Version tested: PSP
I've done it. After 70 hours, six weeks, dozens of missions and a great deal of inventive invective I've finally made my mark on Monster Hunter. I'm now Hunter Rank 2. Yes, two. And no, it's not an inverted rank table - two is actually the second level, the first rung on the vertical learning ladder.
It seems pathetic, now I have it in front of me in black and white, but I'm feeling tremendously proud. There have been so many crushing defeats over the last month and a bit, so many unceremonious spankings, roastings and straight-up surprise sexings, that I feel like I've earned that extra tiny star next to my name on the Guild Card with my very own blood, sweat and tears.
It's not been wall-to-wall fun - there have been plenty of fist-clenching moments of pure, frustrated rage - but I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm not a patient person but, oddly, the catharsis of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite's insanely sadistic learning curve has granted me a Zen-like calm. Turns out that patience isn't just a virtue, it's a lesson well worth learning.
Even newcomers to the series will have some idea what's going on. On a simplistic level, the title says it all. You're here to hunt monsters: giant, epic, titanic bastard monsters who'll routinely knock seven shades out of you unless you know what you're doing. But the subtleties of the task in hand quickly multiply like some kind of Byzantine, fractal wedding plan.
There's a gruffly narcissistic trainer who'll school new players in the basic arts of grim butchery. The long tutorial process ensues will stand you in good stead if you can endure the repetition. It's basically an extended introduction to each of the 11 weapon classes, giving rookies the chance to familiarise themselves with the specific pros and cons of each.
These weapon types essentially take the place of classes, each dictating different tactical approaches and abilities. Pick up a lance, for example, and you'll be in a tanking role - with boosted defensive capabilities coming at the cost of a limited range of attacks. Great Swords and hammers offer the greatest offensive value, but their swings are heavy and cumbersome, with mistimed smashes leaving you extremely vulnerable to punishing counter-attacks. Bows and bowguns offer ranged capabilities and status attacks with specific ammo types, but crowd management and melee vulnerability become important issues. Mastering each class isn't necessary, but a passing skill with each is certainly a great boon - many monsters' tactics will render certain weapons all but unusable.
Heading out into the wilderness for the first time feels like an epic undertaking. Delving into the blue supply box just outside your tent reveals the tip of the complexity iceberg - besides the usual map and health potions are stacked items for sharpening your weapons, drinks to regulate your temperature, rations to maintain stamina, ammo types, arrow coatings, antifreeze solutions, tranquillisers and electrical traps. For the beginner, it's overwhelming, but in actual fact, this is a tiny, tiny sliver of the options available. Over the course of this massive game you could be dealing with over 1500 weapons, 2000 armour sets and god only knows how many different items and crafting materials in 400 different missions.
Most missions directly involve killing things. Usually, hunters will be assigned the task of heading out to exterminate a single 'boss' beast, or Wyvern, or a pack of smaller creatures. Planning each excursion is the key to success. Picking the right equipment, preparing yourself to counter the dangers of foes and environment, will be the delineating line between those who succeed and those who rage-quit in surly frustration. Some of the more common items may be bought from village traders, but most materials are gathered from points in the field - from ore veins, dung piles, plants, streams and corpses.
These materials are then combined in pairs, sometimes through several stages, to create increasingly powerful doohickeys. The addition of a farm, on which many non-monster materials can be gathered between quests, takes a lot of the grind out of the experience, but in order to remain prepared you'll be doing a lot of gathering, scouring each area for ingredients during almost every mission. If you're coming home from a mission with room in your inventory, then you're probably wasting your time.
This process of collecting and combining, mirrored in the creation of weapons and armour, is the bread and butter of the monster-hunting experience. There are no XP, so equipment is the only way to improve your stats and increase your chances. Many of the materials required for powerful kit are rare drops, some found as little as four or five per cent of the time when "carving" a dead Wyvern. This means that you'll be fighting the same monsters a lot, repeating quests in search of that elusive shell or scale to compete an armour set.
This farming becomes a large part of the mid-game, when the limits of your skill are likely to wash up against a cliff of difficulty surmountable only via statistics. It's surprisingly non-repetitive, however. Each monster is unpredictable enough, a formidable enough challenge, to keep each hunt interesting.
There's a great deal of skill involved in the actual fighting; combat is a nuanced and delicate business. Feints and dodges must be combined with attacks of opportunity, monster attack patterns must be studied, memorised and adapted to. Knowing when to turn tail and run is incredibly important.
The first foes I encounter, the raptor-like Velocipreys and their Velocidrome leader, are fast and agile, easily evading the clumsy blows of my slow Great Sword (I only find out later that's it's regarded as a "pro's choice"). Initially I'm frustrated by the seemingly interminable periods when my hunter stands nonplussed in the snow after a chop, seven-foot blade embedded in the permafrost, whilst I'm gently reduced to ribbons by a pack of bright blue dinosaurs.
