Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate simply cannot be overlooked
In a way, Capcom’s stellar Monster Hunter franchise could be considered one of the most realistic gaming experiences out there. Such a notion might sound absurd or even laughable to some ears; after all, the property in question stars creatures of enormous size whose biology mashes up influences from both the real and fictional realms of the animal kingdom, hence giving birth to wyverns, mammals, lizards, reptiles, and insects that are – in equal measures – horrifyingly believable and delightfully outrageous.
However, it is not the design of its fantastic creatures that makes the series truthful; that quality is brought to life by how brutal and demanding taking down those beasts is. While many games will turn majestic ferocious enemies into ridiculous punching bags that helplessly stand at the mercy of the main character’s insurmountable power, Monster Hunter shifts the scale with mastery. Both sides of the skirmish could reasonably end up at the receiving size of a humiliating beat-down; the line between who is doing the hunting and who is being hunted is extremely thin.
In other words, if we were inhabitants of an awesome world in which the monster hunter profession existed, then Capcom’s franchise would be a very precise simulator; a brutal and unforgiving test that has on the Nintendo 3DS’ Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate its most fine-tuned and complete version.
When things begin, players take control of a fledgling hunter: an under-equipped and under-prepared avatar with lots of untapped potential that, at the request of a man looking for answers related to a mysterious artifact he has acquired, joins a traveling caravan. He must, therefore, slowly make his way through a gigantic amount of quests and locations in order to get to the bottom of the riddle.
The game’s choice to adorn its core gameplay with a storyline, consequently giving direction and meaning to all hunts, is a commendable one. However, to most players, all dialogues and situations that derive from the constant plot development will be either, at best, a minor complement to the game’s true meat; or, at worst, empty padding that takes place in-between Monster Hunter’s real heart: its missions.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has more of those than all titles that preceded it, with the single-player campaign, the online hall, and the random Guild Quests amounting to more than two hundred assignments. True to the franchise’s traditions, the goals are relatively varied: mining for ore, fishing, slaying small monsters, tracking down resources, stealing eggs from nests, and – of course – defeating the threatening giants the game is famous for.
Truthfully, with the exception of the very last kind of mission, all of the others feature some kind of annoyance. For starters, given the random nature of ores, fish, and other resources, players might spend considerable amounts of time running around the map looking for harvesting spots and hoping that the required item will show up. Secondly, quests centered around hunting small monsters are so easy they feel effortless. Meanwhile, raiding a nest incurs angering a monster and having to carry the egg all the way back to one’s base camp while the mad beast charges at you mindlessly, making up a chore that feels more dependent on luck than skill, as hunters are unable to do anything other than running while carrying a egg.
Thankfully, though, all of those problematic types of goals are a very minor part of the game. Not only do they amount to between 5% and 10% of all the quests, but many of them are not mandatory, allowing those who are not completists to skip them at will. Most of the game’s quests are concerned with bringing down fearsome violent monsters, and – at that – the game excels masterfully.
Fifty-one large monsters await players in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and defeating each and every one of them is a massive challenge that demands patience and skills. As it happens in all kinds of missions, players are dropped in a remote wild location with limited supplies and a fifty-minute time limit; if they succumb three times during battle or let the clock run out, the mission will fail and the hunter will have to restart things from scratch.
All monsters have very unique attack patterns that are slightly altered as their energy gets closer to zero. As a consequence, every new creature that is encountered comes along with the need to play defensively and focus on figuring out what are the openings left by each move and when to flee from a barrage of vicious moves that may severely deplete one’s vitality. Identifying each monster’s cues and finding the balance between attacking and defending so that the fifty minutes will not run out and the monster will not beat the hunter down mercilessly is a very steep learning process that comes into play on every mission that introduces a new species.
The latter goal is specially hard to achieve given there is no visible life bar to indicate how much health the monster has left at any given time, leaving players clueless as to whether they should be more aggressive or careful. Fortunately, though, all monsters start showing clear signs of being worn out once their health reaches critical levels.
The game is not forgiving in the slightest. Although veterans will most likely sail through the first few missions, the early quests have a considerable level of difficulty and it does not take very long for them to get progressively harder. In order to be able to tackle tougher monsters, players will have to do more than hone their skills and learn enemy patterns; they will need to make their avatar stronger. And that is precisely where the series’ greatest prowesses come in: its grinding nature and its constant sense of satisfaction.
Taking down a beast, as mighty as it may be, will not automatically make one stronger; the game has no experience points and a character-based level system is non-existent. Instead, hunters must upgrade their stats by the forging of increasingly better armor sets and weapons that can, then, be leveled up to a certain point. The twist is that making those items often demands many different materials that can only be obtained by slaying monsters.
