Review - Monster Hunter: World
As the game industry grows, certain descriptions of games can instantly spell a title’s doom. If a game is a “grind”, that word scares away most players. When people hear that a game is another sequel in a long series, it’s a huge turn off for those who aren’t yet invested. When a game has the reputation of having a “steep learning curve” that’s basically code for “it’s too complicated”. Whenever a game is known for its difficulty, there’s a crowd of players who already know they’ll never even attempt to play it.
Monster Hunter: World
Monster Hunter: World stares down every one of these negative connotations and devours them. It’s hard, grindy, complicated, and it’s the 9th or 10th-ish game in an old series (depending on if you count weird spin-offs and games only released in a few international territories). As a fan of the franchise, there’s something about knowing the history of Monster Hunter, and all its shortcomings, that makes World even better than it would have been in a vacuum. It had every excuse to be another niche addition to a well-worn series, yet instead, Capcom responded to that pressure by embracing every part of it.
Monster Hunter: World changes the structure of a Monster Hunter game, but maintains the core experience weirdos like me have raved about for over a decade. This is a game about going out into the wilderness and fighting dragons, dinosaurs, reptiles, and other beasts. It still has that painstakingly deliberate fighting system, in which the action is less about combos and reflexes, and more about trying your hardest to avoid being squished while squeezing off a few attacks here and there. Like the Monster Hunter games before, this is about going in as the underdog to fight creatures that are bigger, stronger, and faster than you, and outwitting them.
World’s greatest strengths lie in how it keeps the better parts of those traditions alive, while removing or improving things that have always pushed the series from “deep complexity” to “grindy work”. It’s a truly astounding example of what it means for a game to be well designed. To better illustrate how the game solves familiar issues that kill so many games, we’ll need to dig down to its core.
Hunting and Gathering
Within the first half hour of play, Monster Hunter: World assigns the task of killing a Great Jagras. This is the first “real” hunt of the game, and success is virtually guaranteed, but it’s also a useful tool to ease the player into what being a monster hunter means. The quest has you follow your scoutflies, glowing bugs that highlight points of interest in the world, to find Jagras tracks. Scoutflies level up as you investigate a monster’s tracks, which in turn allows them to sniff out more tracks, and ultimately allows them to pinpoint said monster’s current location.
Scoutflies are one of the best ideas in modern video games. They’re valuable in Monster Hunter because they help you find monsters and items, but they would improve pretty much any game. Scoutflies solve the problem plaguing franchises like Assassin’s Creed and the Batman: Arkham series of forcing players to spend hours of gameplay pouring over the map to put down a waypoint. They not only highlight nearby items, but when they do find something, you get an on-screen notification of what it is they’ve found. We’re used to checking every nook and cranny of a game world, hoping to see something useful, but scoutflies just tell you what’s there, freeing you up to do the thing you came to do. Additionally, when you do need to peel open the map to find something, it’s automatically populated with the locations of anything your scoutflies have led you to, so from the first time you find blue mushrooms, you’ll always know where to find them. The system makes exploring the map a much more realistic, immersive part of the game, rather than just a process of holding up on the left stick until you reach whatever you had marked on the map.
Once you’ve tracked down the Jagras, you’ll quickly learn that fighting in Monster Hunter requires defensive play. Most individual attacks will not cause the target to flinch, so if you’re swinging when the monster is swinging, you’re probably about to end up on the ground. They can eventually be dazed, stunned, and wounded, but since there are no health bars to indicate thresholds for those effects, combat requires paying attention to a monster’s animations. You’ll pick up things like the way a monster breathes more heavily when it’s tired, meaning it’ll attack slower and probably leave the area to find food or water soon. You’ll also learn to notice each target’s limping animation, indicating it’s just about ready to keel over.
