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Monster Hunter World makes huge changes but keeps the series’ soul

This time, Capcom is hunting the whole world

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I leapt from the precipice and landed on the monster, plunging my blade into its neck repeatedly before building up an electric charge strong enough to slam it to the ground. My other three party members took the opportunity to unleash a volley of attacks while the monster was grounded, knowing it was their first chance to do serious damage. But the monster, a giant, winged, fire-breathing T.rex-a-like called an Anjanath, got up quickly and knocked out a teammate with a powerful charge. It turned to me and prepared to do the same before another hunter intervened, firing a slingshot projectile towards the forest canopy and sending a bundle of large rocks onto the monster’s head.

Now the Anjanath was angry.

It chased us out of the area, knocking out another teammate along the way with a fiery blast. One more KO and the battle would be over — and I was all out of health potions. The Anjanath cornered my remaining teammate and I, and I was already mentally preparing to start over. We tentatively attacked, spending most of our time avoiding its likely fatal lunges, when out of nowhere a massive wyvern called a Rathalos plunged from the sky and started whaling on the Anjanath. The two tangled back and forth while I used a ghillie suit to hide from view, and eventually the Rathalos picked up the Anjanath and slammed it into the ground, dealing severe damage. I moved to finish it off and complete the quest, gathering materials from its body so I could craft an Anjanath-chic helmet when I got back home.

If this sounds fun to you, it should — and it’s why you should take a keen interest in Monster Hunter World, set for release in January. Monster Hunter World is the next mainline game in Capcom’s long-running Monster Hunter series, and it’ll be the first entry to be made available around the world at the same time. Capcom really wants this game to crack the West.

Trouble is, Capcom already knows Monster Hunter is fun. It knows it’s created the most popular action game series in Japan over the past decade or so. And it also knows its efforts to expand the series’ popularity outside of Japan have so far largely fallen flat. There’s a small hardcore base in the West, sure, but nothing like the mainstream success seen in Capcom’s homeland.

If Monster Hunter World doesn’t change that, I'm not sure anything will. From what I’ve played so far, it preserves almost all of Monster Hunter’s unique appeal while framing it in a radically different and more accessible way. With versions for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, it’s the first legitimate technical upgrade in the series’ history. It’s the first Monster Hunter game that feels designed for online play. And it’s the first title to rethink some of the series’ most off-putting conventions.

I visited Osaka, Japan a couple of weeks ago to sit down with Monster Hunter World for about a dozen hours and talk to Capcom about what’s gone into its creation. It was somewhat of a homecoming for me — I lived in Osaka several years ago, and it’s where I first got into the series. I'd often play with strangers in bars or friends in the street. But those experiences with previous Monster Hunter games also made me skeptical of Monster Hunter World’s chances at first.

Monster Hunter is Destiny crossed with Dark Souls and dinosaurs

Monster Hunter started out on the PlayStation 2, but only really took off when the games came to the PSP. The series was a true word-of-mouth success, with friends introducing each other to the games and playing them together in public. Like an MMO, Monster Hunter is an inherently social, cooperative experience — it’s just one that happened to find its niche IRL on portable machines. And, following a brief detour to the Wii, the mainline series has remained on the 3DS ever since, which has limited its popularity in the West. Online play has always been an afterthought, and Monster Hunter’s systems can seem pretty arcane without real-life friends to ease you in.

“I think the platform that we've been putting our games on has been a limitation in the West due to the difference in how much further reach there is in Japan on portable hardware,” says producer Ryozo Tsujimoto, who also produced the PSP and Wii Monster Hunter games. “So now that we’re coming back to console, as has been much requested by our fans, I think that that's one of the hurdles already gone for the Western audience for getting into this series.”

“We've had these systems that are kind of a collection of idiosyncratic features and control methods and they've all built up over the years into something that can be quite intimidating to get into if you haven't been with us along the way,” Tsujimoto continues. “It can be something people tend to bounce off when they first try the game. So we've had a approach of really fundamentally starting at the basics again and revising anything that needs to be revised and making it easier.”

At its core, Monster Hunter World is much like any other Monster Hunter. It’s a largely freeform action RPG where you go out to, yes, hunt monsters; the hook is that you loot those monsters’ bodies for parts that you can use to craft armor and weapons that will allow you to hunt bigger monsters, and so on. The combat is frantic and measured at the same time, with players needing to time their attacks carefully in response to the monster’s own. It’s Destiny crossed with Dark Souls and dinosaurs.

As ever, you start by creating your character. Your tools for doing so in this game are hugely impressive — beyond the obvious fidelity upgrade over previous series entries, it’s the way you’re able to make a diverse array of hunters that fit right in with Monster Hunter’s distinctive art style. Even the preset characters look great. “One of our major goals was to really show players what's possible with these new customization options,” art director and executive producer Kaname Fujioka says. “And really preserving an idea of diversity by including older and younger people, male and female characters, and different races.”

