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Video games often deal in illusions, proffering the fantasy of control and power even when your meaningful influence is minimal. Monster Hunter: World, the third-person action game from Capcom, absolutely deals in fantasy. It plucks you from reality and sets you in the domains of exotically imposing monsters that you must hunt. In this game, however, the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from felling them is anything but an illusion.
In every Monster Hunter game, you work for your successes, learning about your quarry, tracking it, studying its movements and attacks until you're finally able to get the better of it. The dragon might have size and power, but you've got brains, nerve, and some potions that you crafted from herbs and mushrooms. These games are as much about the thrill of being hunted as about the hunt. Their battles only work because you know these beasts could eat you for lunch.
I've been waiting for a decade for Monster Hunter to finally become popular outside of Japan, ever since a flu-ridden weekend a decade ago at University where my only company was Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on the PSP. There have always been barriers to entry: a bad camera, boring mushroom-gathering early quests, flummoxing controls that required you to physically contort your hand, nonexistent tutorializing, baffling menus, and portable-console graphics.
I've been waiting for a decade for Monster Hunter to finally become popular outside of Japan.
Each new installment in this series has brought incremental improvements to the franchise's flaws, but they were all fundamentally built on an engine that looked and felt like it had barely changed since the very first PlayStation 2 game from 2004.
Monster Hunter: World is the first true, significant overhaul of the series. Little has really changed about the set-piece battles that have always been Monster Hunter's main attraction, but by god, everything that surrounds them is a lot better. There are no new weapons here, and none of the fan-pleasing combat flourishes that 2016's Monster Hunter Generations introduced, though there are plenty of new monsters. (Only a small sprinkling of series favorites like dragon-duo Rathian and Rathalos make an appearance in the main storyline.)
It's just you, your chosen weapon, big beasts and their flourishing habitats. And what habitats they are. Especially on the PC, Xbox One X or PS4 Pro, Monster Hunter: World looks amazing. The enhanced versions allow you to prioritize either resolution for 4K displays or framerate for super-smooth combat, but even without these enhancements you can see the slaver falling from the jaws of an exhausted Rathian, and admire the motes of dust sparkling in sunlight in the Ancient Forest. The Coral Highlands---a pastel-colored marvel of an environment with otherworldly tendrils of pink and purple plant life enveloping mountains of coral---opens up about halfway through the story, and it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. My mouth was open the first time I saw it.
For years I have been describing epic battles to friends who don't play Monster Hunter, when what they have actually seen is a muddy-looking little dude facing off against a dragon that doesn't fit on a tiny screen. Now, finally, it looks as awesome as it feels to play.
There is still an awful lot to learn. Really getting into the nuts and bolts of Monster Hunter---the minutiae of gathering, tracking, bounties and research, investigations, monster carves, weapon techniques---would fill thousands of words. Little of it is well-explained as you play, though written tutorials and a handler character who pipes up with useful hints when you're actually out in the field make a spirited attempt at helping with the basics. You will still have questions that can only be answered by Google or a more knowledgeable friend. The Monster Hunter community, thankfully, is generous with its ample knowledge, but it is still ridiculous to have to consult wikis or guides to learn what the hell your weapon stats actually mean.
Here's the thing, though: this isn't actually as big of a problem as it first seems. Monster Hunter: World explains the basics fairly well, and all the rest of the knowledge gradually accumulates from playing, talking to other players, exploring, and hunting. You can easily get through the whole story without knowing a thing about skill charms or weapon affinity. Meanwhile, you discover where to find useful plants and bugs and ores by spending time out in the wilds, gradually filling up a map with icons that tell you what's out there. The more time you invest, the more knowledge you will glean. After 30 hours there is a lot I still don't know. I've still barely found any of the many camp sites hidden in the four giant environments.
The challenge with previous Monster Hunter games has always been getting to the point where you want to learn more. This is where World is most significantly improved. The older games were slow starters. World, however, wastes no time in throwing you into fights against impressive creatures, and it looks so beautiful and controls so well that it's easier to get invested. A quick quest turns into two. Responding to an SOS flare gives you a quest reward that opens up a new set of armour. You spend another hour or so seeking out that elusive last material to forge a new Charge Blade. Then you want to try it out in another fight. It is eminently bingeable.
The things that have been simplified are things that were needlessly time-consuming in the first place. New Monster Hunter: World players will never know the pain of hand-crafting 10 pickaxes from bones and rocks, then having all of them break during a single 20-minute mining quest. They will not know the meditative pause whilst waiting patiently for seconds-long animations to play out every time they gather a herb. I don't miss that nonsense one bit. What hasn't changed is hunting monsters with beautifully balanced weaponry, and that was always the point.
