Monster Hunter's return to consoles is a confident, barnstorming series best.
In many ways the Monster Hunter series was ahead of its time. Though the fairly similar Phantasy Star Online predates it, Monster Hunter's 4-player co-operative action RPG design and the treadmill of hunting for drops to get better gear has a whiff of that which has recently made Destiny so compelling about it. That makes now the absolutely perfect time for Monster Hunter World, the series' big-budget return to platforms that can properly support this design with a near-constant internet connection.
The result is exactly what you'd expect: the same exciting-yet-methodical monster-smashing combat atop a game that is now wired up in a manner that's designed to keep its already satisfying loop of combat, upgrade and preparation even more fresh. This is a game where login bonuses, limited time events and drop-in, drop-out multiplayer sit happily alongside the same old hardcore beast-hunting action, now also bolstered by a narrative that's delivered in a fashion more befitting of a high-profile console game.
This rebuilt vision of Monster Hunter feels like a truly smart, forward-thinking improvement to the series. It's an impressive leap forwards.
If you're a fan of Monster Hunter's previous outings this might initially be a little shocking. When the game gets going and within five minutes you're clambering atop a beast the size of a small town it all feels a little alien.
This isn't for those people, of course, since while they might appreciate it this exists mainly to draw in fans of the more bombastic, story-driven role playing games that are far more common on console. Very quickly, however, World reasserts its true identity. It is still Monster Hunter as all hell.
Monster Hunter is stripped back to its very core here - and when rebuilt, it has been done so without many of the foibles and series conventions that made it difficult to approach. Beefier hardware allows for areas to now be one seamless zone, which in turn led designers to make healing a more simplistic affair. Hardcore fans bemoaned that you can now heal while moving, but this is a compromise, since the series' typically unforgiving nature is instead present in how the health bar gradually refills as you drink your potion. If you're hit midway through a drinking animation, the potion is consumed but the bar stops filling, part of your precious restorative wasted.
Little touches like this run through Monster Hunter World as its very foundation, and this rebuilt vision of Monster Hunter feels like a truly smart, forward-thinking improvement to the series. It's an impressive leap forwards. Much of what made it great is still there, such as the fourteen different classes of weapon each with their own unique abilities and often quite considered method of combat. If you want to dive in learning outrageous combos you can, but combat is also made approachable with more simple weapon options that'll instead let less confident players focus on the other major star of this entry, the world itself.
Depending on who you ask at Capcom, the World suffix of this game's title has a few different meanings. For one it's a series first worldwide release. That release also reflects a wider development philosophy - to make a game that might have broader appeal outside Japan, something previous entries have struggled to do. I like to think the real reason is the world itself, however - that's the star of the show, with each area of the game as alive as the beasts that roam it.
Each of Monster Hunter World's zones is teeming with detail, from the five main hunting areas through to the endearing, pleasant hub area of Astera. When you're out hunting the world is your greatest ally, filled with loot that can be crafted into helpful items and even helpful creatures and environmental hazards that can be used to trap your targets. If you're really stuck one of the most thrilling things to do is to turn nature against itself by luring large boss monsters into each other's paths to cause a ferocious battle. While Monster Hunter World looks lovely visually, this is where the extra horsepower of the consoles seems to truly go - into artificial intelligence and interesting systems that interlock and interact in ways that have even left the developers surprised.
Sometimes the little touches of that world are what surprise the most - the things you can barely notice. There's some sublime audio work going on in the background, and hardcore fans who want to turn off damage numbers and other display elements will find plenty of visual and aural clues as to how they're doing in battle. Speaking of combat - streamlined though many areas of World are, the series' methodical, carefully-paced but energetic combat remains, placing a constant emphasis on learning the behaviors of enemies so you can time your attacks and position yourself accordingly. When things go well, it feels sublime. A highlight are the blunt force weapons - the sense of weight and impact when they hit home really is something to behold.
The manner in which Capcom has balanced out the needs of their existing hardcore fans and newcomers is admirable and impressive. There's no messing about at the onset - after some typically chipper story exposition, you're thrown into things. Here are the three or four places you need to know about in the hub area - off you go to hunt. There's few intrusive tutorial screens, so if you know what you're doing or are just feeling confident the on-ramp to get into the actual game is remarkably short. Crucially, however, if you want help it's never far away and has never been better.
If you know what you're doing or are just feeling confident the on-ramp to get into the actual game is remarkably short. Crucially, however, if you want help it's never far away and has never been better.
You can now try out weapons and practice with them in a new training area, and it's easier than ever to earmark things you want to craft, see what ingredients you need for new gear or upgrades and see what you're going to look like once you equip it. Out in the field your Scoutflies act as a sensible compromise for gathering and tracking, taking on the form of green aura that highlights items you can interact with and once you've found enough clues out in the environment will begin to lay out a Fable 2 style glistening breadcrumb trail that'll lead you right to your target.
There's a decent selection of old and new monsters on offer to hunt and capture, and though this isn't the largest cast of beasts in the series Monster Hunter World makes up for that with its sheer sense of scale and ambition. It feels like there's more variety to anything you might attempt at any given time, and the newly beefed-up story is a decent-quality narrative that's characterful enough to entertain but not so heavy-handed that it distracts or detracts from what the series is really about, which is that core loop and the systems that make it work so brilliantly.
Strangely enough, one of the few flaws in Monster Hunter World relates to one of the areas with the most exciting potential - online play. The game facilitates drop-in, drop-out play, but it's not quite that simple, with a system in place where players must have experienced all the cutscenes in a mission on their own before they can join another player or have any other players join them on that same mission. This means either soloing the mission first time out or heading in, seeing cutscenes, backing out and then going in with your party - it feels pretty clumsy.
This is a one-time issue for the main story assignment missions, however, and the other online features such as the SOS flare work fine once you've pushed past this little wrinkle. Monster Hunter World is really designed to be played with others once you get to the higher-rank, high-ticket items - while you can solo much of the game, the heart of the game is in tackling its co-operative content as a well-oiled team. This entry keeps that intact, and even with a few bumps in the road online is far easier than the hoops one had to jump through on handheld machines.
The truth is, Monster Hunter has always been brilliant - but it's always been niche. Monster Hunter World feels like the right game to finally crack that - a game that makes smart changes that might finally mean that a wider audience will at last fully understand, experience and enjoy that brilliance. It's not without a few minor flaws, but it's an excellent, satisfying game - and an incredibly easy recommendation to all, not just hardcore fans.
Version tested: PS4, on a PS4 Pro.
Disclosure: Advance copy provided by the publisher. Last year, VG247 attended a Monster Hunter World preview event at the development studios where travel and accommodation was provided by Capcom.