Capcom’s Monster Hunter games have never been as straightforward as that simple title suggests. Since the PlayStation 2, I’ve been a fan of the Monster Hunter series. In its original iteration, Monster Hunter was an RPG that disregarded conventional levels and instead relied solely upon the player’s skills and the gear they’ve crafted from various monster parts. In over a dozen years, the series has stayed true to that core concept while constantly adding in bigger and more badass monsters in each iteration. For most of those years, Monster Hunter’s main games have been limited to a handheld audience, given the climate of Japan’s gaming community (with notable exceptions including a port to WiiU among others). Capcom surprised and amazed fans with an HD title that brought Monster Hunter onto the most powerful consoles ever released, with a PC release to follow.
Monster Hunter: World puts as few obstacles as possible between you and the joyful act of stabbing its dazzling menagerie of hostile beasties in their various softer bits. At its heart is a very basic loop, one that compels even when it carries a whiff of mindless grind: Hunt the monster; use the monster’s parts to build new stuff; use that stuff to hunt a bigger monster; repeat until monsters are too big or equipment is suitably blinged out. Loading up World for the first time, you’re invited to design your character—and the aformentioned feline sidekick who’ll be serving as your companion and healer on hunts—but the real choices come a few minutes later. As a newly recruited hunter of the fifth fleet, the player is thrust into a world of towering beasts and behemoths, each more gargantuan and terrifying than the last. There’s an ever-changing ecosystem to the world that’s brought about by the sudden appearance of an elder dragon, the towering, building-sized wyverns that round out every Monster Hunter’s story.
That’s when players are introduced to one of the game’s biggest draws, and also one of the roughest potential friction points in an entry that’s doing its damnedest to be smooth as silk: its massive arsenal of weapon types. The decision between weapons like Long Sword (hit stuff), Switch Axe (hit stuff in order to build up a charge, then transform the weapon to unleash it and hit stuff even more), and Insect Glaive (fire an insect bullet that you have to separately raise and upgrade, suck out color-coded power-ups, and then hit stuff, all mid-fight) isn’t a trivial one; in a game where your equipment is what gets stronger, not your character, choice of weapon is everything. Luckily, the game does give some guidance—in the form of a training area and a rating for a given weapon’s overall complexity—but there’s a reason that World’s release was preceded by people passing around charts on Twitter, trying to help people make this pivotal pick. The weapon upgrade system, which encourages building up one increasingly powerful set through most of the early game, doesn’t help to alleviate the feeling of being locked into a single overriding choice.
While Monster Hunter World places a greater emphasis on its story than previous iterations, the core progression still remains the same. Story missions are all separated into their own brief mission and typically involve either gathering certain materials or slaying/capturing a notable monster. This doesn’t stray far from previous games, but Capcom’s cutscene development has really outdone themselves with monster introductions and action scenes that are rendered in-engine with the player’s current gear and setup. Story missions are technically only playable once as they are Assigned to the player; once completed, these are relegated to Optional missions that still offer similar bounties.
Monster Hunter World also features a bevy of randomly generated missions known as Investigations that ensure players always have hunts for their favorite prey. In Low Rank, these don’t offer much deviation aside from the number and variety of monsters to face, whether they need to be captured or slain, and certain numerical values such as time allowed or number of times the player can faint. Consider the first thirty or forty hours of Monster Hunter World to be the training wheels. Newcomers will certainly get their money’s worth out of the low rank hunts all leading up to the repelling of Monster Hunter World’s gigantic elder dragon, Zorah Magdaros. However, don’t consider the journey to be anywhere close to complete once you claw your way out of Low Rank. Hitting High Rank (somewhere around Hunter Rank 12) opens up the world to all manners of monster invasions, arena fights, and gear customization.
Locales are big, lush, labyrinthine, and one of the game’s most effective draws. Rather than the disconnected, load-screen-filled zones of past installments, each territory is now a large open environment full of plants to harvest, traps to avoid, and big ol’ baddies to capture or hunt. Sometimes you’ll be faced with more than one at a time, even; the game’s much-touted “turf war” system means you’ll occasionally find your hunt interrupted by an apex predator stomping into the fight to attack both you and your prey. At first, this can be distracting, even scary. (Some of these suckers are big.) But as you learn more about the hunt, it gets easier to take advantage of the distraction (not to mention the extra damage your new “friend” is piling on). That slowly-building mental vocabulary is one of World’s secret weapons. Even as your weapons and armor gradually grow fiercer and fiercer, your understanding of the game’s strategies—the importance of blinding flying monsters, for instance, or chipping away at a creature’s protective layers of mud with specialized water-based equipment—accrues cunning with a quickness.
Capcom’s first full-fledged Monster Hunter on the latest generation of consoles (with PC to follow later this year) is among one of the strongest sequels to any RPG I’ve ever played. Nearly every quality of life improvement works out in World’s favor and makes the experience more immersive and accessible, rather than trying to dumb it down for a newer audience (I certainly won’t miss trying to knock out a Fatalis with an orange sharpness hammer just because I was an idiot that didn’t bring enough Whetstones). We’re only just in the first month of 2018 and already I can claim that Monster Hunter World might very well be one of the Games of the Year.