Should I ever wake up sporting a pair of breasts and feminine swagger, one of the first things I intend to do is sign up for a Wimmin In Games conference and present my thesis entitled Arranging Inventories: Modern Materialism In Post-Warcraft Virtual Spaces.
I'll probably recite it in Second Life as well, just to make sure I get my name in The Guardian.
Obviously, I haven't actually written this thesis yet - or, to be honest, given it much thought beyond the academia-baiting title - but I do think I'm on to something. For all their Olde Worlde bells and whistles, most role-playing games are little more than enthusiastic endorsements of Thatcherite gluttony gone mad. Think about it. What's the one thing that all RPGs are about? Defeating demonic overlords? Wrong. Liberating peasants? Wrong wrong. Levelling up so you can use your Heroic +10 Staff of Mystical Bemusement? Wrong wrong wrong. Wrong.
Modern RPGs are about getting stuff. Getting lots of stuff. For your own benefit. And not sharing it. They're about grabbing everything you can, and hording it in chests, or bottomless backpacks. They're about obsessively searching every bush, basket and barrel and collecting as many gems, berries, amulets and chicken legs as your grasping hands can carry. Your roguish Level 84 Ranger, who stands so proud against the forces of darkness? He's nothing but a yuppie in fantasy clothing. A parasite. And should you need a particularly convenient example of this Greed Is Good mantra, cast your proletariat gaze over Monster Hunter Freedom 2, the sequel to Capcom's cult PSP hackenslash role-player from last year.
As in the previous game, you create a Monster Hunter and set about winning over the inhabitants of a (very) tiny village with your predator pummelling skills. At first it seems that your goal will be to murder as many beasties as you can to keep the peasants safe, but it soon becomes clear that the slaughter is merely a gateway, an act which enables you to fulfil your real purpose in life: to gather and combine literally hundreds of items to create new armour, weapons, potions, hats, caravans, staplers...to find, steal, make and wear loads and loads of stuff.
There's certainly no shortage of opportunities for object grinding, with over 250 missions to work through plus more on offer via download, but the sheer size of the game ultimately works against it. There's no real storyline to speak of, so soon enough you're item-grinding to make you stronger so you can tackle tougher missions, so you can find more items, so you can tackle tougher missions, and so on. It's a cycle of obsessive consumption that feels curiously hollow. There's depth, but it's so narrowly focused that any attempt to deviate from your path of manic hording is doomed to fail. Such tunnel-vision gameplay comes with the territory in something like World of Warcraft, where you're at least building up a persistent avatar in a dynamic and evolving gameworld, but Monster Hunter Freedom 2 more often feels like the grind of an MMORPG without the fun of MMO.
Even more so than its predecessor, this skews towards co-op play but although all the game's missions can be tackled with up to three friends, the multiplayer remains an ad hoc only affair. There's still no play over infrastructure connections, and while there's no denying that a local four player Monster Hunter quest remains one of the most entertaining things to do with a PSP, the lack of a true online mode is an omission that is starting to be problematic. That there are missions in this game that are literally impossible to tackle alone (and the game admits as much) makes it an ultimately fruitless exercise if you don't have the luxury of four PSP-owning pals happy to join you on long-winded Japanese action adventures.
And make no mistake, this is a long-winded game. Quests take place over a series of interlinked smaller areas, with much exploration and backtracking required, and each one loads in separately. Even by the time you complete the first seven basic tutorials, you'll be heartily sick of trekking backwards and forwards across the same terrain over and over. As different areas unlock, the panoramic vistas become increasingly impressive while the actual play area remains claustrophobically small. Despite this, loading times are still a chore - usually around ten seconds to load each segment - so journeying from your camp to objective and back again becomes a cycle of twenty-second sprints, followed by ten seconds of loading screens, followed by more sprints, followed by loading screens...it's stilted and tiresome. The game can stream content from the UMD to cut down the loading times but, while such a feature is commendable in theory, the way it aggressively sucks the life out of your battery makes it less than useful in practice.
This being a Capcom sequel, the gameplay remains largely unchanged - flaws and all. It took Resident Evil the best part of a decade to shake off its clunky and outdated directional controls, so the odds of Monster Hunter receiving a radical overhaul this early were obviously slim. The camera is still wayward, requiring constant realignment, meaning that the game's numerous projectile or thrown weapons are a pain to master. Melee strikes are still cumbersome, weighty affairs involving pointlessly enormous swords, hammers and lances that swing so slowly that striking a moving target requires vast reserves of patience. Searching for items in one spot still involves pressing a button over and over, triggering a two-second long animation each time, until there's nothing left to take. Ditto for removing items from a chest - each one must be selected and clicked in turn. The inclusion of a "Take All" command would literally save you hours over the lifespan of the game. Basically, if you had a gripe with the first game, you'll find the same problems in this one.
The combat remains equally untouched, with some new weapon classes but the emphasis still firmly and unapologetically on wielding unfeasibly large, slow blades or firing guns and crossbows with expensive and/or rare ammo. The inclusion of a musical weapon is perhaps the sole bright spot, but it's a bold adventurer who goes to face a dragon armed with a flute rather than a giant sword or crossbow. All the weapon types are available from the start though, so there's plenty of time to experiment with them.
Outside of hack and slashing, the peculiar feline farmers and chefs return to grow, cook and grind even more items for you, and you can now also adopt a pet pig. Whoop. As you can probably guess, the attempts at humour are even stranger than before. The instructor who talks you through the training missions in rambling narcissistic style, for instance, has clearly been taking notes from the King Of All Cosmos, but there's a weird gulf here between the gruesomely hardcore action and the cute whimsy of the peripheral activities. It never quite gels into a coherent style. It's like trying to find common ground between Dino Crisis and Harvest Moon.
Of course, the series has its fans and they'll argue that the game requires a certain mindset to appreciate. They'll say that, rather than bemoaning the lack of at least one effective fast attack option, you need to spend time mastering the lumbering combat system, learn to make use of traps and other items, and spend more time foraging in the wild for herbs, mushrooms, bones and other bits and pieces that can help or heal you. And to them I say, the game is called Monster Hunter Freedom, not Monster Hunter Do As We Say Or Die. A little variety in the gameplay would work wonders. There may be several weapons with which to approach the combat, but they all require the same reserves of patience and taste for obsessive searching and collecting before they can be carried out with any degree of confidence.
After many, many hours of obsessive play it can turn into a rich and rewarding adventure - but the clumsy hoops you have to jump through to get there will deter all but the most devoted fan. And the tragedy is that there really is much to enjoy here. Monster Hunter Freedom 2 is a stunningly presented game, based around an instantly appealing concept, and ripe with potential but it's still hampered by persistent self-conscious videogamey quirks that seemingly exist only to provide bragging rights for the hardy few patient enough to accommodate them.
If that's you, then the knowledge that Monster Hunter Freedom 2 offers a lot more of the same should be all you need to know. For everyone else, this is so close to being a truly great game that it hurts. With a little more thought, a little more flexibility, it'd easily be one of the best titles on the PSP. Sadly, just as your monster hunting hero is prone to do, it comes within striking distance of greatness, but then swings hopelessly wide and just misses the mark.
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