Make Fancy Stuff
When that first Great Jagras does finally meet its end, you’re prompted to carve it for materials. These bones, hides, claws, etc. are crafted into weapons and armor by the smithy in Astera, the game’s hub world. The crafting system in World is straightforward in that you’re just bringing back the items listed in the recipes and hitting a button, but the brilliance lies in how the game presents that information. Craft-able items can be viewed in a gigantic tree, showing each upgrade path a weapon can take, and which items you’d need to take it there. From this tree, it’s possible to add a desired item to a wish list. This will create a prompt any time you pick up materials for that item showing how many more you need to complete the craft. It's simple, but it’s yet another elegant way Monster Hunter: World subverts the hassles we’re used to dealing with in most games.
In addition to the weapons and armor forged at the smithy, there are also small consumable items on which a hunter relies. Things like potions, traps, and bombs are simple crafts, usually requiring one or two materials. You’ll find the herbs and mushrooms needed for those as you run around the game’s locales, but as you progress, you’ll discover a feature that produces those items in town while you complete quests. It serves to maintain that Batman-esque feeling of checking your pack before each specific hunt to ensure you’re bringing the best tools for the job, while also sidestepping the busywork of gathering ten flashbugs before every damn quest to craft said tools. It provides a sense of being a prepared hunter and a knowledgeable player, without the “job” feeling so many games stumble upon.
While the primary motivation to kill more giant things is the crazy gear you make from their parts, Monster Hunter: World does have a story pushing you from dragon-to-dragon-to-dinosaur. The voice acting and dialog show all the signs of a poorly localized Capcom game, and can range from endearing to laughable, but the plot does a surprisingly fantastic job of world building. Your character is part of the Fifth Fleet, a squadron sent out by a research commission, tasked with investigating the New World’s monster population. Throughout the story, the game never strays from the vibe of being on an investigation. The NPCs you encounter fill out the roles you would expect to see on a research mission to an uncharted continent, such as engineers, supply managers, cooks, scholars, and botanists. Your character is the cog in the machine that both procures food for the town and roughs up the dragons that “impede” the investigation. The whole thing feels like Jurassic Park 3 but if the people on the island were only there for research, rather than capitalism. It won’t win any Best Story awards, but it’s a thoughtful way to give reason to you murdering things: that Jagras died for science.
As the story moves, you’ll learn things about the New World’s ecology that enhance realism, help you in a gameplay sense, or both. You’ll organically learn that each zone has a food chain, for example. Figuring out where a specific monster species likes to make a nest will speed up your hunts considerably. The discovery that an Anjanath (a fire-breathing t-rex with wings) likes to drink from a pond just below a boulder, suspended by vines that can be chopped down will work its way into your tactical repertoire.
Honestly, this entire review could have simply been a list of all the awesome little ways Monster Hunter: World uses the world’s ecosystems to impact gameplay. A pack of small monsters will attack you if you wander into their turf, but they’ll hide to spectate your battles with larger monsters, and wait to come feast on the loser’s remains. The Lavasioth, a monster covered in armor made of hardened lava, can be weakened by heating its armor to make it soft again. Shooting water into a fire-breathing monster’s mouth can stop an incoming fireball, and even produces a visible steam cloud. These are all things the game never tells you, that just happen naturally as you try not to die. It’s rare for games to reward the player’s resourcefulness, and usually, even when they do, the neat little tricks aren’t essential to success (see The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example). In Monster Hunter: World, these environmental systems have a real impact on your success in a mission and your growth as a player.
World also exhibits its game design prowess through its multiplayer. The system comes off as needlessly complicated at first, but it eventually revealed itself to be a smart way to, again, solve problems lots of other games fail to. Upon starting the game, players must enter an online group of up to 16 players, called a session. Playing offline is an option, but the game defaults to online unless it detects a connection issue. Within a session, there’s a fully-fleshed out chat log (with shout, private message, and party message options) as well as an opt-in voice channel. Both of which are accessible at any time, in and out of quests. Any time a player posts a quest with room for multiple players, the chat log informs the session, which helps motivate people to play together with like-minded strangers. It’s possible to exchange guild cards, which function as friends lists and as little customizable stats sheets, with session members, as well as form guilds (known as squads).
