Post Mortem: Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate
Capcom has had a hard time convincing western gamers, can Nintendo do any better?
There was a feeling that, if Monster Hunter was ever going to break the West, then the Wii's Tri would be the one to do it. It reviewed well, was released almost at the peak of the Wii's powers and had marketing money thrown at it by Nintendo and Capcom alike.
And yet... it didn't really make the impact that Capcom hoped it might. Even on a platform which sold in phenomenal numbers, even with the all-important addition of online multiplayer, even with a considerable marketing push. Tri was by no means a flop, but the sort of success which Monster Hunter attracts in Japan still eludes it elsewhere. Now, Nintendo has taken over the full-time marketing of Monster Hunter from Capcom, and with Ultimate fitting the bill for the strategy of marketing the Wii U at core players perfectly, this could be a turning moment for the series. Either it makes a splash, sells some hardware and establishes the game in the West, or it throws more good marketing money after bad and makes the job of Monster Hunter 4, also coming to 3DS, all the more difficult.
I'm not going to pretend to be objective, so I'll lay this out there now: I'm a Monster Hunter fanboy. I mean that in the fullest sense. Even when I've just spent 2 hours screaming obscenities at a controller because I've been cheated out of yet another glorious victory by biting off more than I can chew; even when I'm convinced that I'm being short-changed by the fabled 'desire sensor' which fans are convinced ensures that the rarest pieces of gear remain all but unobtainable; even when someone points out a perfectly reasonable flaw with the series, like the camera or the lack of a decent demo or the fact that the entire game is basically one big grind - I'll defend it with every breath.
It's irrational and a bit unprofessional and it's the only game that affects me this way (except maybe for Dwarf Fortress) so I've always been disappointed to see friends ricocheting away from its dense opacity. It's a good single player game, but multiplayer brings it to life, and playing with friends even more so, so I'm always looking to recruit, evangelise and convert. Enter Martin Taylor - Gamer Network's lead designer. A fan of the offbeat and esoteric, and with the patience for tough games, Martin had always seemed the perfect hunting companion, but had never made it past the cut off point between frustration and fandom. The release of Ultimate gives me the perfect excuse to make him try again.
As much as I love the series, I do feel a little bit guilty in peddling it to him. In my experience anyone who weathers the initial storm of a Monster Hunter game is stuck in for life, and this is a game which eats up time in a quantity which I've only ever seen claimed by MMOs, MOBAs or match-three puzzle games. I broke the barrier because I had to, in reviewing Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on the PSP back in 2009. If I hadn't felt compelled to play more than the first 5 or so hours in order to properly review the thing, I might never have bothered. As it is, I spent 70 hours playing it before review and a good 200 plus afterwards. In preparation for the release of MH3U I started playing Freedom Unite from the beginning again to 'warm-up'. 80 hours seems like a reasonable warm-up to me.
"If I hadn't felt compelled to play more than the first 5 or so hours in order to properly review Freedom Unite, I might never have bothered"
Can I persuade Martin to join the cause? Is this the game which finally moves the franchise from oddity to household name? It seemed unlikely, frankly, but you don't become a Monster Hunter fan by giving up easily...
So as you know Dan, I bounced pretty hard off of Monster Hunter in one of its previous PSP incarnations - Freedom Unite I think. I love the *idea* of it - roaming the plains; surviving in the wild; taming beasts; barbecue. But I ran face first into that infamous difficulty wall and... delicate controls. I wanted to love it, but as my hunter trudged around in caves half freezing to death, lugging a massive precious dinosaur egg around and accidentally dropping it whilst trying to fend off giant blue lizards against the odds, I just couldn't get my head around why anybody would put themselves through this. I put it down, disappointed. In myself, mostly.
With all that in the back of my mind, I couldn't help but regard the Wii U / 3DS version with skepticism when yourself and some of the other guys in the office started enthusing about teaming up for some hunts. However, chatter about a smoothed difficulty curve, twin stick controls to tame that camera, and the lure of having something - anything - to play on my Wii U piqued my interest once more. That said, I've actually started on the 3DS for now as my schedule of late has dictated that I don't have much time for couch gaming, but the idea that I'll be able to transfer my save to the big screen later is quite enticing.
So how's it been going so far? Absolutely splendidly, I must say. About four hours into the Moga Village quests, it's clear Capcom has put a good amount of effort into this area to gradually introduce new players to the systems, and only introducing new information when necessary. If my memory serves me correctly, Freedom Unite would simply slap you in the face with window after tiny window of text, then run out of the gate with a slap on the behind to get on with it. Moga village is a tight, concise hub, with a couple of extra branching bits for you to explore, and the wonderfully written characters will nudge you in the right direction when there's something new to see. Am I right in thinking this area made its debut in Tri on the Wii? I'm not sure how the setup in that stacks up against this one, but they've done a grand job at lowering the wall and crafting a friendly, approachable opening.