This is a game of unskippable animation sequences, punishing dead zones and gratingly unnecessary victory poses for actions as routine as drinking a potion. Many of the enemies you'll face are, despite their increasingly vast size, very quick indeed. Trying to heal, eat, or sharpen your weapon in combat means studying attack patterns and finding just the right gap to fit in the action before you're punished.
It's a long process, but when it clicks - realising that you need to dodge more than block, that timing is everything - it quickly becomes incredibly satisfying. Before long I'm nonchalantly cutting swathes through hordes of bipedal lizards, but soon I overreach myself against a mushroom-munching jungle ape and all of the frustration returns. I'm too slow again, both my strategy and tactics are flawed. I'm crushed.
Progress is a repetition of this process. Whilst there's always a healthy selection of missions to choose from, there'll usually be a monster who's a sticking point in each batch as they're unlocked: a particular fiend whose style completely confounds yours, who's just too fast or too powerful. This means going back to the drawing board - rethinking your approach and farming an easier foe to pick up the necessary bits for a new breastplate.
This is how the game stays fresh, despite the fact that you'll be exploring the same areas and fighting the same beasts a lot: it's always you who needs to improve. As important as equipment is, grinding isn't a process of gathering experience points - it's a process of improving your skills.
One of the small concessions that Capcom has made to sanity in this version is the addition of a Felyne companion when soloing. Previously, one big problem with soloing was aggro. Fighting a Wyvern and its cohorts alone meant that all attention was focused on you, and getting respite involved fleeing. Having a Felyne along takes away some of this pressure, distracting monsters long enough to use recovery items or prepare an attack. They're also one of the best examples of the incongruous yet welcome humour to be found in the game - a slightly kooky and off-kilter insouciance which gives the gloom of constant battle just the right dash of levity.
Like Pokemon, Monster Hunter has been a series of incremental improvements. Freedom Unite has polished many aspects of gameplay, smoothing rough edges and easing burdens, but has also failed to address the biggest issues. Weapons have been rebalanced slightly, item boxes now hold 99 of each object in each slot. Load times, should you wish to use the space-hungry data-install option, are greatly reduced and a huge chunk of high-level content has been added. There are new monsters, armour and weapons. But I can't help but feel all this elbow grease would have been better employed working on the single biggest barrier to enjoyment in Monster Hunter: the camera.
On the whole, it's actually pretty good: close-up but generally offering a wide enough range to keep track of the action. Enter a small cave, however, or get too close to a wall (often as a result of being flattened there by a charging beast) and the view can rear up to show nothing but floor, or the inside of a 20-ton dragon. Foliage and scenery often obscure the view as well, and clumsy fingers can all too easily leave you completely disorientated. It's not a game-breaker, but at its worst it made me apoplectic, and it is the biggest flaw in an otherwise wonderfully polished game. Capcom has had more than enough time to perfect it by now.
The other impenetrable decision is the continued absence of an online co-op mode. In case you haven't gathered by now, Monster Hunter is bloody tough, and many of its later missions are absolutely impossible on your own. The best, and most enjoyable, way to take on the harder challenges is to team up with up to three friends and tackle them as a group.
Group hunting is not only immensely fun, it also adds tremendous tactical depth. Filling different roles in a hunting party means that something approaching an MMO party balance can be achieved, with tanks, damage dealers and support roles. This collaboration is easily the best way to enjoy the subtleties which the game has to offer, so it's bewildering that it remains an ad-hoc only activity.
It's been a bugbear of all the PSP iterations of the series. Is Capcom trying to force the culture of social gaming so prevalent in Japan by ignoring it? Perhaps, but in all honesty, I don't think that's ever going to happen. As a professional working within the gaming industry, I still struggled to find people to play with. There's no scanning for players on the commute or in the park as you might in Tokyo; the series, and indeed the PSP itself, simply doesn't have the market penetration in Europe.
Perhaps this can be the game to change that, but it's a huge ask, and one which could easily have been avoided. For years there have been third-party software solutions to this problem, allowing disparate online gatherings via a wireless connection, so it's entirely possible. Its absence smacks of tenacity bordering on the obstinate.
But despite Monster Hunter Freedom Unite's faults and grating omissions I can't remember playing anything recently which has given such an immense satisfaction and sense of achievement. Finally honing your technique to the point where you fell a beast which has been routinely spreading you all over the environment (I'm looking at you, Khezu) is a real moment of triumph, and doing it in the company of friends is even better. For the sheer volume of content here alone, Capcom deserves massive recognition. We're talking about MMO levels of time to be happily sunk; it's completely unparalleled on the system, and indeed almost unheard of full-stop.
Fans of the series will be thrilled with the little touches, and there's certainly enough new content to justify a purchase if you've already devoured Freedom 2 and want more. What this is not, however, is a game for everyone. It requires enormous quantities of patience, planning and persistence. If you're up to the challenge, prepare yourself for one of the most rewarding opportunities in gaming.
8 / 10