Hence, the game creates a cycle in which in order to be able to defeat new tougher monsters, players must beat previously encountered creatures repetitively and carve their bodies for resources until they acquire all materials necessary to produce that shiny impressive item. It is grinding at its purest and truest form, but it works, for Monster Hunter manages to be incredibly satisfying, as obtaining the tiniest resource can feel like a huge prize when it is bringing players one step closer to the equipment that will probably allow them to kill the monster that has humiliated them during a series of brutal fifty-minute battles.
Gameplay-wise, the biggest change implemented by Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is a very positive one. Hunters are now much more mobile and agile than they have ever been; their movements have a much better flow, and the agility that allows them to escape incoming blows has been increased without making the game too easy – on the contrary, it actually remains quite hard.
That nimbleness reflects on the fact hunters have gained a pleasant little assortment of movements. All of the game’s scenarios have been built with an extra focus on vertical structures, and such constructions allow characters to perform nice aerial moves, landing blows while jumping from great heights for increased damage, and giving hunters the chance of mounting a monster that has fallen to the ground in order to land numerous attacks while trying to hang onto the angered creature’s back. It is a decision that adds a great degree of action to what was already a heart-pounding franchise.
Part of that thrilling nature must be credited to the game’s impressive visuals, especially when it comes to the monsters themselves. The scenarios on which the battles take place are beautiful, big, and varied, encompassing many distinct environments within the same map, but the monsters are the real graphical gem here. They move with uncanny smoothness, exhale an urgent air of incoming danger, and display incredible details, such as the wounds and scars that appear on the models as certain parts of their bodies are broken or wounded by constant attacks. Much of the gameplay thrives on the peril displayed by the beasts.
The game also wisely benefits from the auto-lock system implemented for the first time on Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. While the device does not always keep the monster in focus, something which would completely take away the franchise’s core battle dynamic of having to manually keep the creature in sight, it allows players to – with the simple touching of an icon – reset the camera in the monster’s direction. The fact the option is entirely optional, as it can be activated and disabled in the midst of battle, gives purists the chance to keep their Monster Hunter experience intact while making the game more friendly to newcomers.
The game’s customization is also, in a way, supported by its impressive amount of combat styles its weapon types support. The twelve returning categories include long-range tools like the bow; the balanced sword-and-shield; the far-reaching lances; the speedy dual blades; the versatile switch axe, which can be used as a slow hard-hitting blade and also as a lighter instrument; and the heavy, yet powerful, long sword and hammer, which deliver quite a lot of damage but make hunters very vulnerable to hits. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate adds the Charge Blade and the Insect Glaive – a weapon that can summon an insect and support a leaping attack – to form quite an impressive arsenal players will have a blast exploring and figuring out which weapon is best suited to beat each monster.
By itself, the single-player adventure packs quite a punch, but Monster Hunter has always been at its best in its online mode. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is no different. Up to four hunters from around the world can join forces to take on the numerous quests available on the Gathering Hall. Some of those missions are the same as those available offline, which is perfectly good given it lets players get the full offline experience, sans the plot, in multiplayer fashion; but most are exclusive to the Gathering Hall, including some devastatingly powerful monsters that do not show up on the regular adventure.
In order to make up for the extra hunters, online monsters have much more health, are faster, and more aggressive than its offline counterparts, which makes teamwork indispensable for online survival. Sadly, the game’s sole online hiccup is fully retained: the fact all hunters share a three-life pool. Consequently, if one of the players has trouble in battle and ends up losing all of the group’s lives, the whole team will be punished with failing the mission. It is a frustrating characteristic that unfairly makes those who committed errors during battle shoulder the entire blame for failure.
The game’s online is nicely improved by the existence of Expeditions, a brand new single-player mode that sends players to a special region known as Everwood to do some research, which means getting items dropped by monsters that might appear. Everything that is acquired during an expedition earns players a few points, and when a certain threshold is reached a random Guild Quest is unlocked.
Given the pool of Guild Quests is large – and some of them feature rare monsters, it is extremely likely each players’ available Guild Quests will differ. Consequently, since those Guild Quests can be taken online for a spin and get progressively harder each time they are cleared, it is possible to come across completely new quests online and share the ones you have acquired with other players, adding even more value to an absolutely monstrous game, and deepening the sense of community that is so important to the franchise.
The verdict is that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate does precisely what is expected of a sequel to an established and critically acclaimed franchise. It builds on what previous games have presented, makes a few punctual changes here and there, and delivers the biggest and most solid experience in the series’ history. It will not change the minds of those who look at Monster Hunter as an experience focused on mindless grinding that features a harsh difficulty curve, but it will utterly enchant anyone with the tiniest bit of love towards the brand. The property has never been as fun, time-consuming, thrilling, and polished as it is here; Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate simply cannot be overlooked.