I'd go so far as to say the first few hours have been almost relaxing actually. It hasn't really taxed me with any particularly troubling combat so far - the first time the game mentioned approaching carnivorous beasts I immediately thought "Oh God, here we go", only to breeze through an enjoyable scuffle with some Jaggi with an actual sense of achievement on returning back to the village. It's rewarding in a way that Freedom Unite never was for me.
My only struggles so far have been rooted in the UI; attempting to read the absolutely staggering number of indecipherable icons to figure out what's useful to me, what's valuable, what I should keep in my pouch or in my item box for later. There's an enormous amount of information cramped onto the tiny 3DS screen, and coupled with slightly lumpen inventory and goods management interfaces, I often have a background sense that I don't quite know what I'm doing. That said, the game is much better at actually telling you about things like the combination system (a crafting system essentially, a basic example being combining blue mushrooms and herbs found in the field to create health potions) so you don't have to stumble around at a disadvantage from lack of information.
"It's warm, humorous and most importantly readable, no one thread of dialogue ever outstaying its welcome"
Finally I feel I should give a nod to the awesome localisation. It's warm, humorous and most importantly readable, no one thread of dialogue ever outstaying its welcome. It brings to mind Nintendo's superb work on the Animal Crossing localisations, and it's a real pleasure to inhabit a world with such vibrant characters.
Anyway! I'm going to get back to it, albeit nervously; there's the ever-present background threat of this enormous Lagiacrus chappy causing all sorts of trouble to sort out in my near future.
Sounds like you're one of us now.
Seriously, you seem to have danced past what I thought might be the 'wall'. You're in and you're hunting regularly, and you're even experiencing the callousing of thumbs which comes with really catching the bug. There is no way back from here - you're through the rabbit hole.
The things you've noted as easing that process are intriguing. There's no mention of improved controls or the effects of the second analogue stick on the famously tricky camera, nothing on the HD graphics meaning that you can actually tell what's going on. It's all about the in-game systems, tutorials and pacing. Being familiar with the crafting, the village and the mission structure from playing Freedom Unite and Tri, I honestly didn't notice that these had changed that much - once you've learned the ropes once, you tend to click through any introductory text pretty impatiently.
The addition of the Moga Hills area in Tri changed everything, I think. It gives players a place to explore free of set objectives and time constraints, to experiment with new weapons or to perfect their underwater technique. It takes some getting used to if you're a veteran, but it makes huge inroads into accessibility country for newcomers and experienced players alike.
I'm glad you've mentioned the localisation, too - some tremendous attention to detail has gone into the throw-away casual interactions you have with the most minor of characters, from quest-givers to shopkeepers and Felyne chefs. The world of the village and the multiplayer ports are thriving, vibrant places which prevent the game from devolving into a mindless succession of quests, giving you somewhere to actually protect and participate in a way which Freedom Unite's mountain town never quite did.
The fact that these first steps have become more appealing is crucial, and the increased sense of place and purpose does a wonderful job of keeping you caring once you've mastered the basics. For me, MH3U does a spectacular job of lowering all of the barriers to entry without once compromising the depth and complexity which made it so appealing in the first place.
Which makes me wonder. Why did Capcom, or Nintendo, decide to completely ignore all of that for the demo, instead dropping you into the middle of a mission against a monster you've never heard of, for people you've never met and with weapons you don't understand? A demo is a tricky thing to perfect, especially for a game like this, but to spend so much time working on accessibility before completely ignoring it in what will be most customers' first contact with the product seems like commercial suicide.
"A demo is a tricky thing to perfect, but to spend so much time working on accessibility before completely ignoring it seems like commercial suicide"
Now, the game has been out for nigh-on a month at the time of writing this, and we've seen it peer nervously into the top ten before disappearing once more, and that's with the sales of the two platforms combined. Nintendo is citing stock issues as a reason for this, and in fact it's not easy to get hold of at the moment, but right now, it's not looking like this will be the MH which gets its big break in the west...
Which would be a damn shame. It has me in its grip and I want as many people as possible to understand how wonderful it is. I will babble to anyone who will listen about it. I'm writing this as I take a break from the game, 34 hours in, due to a persistent thumb injury that can only be down to continuous 3DS circle pad abuse. And there is still so much ahead of me. To sate my thirst while I let my weary hunt-worn digits recuperate, I'm gorging on as many Monster Hunter videos and podcasts as I can get my hands on. My phone and computer have Monster Hunter wallpapers.