The key to the system lies in how session matchmaking works. It’s smart enough to try and keep every session around 8-12 players, rather than filling each lobby to the 16-player cap. This makes it easy for friends to hop into a session with you by simply selecting "Join Session" from the console dashboard (on PS4 – I haven’t played it on Xbox One yet). It’s also possible to simply create a private session or a squad-only session and avoid matchmaking entirely, but the game makes sure being around other players is so unobtrusive, that it’s usually worth it to just hang out in a random session anyway. Having played this game shortly after dealing with the archaic lobby system of Dragonball FighterZ, I was amazed how well it worked. As a Monster Hunter fan, though, the sessions system also works as a cool way to respect the series’ roots. Four-player local co-op was the crux of the previous titles. Offline co-op is unrealistic for any console game, so having a small group of players in each online session randomly group up together still gives World that vibe of playing with a party of friends. That, combined with the thoughtful communication tools, mean it doesn’t come off as a half-hearted attempt at the social space of an MMO in the way that Destiny does.
Speaking of Destiny, the small-team co-op, and emphasis on repeating quests for loot certainly tie both games together. However, those similarities highlight what I feel is Monster Hunter: World’s greatest strength: if makes the grind of a loot-based game feel less grindy. Each part of the game works together in a way that never makes it feel like you’re doing the same things repeatedly. The armor sets you’re crafting have stats, but they also have unique skills, and those skills can make a “weaker” piece more valuable to your play style than one with better numbers. Therefore, it's not necessary to upgrade to every new piece of gear available. If you do need to hunt a monster multiple times to get a rare drop, there are several ways to enhance that chance.
Let’s say you needed a Rathalos ruby, a rare item dropped by a Rathalos, the “Ryu” of Monster Hunter bosses. Your first option is likely an Investigation quest. These are randomly-generated quests that assign a target (or targets) and give a bonus reward upon completion. The rarity of those rewards increases as stipulations are added to the Investigation, such as a two-death limit or a 30-minute time limit. The harsher the stipulation, the better the reward. In the quest itself, it’s possible to break certain parts of the Rathalos, like its talons or back scales, as well as sever its tail. Breaking any of these parts also adds a chance to receive a rare material upon quest completion, and unlocks more Rathalos Investigations, granting you more options to decide which kind of Rathalos quest you want. If all these chances at that rare drop still don’t work out in your favor, there’s an NPC in town that can forge materials from other items as well. And, beyond even that, there’s a whole side-system of sending NPCs out to find items and return after you’ve cleared a specified number of quests…
By comparison, in most games, loot literally means doing the exact same piece of content repeatedly. In most games with scripted combat mechanics, that also means the fight itself plays out the exact same way every time. Even if Monster Hunter: World did force players to farm the same battles repeatedly for good gear, the traits of the ecosystem, the various skills gear can have, and the attention-demanding difficulty of the game would still keep it from feeling dry. Simply put, lots of today’s major games rely on loot lust; games like Destiny and Diablo spring to mind. None of them handle that as well as Monster Hunter: World does.
In this entire review, I haven’t even mentioned how charming World is. I haven’t dug into the Palicoes and how they’re the greatest AI companion in the history of AI. I haven’t touched on how each of the 14 available weapons might as well be a different game. I haven’t had a chance to rave about how being on a home console instead of a portable system has led to the first Monster Hunter game to ever do justice to its world and monster design. I'll save the story of my first encounter with an Odogaron, one of those video game moments I'll probably remember for the rest of my life. These things alone would have been enough to fill a review.
I have about 150 hours of play time in World, meaning about 800 hours played in the series overall. Given the multitude of flaws and just overall bullshit in the older games, I rarely if ever recommended them to friends. I strongly recommend Monster Hunter: World: the best the series has ever been. Capcom could have easily made this the same game they’ve been making for Nintendo DS (which is the same game they made for PSP) and prettied it up for current-generation consoles. Instead, it finally realizes the potential these games have had since the early 2000’s, streamlines the complexities of the series while maintaining its depth, and pushes game design forward in virtually every area. This is a game that gives me hope for the future of video games.
(An outstanding game with negligible flaws)