrade to the next Hunter Rank and a new set of challenges — it's the same structure as the single-player campaign and gives a tangible sense of progression. The fact that your deeds and records in Port Tanzia translate across single player, local multiplayer and online also takes away the unnecessary grinding, and allows focus on moving to bigger monsters and challenges.
Local multiplayer is well integrated, meanwhile, allowing a quick connection to anyone playing a 3DS copy of the game, and once in a quest there is no noticeable lag between the handheld and home console; the big monsters are in the same place for all players while smaller creatures and resources can be in different spots. It's a first for the two respective systems, and is absolutely welcome.
It's in online multiplayer, however, where this new setup truly shines. Joining games or setting up new rooms is standard fare, and after doing so it's simply a case of gathering up to four like-minded hunters together. Not only is text chat quicker and easier with the GamePad's virtual keyboard, but voice chat is supported using the controller's microphone and speakers. It's here that the GamePad comes to the fore — accommodating anyone without a headset — and being able to chat to others, or tap the screen to signal a beacon in game, enhances the experience. In quite a few online games we only suffered one disconnection, and it is an exciting experience to take on the most dangerous foes with others in real time. One disappointment compared to the Wii equivalent is that the game now reverts to using your Wii U friend list, so you can't simply add a friend quickly in the game. You can trade "Guild Cards" — basic collections of information — and those you play with locally can be added as Hunters for Hire to send off on less demanding missions.
Port Tanzia's structure and the improved connectivity and tech of the Wii U are undoubted strengths that bring this enhanced version beyond the original, and that is mostly the case across the board. For one thing the game runs beautifully, with a smooth frame rate improving the fluidity and intensity of the toughest battles. The presentation has had its inevitable upgrade, though what was a stand out visual achievement on Wii is a modest upscale here — colours are vivid and the environments and monsters are sharper, yes, but limitations of the engine are glaringly apparent. Some areas look glorious while others have some ugly textures, and while clipping is a tolerable part of gathering resources from carcasses, at times the environments' physical assets aren't applied consistently. One new creature will swing its tail right through trees in the flooded forest, for example; some of the graphical rough edges are impossible to ignore.
And yet, on most occasions, moments of visual crudity can be overlooked by the gripping nature of the gameplay and the overall quest of hunting, harvesting, forging and upgrading your way to the most powerful weapons and armour. If this title does sink its claws into you, there's arguably no better value offering out there; the basic storyline will take about 30 hours if you know what you're doing, and then there's infinitely more — there are apparently 339 quests between Moga Village and Port Tanzia, and we don't doubt that. We've also seen a taster of the extensive free DLC that'll be included — we've taken on an arena quest that insisted we wear no armour of any kind, and a huge range of quests for the Port Tanzia area are planned for future download, with small extras such as backgrounds and descriptions for your Guild Card thrown in for good measure. Simply put, this may be a game that you never beat fully, yet chasing a certain part for that sword you always wanted will drive you on.
In addition, the Wii U to 3DS save transfer capability — allowing you to play the same save on either system — wasn't available at the time of writing, but is supposed to be there at launch and will necessitate the download of an app from the 3DS eShop. An April update will also bring transatlantic online play between North American and European servers, as well as off-TV GamePad-only play.
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is the perfect name choice, as this takes the already exceptional Wii title and adds a daunting amount of new content and a HD sheen. It's also not a game for everyone, and those that go in with eyes closed may be in for a nasty surprise at the level of commitment and skill required.
If you're up for the task, however, it's hard to put down. Some elements feel a little phoned-in — such as some ugly clipping, poor textures and the 3DS touch screen ratio on the GamePad — yet they're small complaints against the whole package. While we may dream of what a fresh new entry designed ground-up for Wii U could accomplish, this does deliver an engrossing experience that is completely unique on the system. Those that missed Monster Hunter Tri but like the concept should pick this up without delay, and those that enjoyed the original should also do the same — the quest is practically never-ending, and that's absolutely fine by us.