The Monster Hunter series is enormously popular in Japan. We're talking Grand Theft Auto levels of popularity. But in the west? Not so much. There's a strong cult following that lives and breathes all things Monster Hunter related, but sales just haven't been able to match those in the game's home turf.
Enter Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, the Monster Hunter game made for people who haven't played Monster Hunter. Through catchy weapons tutorials, bountiful help options, and a smart progression of difficulty, 4U is the easiest Monster Hunter game to get into. If the series always seemed too stuffy or complicated, 4U will change your mind. And thanks to the miracle of intelligent game design, 4U does all of this without diluting the core combat/crafting mechanics that make it such a perfect co-op game.
In a scatternut shell, Monster Hunter is a third person action/RPG game that turns you loose in a world filled with materials to gather, monsters to fight, ores to mine, weapons and armor to create, and gigantic beasts to slay. Your hunter character doesn't have set stats or even level up on his or her own. Instead, you use the materials you gain from completing quests to craft better items and equipment, giving you a slight edge in the fights to come. Once you have that edge you can take on more difficult foes, hauling their spoils back to make even better items, and so on. It's a cycle that never completes, but that's exactly what will suck you in and keep you hooked for hundreds upon hundreds of hours.
4U does a little more in the way of storytelling than previous Monster Hunter games. Before, simple plots like "hurt the monster that hurt you" or "save the town from a big thing" were all you had to go on. This time, you start out as an unknown hunter joining the crew of a traveling sandship, the Capital C. Leading this boat is your new buddy, a caravaneer with an eccentric red hat and a personality to match. He's got this strange monster scale, you see, and he'd love to find out more about it. This provides some early motivation for taking on quests, but as the story develops, you'll travel to new towns, fight new and horrendous monsters, and meet lots of NPCs who have a flair for the dramatic.
The basic idea behind Monster Hunter hasn't changed in 4U, even though you have multiple towns to visit instead of one simple home base. Every village has an armorsmith, an item marketplace, a home for you to manage your equipment in, a place to sit and have a meal, and a guildmarm loaded with new quests. Instead of item farms and Granny Go-To, 4U has combined them into the traveling Wyporium. This strange booth is run by an old loon who has access to goods from around the globe. Through him you can "multiply" items, which is essentially the same as farming, trade points for items, or trade items for otherwise unobtainable items. The latter feature is a clever way to add more equipment to 4U than the number of monsters allows. Even though you can't fight Ludroth in 4U, you can still trade for his parts and make some classic Ludroth weapons and armor sets.
Another feature in 4U is monster mounting. Before your imagination runs off into rule 34 territory, mounting is a new mechanic that lets hunters leap off of ledges and attack beasts with the chance of riding on their back like a rodeo cowboy. If a mount is successful, a simple button tapping mini-game proceeds wherein the hunter tries to topple the monster before being thrown off. If that works out, the beast is tripped, opening the gates for the hunting party to do some serious damage.
The single player portion of 4U is delightfully robust and way more enjoyable than previous games in the series. The main story should keep you busy for 20-30 hours, but that only scratches the surface of what 4U has to offer. Part of what makes Monster Hunter such a compelling experience is the ability to hop online and take on quests with friends. Up to four hunters can join forces to grind away at big beasts for all the rare loot you can handle.
4U takes great strides in the direction of friendly co-op gameplay. Previous games kept a crowbar separation between multiplayer hunting and the single player experience. You do your thing by yourself, then you move to a separate room where you can go play with your friends. Here, those two worlds mix just a little more, creating a surprisingly seamless co-op experience, even while hunting online.
To get a group hunt going, first create a room. You can secure it with a password to keep the riff raff away, but you can also exclude people on your friends list from having to enter the password, allowing quick and easy hunts to take place. Players start in the online gathering hall but can roam to the other towns they've unlocked in solo mode. Need to zip over to Harth to polish a piece of rusted armor? Go for it, you don't even have to disconnect! When you're outfitted and itemed-up, go back to the hall, pick a quest, get everyone to join, then run into the field, ready to fight.
Progression in co-op hunts works like the single player counterpart, only without the story and cinematic interludes. Quests are divided into groups based on their difficulty, with one star quests being easier than five or eight star quests. You start with a big list of one star quests and eventually unlock more challenging ones by completing key quests and urgents. It's not all about moving forward, of course, as different players may need to hunt different monsters to obtain certain parts to upgrade their weapons. No matter if it's the first or fiftieth time you're fighting something, doing it in a group always presents a brand new experience.
For the actual co-op gameplay, Monster Hunter has always done a great job putting teamwork above all else. You have to be aware of what your co-hunters are up to during a fight, otherwise your attack might interrupt them or knock them in harm's way. Healing teammates is also a good idea, and the same tools are available as before to top up everyone's health.
Group dynamics are taken to a new level with the new mounting mechanic. When someone successfully mounts a monster, everyone on the team should stop attacking. Attacks risk ending the mount prematurely, knocking the hunter to the ground and leaving the monster unscathed. Stand back, let your pal do their thing, then rush in for the kill. You can even set up mounts by launching characters with certain weapon attacks, making those "accidental" golf swings with the hammer suddenly not as annoying as before.
Here's my Monster Hunter confession: I've spent more time playing these games than any other video game series. That includes every Mario game, my Team Fortress 2 addiction, even my trilogy-spanning Borderlands co-op funtimes. I walked into 4U with some very strong opinions on what works in Monster Hunter and what doesn't. If even the slightest thing was out of place, I'd be livid.
I'm happy to report that Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has exceeded every single one of my expectations. The single player game is phenomenal, right down to every tweak and change. The smoother co-op experience makes hunting online even easier than before. Guild quests extend the basic progress-based missions for extended replay and variety. And because 4U is so inviting to beginners, I'm looking forward to getting some more people hooked the series so we can take down some Rathians together. The next 500 hours of co-op Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate begins now.