Monster Hunter Tri
Don't let the fact it's on the family-friendly Wii fool you: Monster Hunter Tri can destroy a man. The crushing disappointment etched across the faces of my partner and I, after failing to quash a monster after a solid twenty minutes of swinging away at a recent preview event, was depressing enough to reduce a casual onlooker to tears. Like all Monster Hunter games it's hard as nails, requiring the utmost amounts of patience, concentration, skill and time to reap any satisfactory rewards. It's about as fine an example of hardcore gaming as there is. That's just one of the many reasons it's kind of a big deal in its home territory of Japan, now having shifted over a million copies to set itself up as the number one third-party title on the platform.
But it still hasn't caught on over here. One of the problems is in how it's a communal experience, so trundling around on your own is tantamount to playing WoW solo or Street Fighter without a mate: it works, but it's not right. New players are also helped, in Japan at least, up the sharp difficulty cliff by established pros happy to set up their friends and family with some juicy hand-me-downs and faultless strategies. Over here, and despite the best efforts of a supremely dedicated fanbase, it's a very different story. Capcom's best efforts to sow the seeds of community have fallen on deaf ears; it's hard to see how they can ape Japan's reception of Monster Hunter in the West short of giving the game away for free or persuading the government to make it part of the national curriculum.
Adding in a proper online mode will certainly help. Regardless of all the other new bits, bobs and refineries, the most significant difference to the game is news that players can take to the internet - without having to fiddle around with fussy tunnelling software - to find themselves dropped in a party of four. Whilst I was always fond of Monster Hunter on the PSP, the task of finding three other mates with copies of the game and free time in all the right places was all too often impossible. For those who prefer to stay offline, solo adventures are helped by a new sidekick: a schizophrenic little guy called Cha-Cha whose personality is dependent on which of his many tribal masks he's wearing.
Despite being rebuilt for the Wii, the core of Monster Hunter Tri is immediately recognisable to those familiar with previous games. As a monster hunter you accept quests to hunt monsters from a hub town, the twisting Moga Village if you're playing on your own and a stony place called Loc Lac if you're online, and then get yourself suited and booted with kit and items before heading off into the wild outdoors to stab something nasty four hundred times with something pointy until it bleeds to death.
It's in the presentation of Tri that the game updates itself to twenty-first century standards. Instead of living your life through nested text menus there's now a greater emphasis on information being delivered organically. This is especially apparent in the game's lengthy tutorial: Capcom figure that the first ten hours of the game, where players get battered to death over and over again, is the crucial point from turning wannabe fans into hardened hunters, so they've developed an in-depth tutorial that's presented to the player as in-game content as opposed to a seemingly endless series of confusing text bubbles. This can only be described as A Good Thing.
It's also gorgeous, with sublimely modelled landscapes and detailed characters. Rolling landscapes are a trademark of the series; Tri's engine goes to great lengths to render them to the maximum potential of the Wii. The animations are also of a very high quality, although there's a fair few that look near-identical to some of the ones being used way-back-when in the PS2 days. Capcom are confident in declaring this is the most beautiful looking game on the Wii; I don't think anyone is going to argue with that.
It's the game's bestiary that's the real star of the show, and the demo showed us four monsters that made the most of their shiny environments. In 'Team Takedown', a 2-player splitscreen mode that flings you and a partner into a gladiatorial arena against groups of baddies, we got to take on the purple, velociraptor-lookalike Great Jaggi. He was the easiest foe of the day to topple, but a perfect example of the game's new territorial behaviour: his pack, made out of tinier, less dangerous Jaggi's, would hang back from conflict and work as a team, exhibiting behaviour far superior to the blind charging of most enemies in former games. This complex AI finds its way into the world as a whole, helping define a sense of the food chain that was previously lacking in the rigid herbivore/carnivore dichotomy of previous titles.
Next up was the Qurupeco, a bird-like monster with a fanning tail, trumpet beak and bulging red air sack. His trick was to show the game's new mimicry features: the Qurupeco would let out a call when endangered to summon other monsters to his aid. Understanding the calls is integral to anticipating what monster is going to make an entrance, adding yet another thing to stay aware of in the middle of a fight. The Barroth, a giant armoured beast who could move with more agility than anything of its epic magnitude should be allowed, proved even more terrifying: fail to evade its charging attack and you could wave goodbye to half of your life.
It was the Lagiacrus who proved itself the most challenging. Described as a leviathan, the gigantic underwater monster was clearly top of the aquatic food chain. It could mess up an entire party of hunters just as easily on land as in the ocean, with tail swipes, 360 degree attacks, bites, lunges and electricity-charged attacks. I only saw it taken out once in an entire afternoon, and when it finally went down the room erupted in cheer.
Lagiacrus showed how underwater battles - new to the series - take the game (following pun completely intentional) to new depths. Monster Hunter has always been the videogame version of David and Goliath and plonking your squishy, fragile human body in an inhuman world makes for a nervous experience. It's perfectly implemented into the game, with simple controls and enough oxygen to make sure you never have to worry about it, which means you can spend your time worrying about whether some creature of the deep is going to swim up behind you and bite your legs off.
The inventory has been pared back from Freedom Unite to, presumably, make the game more accessible. Fans will be both delighted and probably horrified to see the changes to their potential arsenal. Bows, Hunting Horns, Gunlances and Dual Swords (how dare they) are out to make way for the popular-in-Japan Switch Axe, capable of transforming between axe and sword modes with a tap of the right bumper. The Sword and Shield, Bowgun, Lance and Greatsword return, too. That lot should be more than enough to keep everyone busy.
Playing the game with the comfortable Classic Controller Pro is far superior to the PSP's agonising nub and shoulder buttons. Having the right analog stick available to adjust the camera makes navigation something now easily achievable by mortals, and whilst there are no radical innovations to the control scheme - no enemy lock-on feature, for instance - it's easier to play because it's much better suited to a traditional gamepad layout. This does mean getting hold of a Classic Controller Pro, though the game supports a standard Wiimote/Nunchuck configuration as well. I wasn't allowed to play the game using these controls, however, which is perhaps an indictment in itself.
Monster Hunter Tri is a faithful sequel that sticks to its established roots. Despite its tweaks, many of its common criticisms - the super-high difficulty, lack of visual feedback on enemies, difficult controls and no lock-on - are still proudly persistent. For better or worse it's the epitome of the slow burner. It's clearly a refinement rather than an overhaul, but that's no bad thing: it's a well made game that deserves to catch on, and by adding an online mode Capcom have given the game what it's desperately needed for ages. Let's just hope the third time proves to be the charm.
Monster Hunter Tri will be released for the Wii in April.