Is there any game out there with more character than Monster Hunter? Capcom's series has never really enjoyed the same success over here as it has in Japan, which is a shame. It saddens me to think of all those who've missed out on all the little flourishes that make Monster Hunter so charming; the jolly mewls of your Felyne as it fights by your side, the threatening bounce of a Great Jaggi as it sizes up its prey or just the way you flop, triumphantly, on to the bed in your homestead after a good day's hunting. And, of course, the mighty, majestic and all-conquering prance.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate stands a better chance of earning an audience in the west than any entry before it, and it deserves to: this is, almost certainly, the best in the series to date. There's enough new, and enough nuance, to suck veterans in for another 100 hours or so: new systems, new weapons and a general streamlining that removes so many of the obstacles the series has previously put in players' way.
If you want to know more about new weapons such as the Charge Axe or the Insect Glaive - a curious, complex mix of melee and ranged combat that, I'm told, is absolutely devastating in the right hands - you'll have to wait for our review early next month when someone a little better versed in the world of Monster Hunter will be able to tell you how it all stacks up. In the meantime I'm here, in my slightly tatty Jaggi Faulds, to tell you what it's like for a relative newcomer.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate makes a good first impression, which itself seems like something of a first for a series that's often boasted long, protracted and far from gripping introductions that amount to little more than arduous tutorials. The opening 12 hours serve much the same purpose here, but they're at least now imbued with some of the character and spectacle that's at the very heart of Monster Hunter.
Take the opening moments, where you're on a ship that's tracking a path through crystal sands, and in which the caravaneer - who's stumbled in from the finest, campest Western around, it seems - takes you through the fundamentals. Some of those fundamentals are new, too - like when a Daren Mohran strikes its boney, drill-like nose against the side of the ship, forcing you to hold on for dear life before you're able to charge across and ride the beast.
When you finally make land, another new facet introduced by Monster Hunter 4 debuts: the towns you travel between as you tick off quest after quest. They're fantastic places, charismatic plazas that have all the character you'd expect of a Monster Hunter game. Val Habar's first up, a golden town seemingly made from sandblasted bone and canvas sheets. Harth, the next stop on your tour, offers a shift in tone; an underground cavern populated by Troverians, little squat miners with sassy moustaches and eyewear that's a cute contrast to the sheer rock walls. Villagers give you requests, giving a little thread to tug you through the quest ranks. It's gentle, but it's a thread that helps tie Monster Hunter together in a more cohesive whole.
Even without that thread this would be a more engaging introduction to Monster Hunter than offered before. There's more variety in quests, and less patronising of the player - meaning those first dozen hours are now capable of producing some of the more memorable moments Monster Hunter is famed for. Already I've tracked a Kecha Wacha across the wilds, running side by side and matching it step for impossible step as it scaled the traversable scenery, smashed a Tetsucabra's chin wide open and used the new verticality to ride a poison-spitting Gypcero to its death.
It's just the beginning, of course, but already there's so much to love, and so much more to discover. Like the new Expeditions, which set you on little instanced runs where you can find relics, or the new ways resources can be farmed out quicker, more easily manageable fashion, or the macros you can set up for customisable equipment load-outs. It's saying something when macros are a new feature worth shouting about, but it's fitting of this series. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate's a deep game, of course, but it feels like a game that's keener to help you discover those depths.
There are problems, but they're few. Online debuts on the 3DS, which is understandably not that well populated pre-release - though it's a shame it seems unable to play alongside more seasoned Japanese hunters who've been enjoying the game since October. There's no voice chat - a restriction of the hardware, for sure, but a disappointing one nevertheless. Speaking of hardware, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate acquits itself well enough both on the old and new models of 3DS - there's a noticeable if not dramatic difference in frame-rates, offset by the new analogue nub which, while effective, will likely come second to many seasoned players to the existing Circle Pad Pro.
Another problem's one you could hardly have expected Capcom to address given the success of the formula, but I still find it occasionally frustrating that an exclusively portable game so often demands such sizeable chunks of your time - play sessions are to be measured in hours, not minutes, all of which can sometimes be hard to manage.
That's the downside of a game this vast, I guess, and it can hardly be chalked up as a failing. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might soak up your time, but this time around it's going out of its way to make sure it doesn't waste it.
New to the series? Our Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate guide is live now.
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