Once you have your hunter, you’re met with something that’s pretty unfamiliar to the Monster Hunter series: a story. In previous games, almost all of the exposition came through brief text conversations and vignettes introducing the monsters. Capcom won’t allow me to talk about specific details of Monster Hunter World’s story just yet, but I can tell you that it involves in-engine cutscenes, voice acting, and interactive tutorials, making the opening moments of the game dramatically different to any Monster Hunter you’ve played before. The series' sense of quirky charm is intact, however — it doesn't take itself seriously at all. There are still a lot of cats involved.

After the main game begins, you’ll notice three big changes in particular. The first is that Monster Hunter World is just gorgeous in motion — it’s actually kind of surreal to play a Monster Hunter that looks this good after what amounts to more than ten years of PS2-quality games. The second is that the stages are now huge, seamless zones without any loading screens between the individual areas. And the third is that there’s now an element of actual hunting before you find the target monster in each quest — rather than exploring the stage until you come across it, you can now track traces of a monster in the environment until your glowing “scoutflies” coalesce into a beam of guiding light.

Combat itself is largely unchanged in the sense that anyone familiar with Monster Hunter will be able to jump right in. But if you’re not familiar with Monster Hunter, a lot of the series’ traditional quirks have been tweaked to make the action more accessible. Drinking a health potion no longer requires you to stand exposed on the spot during a tantalizingly slow animation. Ranged weapons now control in a way closer to regular third-person shooters, rather than the bizarre setup I could never quite get the hang of previously. Once you’ve hunted a monster, you can just hold down X to send all your loot home rather than pressing X then right then X then right then X then right ad infinitum.

For me, the most impressive thing about Monster Hunter World’s refinements is that they’ve been added in a way that doesn’t necessarily compromise the original template. You can select your items from a wheel-style interface, for example, but the old-school method of holding down the left shoulder button and scrolling through a carousel with the face buttons is still intact. And while the game shows hit point counters when you attack a monster by default, you can turn those off if you’d prefer to rely on blood splashes and animations to know how much damage you’re doing, as was the case in previous games.

The most profound change to Monster Hunter World, however, is structural — there’s no longer any distinction between online and offline play. Whereas before you’d go to a separate area of the hub to create a lobby and get players to join you on the dedicated online quests, the first thing you do in Monster Hunter World is join a lobby or create your own, whether you’re planning to play with others or by yourself. What this does is allow for seamless drop-in play, so if you’re having trouble in the middle of a quest you can send up a flare for help and someone in your instance can come to your aid. It’s not altogether clear how this will work in practice — I was playing on local servers in Capcom’s offices — but if implemented well it could completely overhaul Monster Hunter’s flow for the better. Getting into online games has always been the clunkiest thing about the series, and anything that can streamline that will be a step in the right direction.

You always know which monsters you need to hunt

“I’m really hoping that we've done our part in removing some of these hurdles for players,” Fujioka says. “In the past something as simple as internet connectivity wasn't something you could really rely on for the player base at large. Now it’s kind of the default to assume that everyone can connect online. So now that that's our basis for creating this online game, we've introduced things like voice chat and other methods of connection in the game that allows for immediate communication while you're hunting. And it's not just about relying on other players, but also being able to get into the game by yourself by having voiced tutorials that don't stop the action as you play.”

Even if you never play online, Monster Hunter World should be a lot more approachable. The single-player content is broken down into “assigned” quests that progress the story, like the unmarked “key” quests you had to complete in previous games, and there are no longer any discrete quests that require you simply to collect materials — those are now tasks that you can stack up and complete on the side while getting through the meatier content, similar to bounties or challenges in Destiny. Basically, you always know which monsters you need to hunt to move forward, because those quests have their own category. I only played up to the four star-ranked quests, but the progression was smoother and more satisfying for solo play than any Monster Hunter yet, even with what felt like slightly reduced difficulty.

“This time around you will definitely notice that we have taken a lot of effort into making the prologue and the beginning parts of the game much more approachable and much quicker about getting players into the core game and playing to the core action,” says director Yuya Tokuda. “So while we've lowered the difficulty curve in the beginning, it’s still true that once players have gotten used to that action and have gotten used to the gameplay they'll have more freedom, and with more freedom comes more challenging gameplay that will keep that difficulty up.”

Monster Hunter World is shaping up to be exactly what I wanted to be. It’s a beautiful multi-generational leap, one that sees Capcom making smart decisions about what it wants to keep and what it’s happy to throw away. Barring any major content deficiencies or endgame issues, I think it’s going to be fantastic.

As to whether it’ll achieve that mainstream global success that Capcom craves, however, it’s anyone’s guess. The new online focus means it’ll need healthy player support from the start, and Capcom is also risking its core fanbase by moving the series to home consoles — the PS4 hasn’t sold well in Japan to date.

That’s a conversation for later, though. What I can tell you today is that if Monster Hunter World isn’t successful, it won’t be for lack of trying. The game is looking great whether you’re a series veteran or newbie, and there’s nothing I’m more looking forward to playing next year — I can’t wait to complete my Anjanath wardrobe.

Monster Hunter World will be released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on January 26th, with a PC version to follow sometime later.