The secret of Monster Hunter's combat is that even when you don't really know what you're doing, you don't feel like a clown. The most inexperienced hunter could still land a couple of hits with a big weapon like a greatsword, even if it takes 45 minutes to fell a monster. Better players can do things more efficiently. The game rewards skill and witnessing a top player at work in a Monster Hunter will likely motivate you to improve. When you see an expert player at work with a glaive or dual swords, dodging away from the tail of a dragon a fraction of a second before it sweeps them off their feet, then retaliating with a five-hit combo... it looks positively choreographed.
The things that have been simplified are things that were needlessly time-consuming in the first place... What hasn't changed is hunting monsters with beautifully balanced weaponry, and that was always the point.
I'm accomplished with Gunlance and Switch Axe: respectively, a massive lance that delivers shotgun blasts from its tip, and a transforming axe that becomes a sword and can also discharge a close-up explosion with its most complicated combo. For this new game, I decided to learn some new weapons.
As the hours went by and I familiarized myself with nimble Glaive and heavy-hitting Hammer, I noticed how my scrappy little opportunistic combos became flowing sequences of strikes, timed perfectly to fit into the gaps between bad-tempered dinosaurs' attacks. I started to feel like such a badass, leaping onto a fire-breathing T-Rex's head and blasting it with the axe, my teammates muttering "niiiiiice!" into their headsets. As your skills, weapons and armor improve, you can slaughter monsters that used to terrify you in ten minutes. It's such a satisfying progression.
Enumerating Monster Hunter: World's features doesn't tell you much about why it's so easy to love. It is at once silly and stylish, comedic without being self-conscious about it. At the canteen in the game's hub, a one-eyed cat-chef serves up a sizzling platter of meats with piratical swagger, theatrically placing the final garnish atop a fresh-caught fish. A little pig follows you around whilst you stock up on provisions and bounties, and a tutorial prompt mysteriously promises that "something good" might happen if you scoop him up and carry him around like a baby. Other players' customisable Guild Cards show them reclining mock-sexily in extravagantly ridiculous armour, their feline companion imitating the pose.
As with previous Monster Hunter games, you can hunt monsters with up to three other players. If you hunt solo, you're accompanied by a cat-pal who is a constant source of amusement, bravely thwacking at a wyvern's legs with a weapon shaped like a ukulele, meowing away, occasionally appearing mounted on the back of a smaller dinosaur or in a little inflatable dinghy.
The ludicrous armor sets are a strong reason to play Monster Hunter: World. "I look like a shit Groot cosplayer," said a friend of mine in dismay upon finally completing his Barroth set. I spent half the early game in a pair of stupid sunglass-goggles, which amused me so much that I kept upgrading them instead of forging new, more powerful armor. One of my favorite monsters, the floaty, fluffy Paolumu, yields a faux-fur outfit so tempting that I immediately wanted to fight it again so that I could craft a puffy hat for my cat-pal.
New players will find the game's main story mode a healthy challenge. For players who've made it through a few Monster Hunter games before, it's unlikely that the story quests will kick your arse. There were only two that had me exhaling slowly whilst looking at the "Quest Failed" screen, and yelling in triumph when I landed the final blow. The story itself is pretty nothingy; the cutscenes are stylish but the plot lacks substance, and the more cinematic climactic mission was a total let-down compared to the freeform, tense one-on-one expeditions that led up to it.
Once that final cutscene plays, you come to realize that the entirety of the story is really a warm-up for High Rank quests, where all the hardest monsters are lurking alongside powered-up versions of the beasts you despatched before. I'm in no hurry to rush through them.
Already, World has welcomed millions of people into the fold, and with extensive planned support from Capcom, it's a game that could go all year. There are problems with the online functionality that Capcom would do well to fix in patches: matchmaking and questing ad-hoc with random players is easy, but if you want to hunt a specific monster it's annoying to dive through menus to search for exactly the quests you want. If you want to invite players to your squad to play regularly, you have to both be online and in the same session at the same time, which requires a lot of coordination outside of the game.
Monster Hunter isn't all that much better than it's always been. It's just so much easier to appreciate now. What once felt like a well-kept secret amongst players with enough time and energy to scale the barriers to entry is now easier for everyone else to enjoy, thanks to a top-to-bottom overhaul that has made Monster Hunter: World the most beautiful and exciting game in the series.
The depth remains, but many of the fiddly irritations that have been holding this series back have been swept away. As a long-time Monster Hunter player, it's a wonderful thing to witness.