The first thing that you notice about Monster Hunter Tri isn't the high-standard graphics or new-and-improved tweaked battle controls, oh no - it's the fact that everybody appears to be wandering around in assless chaps and thongs. The game's opening sequence depicts a typically idyllic Monster Hunter village, all carefree music and dancing, behatted cats and strong men carrying enormous fish and pails of water and farming equipment around on their muscular backs, but all of them are showing off a bit of cheek. Your character, once created, starts off in a crop top and hotpants. Like its predecessors, and refreshingly for a series of such lineage, the game better known as Tri doesn't take itself remotely seriously. It has a surreal sense of humour and an eye for visual comedy, evident in everything from outlandish armour sets to the absurd barbecuing mini-game.
Tri has been out for a good few months now in Japan, selling a cool million so far, and is present at the Eurogamer Expo this week. Evidently Japanese sales were enough to convince someone high up at Capcom that it's worth bringing it to the US and Europe next year - that it's even worth changing the online infrastructure completely to suit our tastes, incorporating Wii Speak voice chat and dropping Japan's paid subscription model. We'll not only be getting Monster Hunter Tri in the West, which was up in the air for a long time, but we'll be getting an improved version - and having delved deep into Tri's verdant jungles, dank caves and vast oceans, I'm hopping with excitement about that.
The whole structure of the game is significantly different. You still work from a village base, picking up quests and heading out to slay monsters or gather things for cash and loot to spend on better equipment or a fancy hat or a nice lamp for your house, but it's framed in a much more natural and believable story mode than Freedom Unite's endless, dry lists of tutorials and quests. You start off exploring the nearby forest, and the game teaches you monster-hunting essentials like gathering, bug-catching, fishing, mining and basic combat by letting you explore, rather than giving you an endless, daunting list of tasks. You have to fetch a few things for people back in the village and set up a camp out in the woods for an hour or so before you're sent on proper quests; it's a vastly better way of easing people into the game, and you never feel like you're trapped in a tutorial.
The world itself is much more believable, too. There's a consistent day-and-night cycle and a realistic ecology. Monsters interact with each other, migrate around the map and respond to each other, rather than following preset behaviour patterns. Tenacious little carnivores will probably still have a go at you if they reckon you're in their territory, but they don't gang up on you for no reason and refuse to leave you alone until you stick a gunlance through their necks like they used to do. Mostly, creatures go about their own business instead of existing purely to give you aggro. You can ward off small monsters with a torch at night, but it won't work so well on a fire-breathing 50-foot dragon.
Underwater hunting, Tri's flagship New Feature, is far from gimmicky. Once you dive into the ocean, you're in another world. You can do all the same things that occupy you on dry land - forage on the sea floor, use any item you have to hand and, of course, hunt - but the extra axis of movement and the lack of visibility in dark underwater caves makes it feel subtly different.
Your hunter's movement underwater feels fluid and natural; all the controls are exactly the same, save pressing extra buttons to dive deeper or rise to the surface. There's an air gauge, but it's very difficult to run out. Venturing into the seas is daunting, yes, but because it's atmospheric, dangerous and unpredictable down there, not because it's annoying to control and easy to drown.
The underwater monsters are frankly terrifying - maybe not the passively floating fishies, but certainly the sharks, which have a disconcerting habit of appearing from nowhere, and the amphibious reptiles that swarm speedily around you like genetically-modified crocodiles, and especially the typically massive boss monsters. Their speed and agility far outstrips what you're capable of and the eeriness and atmosphere of the vast ocean makes for a compelling setting for the series' trademark epic battles.
Like its predecessors, and Demon's Souls, my other personal obsession of this year, Monster Hunter Tri involves an awful lot of dying. It's your wee hunter against boss monsters a hundred times his size, and understandably he doesn't usually come out of it without a scratch. The core of the game is still about facing up to the impossibly powerful foes and, eventually, after many, many tries and with a lot of skill, overcoming them. It's still the tough bastard of a game that we know and love, thankfully.
There are actually fewer different types of armour, weapon and item in Tri than in 2nd G on PSP, fewer complicated menus and stats and upgrade trees - gone are my beloved gunlance, the clever hunting horn, the powerful long-range bow and the nifty, quick dual swords. New weapons are the Switch Axe, which is proving most popular online in Japan at the moment, and bowguns comprised of various different customisable parts. The battle system itself has barely changed at all since Monster Hunter 2 though. Even the animations look extremely familiar; extra challenge for veterans comes from new and different monsters, not a new control system to wrestle with.
The game is also much improved by having a proper control system for movement and camera rather than the impossible PSP analogue-stick-and-directional-pad combo, though there is a Classic Controller control setup that mirrors the PSP's (presumably for masochists). Tri avoids patronising MH2 veterans - if you've spent far too much of your life on Monster Hunter 2, you can leap straight into Tri without much new to learn - but it also provides a gentler learning curve for new players and a choice of control schemes. It will still take tens of hours to get properly good at Monster Hunter Tri, but getting to the stage where you don't get your arse handed to you every 10 minutes will be a much more enjoyable process.
The most exciting thing, though, is the prospect of playing online with friends without messing around with ad-hoc party or complicated PSP hacking or subscription fees. Monster Hunter is primarily a multiplayer game, but thus far it's been nearly impossible to experience it as such in the West due to its relative scarcity. Tri is finally, finally going to change that for us, as well as providing a more developed and accessible evolution of the challenging, addictive, masochistically rewarding game that's won our hearts before. We have until March to polish our skills and prepare our self-worth for a spanking.
Monster Hunter Tri is out in early 2010.