I can't imagine this obsessive behaviour ending soon, either. The game is just crafted in such a way that it's just constantly but gently nudging you uphill toward ever greater and nerve-wracking battles with all kinds of wonderful, colourful beasts. Big pink lizards. Giant yellow bananasaurs. Enormous seabed-burrowing steaks with lamps on their heads. What a magnificent world to inhabit. So much to see. And carve lumps off of.
Aside from the general day-to-day business of doing away with giant angry reptiles, the sheer depth of weapon and armour craft has me absolutely staggered. I'm only just now scratching the surface of this aspect of the game, but in many ways this stuff is the game. You hunt to collect parts to make armour and weapons to hunter bigger animals, and thus the cycle continues.
There's all kinds of weird and wonderful get-ups to try and piece together, and I've only just managed to collect enough stuff for two specialised sets. It's mighty tempting to just go for the stuff that looks the fanciest (and oh my does some of this stuff look fancy), but mass of complex mathematics behind the armour skills system is what I should really be paying attention to. How on earth anyone is supposed to make head or tail of these deep, delicate systems without referring to the internet or a knowledgeable friend (or both) is beyond me, and as a new player it's where you stop seeing the game as a jaunty bash 'em up, and the serious business of crafting that ultimate armour set becomes the daily focus.
My impression is that many people see online as the meat and potatoes of the MH experience, but I must say I'm still finding the single player quests really enjoyable. The few online and local co-op quests you and I have done have been great, but I really enjoy spending the majority of my time in and around that little village, helping them get their lives back to normal and upgrading their various whatnots - insect boxes for the farm, extra boats for the fishing and hunting fleets - it's nice to feel like the game is about more than your quest to get the best stuff, and the sweet story frames your continual encounters with rapidly upscaling beasties nicely.
"How on earth anyone is supposed to make head or tail of these deep, delicate systems without referring to the internet or a knowledgeable friend is beyond me"
Anyway. After a couple days break, I have told myself that my thumb is definitely feeling quite a lot better, so I imagine I'll be getting right back to it in short order. The new update to let me play off-screen on the WiiU will certainly help me get some extra hours in; the game really looks quite lovely on there, and the system has much better options for comfy controls to avoid further injury whilst I tackle the huge stack of stuff still to do; I'm still nowhere near taking down the Lagiacrus, even, and I thought that was the whole point of this. It seems so long ago.
Plus, they just released a quest to unlock a weapon that is basically a keytar. A KEYTAR. I must have it...
I'll call that a sale, then. Send my apologies to your wife. As I'd hoped, this is a full conversion, with all the attendant Wiki-ing and searching for merchandise which that entails. You'll find that, as you go deeper, important parts of your brain start to fill up with useless information like switch-axe upgrade paths, obscure potion recipes and the elemental weaknesses of the Pink Rathian. It's all consuming and it's almost never-ending.
It's worth considering, however, that you really are nowhere near the end. I'm 100 hours in now, or thereabouts, and I've just made Hunter Rank four. There are two more numbered ranks before the insane G-Rank quests begin, which I'm likely another good 100 hours from. This is a huge game, albeit one which relies somewhat on repetition, so you're really just seeing the tip of the iceberg. You've yet to really experience the sometimes patchy and unwelcoming online experience or the truly heartbreakingly tough enemies. I'm confident that you're going to be around for a while though, and I'm glad. We've already converted at least one more staffer to our cause surprisingly easily, so perhaps there's more to come, too.
"It doesn't feel like people regard Monster Hunter as a game serious enough to dedicate much time to. That leaves it in a weird position between two audiences"
I think, though, that this is the root of Nintendo and Capcom's problem. This isn't really a game you can advertise, nor one you can sell through a demo. Chances are, even if you do pick it up and play the first few hours without some supervision and advice, you're going to end up frustrated and resentful - becoming an anti-evangelist and doing more harm than good to sales. I'd hoped that the rise in popularity of notoriously difficult titles might give Monster Hunter a bit of a boost, but it doesn't seem to have benefitted in the way that, say, Dark Souls did.
Perhaps it's the colourful nature of the game, or the fact that so much of the marketing focuses on the comedic aspects, but it doesn't feel like people regard Monster Hunter as a game serious enough to dedicate much time to. That leaves it in a weird position between two audiences: too tough for the casual audiences who might be charmed by the Steak Cooking Song or the dressable piglet, but not gritty enough for the hardcore crowd who might find satisfaction in its depth and complexity. It's also not an inconsiderable problem that there just aren't that many Wii Us out in the wild, and that's the lead platform.
Whatever the root of it, it's something that must be addressed quickly, or this is one monster that will be slain before really getting the chance to fly.